How Churches Lose the Plot and End Up Liberal by Carl Trueman

Not all historical phenomena that manifest themselves as doctrinal are necessarily immediately doctrinal in cause or origin.'  That statement, made to me by a mentor in my field of historical theology, articulates a crucial principle, a principle that came to mind quite recently.

I have spent the last few weeks reflecting on the general question as to why churches lose the plot and end up going liberal.   Of course, the simple answer is, 'Because of human sinfulness,' but that is not particularly helpful as an explanation of why particular churches lose the plot at particular points in time.  Thus, over the next few days I want to offer a series of posts, in no specific order of priority, about more particular, immediate causes for the phenomenon of theological decline within churches.  I should add that my reflections are avowedly Presbyterian, and I make no apologies for that; but I do believe that the causes I outline have their parallels within other Christian ecclesiological traditions such as evangelicalism etc.

The first danger I want to highlight is that of the celebrity pastor who is ultimately so big as to be practically beyond criticism.  Some pastors are just so successful as communicators that, frankly, they are placed on a pedestal and become, in both their precept and example, authoritative sources of wisdom to their followers.  In part this is because many rightly think that thankfulness, not criticism, should be the appropriate response to seeing the Lord bless a ministry. Who really wants to criticise a man who brings so many the good news? Yet in an age where sheer numerical success and the ability to pull in the punters and keep them enthralled is often assumed to be a clear sign of faithfulness, there are dangers of which we must be aware.  

The successful pastor, like every other one called to ministry, must honor his ordination vows concerning what he teaches, and abide by the laws and processes of the church of which he is a minister.  Ironically, in our secular celebrity culture, the more famous and wealthy someone is, the more boorish the behaviour we tolerate from them, and the quicker we are to forgive. We must not allow this worldliness to pervade our ecclesiology so that, the more successful a pastor is, the lower the bar we set for doctrine, life, and behaviour. Paul's words on the eldership do not somehow cease to apply once a pastor is invited on the Larry King Show, or passes the 2 000 mark in terms of church membership. 

The pastor should also make his local church, his Sunday ministry, and his denominational duties his ministry priority, however mundane and lacking in glamour they may be; and his fellow elders and congregants must still constantly test his teaching by scripture to see if it is faithful.  Furthermore, if he is a figure of stature in the wider church community, he must take very seriously his responsibility to that larger constituency which looks to him for wise guidance.  If he tells people that justification is no big deal, or that it is fine to have a loose doctrine of scripture, or even if he simply shows by his actions that this is what he thinks, then guess what?  People will tend to believe him and act accordingly, and orthodoxy will fade away like the coda at the end of a Bee Gees' track. 

Even more seriously, if such a revered pastor sets in place successors who are heterodox or too concessive on crucial doctrines, then, however orthodox and faithful he may personally be, he will be responsible not only for the damage done by such poor appointments while he is alive, but also that done by the same to generations as yet unborn.  Praise God for preachers whose ministries are extraordinarily blessed; but let us hold them to the same exacting standards as Paul held the super-apostles in Corinth.   Celebrity ministers who act as influential lone rangers in constituencies where there is no accountability can prove remarkably dangerous.  And if they do not come up to snuff on standards of life and doctrine, let us not pretend otherwise, or trade off fidelity for eloquence or stage presence.  Make no mistake: tomorrow's church will be the epitaph of today's leaders.

Yesterday, I noted how the big personality can shift the church in the wrong direction. A closely related phenomenon is that of the minister who thumbs his nose at the church's public standards of doctrine and practice, who decides that he does not like that to which his vows bind him, and that he will consequently ignore them, or at least those bits with which he happens to disagree.   

Confessional Presbyterianism, the church system with which I am most familiar and for which I am most concerned, requires its office bearers to take vows to uphold the system of doctrine as taught in the Westminster Standards, to respect the church courts, and to maintain the peace and unity of the church.   Most confessional Presbyterian denominations also bind their office bearers to uphold certain worship practices, typically outlined in a Directory for Public Worship.   Thus, the minister is committed by solemn vow to maintain both certain doctrines and certain practices.

