Church Universal, Church Triumphant... Church Relevant?

By Kelly Klages

These days, news items seem to come out weekly about apparently conservative Christian groups making concessions to leftist social values and paradigms. This fall, for example, Hillsong pastors Brian Houston and Carl Lentz famously evaded condemnation of gay marriage, speaking instead of "being in conversation with people" and "not wanting to tell them how to live on their own journey." What's going on here? I would propose that this is not just a case of people going from right to left. What the American church has called "conservative" for so many years, though it may have been socially or politically conservative, has actually been underpinned with theological liberalism from the very beginning. It's good for Lutherans to be aware of these trends so we can watch out for those things which would pull us away from a real Savior who rescues us from our real sins. Here are some examples...

Law/Gospel confusion. A common denominator, universal to people of every stripe, is the disappearance of the centrality of the Gospel. We used to associate "love is all you need" with a more left-wing dismissal of doctrine and objective truth in favor of "love." But it is just as common to hear Christians of a more conservative type say that the most important and defining teaching of Christianity is "love God and love your neighbor." Such an emphasis on the Law may result in sermon after sermon on personal betterment and moral transformation, or it may result in a focus on social justice issues or environmentalism. It's ultimately the same. Evangelicals who are disillusioned with moral navel-gazing do not have far to go to find the "emergent" or "emerging" church emphasis on social and global issues. In both cases, the true Gospel does not seem particularly central to their faith.

Pragmatism and "mission" by any means possible. In more conservative circles, an emphasis on the church's mission had long been tempered by the desire to remain faithful to the Word. Charles Finney's 19th‑century revivalism and its successor, the Church Growth Movement, began changing that. New measures were employed in the American church with the question, "Is it fit to convert sinners with? Does it work?" The big tents went up, the popular and dynamic speakers were chosen, and sensationalism reigned. Self-proclaimed conservative Christians began with the idea that the church's job is to get everyone into heaven and out of hell; over time, such an important mission would be seen as something that the church could try to use any means possible to accomplish.

The acceptance of women's ordination is a good example of where "mission at all cost" can lead. Church groups like Bill Hybel's Willow Creek Association began to question Scripture's teaching on women's ordination, eventually rejecting it. After all (pragmatically speaking), if women have certain talents and the goal is to get people out of hell, any means possible is best if it works, right? Conservative evangelicals came up with spiritual gifts inventories a few decades ago; who is anyone to tell me that I can't use whatever gifts and talents that I am successful with to serve the greater good? Today, it's not uncommon to find women raised in morally conservative churches using Matthew 28 as justification for the idea that all believers are called to be "ministers," including preaching and baptizing. Once such conservative Christians notice that the passage does not talk about sharing your personal testimony or going on mission trips, but rather involves pastoral teaching and baptizing, they may naturally assume that all believers should therefore be able to be ordained. And if you're not okay with that (as the reasoning goes), then you obviously don't care about all those people going to hell, ergo, you're not mission‑minded!

"Just me and my Bible": hardcore individualism and autonomy. In the past it was called soul liberty or individual freedom, a casting off of church hierarchy and creeds. Americans came to love it. If you are sitting alone with your Bible and you think that God is speaking to your heart, and you've got no particular confession of faith to which you've subscribed, then the Bible can become putty in your hands. Whatever you "feel called to do"—validated by positive circumstances around you that seem to affirm whatever it is you've decided you want to do—is sufficient for knowing truth. Subjective relativism is not far behind, and you can even call it "biblical!"

The glorification of the will. In North America, forging your own spiritual destiny found fertile ground and remains an important component of both political and Christian "conservative" values. You choose your life path, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and are responsible for how transformed and successful your life is. It's not hard to draw a direct line between this and the liberal mindset that values "choice" above all (as heard in the rallying cry of the pro‑abortionists). The glorification of the will is strong in the Old Adam, regardless of political affiliation.

I once read an article by a liberal Baptist pastor who spoke of his acceptance of homosexuality as a lifestyle. His rationale? The teaching of the age of accountability! If it might be demonstrated that homosexuals (like infants) don't really have a choice, they can't be held accountable, he thought. Even many conservative Baptists have taught that it just wouldn't be fair of God to condemn infants who don't have a choice and can't make a decision. Similarly, a growing trend among even conservative, mission-minded Christians is that we can't assume that those in far-off lands who haven't heard and received the Gospel in faith are really condemned, because choice is everything.

A fear of being irrelevant or out-of-step with the culture. Evangelicalism practically began, in the 20th century, with a desire for cultural relevance. Just like any progressivist movement, it envisioned world-transforming power, clamored after the next Big Thing, scorned Christianity's link with tradition and the past, and mocked those who resisted change. But over time, fear of irrelevancy inevitably caused many Evangelicals to make more and more concessions. Christians who had always self-identified as conservative were being pulled along by their progressivist culture more than they'd realized.

The reality is that whenever the Law is the dominant force in the church, it turns into a celebration of the human will and its accomplishments, and a wagging finger against those who don't measure up to the list of culturally‑accepted dos and don'ts. The solution is a Law that kills, that exposes our true depravity and helplessness, and a Jesus who does not merely help and inspire but who lives, dies, and rises for the forgiveness of sins and our salvation—the Gospel. The world will do what it wants. And Jesus will do what He wants, which is to continue to save sinners by crucifying the Old Adam and raising to life a new man in Christ.

Kelly Klages lives in Morden, Manitoba with her husband Alex and their three children. She is the author of Water with the Word: A Baptism Q&A and Hosanna, Loud Hosanna: Illustrated Hymns for Children.