Beware of the Emerging New Liberal Church

Title: Beware of the Emerging New Liberal Church

Text: Acts 20:28-31, 1 Corinthians 5:1-12

Time: May 22nd, 2010

Acts 20:28-31, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseer. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”  The Apostle Paul warns the early Christian church to beware of “savage wolves” that will tear the church apart after he leaves. He’s talking about corrupt church leaders who from within the church will threaten to ruin it through heresy (false teachings) and apostasy (false practices). The last few messages I’ve talked about the dangers of liberal pastors, liberal churches and liberal denominations – I could also mention liberal church colleges and seminaries, publishing houses, media outlets and high-profile personalities. All of these doubt or deny the essential Christian doctrines and practices that have characterized Christianity for more than two thousand years. All of these hold to a weakened view of the Bible. While liberal institutions and churches, pastors and denominational leaders all differ in their unorthodox beliefs and practices, one thing is common in all of them – they fail to hold to the basic, historic Christian faith and practice as taught in the Bible. So it’s not surprising to hear daily news reports of some church or denomination or leader creating controversy by ordaining a practicing homosexual to church leadership in one instance, or advocating gay marriage in another instance. It’s common to see a liberal spokesman on a television documentary explaining how the Bible is not the Word of God but merely the words of primitive men. Or how evolution disproves the creation account found in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible. In other words, liberal Christianity is characterized by always taking the modern, secular view against the historic, Christian biblical view. This form of liberalism has been around for decades, but what is emerging today as a new form of liberalism in what is called the emergent or emerging church within evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is a movement that grew out of the old Fundamentalist movement that held strongly to the biblical faith and practice. Evangelicalism is an attempt to hold strongly to the Bible but also engage the culture. But what is happening today is that some of the sons and daughters of Fundamentalists and older Evangelicals are now becoming post-modern liberals. Older liberals surrendered biblical truth to the modern high culture in the 20th century, but now many younger former evangelicals are surrendering biblical truth to the new post-modern pop culture. But the end result is much the same. Let me try to explain.

Last year I was able to watch a reality television series on the Sundance Network called “One Punk Under God,” staring Jay Bakker, the son of former PTL host Jim Bakker. If you remember during the late 80s the PTL Christian television network was involved in a major scandal that involved its founder and president Jim Bakker, who was accused and convicted of financial mismanagement and fraud. He was also guilty of sexual immorality and adultery. If you remember, it was a big mess. Ok, the son of Jim and Tammy Bakker is Jay Bakker who is now all grown up and is the pastor of a post-modern, Generation X style church. The Sundance Network series tries to follow Jay around in and outside of the church as he makes decisions involving a number of different issues he’s facing. One of the decisions he was wrestling with in a couple of the episodes of “One Punk Under God” is whether or not to come out in favor of gay marriage and the open acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle in his church. He’s not gay himself but he feels drawn to love gays and lesbians unconditionally by affirming their lifestyle choices and even bless their civil unions or marriages. Now imagine an evangelical pastor who is supposedly committed to teaching and preaching God’s Word in the church wrestling with this question. It doesn’t make sense because the Bible is clear in its teachings on homosexuality – it has always been condemned as sin, no question. All branches of Christianity agree that homosexuality is a sin. Catholics agree, Protestants agree, even Eastern Orthodox agree. There has been complete consensus within Christianity for nearly two thousands years that homosexuality is a sin, just as adultery is a sin, just as pre-marital sex is a sin, for example. Only recently have liberal churches begun to doubt or deny the Bible’s teaching on this subject. Evangelical churches have always held strongly to the biblical truth on homosexuality. But now, here’s the son of a famous – I should say “infamous” evangelical leader – questioning the Bible’s teaching and wrestling whether or not he should begin accepting and affirming the homosexual lifestyle. The program shows Jay discussing the issue over with his wife who is all in favor of him affirming and blessing the homosexual lifestyle. But he’s not so sure because he knows that he’ll lose a lot of the support he’s receiving from the evangelical community. Finally, in the end, he chooses to announce to his church that he’s decided to come out in full support of gays and lesbians, they are loved by God as much as anyone, God made them who they are so the church must embrace and bless them. Jay Bakker is seen in a number of different churches speaking and encouraging other Christians to embrace the homosexual lifestyle and stop trying to convert gays and lesbians. Now what are we to make of all this? My conclusion is that Jay Bakker has crossed the line from evangelicalism into liberalism – the new liberalism. Let me explain.