Of course, these very Standards and Directories themselves make it clear that they are not the ultimate authorities.  To use the technical terminology, they are the normed norm not the norming norm.   The latter is the Bible.  Thus, it is always possible that any individual office bearer or even an entire church may come to believe that the Standards are unbiblical on one or more points.

In this context, there is always an orderly process available for addressing the concerns: typically, the minister goes to the church, in the shape of his presbytery or even the General Assembly, tells his brothers about his change of mind, and allows them to judge whether the change is compatible with continued service in a denomination which holds the Standards as its public standard of doctrine.  The same applies with any directory of worship to which the church requires subscription.  This process is sensitive to the minister's conscience, honours the Standards to which his vows commit him, and, by due process, maintains the peace and unity of the church.

The problem comes when a minister has such concerns and simply acts on them without observing due process.  This has often been how liberals have gained influence in denominations: for example Pastor X decides he does not believe in the Virgin Birth and immediately starts teaching his new view.  In doing so, he gambles on the fact that this  'Come on, if you think you're hard enough' approach will deter challengers on the grounds that most ministers and elders want peace, if not at any price, then certainly at almost any price.    Almost certainly, he couples all this with a powerful line in positive rhetoric: he is acting outwith the laws of the church to be more relevant, to connect with new constituencies, to draw new people in etc. He may also have realized that, if he is charged, he will automatically gain the status of victim and martyr, of a brave hero of conscience, of progress, of evangelism, while his opponents can plausibly be cast as reactionaries, unbalanced, obscurantists, and just downright vindictive bully boys.  

In short, those who try to oppose the nose-thumber are at a double disadvantage: the rhetorical aesthetics are entirely against them from the very start; and the fact that, unlike their opponent, they take their vows seriously and thus follow the rules, means that they will always be at least one step behind.   Combine this with the fact that most ministers rightly do not like to fight, and, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the nose-thumber is on to a winner. He may be considered contumacious in the courts of the church; but in the courts of public opinion he invariably cuts a sympathetic figure.

Thus, if history is anything to go by, the chances are that this minister will not be challenged, and the church's standards will change, in practice if not in actual statute; and this change will come about, not because of reasoned argument and due process, but because fighting him would be just too nasty and difficult.

The final element of this particular factor in liberalizing is, of course, the long term culture it creates where solemn vows are not taken seriously, where rhetoric that sets church confessional standards in antithesis to scripture becomes the norm, and where the ideas of submission and accountability to the wider church, even when these are inconvenient for the individual, are ridiculed. 

But what goes around just as surely comes around; and that is why it is critical for the orthodox to follow the rules and procedures of their particular church.  Yes, the reformed church should always be reforming, seeking to be more faithful in doctrine and practice to scripture; but that has to be done in a manner that is decent and in order.  Vows are vows; and breaking vows is a disastrous, indecent, and disorderly precedent, whether one is a liberal who does it by denying the Virgin Birth or an evangelical who does it in the name of evangelism and outreach. In a world where, as the old Dutch proverb has it, `Every heretic has his text,' a church culture where vows are breached with impunity is a culture where there is nothing in principle to stop the proliferation of any views, no matter how heterodox, which any office-bearer happens to want to propagate.  

When I was younger, I thought rules and procedures were an irritant, an imposition, an inconvenience.   Now, after years of seeing them ignored and abused, mocked and circumvented, and of observing the uniformly disastrous results of such, I see their correct application and enforcement as a key part of ensuring justice, fair-play and, above all, the maintenance of orthodoxy within the church.  Yes, obviously I know that rules and procedures do not in themselves guarantee the preservation of orthodoxy; but it is just as obvious to me that it is impossible to preserve orthodoxy without them.  Thank God for books of church order; and, to quote the late, great Frankie Howerd,  Nay! Nay! Thrice nay! to ministers who think thumbing their noses at the rules is a way to preserve either orthodoxy or orthopraxy.

