First written in 1997; updated 2003. After this was written, we found out that many others felt the same way we did: the New Jersey diocese lost nearly half its membership during Spong’s tenure as Bishop.
A Long Trip
In the course of my work at Church of God Lay Ministries, I was asked to speak at a Lay Coordinators Summit in Lexington, KY. The plan was for me to ride up with one of my colleagues from our office in Cleveland, TN, to Lexington. It had been a while since I had made the trip, so I had forgotten how long it took to make the drive. Just before the trip my wife and I had dinner with our church’s children’s pastor and his wife, who were die-hard University of Tennessee Volunteer fans. So we asked them how far it was at least from Knoxville to Lexington.
“Not far enough,” was his emphatic reply. I knew it was going to be a long trip.
John Shelby Spong
With these preliminaries out of the way, I met my Lay Ministries colleague in Cleveland and we drove up to Lexington. We had a very good meeting and started back home. On the way we got into a large number of topics, one of which was John Shelby Spong.
For those of you who don’t know, John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal bishop in Newark, NJ. He has made himself a legend with his liberal theology; he denies every basic tenet of historical Christianity, including the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and just about everything else in between. Moreover he has worked very hard to be the leading spokesman for his views, cramming his unbelief down everyone’s throat who happens to get in his way. Having grown up in the Episcopal church of his hero, Bishop James Pike, who wandered into the California desert to meet his eternity, and having left largely because of the liberalism that stalks the church, Spong was more than an object of idle curiosity to me.
My colleague is a lifelong Church of God member, and what’s more his family is very eminent in our denomination; so his point of view is different from mine. Nevertheless we both agreed on many things, one of which was that, if Spong’s right, we need to chuck all this church thing and go out and live it up, instead of hanging around a church, like Spong and many of his liberal friends.
This point of view will come as a shock to a lot of people, especially people who have grown up in church — of whatever kind — and couldn’t imagine living without the ceremonies and rituals — liturgical and life — that go with church. If we leave sentimentality behind, however, and consider both the facts and the alternatives, this is the only sensible conclusion that we can come to.
Why do we go to church?
It’s amazing why people do what they do, especially when one actually spells out that motivation. This is certainly true on the subject of going to church. Let’s consider some of the reasons why people do this.
Some go to church out of rote or habit; they send up the cry of “We’ve always done it this way!” This is the bane of business managers, but many churches survive on this. People get raised in a habit of doing something and they just can’t bring themselves to change. People who go because of this also hate to see change in the church, irrespective of whether than change is for the better or worse, and will usually fight it when it comes.
Others go for aesthetic reasons, or put more simply for the beauty of it. They like the stained glass windows and vaulting gothic arches; they feel better when they hear the music or the cadences of the liturgy. Whatever objective reality behind it is irrelevant; it’s beautiful, so it’s good. When people in the church question those objective realities, the response of people like this is to go into denial; if whoever ends up on control of things will just keep everything looking the same, they’ll stay.
Still others go because they had a good experience of some kind many years ago and expect this to be replicated in church. Sunday after Sunday they come to have this great feel-good experience repeated once again. How long they stick it out depends on how patient they are for that experience to come up again, if it is possible.
All of these things have worked to the advantage of Christian churches over the years; they have served to bond people to the church. But are they enough? Can churches survive on them alone? More importantly, can we survive on them alone?
All of the above reasons are ultimately sentimental in nature. Sentimentality, however, is not the exclusive property of Christian churches; it is a human emotion that extends to a lot of things. We can be sentimental about our families, houses, cars, just about anything. But can we build a life on them? Or more importantly can be build an eternity on them?
Consider for a minute Jesus’ disciples. After his crucifixion and burial, they had reason to disappear into the woodwork. The Jewish and Roman authorities had displayed a serious show of force by putting Jesus to death. Peter had already figured this out even before the event; he denied Jesus to make sure he wouldn’t share the Master’s fate. They may have liked to recreate the days by the Sea of Galilee when the fish were abundant and the waves stilled at Jesus’ command, but Jesus was gone and they thought it was over with.