First, new liberals try to hold onto the signs and symbols of biblical Christianity just like the old liberals did. Acts 20:28-31, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseer. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”  It’s easy to spot a false religion or false cult because they use different signs and symbols in their worship services. For example, if we were to visit an Islamic masque there’d be no question we weren’t in a Christian church. If we were to visit a Jewish synagogue there’d be no question we were not worshipping within the context of Christianity. If we visited a Buddhist temple or Hindu shrine, we’d fine a similar strangeness to the experience. But if we visit a main-line liberal church we might not detect anything really different from what we might expect in a biblical evangelical church. In the historic old-line denominational churches, we’d still probably see a cross, see an alter, still sing the same old hymns, for example, and many things would look familiar. That’s because most old-style liberal churches maintain the same signs and symbols of Christianity while at the same time denying some essential Christian doctrines and practice. Now the difference between the older liberal churches and the new liberal churches is that the new churches are contemporary in look and feel, so they resemble contemporary evangelical churches today, but they deny key doctrines that all Bible-believing Christians hold. The Apostle Paul warns us about this by saying, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” This is what is happening in some evangelical churches today as the new generation, the post-modern generation, rebels against their parents, they turn away from the biblical faith and embrace the values of their culture. Tolerance of homosexuality is a contemporary post-modern cultural value today, so the new liberalism, that is, former evangelicals who are in rebellion against the faith of their parents, now embrace it too. In the case of Jay Bakker, we can understand this happening from a psychological standpoint; we can imagine the hurt he’s experienced in the context of the PTL scandal. But that doesn’t mean we should accept his apostasy from the biblical faith. His church is no more evangelical than an old-style liberal church.

Second, the new liberals depart from the Bible just like the old liberals did. Acts 20:30-31,  “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” As I watched the different episodes of “One Punk Under God” I noticed there was an absence of honest Bible study and Bible teaching taking place in the ministry of Jay Bakker. Yes, it showed him preparing for his messages with his Bible open and him thinking and writing and crafting his sermons; then it showed him delivering his teachings. But where was the careful wrestling with what the Bible actually teaches? It seems that for Jay Bakker and other new liberal pastors and church leaders in the emerging and emergent churches, it seems the culture, post-modernism, is the authority, not the Bible. One of the marks of the evangelical church has always been the authority of the Bible. What separated evangelicals from their older fundamentalist cousins was a willingness to enter into discussion with the culture, not to give way to it but in order to be witness to it with God’s truth. True Bible-believing Christians still do this – witness to the culture by reasoning from the Bible and also using modern evidences and logic. Old-style liberals dispensed with reasoning from the Bible altogether and just reasoned within contemporary culturing thinking, which was basically a form of enlightenment rationalism or modern rationalism. The new-style liberals or emergents are departing from the Bible also, only this time they aren’t embracing modern rationalism but instead they embrace post-modern relativism. Jay Bakker is grappling with the issue of homosexuality but he’s not wrestling with the biblical teachings on the subject, he’s struggling with the cultural aspects of changing – what the consequences will be for him and his church, how the wider evangelical community will react, how changing his mind will effect him and his wife, for example. Absent is any real concern for what is right and true. He does all his reasoning out of his cultural community context, how his friends think and feel. In other words, he goes with his gut on this and other issues. And that is an alarming reality in the so-called emergent or emerging church, the so-called post-modern church – pastors and church leaders are going with their gut reactions, the community consensus of fellow Generation Xers, instead of looking to the Bible as the source of final authority. The Apostle Paul warns us to be on guard against those who arise within the church who distort the truth. In this case, the truth of God is being distorted by the emerging generation and its post-modern thinking. Let us be warned!

Third, new liberals put relationships ahead of biblical truth just like old liberals did. Acts 20:30-31,  “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” The new liberals or emergents emphasize relationships and are intensely loyal to friendship bonds, especially with members of their own generation. They criticize the impersonality that typically characterizes traditional and even contemporary evangelical churches – and they have a point! There is a lack of warmth and relational depth in many or even most conservative churches. So in reaction to these problems, the new liberal churches emphasize relationships to the point that if they have to choose between truth and relating, they choose relating. In the case of Jay Bakker and his new liberal church named “Revolution” it’s clear that he and church members are unwilling to offend or exclude anyone based on their holding to heretical doctrine or immoral lifestyle. In other words, they are unwilling to draw the line based on biblical teachings. They are unwilling to practice church discipline. Instead, they redefine what is and isn’t appropriate belief and behavior based on what feels right in the community. They correctly criticize the hypocrisy and inconsistency they see in the wider evangelical community, but instead of turning back to the Bible for guidance and direction, they turn to their own post-modern, Generation X culture for leadership. What they find there is relativism, skepticism and mistrust of all authority. They then bring these cultural values into the church and judge everything else by them, including the Bible – it too is judged by their own culture values. That’s the way they can justify affirming and blessing homosexual relationships within the church. It’s nothing but another form of worldliness, post-modern worldliness. “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him,” 1 John 2:15. Jay Bakker and his new liberal church certainly win points among post-modern, Generation X seekers by identifying with them in almost every way, but that’s part of the problem. By so identifying with the relativistic culture, Jay and his church actually become irrelevant as bearers of God’s truth. How can they call a homosexual to biblical repentance when they are affirming the gay lifestyle? How can they witness to cult members or followers of false religions if they are affirming these people as valid worshippers of God? They may recruit followers as “friends” but are they really helping people follow God? The same problems old-style liberals face, the new liberals face, only they think they are leading the way into a “new” thing, when really it’s the same old thing in a different form. We need to take the warning of the Apostle Paul and beware of “savage wolves” – false leaders — whether they are “old” or “cutting edge.”

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