My friend Davey Henreckson pointed me to a recent blog series in which Carl Trueman examines, with rather more balance and perceptiveness than is typical in such discussions, the anatomy of denominational slides into liberalism. Conservatives often like to paint such backslidings as the result of some dark conspiracy or a full-on war against the gospel by wicked and recalcitrant liberals, but Trueman suggests it ain’t necessarily so:
“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 particular, he suggests, such shifts often owe as much to well-meaning moderates and schismatic conservatives as they do to self-conscious liberals. The former, for “laudable reasons of desiring the peace and unity of the church, and of reading the left as charitably as possible” allow significant changes (like women’s ordination) but attempt to craft a compromise for the benefit of the right. The compromise, however, rarely works, because many of the conservatives decides that the innovation marks an apostasy and decides to up and leave, leaving the moderates as the new right wing. The center of gravity accordingly shifts left, and so it isn’t long at all before, after a couple more rounds of this, the denomination is thoroughly liberal-dominated.
The moral of this story, Trueman suggests, is that perhaps conservatives should think twice before leaving an embattled denomination. Instead of leaving to keep their consciences unstained, they must “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….Some times churches go liberal because the men of principle and backbone bail out too early.” This is a point that I’ve often argued, although I might want to say that conservatives should think not merely twice, but at least thrice, before leaving a denomination. Also, the article of course raises the question, for me at least, of whether compromise measures are always a bad idea. Liberals are brothers and sisters in Christ too, and often well-intentioned ones, and sometimes, indeed, ones with some very good points to make. Sometimes the points being raised are ones that require long and careful dialogue, rather than hasty lines in the sand, and meanwhile, we may have to stomach certain compromises that make no one entirely happy but which maintain the bonds of communion with all those brothers and sisters who share our desire to follow Christ, while we try and hash out what that will mean. I say “may” because I’m not sure…but I’m not prepared to take for granted, as Trueman still seems to, that the moderates are always wrong to propose their big-tent compromises.
Nonetheless, the article is well-worth reading, and I must say that it’s quite remarkable and encouraging to hear something this irenic coming from a Westminster Seminary professor. Where are Machen’s warrior children now?