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Renewing Your Mind


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Church History

Liberalism to Post-Modernism

▪- A.D. 1906 to 2003

The Twentieth Century has been a time of distress and revival for the church. Each of the three major groups claiming to be Christian (Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox) has seem major changes. While many numbers have increased, the state of Christ's body is questionable.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has split into geopolitical units over the years. Worldwide the Orthodox Church claims around 140 million members. And, while the Russian Orthodox Church survived Islam, Communism drove it deep into the ground. Lenin executed 28 patriarchs and 1,000 priests as Communism gained control of the Soviet Union. Persecutions under Stalin were worse.

To survive, the Russian Orthodox Church appointed leaders who would work with the Communist Government.  This generally led to an atheist emptiness within this church group. Those in Russia claiming to be Christians but not being part of the Orthodox Church suffered greater personal persecution. Following the fall of Communism, these evangelical groups sprang to life and have found a renewed sense of purpose. The Orthodox Church is following on the heels of this growth, even though continuing changes in government policies make growth unstable. 

Since most of the Orthodox congregations fall either within the borders of Communism or Islam, their general fate is similar to that of the Russian Orthodox Church.

While the Orthodox congregations hid or turned political, the West faced the growth and death of both liberalism and neo-orthodoxy. As a theology, the liberalism of the nineteenth century slowly died under its own weight. The process as a movement was morally bankrupt and did not explain much nor did it provide a method for discovering an explanation. For the church, the fear of liberalism would be founded, not in the philosophy as a religious movement, but in the "left-overs" that would pervade teachers and students and soon mix with the "anything goes" mentality of the 1960s.

However, as the religious community discovered the emptiness of liberalism, they sought a new solution to fill the void. The new theology comes from a Swiss minister, Karl Barth. Brought up in the liberal tradition, Barth had always read the Bible as a religious record. In his spiritual void, he commenced to read it as God's Word. In so doing, he arrived at a less than perfect conclusion.  Barth's liberal background mixed with God's Word to produce the conclusion that nothing in creation could reveal God. God's power and grace were so overwhelming, nothing could display them. This was a slap on the face of liberalism that had argued for people to discover God in two places, creation and their own emotions.  Barth did away with the first of these standards.

But, Barth also argued that the Bible could not adequately convey God because human words could not convey God. God was a living event, expressed in His finest form in Jesus Christ. Thus, Barth concluded that it is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that man could discover God. The Bible only became the Word of God when the Holy Spirit revealed Jesus to the individual. Barth's ideas were labeled neo-Reformation or neo-orthodox. 

In much of the world, Barth's neo-orthodoxy mixed with world events to kill both the world's optimism and theological liberalism. World War I took the lives of approximately ten million soldiers. Of course, America was different. The War affected American lives but it did not reach American shores.  Fragments of the optimism of liberalism and modernism survived the end of the War. In fact, the optimism probably could be viewed as lasting until Black Friday, 1929, with the start of the Great Depression. 

So, during the 1920s, America played. This is the era of jazz, flappers, short skirts, and speakeasies. Women and men commenced to outwardly display the same relaxed standards. Moral crusades over women's right to vote and banning alcoholism became the topic of the day.  In 1920, America elected Warren G. Harding President even though contemporary evidence suggested he was one of America's most corrupt politicians. 

Just as conservative Christians of today have grouped themselves in loose alliances to fight the evils present in modern society, those of the 1920s did the same. Their perceived battle was against liberalism and the liberal concepts such as evolution. This group became known as the Fundamentalists. The Fundamentalists agreed on five major beliefs as the basis of their attack:

Several fundamental scholars and pastors, from all backgrounds and walks of life, wrote and published a series of articles attacking many of the characteristics of liberalism. These pamphlets became known as The Fundamentals. You can purchase a reprint set of this four-volume work today.

The Fundamentals are a powerful apologetic against liberal theology. But, in hindsight, it is difficult to estimate how influential the writings may have been from a theological perspective. From a human vantage point, interesting results occurred.