In my last two posts, I have tried to suggest that the reasons for a church's decline into liberalism are not always immediately doctrinal, but can actually arise out of a culture; and, by implication, the underlying story I am trying to tell is that sometimes (oftentimes?) churches go liberal without any initial intention of so doing.   Indeed, I believe a functionalist, rather than an intentionalist, account will often provide a more adequate explanation of why a denomination loses the plot: the cumulative force of a set of often disparate circumstances and actions leads to a sudden collapse in orthodoxy, with the conscious intention of going liberal perhaps only emerging comparatively late in the process.

In this post, I want to address another of these practical, cultural phenomena.  It is what I call the law of the included middle.  In essence, it can be stated as follows: churches do not go liberal because the majority of the ministers and elders are liberal; they go liberal because the majority of ministers and elders, while being personally men of great integrity and doctrinal orthodoxy, will tend to side with the left in the initial rounds of the struggle.  This is often for the laudable reasons of desiring the peace and unity of the church, and of reading the left as charitably as possible.  While I might criticise their wisdom, I find such motives to be admirable.   Further, (let's face it) the men on the right can be pretty obnoxious in their demeanour which can make it very hard to support them in public.  Sometimes, however, it is for less laudable reasons: they are simply intimidated by the nose-thumbing boot boys (see yesterday's post) or take the attitude that `this is not a hill worth dying on' or its close, venal cousin, `OK, as long as it is not happening in my back yard.'  The problem with that, of course, is that it may be an option for those with no ecclesiology; but thoughtful Anglicans and Presbyterians know that the church - the whole pesky denomination - is their back yard.

The best examples of this problem come from churches that have moved to ordain women.  Typically, the process starts by a compromise being offered, a conscience clause that allows individual congregations to opt out.    This is because the group committed to change knows that, by itself, it will find it hard to keep the church up and running without keeping on board as many of those with doubts about change as possible.  And, of course, it seems very reasonable to put a conscience clause on the table.   The moderate conservatives consider their interests to be safeguarded as no-one is going to be imposing women elders on their congregations; and they are free to continue to preach as they wish

Now, before continuing this line of reasoning, I offer a personal anecdote which is illustrative of my next point.  In the late 90s, I was sitting outside a café in Utrecht, chatting to a friend who was an ordained minister in a North American Reformed denomination.  In the course of the conversation, he commented on how, after the recent decision of that denomination to ordain women, the conservatives who were strongly opposed to this had all left.  He named one such and, with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle, asked me `Do you know what I find most hard to forgive about that man?'  I responded that I did not.  `He has made me the right wing of my own denomination, and I just can't stand that.' he declared.   'What did you expect?' was the thought that passed through my mind; but I had too much respect and affection for my friend to rub salt into his wound.

This conversation pointed me towards something that is often missed in discussion of how churches change: when a change is introduced, those who are really strongly opposed to it tend to leave; and that alters the balance of power within the church and, more nebulously, changes the ethos of the denomination..   Suddenly, the old centre is now the new right, the overall numbers are smaller, and the need for the left to play nice and to build coalitions is proportionately diminished.  In addition, the denomination may well now attract a few new people who are more radical and who have real agendas to push.  For such activists, too much is never enough, and you have a recipe for increasing movement in a leftward direction.  

That is why brokering a compromise deal with a conscience clause rarely does anything more than weaken the orthodox.  Some of the conservatives pick up their marbles and head off to other playgrounds; those who remain soon find out who their real friends were -- the guys who, while perhaps aesthetically rougher at the edges and a bit too strident in tone, were essentially pointing in the same direction

The churches that have moved to ordain women, and where the centre decided that this was not a hill on which they wished to die, are cases in point.   Look at Anglicanism or the Church of Scotland or certain Reformed denominations in North America: within a few years, the conscience clauses are in practical terms not worth the paper they are written on; to refuse to ordain women is seen at best as a piece of barely tolerable obscurantism, more typically as bigoted, chauvinistic, oppressive and something against which it is probably necessary to legislate.  And those conservatives who remain suddenly find that not only are they now a lonely minority, but that women's ordination is the least of their worries.   

