Thursday, April 9, 2015

Why the Churches of Christ are turning liberal

What accounts for the rapid shift of the Church of Christ culture into liberalism? The speed of the change has puzzled me for some time, however yesterday I realized what the explanation was.

First, let me say what I don’t think the reason is. I don’t think it’s because of abuse in the CoC that it’s happening. I don’t think people are going to church, getting abused and cruelly mistreated, then deciding that the problem was theology and head for the opposite doctrines. While I think that a church full non or immature Christians will tend to drive people out, in the old days we solved that by going across the street and starting another church of Christ with people we got along with better. The conservative doctrines still remained. It further doesn’t account for the people who remain in the church and shift liberal.

Until recently I thought the explanation for it was that one day the church of Christ woke up, realized it was legalistic, and in an effort to cure this grabbed the nearest thing it could find, which was culture. This is a fairly compelling explanation, to be sure. The churches of Christ were always a product of their times, the Saddleback or Willow Creek style mega-church are the modern Christian culture, therefore it seems reasonable that the CoCs are merely adopting the liberal Willow Creek model. But I hear my dad’s warning in my minds ear: cum hoc ergo propter hoc. Just because the CoC and Evangelicalism are sliding leftward together doesn’t mean Evangelicalism caused it, and the way to figure out if this is so is to ask why—why didn’t the CoC simply remain conservative like the growing Calvary Chapel denomination? Why are the people who remain in the system saying increasingly liberal things?

So having said what I think it’s not, I now say what I think it is: I think the Churches of Christ appear more liberal now because they’re being tested more now, and the fact that they haven’t actually been conservative for at least a couple of generations is showing. The tell for this is because they never talk about repentance. I can tell you from experience that growing up that we never, and I mean never talked about repentance, and the result was predictably that growing up I didn’t fully understand faith, and therefore salvation. But now that I’m out of the culture I get it. Repentance is the negative image of faith. Faith says “You are God alone” and repentance says, “I am not.”
Faith says, “salvation is a gift” and repentance phrases that same thought as “I did nothing to earn it, or merit it. It’s not a wage, and if God withholds it from me then He’s just.”
Faith says, “Love righteousness, love the Bible, pursue holiness.” Repentance: “loved not the world, hate the things which come between you and the Scriptures, hate sin.”
Faith says “give me Jesus,” repentance says “away with everything else.”
John the Baptist preached the true gospel using only the repentance part. Jesus said He came to call sinners to repentance. He upbraided Chorazin for not repenting and praised Nineveh for doing it. When asked what people should to do be saved Peter told them to repent, and when Paul stood before the great minds of Athens told them the same.
Before I go on let me head off the “Yes we do talk about repentance” objection. I strongly suspect the CoC once did talk about repentance, perhaps two generations ago, but in the world that I grew up in I only heard things that were like repentance—admonitions not to be people who commit certain sins or hold doctrinal errors. (Running down the Baptists for their easily-believeism was something I heard frequently, for example.) Don’t confuse real and fake repentance. Real repentance turns inward to forsaking pride and sin, false repentance looks outward to forsaking things. False repentance sets up rules so it can gain easy moral victories and make it look like it’s doing well at leaving the world behind, but real repentances actually does leave the world behind. False repentance tells everyone it’s building a wall to keep the world out, but in actuality it’s only building the wall to keep pride in. Real repentance doesn’t build anything however, it purges. So don’t tell me the churches of Christ teach real repentance, because they’re painting the outside of the house to make it look presentable to the neighbors while the inside is an episode of hoarders. They’re washing the outside of the cup while the inside remains dirty. Outward conformation to a culture or code of conduct to fit in is not the same thing as godly repentance.

I say all that to say this: the church of Christ has been liberal ever since it gave up the doctrine of repentance because faith without repentance is the very definition of liberalism. It’s a faith that sounds genuine, but is in actuality what James calls dead faith. It’s Israel in the divided kingdom committing the sins of Ahab in worshipping the true God and Baal together, or in the days of Jereboam worshipping God through the use of prohibited idols. It’s a pious syncretism. Is it enough to save? I don’t doubt some will be saved, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can get away with tampering with the message of “take up your cross and follow me.” Faith without repentance may look like the real thing, it may even sound like the real thing, but in the end it’s liberalism. “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.”

The church of Christ doesn’t preach repentance; therefore the church of Christ is liberal. And this happens to agree with what Evangelicalism is doing, by the way. The broader Christian culture has changed the meaning of gospel from believe and repent to believe. That’s why people think they’re giving the gospel to sinners by telling them God loves them. It’s why the message of unconditional love is the only thing that matters to us anymore. But what’s really happening is that in an effort not offend people we’ve settled on giving them the first part (believe) but not the second (repent). In our day, the gospel message has become “neither do I condemn you,” without adding “now go and sin no more.” It’s “Jesus loves you and came to earth to save you,” without bothering to say “because you’re not okay as you are, and if you go on the way you’re going, you’ll end up miserable in hell forever.” Yes, it’s true to say Jesus loves us where we are, but we need to also say He loves us enough to not leave us there clutching our affections for the world. He’s the one who said you can’t serve two masters after all. Or as John put it, if anyone loves he world the love of the Father is not in him.

(Another side note: I’m more and more convinced blunting the hard edge to get more people to listen to us is cruel, not loving. The offensiveness of the gospel isn’t a side effect you can get rid of, it’s the thing itself. Kicking out the offensive part gives you another gospel, and if you present that to people you’re not helping them, you’re hurting them. An air traffic controller who loved you would tell you when you’re about to fly into a mountain. A doctor who cared about you would break your heart with the news of cancer. A gospel that doesn’t call us out of darkness isn’t calling us into light. Our culture inherently realizes it is sinful, and has no foundation for its values. As a consequence people are destroying everything they can as they dig down into a pit of madness in the hopes of hitting bedrock. They are desperate for something real, something substantial, and when we package Christianity as a super-happy-fun-double-plus-good version of the world they already know (and hate) we’re only driving them to suicide. We need a word that is sharp and arresting; a rebuke; a message from a faraway country that actually smells different from the putrid corpse they're used to. They need something pure and wholesome. Ever wonder why Christianity has penetrated deeply in our culture and not completely transformed it? Because it's stopped being real Christianity once we started failing to call sin what it is.)

And that’s why conservative people in the Churches of Christ side with the liberals. When you’re committing to imbibing sin and reconciling with your faith it rather than confronting it, the result is liberalism. Unfortunately for the Christians who don’t have a great grasp of the message of salvation (a product of not understanding repentance) they’ll side with sin and see no cause for alarm, and no amount of water the boat takes on will convince them that the ship is sinking.

Pray then, for revival.


Anonymous said...

I would like to thank you for this commentary on the CoC. You may have hit the nail on the head with this!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, you logically separated the wheat from the chaff.

shanvi said...

nice blog thank you

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