In 1925 fundamentalists in Tennessee were instrumental in the state legislature passing the Butler Act.  This act prohibited "the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all public schools in Tennessee." Most of you will, at least, remember having studied the Scopes Monkey Trial in school. John Scopes was a small town football coach who occasionally taught biology in Dayton, Tennessee. Scopes stated (lied?) that he had taught that apes and humans had common ancestors. He was charged with a violation of the Butler Act and went to trial in 1925. The trial became the 1920s version of the OJ Trial.

Clarence Darrow, a well-known liberal lawyer became Scopes attorney. On the other side, three-time presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, was the prosecutor. More than 1,000 spectators swelled the courtroom. In a made-for-TV move, Darrow called Bryan as a witness. Under oath, Bryan admitted that the Bible should be interpreted "as given there." In other words, Bryan believed parts of the Bible were only figurative illustrations ("spiritual interpretations?"). Further, he testified that he did not believe that the days of Genesis chapter one meant 24-houir days. He thought they represented "periods" of time. Bryan and Darrow essentially got into a shouting match over whether Darrow was attempting to slur the Bible. 

In a second brilliant legal maneuver, to prevent Bryan from delivering a closing argument, Darrow sudden pled his client guilty. The trial was over after five days of testimony. Scopes was fined $100. Bryan offered to pay the fine.

Bryan cost the fundamentals dearly. Many conservative Christians abandoned him on the basis of their belief in literal 24-hour days. William Jennings Bryan would pass away five days after the trial ended. But, the fundamental tensions continued. Both the Northern Baptist Convention and the Northern Presbyterian Church split over these issues as new denominations were formed.  Much of the reason was a desire on the part of the fundamentalists to truly separate and segregate from every notion of liberalism. As "liberal" elements were found within groups, those who were truly fundamental separated into new churches.

During the depression, American Pastor Richard Niebuhr used Barth's neo-orthodoxy to mediate a middle position between liberalism and fundamentalism. His greatest contribution is the writing of the Serenity Prayer:

Lord, give us serenity to accept what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Also, following World War I, those following fundamental teachings added to the five fundamental beliefs. These additions included pre-millennialism and a strong rejection of evolution. 

Like the other groups, fundamentalists soon would question their own position. By the 1940s, many fundamentalists were concerned with the strong emphasis on separation from the world. The result, in part, was the introduction of more confusing terms into the theological vocabulary. Those who believed in less separation became known as "new evangelicals" ("neo-evangelicals"). Eventually, they simply became evangelicals, as opposed to those who still followed the "true" fundamental route. The issue was the question of separation.

In October 1941, these new evangelicals formed the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Held at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, the group promoted "positive" instead of "negative." Essentially, the NAE admits any group who embraces salvation by grace through faith in Christ. In other words, they accept any group who generally believes in the original five fundamentals. 

Historically the NAE has been a mixed denomination group. From this mixed group have arisen most of today's interdenominational fellowships – Youth for Christ, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and Campus Crusade. C.S. Lewis is the best known of the early evangelical writers. The evangelical movement got its strongest push in 1949 when 31-year old William F. Graham held his first crusade. After 8-weeks, 11,000 people had attended the Los Angeles event and Billy Graham was a national celebrity. 

Graham was criticized by some for being willing to work with Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants.  Men like John R. Rice and Bob Jones left the evangelical movement. This tension over separation has continued into today's climate. A second waive of separation would occur within many of the conservative groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention as liberal tendencies increased within these groups. Large number of conservative, evangelical churches would withdraw from the convention to become "independent" or "Bible" churches. CRBC is an example. In Virginia, the conservative churches have formed the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia. CRBC is a member of this group. The group's prime function is sponsoring new church plants.

We need to return to about 1900 to trace another characteristic of modern American church history. A branch of the Methodist church became known as the "holiness" branch since they emphasized a spiritual experience that would lead to Christian perfection. This experience was generally called a "second blessing." Charles Fox Parham was a holiness evangelist who had been miraculously healed. In 1900 he formed a Bible college in Topeka.  Part of his teachings was that "speaking with other tongues" should be part of the second blessing, using Acts 2:1-20 as his Scriptural basis. 

