Monday, February 13, 2006

"Turning Around The Mainline " -- A Review

Turning Around the Mainline by Thomas C. Oden (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006) Price US$17.99

A Review by Richard Kew

Tom Oden's most recent book is not his most stunning, but it is a useful compendium of resources for those in the mainline churches who are determined not to see their great traditions overturned by what Oden calls liberated theology and its cohorts. Liberted theology is, "doctrinally imaginative, liturgically experimental, disciplinarily nonjudgmental, politically correct, morally broad-minded, and above all, sexually lenient and permissive." He goes on to comment, "As a former full-time card-carrying liberator, I know from experience how mesmerizing this enchantment can be" (Page 25).

As well as being a compendium of resources, Turning Around the Mailine is a report of the progress being made by confessing Christians in these historic churches, as well as a theological summary of why it is vital to stay in and fight this battle out. The first chapter of the book is a theological and strategical treasure to the likes of us who are trapped between faithfulness to Christ in the Anglican tradition and the "liberated" unfaithfulness of those who control the political structures, but who have severed their ties with the faith of the communion of the saints in favor of "another gospel."

Oden goes on to assert, rightly I believe, that the major issue before the mainline churches is whether they will submit to their own discipline, or whether they will continue down the path to oblivion using counterfeit theological currency as they tread the broad way that leads to nothingness. There is little doubt that despite the howls of denial on the part of those on the left, the structures that they control are in significant decline -- what Oden would describe as a providential judgment for sin and error.

"Confessing Christians seek to reform their churches, not leave them. Those who split off leave the patient in the hands of the euthanasia advocates, the Kevorkians of dying modernity. The Holy Spirit will not bless willful unnecessary divisiveness" (Page 27). While I realize that many will debate what is necessary division, this is a spiritual battle and walking from the field before the conflict is over is, in my humble opinion, not particularly responsible. I have to admit that the more I see the banal and bizarre dished up by those who adhere to this liberated faith, the more determined I am that I will stand firm against error in the place where God has put me.

Oden's second chapter gives a winsome summary of good reasons for confessing Christians to stay put. "To flee the church," he writes, "Is not to discipline it. Discipline is fostered by patient trust, corrective love, and willingness to live with incremental change if that is what the Spirit is allowing. Discipline seeks to mend the broken church by a change of heart" (Page 28).

There are sound theological reasons against leaving we are told and Romans 16:17, Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 12, and Jesus's high priestly words in John 17 are brought into play. There are prudential arguments against leaving also, because even though certain things might look dark, beneath the surface there are all sorts of God-initiated stirrings.

In addition, an exit strategy is self-defeating, dropping all the resources that the faithful were given sacrificially by the faithful into the hands of those who are committed to a message that increasingly defaces what it means to be Christian. Oden turns things on their head and writes, "The idea of 'gracious exit' should not ever mean that orthodox believers exit or split from their churches, but rather that they make it easier for those who repeatedly reject Christian doctrine and discipline to take their leave" (Page 31). The truth is that we who stand in the mainstream of the faith belong here, not the cuckoos in the nest who have sought to grab control.

The reality is that there are two notions of holiness at play here. There is the one which understands holiness in terms of separation from error and unbelief, and there is the other that engages such things in the name of God. Those who argue that an unholy and unfaithful church must be abandoned stand in the line of the Donatists. "Augustine argued that the temporary disunity of the institutional church does not engender its holiness, provided it is seeking to correct its course" (Page 32).

Confessing Christians are the God-appointed course correctors, for we are the valid bearers of the catholic tradition, the respecters of ancient ecumenical truth, not those who seem set on using the church for their own political purposes. "The authentic advocates of the unity of the church are those who most care about its discipline and holiness, with humility and gentleness" (Page 32). Now, part of the armory of those in this camp must be a willingness to be patient -- as were the evangelicals of the Church of England through much of the 20th Century. "To divorce is to give up on the promise of the family" (Page 34).

From this theological base Oden moves forward to outline the nature of the implosion or internal collapse of the mainline denominations, for those who guide these traditions are seeking to defend a diluted liberalism that is wedded to a dysfunctional political and ecumenical agenda. In these imploding traditions the issues reach far beyond sexuality, this item getting the most attention and obscuring "other more salient issues on biblical authority, baptism, ecumenism, financial accountability, and the fairness of representational systems vis-a-vis concentrated bureaucratic interests" (Page 40).

Yet even as wayward liberalism declines there is this extraordinary rebirth of orthodoxy going on. This orthodoxy has a flavor of Lewis's mere Christianity, and if you want to know where the dynamic young theologians, thinkers, strategists, men and women of prayer, evangelists, and so forth are coming from, you need look no further than this renewed orthodoxy. These confessing Christians "attest to the biblical teaching that the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church is promised imperisable continuance, even if particular churches or local bodies or denominations stumble and fall"(Page 45).

