2005-02-28

Aren't Anglicans and Episcopalians really liberal and anti-Biblical?

I feel I have to answer this question because of a lot of "bad press" the Anglican and Episcopal Church has brought upon itself in the last few decades. Unfortunately, some Anglican churches are far too liberal (actually, a better term is "revisionist"). The decision of some bishops in 2003 to ordain an openly homosexual "bishop" in New Hampshire, who was living out of wedlock with his "lover" after he left his wife, is just one example of this revisionism. But, worldwide, revisionism is not the norm for the Anglican Church. In Europe, Canada, and the United States, you will find a fairly even split between Biblical, Christ-centered Anglicans and revisionist Anglicans.

In general, the Biblical side of the Church is growing and the revisionists are shrinking. However, if you go to Africa and South America, you will find an overwhelmingly vibrant, Biblical, Christ-centered Church that is growing by leaps and bounds! The Anglican Church is the fastest growing Church in Africa right now, with around 60 million members (compared with 6-8 million in Europe, Canada, and the US). Honestly, the Church is in a struggle for revival right now, and revival is prevailing slowly and surely.

How did we get this way? Well, the strengths of Anglicanism, namely its rich tradition and open-mindedness, can also be weaknesses... and has weakened us in the past. First, it is easy for rich tradition to become dead traditionalism. If the traditions are not taught, cared for, tended to, and explained, then they become dead and rote. This happened in the early 20th century. The Episcopal Church became the "frozen chosen", and was a haven for dead traditionalism that just mumbled through the liturgy. This deadness opened the door for revisionism. We are now "thawing" and recognizing the rich treasure we have in the prayer book and the liturgy, and how effective these tools can be in drawing us into a rich, vibrant relationship with Jesus.

As for open-mindedness, the Anglican Church has always been open to asking and answering tough questions. This is better than refusing to answer these questions or giving authoritarian black-and-white answers without thinking things through. Just look at how Jesus answered (and asked) questions. He made you think. So does Anglicanism. This is the strength. The weakness is that sometimes we keep asking questions when we know the answer, and refuse to accept what God says in Scripture. We stop looking in the Bible and look outside of it, or in contradiction to it.

Every church tradition struggles with one of two basic flaws: liberalism or legalism. Legalists are the ones who don't think. They parrot answers and are afraid to ask questions. They make silly rules and categorize everything as black and white. They get locked into a prison of tradition and become prideful and self-righteous.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to think too much. They make everything a gray area: nothing is black and white. They won't stand for anything, so they fall for everything, and make the Church just like the world. Both legalism and liberalism can be equally dangerous to our souls, and every church has a tendency to fall off into one of them, so you must choose which you would rather fight. I've been in legalistic churches, and I choose to fight against extreme liberalism instead.

Historically, there are three basic options that the Church has used to deal with the changing culture around them (with several variations of each option). The first option is for the Church to take on a "bunker" mentality and hide away from the world in order to not be infected by it. This is the attitude of many legalistic churches. They fear and shun education, especially science and philosophy, and will only read the Bible, only teach the Bible, and only talk about the Bible. They try to build an alternate Christian sub-culture, kind of a Christian ghetto, so that they do not have to interact with society at all. Their goal is to create a perfect Biblical community without any of the impurities of the post-modern world. In reality, they so distance themselves from culture that they have no way of sharing Christ with it. They become like the Amish: living relics who cannot be used to carry the Gospel to a lost world.

The second option is for the Church to allow culture to shape and mold it so that they can stay "relevant" and be accepted on the world's terms. The idea here is for everything in the Church to remain so flexible that it can bend any way society happens to shape it. If society says miracles cannot be real, the Church jettisons belief in miracles. If society says that it is politically incorrect to proclaim that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life" and that there is no way to God except Him (John 14:6), then the Church makes Jesus merely one of many wise teachers and gurus, but not the Savior. If society proclaims itself to be "enlightened", and that all other societies before it were pre-modern, backward, and un-enlightened, then the Church says: "OK, you are right, and since the Bible is a product of such a pre-modern society, we will find ways to get rid of it too".

The result is Liberal theology and revisionist Christianity. Someone wise once said "Liberal theology is the theology of people leaving the Church". And they are right. Churches that embrace Liberal theology die out quickly. Since they stand for nothing, they fall for anything. They offer no Savior, no Hope, and no guidelines for living other than "be who you are". Most people who embrace this theology soon realize that they can "be who they are" without the Church telling them to do it, so they "be who they are" in Starbucks or on the golf course. When the Church becomes the world, there is no reason to be part of the Church anymore. The Church and the world will never be at peace so long as the Church proclaims the Prince of Peace. The only way to be at peace with the world is for the Church to be dead.

But, there is a third option for Christians, and this is the option used by most Anglicans throughout the Ages. This option is for the Church to be "in the world but not of the world" (see Jesus' prayer for the Church in John 17). That is, for the Church to be a source of transformation, an agent for revolution, and an Ambassador from God's Kingdom to the Kingdom of the world. On one hand, this does mean that we keep our identity separate from society, and we do not allow society to mold who we are, Who we worship, and what we believe. It means that there is an enduring substance of what it means to be Christian, and this substance does not change with time. It is found in the person of Christ, written in the words of Scripture, and summed up in our Creed and our worship.

On the other hand, how we present this substance does change. As time passes, the analogies, examples, and methods we use to convey the substance of Christianity may change. Instead of using fire, water, and plant life to explain Christianity, perhaps we might use quantum physics, sub-atomic particles, and psychology. A theologian once commented that a wise preacher should prepare sermons "with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other". That is the picture of the third option: to listen to the problems, concerns, and questions of society and then answer them with the unchanging Truth found in Scripture. The third option is to do what Jesus did in leaving heaven to become human. Like Him, we must leave our comfort zone, get dirty and sweaty in the world, and heal the people in it.

Sometimes culture asks new questions that make us think about the Bible in new ways. In the 1500's culture asked hard questions about science, astronomy, and Scripture. In the 1800's culture asked hard questions about slavery and Scripture. In the 1900's culture asked hard questions about women and Scripture. In each case, the Church found new perspectives on the unchanging Truth. Like a gold mine, Scripture contained the riches to deal with each problem, we just hadn't dug down to get it yet. When we did dig deeper, we found Scripture saying what Scripture had said all along (but we had not listened): Faith and science do not conflict, for they deal with two different types of knowledge. Slavery is morally wrong. Women deserve full rights as children of God. Culture never changes what Scripture says, it merely makes us listen to it in new ways, and the new ways never contradict what it has said before.

Finally, I don't think you should conclude that all Baptists are legalists because some Baptist Churches are legalistic. I don't think you should conclude that all Roman Catholics are idol worshippers because some Catholic Churches give honor to the Virgin Mary and to the saints that should go to God alone. I don't think you should conclude that all Pentecostals are fakes just because some Pentecostal Churches manipulate people into false healings, false prophecy, and false tongue-speaking. In all these cases, the strength of these different traditions becomes their weakness when used wrongly. In the same way, don't think that all (or even the majority) of Anglicans are anti-Biblical revisionists just because some of us are. Anglicanism on the whole is a vibrant, Biblical, Christ-centered faith that seeks to convert the world to Christ, and with prayer and hard work, all of Anglicanism will become this way too.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.