Blaming Progressives for the Death of the Church

Column by Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers on 23 March 2023 2 Comments

Tim Keller has written a scathing account of why the church is dying.  It is the fault of progressives in the mainline tradition who have watered down the supernatural certainties of Christianity and blended them impotently with secular, individualistic, and apologetic ethical systems that leave God out of the equation, not to mention the cross.

If you have not read it, you should: When you read it, keep a pencil handy and see what counterarguments you are prepared to make, because this is theological gaslighting at its best, and simple-minded scapegoating at its worst.  He begins by recalling the zenith of American religion, the post-WWII generation that flourished in the suburbs and made babies and went to church and knew that the Ten Commandments were not the Ten Suggestions.  We couldn’t build enough new Christian education wings in those days, and everyone knew the difference between right and wrong.  God was in His heaven, and you didn’t make up faith as you went along.  You submitted to it—which meant you agreed to believe fervently in things Jesus never talked about and did not seem at all interested in.

Then the trouble began in the 1960s, as people challenged the authority of everything, including the Bible, which Keller said was now thought to be “unreliable.”  Churches began to shrink, led by the mainlines, not because a new generation caught the stench of hypocrisy, or because they questioned the authority of a profoundly Patriarchal and fear-based religious empire, but rather because they rebelled again the whole idea of transcendent truths.  Without supernatural authority, the church lost both its power and its reason for being.  Sex, drugs, and rock in roll was not just the pendulum swinging away from a suburban hellscape of rigid conformity and female captivity, but a sign that we could make up life as we went along, and if it felt good it was good.

Seminaries began to teach a modern critique of the Bible, said Keller.  “The Bible was never allowed to critique modern thought or popular opinion but only to mirror it.”  This was news to me, since as a seminarian from the 70s, I found the scripture to be scathingly critical of greed, selfishness, and injustice.  But to be fair, I also found it to be a product of its time.  I had no intention to let its embrace of slavery critique emancipation, or to allow it to define women as the property of their fathers until they became the property of their husbands.

Keller quotes the critiques of two theologians, Dean Kelley (Why Conservative Churches are Growing, 1972), and J. Gresham Machen (Christianity and Liberalism, 1923), who regard the death of church as the abandonment of orthodox Christian teachings.  Kelley says that only those teachings that give life “large-scale” cosmic meaning will sustain the church.  Now it’s just “I’m OK, you’re OK, but the System Sucks.”

He goes on to say that we have rejected the idea of literal miracles and reduced religion to an ethical system undifferentiated from modern philosophical and psychological theories.  Perhaps the situation is more nuanced.  The miracles, for example, were often performed on behalf of God’s chosen, or offered as proof of the divinity of Jesus.  The parting of the Red Sea, for example, and the subsequent genocide of Egyptian soldiers, is a great story if you are the mother of a Hebrew son who is escaping bondage, but a terrible story if you are the mother of an Egyptian soldier.  Then as now, many claims of the miraculous are little more than someone’s self-interested claim that God loves everyone, but especially me.

Nevertheless, writes Keller, mainline churches dropped traditional Christian ethical strictures around sex and money.  Really?  Or is it the case that a whole generation saw how fearful and obsessed the evangelical church was with human sexuality, how fervently it sought to control it, and still seeks to control it.  As for greed, it’s not the mainline church that is obsessed with what other people are doing in bed  Or, when it comes to greed, it is not mainline churches that preach the so-called “prosperity gospel,” name-it-and-claim-it, or blab-it-and-grab it.  Me thinks Keller doth protesteth too much.

He also blames progressives for identifying too much with one political party and its policies.  Good point.  That is indeed misplaced faith.  But evangelicals have done the same, and most evangelicals would now return to power the vilest human being ever to be president–a man who is the answer to the question, What Would Jesus Not Do?  Looking for a political savior is indeed dangerous, but so is assuming that all political systems are created equal, and that all policy is equally Christian.  If it was, Jesus would have debated the corruption of the Temple Dove Selling Business outside on the steps, instead of going inside to turn over tables and drive out the merchants with a whip.

Keller says that too many of us regard the Bible stories as “legends.”  That’s an interesting word with a certain derogatory Hollywood flavor.  We regard them as myths containing truths too large to be reduced to what did or did not actually happen.  But at the core of Keller’s argument is that the church would be restored to greatness if only we went back to believing the fairy tale instead of deconstructing and reconstructing it.  In other words, true faith is about believing things you know are not true to get rewards that you doubt are available.

Strangely, this critique of the death of church as spawned by progressives is really another way of saying that we failed to remain intellectually dishonest about how we got the Bible, what it means to call it our flawed but irreplaceable Story of Origin, and what scholars have now shown us about the enormous gap between faith as developed doctrine and faith as discipleship–a commitment to being followers of Jesus, not worshippers of Christ.  We may be a lot smaller, but like leaven in the loaf, we may also be more subversive.