His students took Parham's instructions to heart. In 1901 one of his students began to speak in an unknown language. It was later identified as Mandarin Chinese. All of Parham's students would "receive" other languages and most, but not all, went onto the mission field. One who did not go onto the mission field was William Seymour.

Five years later, Seymour would preach the Pentecostal message at the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission on Azusa Street, Los Angeles. Many in Seymour's audience began to speak in other tongues.  Hundreds flocked to Azusa Street to experience the "baptism with the Holy Ghost." They went home and the phenomena spread. In 1914 the Assemblies of God was formed.

Pentecostalism has grown every since, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Several women, including Aimee Semple McPherson and Kathryn Kuhlman, earned prominent positions and pastorates within the Pentecostal movement. McPherson popularized what is known as the "Foursquare Gospel," namely that Jesus is Savior, Healer, Baptizer, and Bridegroom. Those from other denominations who display these "gifts of the Spirit" are known as "charismatics," from the Greek word for spiritual gifts. 

The movement of the Pentecostals and charismatics has grown in this post-modern world because of the emphasis on the feelings of the gifts involved. This worship "transcends" mere words and institutions. It also fits with the post-modern philosophy most of us have been indoctrinated with as we grew up in the public school system.

Further, the miracle gifts were a worldwide phenomena. In Africa, Simon Kimbangu practiced the healing side of the movement. He began his ministry in 1915. He would die in prison, but his African Independent Church reached seven million followers in the 1990s. Watchman Nee Duosheng emphasized miraculous healings in his Chinese ministry, while Sundar Singh's ministry in southern Asia featured a dazzling vision of Jesus in a ball of fire. The Hindu became a Christian. Unlike most Pentecostals, Singh lived his life like a Middle Age monk -- renouncing home, employment, marriage and family life to obey Jesus and tell others of God&s love.  Pentecostalism grew swiftly in Latin America as well with the two largest Latino congregations in the world being Pentecostal. The same is true in Korea. 

All of these events combined to create another movement within the church. Spurred by the liberal philosophies of the time, Christian groups with differing theological positions commenced looking for common ground for dialogue. The ecumenical movement was being given birth. 

Ecumenical is a big word that means worldwide or general in extent, influence, or application, thus of, relating to, or representing the whole of a body of churches, especially promoting or tending toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation

The first efforts were in England around 1910. A small group worked toward inviting all churches that accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior to join together. The call was to set doctrine aside. This movement was known as the Faith and Order Conference. In 1925 a variety of liberal groups held the Life and Work Conference. This conference focused on social reform. Then in 1938 these two groups merged to form the World Council of Churches.  World War II interrupted all of the plans of the WCC, but their movement had a strong toehold.

With the power of hindsight it is wonderful to look back and exclaim, how could they have said that! In the 1930s the Baptist World Alliance said of young politician Adolph Hitler, "He gave to the temperance movement the prestige of his personal example since he neither uses intoxicants nor smokes." Oh well . . .

Few Christians would stand and fight Hitler. His control over the churches of Germany was almost unobstructed. It was a sad time for European Christians. A few names do stand out as protecting the Jews – Corrie Ten Boom, Magda and Andre Trocme, even Pope Pius XI kept Jews in the Vatican.  Pius indirectly criticized Hitler but the Vatican played a careful middle ground to avoid the War. 

One Christian name that does stand out is that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was influenced by Barth's writings, but it was after a service at a Harlem African-American Church that Bonhoeffer found Christ.  Bonhoeffer would return to Germany to help run an underground seminary (The Confessing Church) while writing The Cost of Discipleship in an effort to stir Christians to fight Hitler.  Bonhoeffer would become involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, an event that would lead to his capture and execution.

One might question the wisdom of Bonhoeffer becoming involved in an assassination plot. There is no doubt but what he was involved. He used a "runaway car" analogy to justify his actions. It goes like this . . . If you saw a driverless car speeding down a crowded street, shouldn't you jump onto the car and attempt to stop it? Hitler is the runaway car and the street is the world.

Following the War, the Confessing Church of Germany met with the fledgling World Council of Churches.  Within a couple of years, the WCC was officially formed. Many Eastern Orthodox Christians did not join, objecting to the fact the WCC did not require a belief in the Trinity. In 1961 the WCC redefined itself as "a fellowship of churches which . . .  seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." This change allowed more than 30 million Orthodox Christians to join the WCC. 

In the US, the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ was formed in 1908.  This group reorganized into the National Council of Churches in 1950. The NCC is essentially an American only version of the WCC. Most members of the NCC also belong to the WCC.

Remember the development of the Catholic Church we discussed last week? One of those changes was a declaration that salvation was only possible through the Roman Catholic Church. This prevented the Catholic Church from joining the ecumenical movement. Then came 1958 and Pope John XXIII. John was 76 when he became Pope and most believed he was simply holding the fort until a real pope could be found. The bet was that at 76 John would not live long.  Well, it is true John did not live long.

John shocked the world by disagreeing with his predecessors. Virtually all popes of "recent" history had condemned all Protestants.  John called them "separated brothers."  He sent observers to the WCC. In 1962 John called the Second Vatican Council, an event attended by more than 2,500 cardinals, bishops, and abbots.  More than 500 of these delegates were Africans and Asians. The goal was to "update the outward forms." John XXIII would die after the first session but Paul VI continued the Council, which would meet four times between 1962 and 1965. 

Several results came from Vatican II:

Session One allowed the Mass to be performed in native languages rather than Latin. The laypeople were urged to study the Bible. The Scriptures were declared to be the primary source of divine truth but the Bible interplays with tradition. All Christians, not just the priests, monks, and nuns, are said to be called by God to be God's people. Congregational singing was added and both elements of the Lord's Supper would once again be distributed to the people. Sounds an awful lot like Protestantism doesn't it?

Session Two created a college of bishops to assist the pope.

Session Three had three good points. Praying to saints was discouraged and non-Catholics are not deprived of salvation significance. This sounds much like John XXIII "separated brothers statement." This also session stated that Mary must "never take away from . . . Christ the One Mediator." On paper this all sounds good.

Session Four provided that no government should force one to act contrary to one's religious beliefs. 

The final declaration of the council was a joint statement by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople (Greek/Eastern Orthodox Church). They two groups forgave each other for the schism of 1054.  The ecumenical movement continues.

In 1978 John Paul II became, and as of the date of this writing still is, Pope. He is the first non-Italian Pope in 456 years. He declared himself universal pastor. He travels widely. In 1997 he apologized for the lack of moral leadership in the church during the Second World War. 

But, things have not greatly changed in the Roman Catholic Church. The Church is outwardly more ecumenical, while still acting as though it is the only road to heaven. Most aspects of its teachings remain unchanged. There is still an emphasis on works as part of salvation, there is a ban on women priests, married priests and birth control. And, in the past couple of years there has been a terrible scandal within the American church over the homosexual actions of several priests. 

The Roman Catholic Church remains as corrupt today as when Martin Luther nailed his Theses to the Wittenburg Chapel door. On the other hand, a clear review of the Catholic Church of 2000 suggests there is no single definition of the Catholic Church. There is a clear picture of the operating structure, but in practice the Church has saved and unsaved, charismatics and traditional, and a host of other groups. Indeed, I have read one study that suggests the Roman Catholic Church currently consists of nine distinct, almost separate groups.

And, the ecumenical movement continues. In 1953 Billy Graham sparked an idea to draw together English-speaking evangelicals throughout the world. This idea was the seed of the magazine Christianity Today. The magazine is fifty years old. The idea behind the magazine became a driving notion for Graham. In 1974 he chaired the International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne, Switzerland. The Lausanne Covenant affirmed that "evangelism . . . summons us to unity." The Covenant also urged missionaries to respect the native cultures. As such, evangelicals continued to balance the Scriptures with an open mind for some of the things of culture.

