Liberal Christianity Should Offer the Whole Package

There's been quite a discussion recently in the blogosphere about the decline of liberal christianity, reasons for it, prognosis, etc. Morgan Guyton's blog first alerted me to this. Then, yesterday a facebook friend posted an article about the decline of the Episcopal Church by Ross Douthat.

Here's an excerpt:

The defining idea of liberal Christianity -- that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion -- has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a "deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship." They argued for progressive reform in the context of "a personal transcendent God ... the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.

And that article linked to one by Gary Dorrien, here's an excerpt:

To put it bluntly, liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God's holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. That is not how a great deal of liberal theology has spoken over the past generation, to the detriment of liberal theology as a whole. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good?

When the social gospelers spoke of the authority of Christian experience, they took for granted their own deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer, and worship. Today the loss of the transcendental, biblical voice in liberal theology is one important reason that much of it gets little notice. Liberals often show more concern about the postmodern status of their perspective than about the relationship of their perspective to gospel faith. But postmodernity is largely an academic phenomenon, a product of the rarefied atmosphere of the academy. Theologians in the tradition of Rauschenbusch, Harkness, and King should have more pressing concerns than trying to convince deconstructionists that theology is a legitimate academic enterprise.

To summarize my take on all that I read, the consensus seems to be that liberal Christian churches flourished 100 years ago -- when they had a strong spiritual and biblical core and applied that to contemporary issues. But, over time, liberal Christianity has declined as it lost its spiritual and biblical core. The consensus seems to be that liberal churches talk a lot about how we should work to make the world a better place (yes, often political issues) but not enough about the spiritual reasons to do so.

In many ways they've become too much like a Rotary club or secular social justice organization and left the distinctively Christian, biblical and spiritual stuff out. As a result, people who used to attend liberal churches are more likely now to replace church attendance with working on a Habitat for Humanity project or coaching a kids soccer team. After all, why bother with the time and expense of church when you can just go serve your fellow man directly?

If liberal Christianity wants to regain vitality it has to demonstrate its relevance. The only way to do that is to bring the gospel back to center stage. Liberal churches have got to explain the tie between good works and the gospel. Liberal Christians need to regain an evangelical fervor about their work and especially about the reason for their work (reason being the gospel).

This can only happen if liberals have the courage to tell the truth about the gospel. The truth is that the full gospel requires social activism, good works, doing things to love our neighbor and help redeem this world for the Kingdom of God -- here and now. [If I want conservatives to read any further, I probably need to clarify that I am not saying we obtain our salvation through our good works. I am saying Christians must do good works or they simply are not Christians/Christ-followers.]

For far too long liberals have not responded to the modern conservative evangelical "easy" gospel which says one can think a certain thought ("believe" in Jesus) and go to paradise. Liberals need to correct that by telling the full biblical gospel story. True "belief" requires much more than simply thinking a certain thought. And that "much more" stuff is all about following Jesus, adopting the values of Jesus, doing what Jesus would do (the social gospel).

And, what Jesus would do is all about helping the poor, weak, sick, immigrants, creation, working for peace and social and economic justice, etc. Yup -- liberal stuff for sure. But, that's what the gospel of Jesus is all about: working to bring the Kingdom of God into the here and now.

Liberal Christianity needs to get a backbone and explain, in simple terms, to the general public, why the gospel of Jesus is indeed a "liberal" gospel. Otherwise, what's the point of "Liberal" Christianity? Liberals: either you belive it or you don't. If you do, proclaim it!

This is why this website focuses both on how we can make the world a better place and also on the biblical and spiritual reasons we must. Gospel Christians MUST (for example) work to bring health care for all; relief to the poor, oppressed and immigrants; and care for creation. It's possible to differ about how to do those things (though not reasonably I don't think). BUT, it is not possible to leave those things out of the gospel. Not if the gospel includes the good news of the Kingdom of God breaking into the here and now (which it does, see -- social gospel). Not if the gospel requires us to love our neighbor and do the will of the Father. Liberal Christianity is right on to emphasize these real world issues from the pulpit. But, they are when they fail to tie those issues directly to the gospel.

[Note that conservatives may say those things are important to do, but they will not admit that doing them is actually part of doing the gospel.]

Gary Dorrien is right when he says that "old time" liberal christianity was much more dogmatic than present day liberal christians are. Liberals today equivocate far too much. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a liberal dogmatic about anything. If a liberal tried that, he or she would be thrown off the liberal bus for bing "just like them." I know, it's happened to me. More than once.

Conservatives, of course, have long held the "dogmatic" field of play and benefitted immensely from that. People are attracted to people who believe in something. Liberals need to be more dogmatic about what they believe in. In fact, they have a duty to do so.

I guess maybe what I'm saying is that the very essence of what distinguishes liberal Christianity from other forms of Christianity is very much an essential part of the gospel (the social "do" gospel stuff). This is a part of the gospel conservatives generally ignore. But, liberals fail to identify it as such and so most never hear the full gospel and have no idea that liberal Christians might just "do" (believe and live out) the gospel better than anyone else

Maybe it's past time for a return of some good, old fashioned, bible thumping, gospel-proclaiming, proudly liberal, Christian preachers.

What Should a Christian Church be Like?

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