What the article overlooks is the fact that since our supposed heyday in the 50s, ALL organized religion is now in decline, including evangelicalism.  So perhaps it has something to do with how poorly we all performed in meeting the real challenges of our time.  If “By your fruits you shall know them,” then perhaps the bananas look rotten, and the peaches bruised beyond recognition because nobody is buying.  Surely no one thinks that if we just returned to supernatural orthodoxy, the world’s problems would be solved because then only some people would go to heaven while everyone else burns in hell.  Rampant and even narcissistic individualism is indeed a problem in our time, but how does orthodoxy make us more communal?  Conformity is not community.  It is religious authoritarianism.

Finally, I’m tired of people saying that progressives are just do-gooders whose Bestie is Jesus.  There are few things I can think of that are more selfish, or more profoundly narcissistic, than believing that God sent Jesus to die just for me before I was born and without my doing anything to earn it.  This is not how you build community around transcendent values.  It’s how you train true-believers and negate the ethical imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s how you hang on to your own power.

There is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the death of church.  But perhaps this is exactly what is supposed to be happening.  The gospel truth is that all reorientation is preceded by disorientation.  Read the parables of Jesus.

The church as we have known it is indeed dying.  We have indeed become the Disunited States of America.  But not because we stopped believing.  Rather, because so many of us stopped believing in the unbelievable.

~ Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers



How does the death of Jesus 2000 years ago save me? What is the substitutionary doctrine of the atonement?


Dear Reader,

Your question lies at the heart of what I believe is the need for a radical reformation in Christian thought. The substitutionary doctrine of the atonement makes several pre-suppositions - 1) People were created good, whole and perfect. 2) The human race fell into sin through an act of disobedience and from this fall they are not able to save themselves. 3) God had to become the rescuer so God chose Abraham, gave the law, sent the prophets and finally, when all of these rescue operations failed, had to take on the role of the savior personally. Jesus was the form, which the divine rescue took. The Cross was the place where the price of this fall was paid. The Cross was said to be timeless. Through the Eucharist (in Catholic Christianity) or through the experience of "accepting Jesus as my personal Savior" in the Protestant tradition, every believer can appropriate the fact that God substituted Jesus for each of us and laid the punishment for our sins on him. So the phrase, "Jesus died for my sins," has become a sort of Christian mantra.

In a number of varieties this theory became the doctrine of the atonement which simply means to be made "at one" with God. Most people do not grasp the fact that the roots of this Doctrine are in Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when a lamb was slain for the sins of the people and the blood of this lamb was sprinkled on the people as a cleansing agent. When Christians refer to Jesus as the Lamb of God "who takes away the sins of the world," they are using Yom Kippur language.

This doctrine has serious problems and I believe must be rejected in the New Reformation that is upon us.

Let me enumerate those problems quickly:

  1. What kind of God is it who requires a sacrifice and a blood offering before this God can forgive?
  2. What kind of God is it who delights in human sacrifice?
  3. Was there ever a time when human beings were perfect and fell into sin? Since Charles Darwin's understanding of evolution emerged in the 19th century, we have come to see life as having evolved from a single cell to Homo sapiens over a 4 1/2 - 5 billion year time frame. Where is the 'fall' in that process?
  4. Does human evil arise from a fall that never happened metaphorically? Or is evil a manifestation of the baggage of our evolutionary fight for survival that made human life radically self-centered in the struggle to stay alive?
  5. Must salvation take the form of a rescue from our sins or can it be portrayed as the empowerment to evolve into a new humanity, that will somehow learn to live for others?

I believe we need to start with a new definition of human life and then move on to re-think the person and work of the Christ. Unless that occurs, I do not believe that these traditional but still primitive ideas will be able to sustain the Christian faith in the 21st century.

~ Bishop John Shelby Spong




2 thoughts on “Blaming Progressives for the Death of the Church

  1. I don’t always read my newsletter, but today I am glad I did. While I grew up in the Christian tradition, thinking back on it I don’t remember being in a group in the church I first grew up in discussing what is religion. We did all play at seeming to know who or what God was but rarely questioned the idea of God. This was my “mainstream” religious experience. I can’t say I have “religiously” devoted my life to any scholarly study concerning religion, but I was drawn to the writings of Bishop Spong. Perhaps I am more in tune with that caretaker in the Sistine chapel when it comes to theology. That’s the one you speak of in the YouTube Robin Meyers Interview Feb. 21 2022. At one point me and God had it out and I’ve felt so much better for it. As a result of feeling ever so much better, I can now use my time to think more about what I do and how what I do has an effect on others. I am not certain about many things but I do want that space for community to exist that is supportive, respectful, and open to listening to new ways of thinking and behaving. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply