After some years of ecclesiastical combat (Episcopal battlefield), I think I know why so many conservative Christians do not respond to liberalism as strongly as one would expect. They think that liberals are just cheating: that they know the rules, but like spoiled and willful children have decided to play by rules they like better. Since they are just cheaters, they only need to be shamed into behaving, and if they won’t be shamed into behaving, conservatives can try to change their church’s rules and structures to prevent them from cheating anymore.
An evangelical friend recently told me that he wanted to tell Bishop John Spong and his allies, “O.K., fine. Believe what you want. But don’t call yourself a Christian. You can’t be a member of the club without paying some dues, and the most basic payment is to believe. Get in or get out, but stop muddying the waters.” The Roman Catholic bishop of Omaha, Fabian Bruskewitz, is reported to have said that “the difference between a dissenting Catholic and a Protestant is that the Protestant has integrity.”
This isn’t really fair to most liberals. I’ll admit, it is irritating when a man who has made quite a good living from his church declares his rejection of yet another of her doctrines and praises himself for his prophetic courage, while irreligious reporters applaud him and publishers strew book contracts at his feet. It is more than irritating when comfortable sherry-soaked theologians sneer at the pope for his supposedly simplistic understanding of the problems of modern society or when (as has happened in the Episcopal Church) tenured feminists publicly describe a bishop who, on biblical grounds, hesitates to ordain women as “evil.”
Nevertheless, we have to be fair to the liberals and try to see things from their point of view, not just as a courtesy due any opponent, but to know what to do about them. Most liberals are not cheating. They are playing by the rules and playing fair. They are acting with integrity. That’s the problem.
Liberals (the usual but certainly unsatisfactory name for a hazy collection of skeptics, relativists, ideologues, and sentimentalists held together mainly by their opposition to the same things) believe that truth evolves and grows and changes, or at least that our understanding of truth evolves so radically that earlier certainties may be replaced by new and contradictory truths. They believe that what has been, even what has been settled, may not be, or shall not be any longer.
Their ways of explaining this evolution differ. Some believe that they are rescuing the truths in the Christian tradition (the equality of men and women, for example) from the errors therein (the headship of men). Some believe they are rescuing the truths in the Christian tradition from the errors later imposed thereon (the same example applies). Others believe that the Bible and Christian tradition were historically limited attempts to speak of fundamental religious realities and want to express these fundamental realities in a more modern and relevant form. Others believe that there is no truth in the Christian tradition and that we must therefore reinvent the Church as we go along, to serve whatever ideals or desires we have.
Yet others believe that they have recovered the original faith itself, the religion of the loving, inclusive, non-judgmental Jesus, who accepted everyone (except for the proto-capitalists and religious traditionalists of the day), whose message of tolerance the pharisaical St. Paul distorted, and whose story later misogynist, racist, and homophobic church leaders rewrote so that they could keep oppressing women, blacks, and homosexuals.
However they explain the evolution, liberals must conclude that the Christian tradition has little formative and no binding authority and that the new truths they see must replace those still asserted by orthodox Christians. Orthodoxy is at best out of date—but dangerously, not amusingly so. It is not quaint: It is an enemy of the good, of God, and of human freedom and liberation.
If they are right, those who cannot or will not explore formerly forbidden areas and risk the loss of all certainty, who will not open themselves to new movements of the Holy Spirit, who want to hold to the plain meaning of the ancient texts, and who rely on the Church’s tradition to tell them what it says cannot be allowed to define the Church’s doctrine and discipline. Those who live in error cannot be allowed to limit acceptable belief to what in less sophisticated times was called “orthodoxy.” They certainly cannot be allowed to expel liberals or even to restrain or inhibit them.
Conservative Christians are sometimes confused because all five types of liberal tend to keep the traditional forms of the faith. People like liturgy and feel the need to pray to something higher than themselves; a hierarchy is a good way to run a church, especially if you have made it to the top; old doctrines are useful metaphors; biblical stories make good illustrations; the doctrines and stories are part of the heritage and therefore comfort the old people; the buildings are beautiful, and also paid for. Of course, sometimes this deference to tradition is simply convenient, as when bishops who care not a whit what the Fathers of the Church said about ordination or morality defend their intrusion into the lives of their parishes by appealing to the patristic understanding of the bishop (or what they think is the patristic understanding).
