Are we reaching a point in American Protestant history where the differences among the various denominations are becoming less divisive than the differences within the denominations, between those who are faithful to the Bible and those who are not?
It’s hard to imagine. The doctrinal differences among the major Protestant groups are significant — Reformed vs. Arminian vs. Anglican, premillennial vs. postmillennial, and so on. These gaps have persisted for centuries and are not easily bridged, if they can be bridged at all.
But within each of the major groups is a growing rift between those who cleave to the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, and those who recognize other sources of authority as equal or even superior to the Bible. The differences separating the denominations boil down to differences of opinion over the meaning of Scripture. Within the denominations, the controversy is over whether the Bible is authoritative at all.
The Great Divide
On one side we have Biblically faithful believers who refuse to contradict the plain teaching of Scripture, especially with respect to morality and behavior. Matters of high theology differ from denomination to denomination, but that mostly concerns church leaders. Down in the pews, church members agree that the Bible has the last word on how they should live life. Whether they’re Calvinist, dispensational, or something else, on that point they agree.
Opposed are those who condone behavior widely at variance with God’s laws as revealed in Scripture. They camouflage their rebellion by such devices as “putting the Scripture in context of the time and the culture in which it was written,” straining for creative interpretations of the Greek and Hebrew texts, and even claiming “a continuing revelation from the Holy Spirit,” which allows them to override Scripture. By these they justify such plainly unbiblical positions as their embrace of homosexual behavior and their easy acceptance of cohabitation, divorce, and abortion.
For example: “Many theologians still cling to some of the words of Biblical authors who lived in a pre-scientific age and treated slavery, genocide, mass murder and the oppression of women as acceptable,” proclaims a typical letter to a newspaper.
In their own minds, these theologians are up-to-date and “scientific,” and the Bible is not. It comes down to the worship of a false god, “science,” an idol created by man.
It took a long time for so many churches to be cut adrift from their Biblical moorings. Meanwhile, American Protestants have largely rejected the whole concept of church discipline, leaving the churches with no practical method of restoring order.
If you don’t like the discipline at your church, there’s always an easier church down the block. And in the more liberal denominations, you can always complain to a higher church authority if your pastor rebukes you for unrepented sin, and a board or a bishop will put him in his place — maybe even suspend him.
It may be that all we can hope for is that people who will accept church discipline, who want to live in harmony with the teachings of the Bible, will flock to churches that offer it, leaving churches that don’t.
The American Baptist Church, a liberal denomination with 1.5 million members nationwide, is about to lose its two biggest regional conferences — a loss of some 5,800 congregations, according to the Los Angeles Times. Why? Because the denomination has strayed from the Biblical injunctions against homosexual activity (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-baptists15sep15,1,5086628.story?ctrade=1&cset=true).
The Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the United Methodist Church — just to name four major “mainline” denominations — are all reporting sharp declines in membership. Meanwhile, “strict” churches, like the Assemblies of God and the Presbyterian Church in America, are reporting great increases in membership. In short, people are leaving the liberal churches in droves.
Can the Rift Be Healed?
You’re probably wasting your breath if you remonstrate with a young pastor fresh out of seminary who thinks he has “a continuing revelation” or a cultural insight that allows him to “bless” same-sex unions and question the authority of Scripture and the divinity of Christ. I know; I’ve tried. I couldn’t even get the twentysomething Reformed Church pastor to agree that flagrant adultery should be subject to church discipline.
Bible-believers must come together to form Bible-faithful congregations. The best hope is to reconstruct from the ground up, and leave the dead to bury their dead. These new congregations should support and encourage one another across the denominational divide.
The mainline denominations are likely to split. The United Methodist Church and the global Anglican Communion already stand on the brink of outright schism. The Reformed Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church have restated the incompatibility of homosexual behavior with Christian morality; but major factions within those denominations continue in open defiance, and church leaders have failed to curb the rebels. It can only get worse.
Nevertheless, all these churches belong by right to Jesus Christ, and He may redeem them through the Holy Spirit.
He may already be doing so. In all of the mainline denominations we find groups of faithful believers — some small, some very large — holding on to the truth for dear life and fearlessly proclaiming it.
Within the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, pastors and congregations have resisted the ECUSA’s push to affirm homosexuality. The Good News movement in the United Methodist Church (see www.goodnewsmag.org) publishes an online magazine that rallies congregations to oppose creeping apostasy. A disabled pastor in South Dakota wages a one-man campaign on the Internet to prod Reformed Church in America clergy to stick to Biblical teachings on moral issues (see http://www.cwfa.org/articledisplay.asp?id=8552&department=categoryid=family).
We are reminded of St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:27, “[A]nd God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.”
Christ’s church has faced worse crises than it does today, and so far the gates of hell have not prevailed against it.