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Is reform possible?Many contend that the Religious Left dominates the mainline church to such an extent that change is unlikely. As of 1986 this has proven to be the case. Denominational leadership has been so resistant to change, even when under pressure, that many church members have either left their denomination in despair or pretended that the problem does not exist. The Religious Left has controlled the church by default.
Still, change is possible if one of two things happen. There must either be spiritual renewal within the church, or church membership must force change by exerting financial pressure on its leadership and bureaucracies.
Much of the problem thus far has been with the character of mainline church leadership. A large percentage of them are moderates. They are decent people who genuinely love the church and believe in traditional Christian teaching. They were chosen for their position because they are conscientious. However, they are usually consensus personalities who cling to safety. They tend to jump on the most popular bandwagon regardless of its worth. This pervasive timidity has been disastrous because it has made them vulnerable to manipulation. At the same time, though most of them believe in traditional Christian teaching, they have lost the fervency which would have strengthened their resistance to the politically radical.
In many ways the radicals have demonstrated more integrity than the moderates. Most radicals are willing to risk their reputation for what they believe. They are not afraid to be controversial and to take unpopular positions. What they believe, however misguided, they believe fervently. As a result, they have influence far above what their numbers would justify.
It would seem that conservatives, which represent a majority of members in most mainline denominations, could have stymied a Religious Left with which they totally disagree. Their fervency is unquestionable. But the conservatives have held only marginal positions of influence during the last fifty years. They have been, in large part, unsophisticated and less educated than their liberal rivals. This cost them respect and made their presence a frequent embarrassment to the liberal-moderate coalition which controls the mainline church hierarchy.
Conservatives also hurt themselves because many insisted on a faith which is merely a validation of American culture or a conservative political party. Many of them have insisted on a self-centered, ritualized Christianity which rejects the value of other cultures. This attitude, in turn, produced insularity and an unconcern for the world at large.
This situation is changing. The conservative movement is now producing scholars who have a broader theological outlook, a more compassionate attitude, and who are personally more sophisticated.
Therefore, the hope of the church may be with a new coalition of conservatives who certainly have the desire to produce change and moderates who have the power to do so. This can only come about, however, if leadership rediscovers the urgency of its Christian mission or is forced to see the conservative point of view.
As difficult and slow as the process may seem, both renewal and pressure on moderate church leadership can only begin with one source - the individual church member. Reform will not take place if it does not begin in local congregations. The church needs to be reformed from the bottom up. When local members become concerned enough to realign their spiritual lives, and caring enough to seek the same for their church, real change will take place. The local church is the place where everything begins. Only when members believe so heartily in the traditional message that they will allow no other, will their churches take courage. Only then will conferences, synods, assemblies, and dioceses be changed. Only then will leadership be reformed.
As for pressure, there is no one leader who will suddenly appear and solve the problem. The reform movement now in place, as represented by various organizations cited in Chapter One, constitutes a minority of mainline membership. It cannot force reform because it does not have the numbers to do so. It must have the active support of Christian membership who share its views and of those who are willing to exert themselves for what they believe. Pressure, like renewal, begins with the individual. When individuals care enough to become actively involved in denominational reform, when they care enough to begin that reform on the local church level - even when it costs them friends, time, trouble, and conflict - then there will be change.
A national financial boycott may be necessary to get the attention of church leadership. Positive bureaucratic change probably will not begin until the carte blanche funding is stopped. Perhaps local
churches should consider putting funds (missions, church and society, etc.) in escrow until they receive satisfaction that their grievances have been heard and reform is underway.
If there is continued financial backing for controversial programs, laity has no excuse for complaint. Traditionally, when complaints are made about questionable denominational programs the response has been that people must not be unhappy because they continue their financial support. Leadership does not reveal that pastors may be facing professional difficulties if their congregations do not support all program funding. Bishops do not appreciate pastors who oppose the status quo. Nonetheless, pastors who allow themselves to be pressured to support questionable programs, and congregations who care more for their comfort than for their principles, are responsible for the results.
As harsh as a boycott may appear, there is a precedent. Denominational bureaucracies have already set the example. They have recently called for a grape boycott, and there have been boycotts against Campbell's Soup and Nestlé. If it is ethical for liberals to boycott, then it must also be ethical for moderates and conservatives. A national committee of concerned lay persons and pastors from each denomination should be formed to organize the boycott, should it be necessary, and to educate the membership concerning the abuse in denominational programs.
There has been much said in this book about what the Christian church should not have done and what it should not believe. This said, there is room to consider what the church and its leadership should be about.
- The church and church leadership should be humble. Experience in denominational leadership or bureaucratic decisionmaking does not create an expertise in the military, political, or economic arenas. The church should speak out concerning principles and recognize that sincere, intelligent Christians may disagree as to how the principles should be applied.
- A prophetic church will always speak for freedom and human rights. The authentic Christian attacks all that degrades humanity. This not only includes poverty, it also includes oppression - oppression from the Left, as well as oppression from the Right.
- The leadership of the church, its clergy, and its theologians must witness to the transcendence of the church. They must refute the view that the church is a "human institution to be understood in sociological terms and employed for sociological purposes."1 Christian leadership and all Christians, if they wish to remain a part of the church of God, must proclaim that the church is "divinely constituted and divinely guided on its pilgrimage toward a kingdom that is not of our manufacture."2 When the transcendence is once again recognized, the church will be freed from earthly ideologies to which it is now held captive.
- The Christian church should do everything in its power to bring about genuine reconciliation between people, classes, and nations. This mission for reconciliation is not the same as a mission for pacifism or appeasement. It should be witness to the possibility of brotherhood through a God whose "Peace passes all understanding."
- More than anything else, before any other mission, before any other duty, the Christian church must proclaim to a suffering world that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."3
The cost will be high for those who insist on these guidelines and these spiritual truths and no other. Pastors must be willing to sacrifice promising careers, and lay members must be willing to live in the midst of controversy. Bishops must be willing to be criticized by their peers and be charged with disloyalty. Reform will not come easily, but it will come if enough Christians are willing to sacrifice for the sake of truth and integrity.
If they are not willing to do so, then the church has truly been betrayed.
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The Betrayal of the Church Copyright © 1986 by Edmund W. Robb and Julia Robb. Published by Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Westchester, Illinois 60153
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