In general, liberals act from a sort of conservatism. Noting that the tradition carries our common memory and secures our identity as a community, they think modern Christians may keep patristic liturgies and a hierarchical order and even the doctrinal assertions of the Nicene Creed, while believing that Jesus is only one way to the Cod seen dimly and incompletely by all religions, including ours, or while ignoring specific biblical moral teaching in favor of a generalized injunction to love, or while rejecting the Pauline teaching on headship for a misreading of Galatians 3:23.
The liberal would be foolish to give up the great advantages of membership in an old and wealthy and respected church just because he knows more than the other members of his church, who are in the nature of things usually complacent, ignorant, or reactionary. The church is his as much as theirs, after all.
For liberal Christians, their church is the earthly institution that bears this process of discovery, evolution, and growth, and thus they may stay in it with a clear conscience. From their point of view, they need not leave their church just because they “have moved beyond” a mythological understanding of reality codified in its past but now known by an enlightened vanguard of its members to be inadequate or mistaken. Indeed, if they are right, they must stay in their church to use her status and wealth and authority to bring more members into enlightenment. In helping their church to see new truths, they believe they are helping clean the waters, not muddy them. In accepting new truths even at the cost of losing old certainties, they are acting with integrity.
Now this makes sense. It is logical and fits the facts. One could believe it. Accept the premise that truth evolves and grows, and you may reject and innovate as much as you like with no need to change your institutional loyalties. You may be a loyal Episcopalian or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic while rejecting anything or everything your predecessors held because you know better than they, or live in a different age. Liberals are being perfectly logical and acting with complete integrity’ in refusing to leave their churches just because they don’t accept some or all of their traditional teachings.
So skeptical liberalism has an integrity of its own. Liberals are not cheating: They are contending for an alternative worldview with the tools and weapons at hand. It is a principled position. The problem—the problem that so many conservatives don’t or won’t see—is that this principled liberalism happens to exist within the same churches as does the equally, but differently, principled orthodox, and churches are not simply collections of diverse people but fellowships with certain rules and duties and common ends that do not allow such deep differences over what the rules and duties and ends are.
A church is not a club, in which a robber baron and a communist can talk genially about baseball or the weather, nor it is a large field in which sheep and goats graze together without bothering each other. In the liberal images of the Church, which so many conservatives have accepted, community is more essential than doctrine. A church is more like a team that needs to wear the same uniforms and run the same plays and shoot at the same basket. It may be a very bad team, whose players often forget the plays and hate to pass the ball, but it must be a team.
This is expressed in the New Testament image of the Church as the Body of Christ. A church is a body, not a set of arms and legs and chests and heads scattered around the room. It is a body designed to move, and movement requires the unity and coordination of the parts. It must have one Head, whose will every member obeys, in coordination with the others. The belief that the Church is a collection of people answerable only to themselves assumes that each knee can do what it wants and each foot what it wants, and the body will still walk.
To recognize the integrity of liberalism may mean that orthodox Christians might respect some liberals more than they have before, but they also ought to be divided from them far more deeply. Or rather, they ought to recognize the division that their difference in principles creates. Liberal churchmen are not cheaters who may be publicly shamed and then ignored until they repent, but soldiers in an opposing army ordered to take the ground we’ve been given and ordered to defend.
This is why orthodox Christians must understand what they are saying and doing by remaining in communion with those who are so fundamentally opposed to the Christian revelation. To put it simply: How can they join at the Lord’s Table with those who do not believe in the Lord, or claim to believe in Him but do not believe what He and His authorized spokesmen say? Breaking communion is simply giving liberal Christians the great compliment of taking them seriously and believing that they mean what they say. (It is a compliment some of them may not want, of course.)
Liberals are not confused or ignorant or mistaken or cheating: They are committed to a coherent and thorough understanding of what it means to be a Christian. That faith is not orthodox. The problem is not that liberals err in the conclusions they draw from assumptions and principles they share with those still faithful to the tradition; the problem is that they hold different and incompatible assumptions and principles and act accordingly.
That being so, orthodox believers within a denomination cannot tell liberals to be honest about their skepticism and leave their church but remain, at the same time, unequally yoked to them in the intimacy of communion. The only thing to do with liberals is to respect them for their convictions, and for those same convictions excommunicate them.