This is not to say that any on the left initially envisaged where this would all go, or that such developments represent the last moments in a chess game that was planned in detail right from the moment the first white pawn was moved.  It is to say that interim deals where the left divides the moderate conservatives of the centre from the conviction conservatives of the right are never the end, whatever the sincerity of the intention of their framers.  Such deals change the theological demographics of a denomination and open up new questions and new possibilities, perhaps unforeseen and unimagined, and, combined with other elements, such as those I noted in the first two posts, this fact transforms the future trajectory of denominational decisions.   Indeed, while much has been rightly made of how the hermeneutics that lead to women's ordination seem also to undermine any grounds for opposition to gay ordination, denominations are not changed simply because of hermeneutical moves.  Changes in theological demographics are just as important; and those in the centre who cut deals with the left really need to bear that in mind and reflect on who their real friends are.

This, of course, leads to one final observation on this issue.  Those on the right also need to wrestle long and hard with the issue of when their responsibility to stay and fight ends and the need to leave begins. The most egregious examples of mass ecclesiastical exoduses are of those who bail out of churches for non-theological reasons, leaving the centre exposed simply because the right has a personal beef with a particular person or cultural issue. That is nothing more than modern day Donatism, itself an egregious error. Yet, even when the matter is theological, it can be very tempting to jump ship at the first defeat; but such need to understand that they too must shoulder responsibility for future ecclesiastical trajectories, not only of the church to which they are thinking of going, but also of that which they are leaving.   Sure, once the courts of the church are lost to the nose-thumbers, it is time to move on; but exactly when that happens can be very hard to discern in the early stages of a struggle.  Some times churches go liberal because the men of principle and backbone bail out too early.


In this final post in the series, I want to offer some brief, practical guidelines on how to help keep a church on the rails.  Each could be a post in itself, but I have no wish to try your patience further.  So, for what they are worth, here they are:

1. Guard your personal integrity and be honest about where you stand in relation to your vows.

Personal integrity in Presbyterianism is really very simple: if you change your mind relative to any point in the Westminster Standards or any other aspect of your subscription, just go to your elders and your presbytery and be honest about it.  Your brothers can offer counsel and, if necessary, make the call on whether your change of mind is compatible with the laws and practice of the church.  

Further, subscribe with passion and commitment.  Do not simply sign on the dotted line in order to gain membership of the club, and then start asking, `OK, I have to sign up to this seventeenth-century malarkey to be a minister, but now what can I get away with doing?  How can I bend or bypass the rules?'  That is a recipe for disaster. You should also avoid at all costs a quasi-DeGaullian `L'église: c'est moi!' attitude, which identifies you, your ministry, your opinion, and your way of doing things with the future of the entire church.  Presbyterianism is about the whole body.  Despite what every instinct in your fallen nature tells you, it isn't, never has been, and never will be, all about you.

2. Understand that sound preaching and earnest prayer are not enough to stop a denomination losing the plot or to turn it around once the rot has set in.

Life would be so much easier if preaching and prayer were, in themselves, enough to keep churches on the straight and narrow or to bring them back to orthodoxy, but they are not.  One cannot, of course, maintain orthodoxy without them; but they do need to be supplemented with thoughtful action.   Pray and preach - but keep your powder dry.  Churches go bad for a myriad of reasons but not generally because heterodoxy just drops from the sky one morning and takes over the entire denomination before noon.   To keep a church safe and sound, you need to understand the mechanisms of change and respond to them: thank God for successful pastors, but don't idolize them; stand up to the bullies and the nose-thumbers, don't reward them by changing the rules simply to avoid conflict; think long term when someone makes an apparently attractive proposal for change; and, above all, be good churchmen. Presbytery meetings and committees are not high on most of our lists of fun things to do with our spare time, but these are where the key decisions are usually made: therefore, you should be involved in them because, if you are not, then you must shoulder considerable responsibility if they fall into the wrong hands or make bad decisions. You should also know the rule book. I cannot stress that enough: whatever else you do, know the rule book. A Westminster colleague often says, one must realize that, in church debates, points of procedure always take precedence over points of theology.  Sad, of course, but true.  Take it into account when you enter the committee room or the presbytery chamber.  You can safely assume that others will certainly do so.

