The Divisions That Now Threaten Churches in the West

God-approved The division that has risen within Christianity in modern times, at least in certain ways, now overshadows the older divisions of the Great Schism (1054) and the Protestant Reformation. The most obvious debate that threatens to divide the church in the West, and one that will likely continue for generations to follow, is the approval of same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals to the ministry. Related issues of gender, morality and doctrine have troubled the church for at least three decades but recent decisions in some churches seem to have finally created the perfect storm. Underlying this issue is the deeper and broader conflict over the nature of the Christian revelation and how to read the Scriptures faithfully.

Has God fully and finally revealed himself to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ and is this revelation timeless, unchanging and binding upon all people at all times? Traditional, confessional Christianity is convinced that these moral issues are not unclear in Scripture or in the traditions of the faith. They believe they are clearly related to the authority of the Holy Scripture and common sense moral fidelity. On the other hand, those who believe that the revelation contained in the Bible, and received by the church, is so influenced by ancient culture that it is deeply flawed argue that traditional moral practice must be reinterpreted and changed for a modern generation. This is a new version of an older tension, the tension brought about by a radically progressive Christianity that employs a hermeneutical framework that challenges the authority of Scripture itself.

Some Protestant churches have now abandoned both the ancient and catholic faith as well as the emphasis on the Bible that came out of the Reformation. Instead, many believe and teach that each person, in effect, can have their own truth because human conscience trumps biblical and traditional consensus. The result is that some of these progressive churches increasingly bear less and less resemblance to the faith and practice of the apostles, the creeds and the church down through two thousand years of history. While it is true that Christians in the nineteenth century argued about slavery, and the role of biblical authority, and about the role of women in the church in the twentieth century, this twenty-first century debate is not in the same category of debate. One obvious reason is that there is considerable biblical basis for the church to have had the first two discussions, and thus to come to different conclusions, than with the sexual morality debate. You do not have to read the arguments of same-sex proponents for long to realize how terribly weak the appeal to Scripture (with or without an appeal to tradition since there is none to support the changes) really is. There is not one text that positively favors the modern approach, only an argument based on a radical re-reading of Jesus and how to do canonical exegesis.

I share the view of numerous voices being raised in our time that these churches that have abandoned faithfulness to teaching of the Scriptures on moral conduct have purposely abandoned tradition with the idea that this was necessary to attract people to the faith in the modern world. Talk of sin was plainly muted in the 1960s. The sexual revolution influence much more than culture as the church embraced one revolutionary idea after another. What has been rightly called therapeutic moral deism replaced a robust doctrine of sin and grace. As a result much that has all the trappings of Christianity has now become nothing more than a consumer product, albeit a religious one.

An inordinate desire for the new, coupled with a growing abandonment of the historically received faith, is now having hugely negative consequences in many Protestant mainline churches. We must again be reminded that, "She who marries the spirit of the age becomes a widow in the next generation." What is called for is a reformation, a return to the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” This is not a call to modern fundamentalism but a call to a robust, confessional faith that shares in the recovery of three elements of our faith and practice.

Tomorrow: Three Elements of Faith and Practice We Must Recover to Have a Robust "Ancient-Future" Faith