This means that the fundamentalists and evangelicals focused on different ends of the spectrum. Evangelicals promoted new ideas such as easy-to-read new translations of the Bible, contemporary Christian music, and less emphasis on fashion. The modern fundamentalists fight all of these efforts and more. One of the major differences arose in the mid-1990s over whether or not there should be a dialogue with the Roman Catholics.

In 1994 Catholic and Evangelical leaders signed a statement entitled "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium." Common doctrines and social issues were emphasized, while doctrinal differences were ignored. Three years later the group issued a statement on the issue of justification.  The statement agreed that justification is not earned by any good works. Lutherans officially approved a Joint Declaration, which follows the same definition. 

Evangelicals who supported the statement included Charles Colson, Bill Bright (founder of Campus Crusade for Christ), J.I. Packer (Anglican theologian and writer), Elizabeth Achtemeier (Union Theological Seminary professor and author who died in 2003), and Richard John Neuhaus (Lutheran theologian and author).

Those who criticized the statement included R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and D. James Kennedy. Their major criticism was that agreement was needed on more doctrines than only justification by faith.

That such a movement to "unite" the church exists should surprise no one. The early church was "of one accord." This is a noble goal and sounds worthy of our efforts. Yet, the basis of such union should be by faith in Christ based solely upon all biblical principles. Without getting into a long side trip, the final end times will bring a uniting of religions. A one-world religion will arise. Satan is getting the world ready for this event by slowly allowing man to remove the differences between diverse groups. 

A new worldview has evolved over the past fifty years. This worldview places man and his feelings at the center of the universe.  Post-modernism supports many possible viewpoints, personal experience and self in community with others. In addition, it is a gratification now view.  Man's religions and man's views will mold to these thoughts for financial reasons. During the Middle Ages the church created rituals that would protect the clergy and keep them employed. Modern religious movements will follow the same path.

Post-modernism says that diverse groups, such as the Catholics and the Protestants can unite because each should ignore the shortcoming (i.e., doctrinal differences) of the other. What is more frightening is that this same view says that Catholics and Hindus can fellowship in the same fashion. Eventually such a movement will place Mohammed, Buddha and Jesus on the same level.  Much of the modern day church is joining this bandwagon.

Major American Religious Bodies


Over One Million in round numbers

African Methodist Episcopal Church
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
American Baptist Churches
Assemblies of God
Christian Church (Disciples)
Christian Churches & Churches of Christ
Church of God in Christ
Churches of Christ
Episcopal Church
Evangelical Lutheran Church
Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod
National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.
National Baptist Convention of America
National Missionary Bap. Conv. of America
Orthodox Church in America
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Progressive National Baptist Convention
Roman Catholic Church
Southern Baptist Convention
United Church of Christ
United Methodist Church
Jehovah Witnesses
Christian Scientists


Twentieth Century Events

• World Wars pit nominally Christian nations of Europe against each other.

• Emergence of charismatic Christian sects.

• Rise of the ecumenical movement.

• Revision of the Roman Catholic liturgy.

• Missions reach virtually every region of the world.

• New translation methods put the Bible into the languages of 95% of mankind, but about 1,500 small tongues, representing 5% of mankind, lack scriptures.

• More Christians are said to have been martyred in the 20th century than in all earlier centuries combined.

• Decline of church attendance becomes marked in much of the Western world.

• Explosive growth of Chinese Christianity.

• Emergence and collapse of powerful atheistic states.

• Crises in Darwinism revive Christian attacks on evolutionary theory and development of scientific models from a Christian perspective.

• Rise of internet and mass media lead to wide dissemination of the gospel by new means.

• An overwhelming information explosion tends to bury truth.

1.9 billion "Christians," about 33% of world population

Non-white Christians, especially in China, Africa, and Latin America exceed white Christians.




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