3. Watch changes to the terms of confessional subscription very carefully.

Ian Hamilton's excellent book, The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy (Christian Focus) is a most instructive historical study of how changes to the terms of subscription in various Presbyterian denominations were constitutive of the decline in orthodoxy within the same.   Sometimes the changes were, in and of themselves, intended for good; but a generation or so down the line, the precedents these changes set or established had lethal consequences for the maintenance of the faith.  This is why it is also important to observe carefully not just what decisions churches make, but how they make them.  For example, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has stayed orthodox thus far by God's grace, not because of the superior godliness of its officers, still less because of its worship aesthetics, but because it has generally played by the rules and, more importantly, punished rather than rewarded those who break or subvert them.  

Even to make a decision which is, strictly and narrowly speaking, biblically sound, but to do so by circumventing the rules, or because one does not wish to stand up to a nose-thumber, can be as disastrous in the long run as positively legislating heterodoxy: it undermines due process and, as I argued in the second post, sets unfortunate precedents that will come back to haunt the church at a later date.   

4. Do not be intimidated by the `we are just doing it for evangelism' argument.

This is an old chestnut used by almost all - if not all - of those who have advocated for various changes throughout church history.  It is a powerful rhetorical move, as it immediately places opponents in a hard place: to oppose the advocates of change is to be regarded as opposing evangelism.   As a rule of thumb, the key question to ask is: are the changes being proposed really matters indifferent, mere cosmetic changes, or do they require an alteration of theological principle?  If they are merely cosmetic, then pragmatic arguments such as the above are clearly legitimate.  If, however, the proposed changes actually involve theological principles (e.g, `we need to stop believing this or preaching that, because, if we don't, we will be looked upon as idiots/bigots/cultists/just a wee bit weird') then purely pragmatic arguments are likely in the long run to prove to be Trojan Horses for more serious change.  It is vital to be able to discern the difference between cosmetic and principial changes or the church will well and truly lose the plot.

5. If you are called to be a leader, then be a leader, not a statesman.

The church is full of men who want positions of prestige, profile and responsibility, but who do not want to take the tough stands that such positions demand.  It is easy to defend the faith in front of an audience of six hundred adoring fans at a conference; it is not so easy to stand for principle in a room full of two dozen indifferent or hostile colleagues.  Sorry - if you want the position of responsibility, then silence on the hard issues in the hostile context is not an option.

Further, if there is one thing worse than the minister who talks a good game to his fan base but is as much use as a chocolate spanner in a conflict, it is the professional statesman.  This is the patrician figure who makes a career out of triangulating in debates, often doing so by setting the alleged poor theology of one side against the alleged bad attitude of the other in a kind of moral equivalence.  This then allows him to justify not taking sides and to rise above the fray.  No doubt as he goes bed each night, he thanks God that he is not like other men, for he has clean hands and finely manicured nails, unlike the troublers of Israel around him; but, as I have said before on Ref21, he can only sleep peacefully at night because many of those same troublers of Israel have broken their nails and bloodied their fists in making the streets outside his house safe for women and children.   

In fact, true statesmen earn the right to be statesmen by first of all leading their people through battles and conflicts.  Think of Athanasius, of Luther, of Chalmers, of Machen - all risked everything they had, and were targets of the harshest disdain even from within the church, but they stood firm on principle and led their people through the wilderness.  Too many today want to take a shortcut to the position, to be admired for nothing more than landing the high profile job in the first place.  Forget statesmanship: if you are a minister, act like a minister, and do not use pretentions to statesmanship as a cover for your own weakness.

So, to conclude this series, keeping a church on the rails is actually quite easy: honour your vows and do not cross your fingers; be honest with your people and your presbytery if and when your views change; know - and follow - the rules; pray and preach in a sound, godly fashion; and lead as you are called.   Above all, understand that complacency - personal and corporate - kills.  It leaves the field open to the activists; and activists are, by and large, highly organized and effective, and only follow the rules as and when it suits their cause.  You need to work twice as hard as they do to keep the ship afloat; but that is a high calling indeed.

HT: Reformation21




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