So, to summarize what Oden is sayin, "My brother and sisters, be steadfast, I say again, be steadfast." What has puzzled me in this whole crisis is that those who talk the most about being firm in spiritual conflict, those who harp most constantly on Ephesians 6:12ff, have been the ones who have baled out of that steadfastness the fastest. The agony of ministry for me in this is that it is grueling not only to seek to move my congregation forward in terms of the Kingdom of God in the midst of this battle, but that those who I counted on sharing the struggle with me have sought something easier and less demanding.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating chapters in Oden's book is his pen portrait of the left hand side of mainline Protestantism. He sees confessing Christians as being part of a new ecumenism that is rooted in the ancient ecumenism of the historic church down through the centuries, but there is this old WCC/NCC ecumenism that is fixated "on manipulating and managing revolutionary pretenses." It is "trapped in outmoded revolutionary fantasies" (Page 62). There has been a strange baptizing, it seems, of dysfunctionality so that the integrity of the faith is being constantly imperilled as "any harebrained idea is considered equal in truth with God's revelation in history" (Page 65).

In the midst of such scandalous relativism we are called upon to uphold and proclaim the integrity of the truth. Oden is of the mind that those who have bought this mess of pottage are actually on the defensive within the churches. Certainly, from my experience, their revolution is lacking anything that could be remotely described as a meaningful theology and a coherent philosophy, and their constituency is aging and not reproducing itself, but in the Episcopal Church at least I am not sure they are on the defensive except in a few places.

Much of the rest of the book is taken up with a very helpful selection of the theological statements of the various renewed and orthodox bodies in the mainline churches. All these demonstrate that whatever its other weaknesses, the confessing movement has a clear, firm, biblical, and catholic underpinning to its activities. Not only that, it is obviously missional and committed to the fulfilment of the Great Commission, and obedience to the missio Dei.

Meanwhile, "The mainline elite has become so fixated on friendly sentiment, hypertoleration, and superficial unity that it has tended to brush under the rug all norms except egalitarian political correctness. Much liberal leadership has become so narrowly politicized, and so out of touch with the lay constituency, that the faithful no longer can take at face value any of the facile promises of the leadership" (Page 71).

There is a lot of good stuff here, and while I think that Oden's own Methodism, an environment in which the confessors have made good progress, colors his insights into the experience of confessing Christians in more embattled denominations, he has a lot to say to us. Oden tops and tails the book with the notion that we need spine for this endeavor, and we must exercise our backbone within the context of denominations that are in deep crisis -- crisis of faith as well as a crisis of numbers. Those of us who are mainline Christians find ourselves up against "powerful voices within the denominational leadership (who) grossly diminish Christian teaching, refuse to follow reasonable discipline democratically arrived at, and discriminate unfairly against those who disagree with them" (Page 21).

Fairly recently I met a group of faithful Episcopalians whose commitment to the orthodox faith leaves them outcasts and pariahs in a congregation to which some of them have belonged for half a century or more. They asked me to spend time with them so that we might together begin to find ways forward for them. In their parish they have sought to be gracious, and as a result have probably not been as forceful as they might have been, but all opportunities to voice their biblical perceptions have been denied them, such is the insecure "tolerance" of their rector.

Their dilemma is multiplied thousands of times over in the Episcopal Church at this time. So it is that I come back to the sovereignty and providence of God. The Triune Creator who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ put us where he did for a time like this. There will be many skirmishes that are part of the wider conflict, but we can firmly assert that while some of those struggles will be lost, the Almighty One has a plan for his church coming out of this and our task is to find our role in that plan. Oden is a good companion as we do our thinking and praying.

1 comment:

James the Thickheaded said...

I think there are a couple of criteria that must attend to a successful confessing movement. I think there needs to be leadership and followership that wants to be accountable. This is a rare thing in today's modern world. In a church, it is a notion invested iwth tremendous meaning - accountable to God, the saints, etc. But that's not what we see: Accountable to world opinion - and that's THIS world. So this is the challenge....it is a path less trodden and called that for a reason.

I wish I knew the other features...and I think if I'd read more than Oden's first book on Rebirth of Orthodoxy..I'd know. But I fear you are right and in many places....the movement for Orthodoxy is having to do what they call on Wallstreet a "lift out". The notion of the church within a church - the anglocatholic tradition - has manifested itself in many churches....but it is embraced in few. ECUSA sees it as a virus to be expunged, but the Pope by contrast seeks to re-incoporate SSPX. I don't know about the other confessing movements...but expect their success lies somewhere in the middle.