I trust that my readers know that when I speak of a "liberal" or "progressive" Christian that I am not referring to some political point of view. I mean those in the church who use that term about themselves and who may or may not hold progressive political views. "Progressive" Christians are those who deny one or more of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith or, at least, think that they have a better idea than the biblical authors of what constitutes truly Christian faith and practice(morality). They think that the Bible is basically a human book whose authors had some good ideas about God and maybe from God but were so culture-bound that they could not possibly know what we know now. Supposedly, we have progressed beyond what the ancients knew and, seemingly, beyond what our own grandparents knew.
Some years ago the well-known "progressive" Episcopalian bishop, John Spong, declared that Christianity must change or perish. He thinks that conservative or fundamentalist Christianity is holding back the church from reaching the larger culture. The church, in his view, is to reject the deity of Christ in favor of a merely human Jesus. We should no longer believe that the Bible is inspired or inerrant and that its moral precepts need be followed. Instead, it should be replaced with updated views on theology and morality. He uses as evidence the increasing secularism of our society. He says that unless the church 'catches up' with the modern world it will disappear into history.
However, many years ago one conservative scholar pointed out that it is the increasingly progressive mainline churches that are in serious decline while the conservative denominations are growing. (The most progressive mainline churches are the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church.) The Episcopal Church in 1970 had three million members. In 2000, that number had plummeted to 1 million.Since 2003, when they ordained the first openly homosexual bishop, the church has dropped to 600,000 members. That's an 80% drop in only 42 years. And that's while the US population increased by 50%. The Episcopal Church used have 1.5% of the population; it now has .2%.
Some have countered this argument by noting that the Southern Baptists Convention (the largest denomination in the US) has declined as well and they are mostly conservative churches. But a closer examination of the numbers tells the full story. Southern Baptist churches are in places in the US that are generally losing population and their losses reflect that fact. The losses correlate to the population decline, about 6-8%. Demographic changes cannot explain an 80% decline.
It is also noteworthy that the overseas growth of mainline denominations are conservative and evangelical. Progressive Christianity is no more popular in third world countries than it is here. That alone should wake them up since they claim to speak for the poor and disadvantaged. Those same poor recognize their spiritual needs and the progressives have nothing of real substance to offer them. Like Esau, they have traded their birthright for a pot of stew. They didn't know that they could have kept the true faith and helped the poor with their physical needs as the conservatives have been doing all along.
Additionally, Progressive Christians like to take credit for any progress that the church has ever made. They love to point to the civil rights movement as an example of progressivism. But the civil rights movement was successful because it was based on a conservative reading of the Bible. I used to hear Martin Luther King's speeches on the radio and he always quoted the Bible and called us to live up to it. True progress comes from taking seriously the Bible we proclaim as true, not from denying it.
Another area where we have truly progressed is in the area of women in ministry, especially ordained ministry. Sadly, many women scholars and ministers have been told that they must hold progressive views of the Bible to justify their ministry. However, we do not have to see the biblical writers as patriarchal or culture-bound. We do not have to throw out the principles they taught. Those principles are eternal - they are not subject to change. We cannot change the Word to suit our feelings.
It is unnecessary to alter one's view of the Bible as the eternal Word of God to make needed change. A case in point: Pentecostals, who are among the most conservative and literal interpreters of the Bible, have always had women ministers. How is this? Because they recognized that there were women that were called to ministry and they realized that the Bible did allow for them. In denying them, the church had previously misunderstood and misapplied the scriptures supposedly against women in ministry.
Once again, as in the case of the civil rights movement, God led the church to rightly divide the Word rather than to "progress" beyond it.
As far as Spong's statement is concerned, I would say with Jesus about the church, "the gates of Hell [and progressivism] will not prevail against it".