But then they started getting reports that His tomb was empty, guarded as it was by the same authorities that had succeeded in killing him. They found out that this was true; when Jesus appeared to them, they realized that Jesus was alive, that He had conquered death, that he had the power to make it possible for them to do the same. The realization of this objective reality — which was literally staring them in the face — was motivation for them to put aside everything and, with the injection of power of Pentecost, to go and preach the Gospel — the good news of Jesus’ resurrection — to the whole world. The result was, as Origen said:
Now if we consider how in a very few years, although those who profess Christianity are persecuted and some put to death on account of it while others suffer the loss of their possessions, yet the word has been able, in spite of the fewness of teachers, to be ‘preached everywhere in the world,’ so that Greeks and barbarians, wise and foolish have adopted the religion of Jesus, we shall not hesitate to say that this achievement is more than human, remembering that Jesus taught with all authority and convincing power that his word should prevail. (First Principles, IV, 2)
The disciples turned apostles didn’t do this because it made them feel good, or they had always done it this way, but because they know that what they preached and lived was objectively true. As it turns out, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the best documented event in antiquity. Yet many such as Spong would like to denigrate the objective value of all this.
A New Agenda – But Where?
The invasion of liberalism into Christian churches is always a rude awakening to many people, because they are basically told that everything they ever taught and did was completely wrong and that they need to change everything for the “new realities.” The leaders of this liberalism set themselves up as the vanguard of a new order; they tell their stunned flocks that the church needs this new way of thinking and living to survive.
The thing they don’t tell everyone is this: irrespective of whether the church needs their “new way,” the “new way” doesn’t need the church.
Let’s suppose that you really believe that a) the basic teachings of Christianity are false and b) that you’re idealistic enough to want to “do good” under the new rules. What’s the quickest way of getting going? Well, to start with you have the usual plethora of political groups, environmental organizations, the government, the United Nations, and countless other organizations that have nothing to do with the church but which propagate your message. All your church is succeeding in doing is to add one more organization to the confusion. It would be simpler to simply dispense with the church and proceed with the secular organizations.
So let’s take this a step further; suppose you are sitting in an Episcopal pew listening to John Shelby Spong go on about why the basic truths of Christianity have no basis in reality and that those who teach them are a bunch of morons. Suppose that you finally realize that you think that Spong is right; that all that you’ve said when you’re repeated the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed is false and that the life you have is all you’re expected to get. What should you do? You should first realize that life is short and that, if you’re going to live you’d better hurry. So the sensible thing for you to do is to get up, gather your family, walk out of the church, get into your Lexus or Mercedes, and head to Atlantic City or Las Vegas or South Florida or wherever you need to go to live it up while you still can.
This illustration is to demonstrate a simple point. If Spong and the other liberals are right, they’re wrong, because the church is really unnecessary and the time we spend there is a waste. If they’re wrong, they’re really wrong, because they’re sending people to an awful eternity by the unbelief they spread.
…of all men most to be pitied.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes this point very clearly:
Now, if it is proclaimed of Christ that he has been raised from the dead, how is it that some of you say that there is no such thing as a resurrection of the dead? But, if there is no such thing as a resurrection of the dead, then even Christ has not been raised; And, if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is without meaning, and our faith without meaning also! Yes, and we are being proved to have borne false testimony about God; for we testified of God that he raised the Christ, whom he did not raise, if, indeed, the dead do not rise! For, if the dead do not rise, then even Christ himself has not been raised, And, if Christ has not been raised, your faith is folly-your sins are on you still! Yes, and they, who have passed to their rest in union with Christ, perished! If all that we have done has been to place our hope in Christ for this life, then we of all men are the most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
The church’s job is more than to make people feel good; it is more than to make people do good; it is to preach the good news that Jesus Christ is alive and that we can live forever with Him if we make him our Lord and Saviour. Feeling good and doing good will certainly come after that but being transformed by Jesus is the most important thing.
When this happens, then we can join with Paul in looking forward to the future.
But, in truth, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who are at rest. For, since through a man there is death, so, too, through a man there is a resurrection of the dead. For, as through union with Adam all men die, so through union with the Christ will all be made to live. But each in his proper order-Christ the first-fruits; afterwards, at his Coming, those who belong to the Christ. Then will come the end-when he surrenders the Kingdom to his God and Father, having overthrown all other rule and all other authority and power. For he must reign until God ‘has put all his enemies under his feet.’ The last enemy to be overthrown is death; For God has placed all things under Christ’s feet. (But, when it is said that all things have been placed under Christ, it is plain that God is excepted who placed everything under him.) And, when everything has been placed under him, the Son will place himself under God who placed everything under him, that God may be all in all!(1 Corinthians 15:20-28)