Institutional Back Sliding: The Slippery Slope

(This originally appeared in the Spring 2000 edition of the MCOI Journal beginning on page 4)

by Pastor Keith Graham

The English language has a fine old family of words. One venerable member is “liberality.” The word is synonymous with generosity and big-heartedness. It should bring to our minds those character traits which are the opposite of stinginess, mean spiritedness, and pettiness. Another word sharing the august etymology of liberality is “liberate” – to set free. To attain the state of liberty is the passion of all who feel oppressed in body, mind, or spirit. Those who fight for the liberation of others are the heroes of the human race. Thus, when we hear or read these fine old words, images of cheerful and lavish givers, the wonderful state of freedom, noble tolerance, and humble open-mindedness should fill our minds.

There’s another term hanging on this linguistic family tree, which those called conservatives count as fruity indeed: liberal. Meanwhile, those who count themselves as liberals do so (or at least, the progenitors of liberal ideology did so) because they see their position as exemplifying the noble values of liberality. Despite the gainsaying of conservative pundits, liberals believe their views exalt true human liberty. So, is this to be an article on politics?

To be sure, a distinctly biblical philosophy of the role of the state and government emerges in a believer as his overall biblical worldview grows in strength and purity. However, our immediate purpose here is not to discuss liberal vs. conservative politics. Our purpose is to expose THEOLOGICAL liberalism. It needs to be exposed because this type of liberalism is not worthy of its noble family name; in fact, it belongs on the list of aberrant cults and heresies which only mock true Christianity. Sacrificial liberality is the very heart of the God of the Bible, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NKJV). God’s plan of salvation anticipates a consummation of eternal freedom, “… because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Theological liberalism, however, is not a giver and a liberator but a destroyer and an oppressor.

Like eels and most slimy things, theological liberalism is hard to get a handle on; it is not easy to define. Sometimes called “modernism” or “neo-orthodoxy,” it is characterized by a denial of the essential, biblical, doctrines of historic Christianity. It comes in like a deteriorating disease. First, the doctrines are challenged and abandoned. In the wake of that wasting pestilence, true Christian spirituality and ethics slowly erode as well. It robs a church or denomination of the precious Gospel, and causes it to retain only its outward form—its tradition. Here is an example.

The Bible is clear: in fulfillment of prophecy (itself miraculous by its foretelling of a future event) and by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary without the conjugal involvement of any man. Mary remained a virgin until Jesus was born (cf. Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23-25).

Unbelief scoffs at such an idea, and insists that Christ must have been conceived in the ordinary way. In the name of tolerance, open-mindedness, charity (those noble virtues of that fine old verbal family), Christians gullibly accommodate the unbelief. Believing that the essence of the faith would remain intact even without the Virgin Birth Doctrine, seminaries and pastoral search committees permit preachers and teachers to proclaim a non-virgin birth of Christ. When this occurs, theological liberalism has crept in. The acceptance of one such watered-down position makes the next one even more acceptable. Subsequent attacks on the Incarnation and Deity of Jesus Christ eventually establish an emaciated Christology (doctrine of the person and work of Jesus Christ). Jesus is perceived as only a man and a noble example instead of the Redeemer Who is both fully God, fully Divine, as well as being fully human (and Who is also an example for His disciples). Thus, a major characteristic of theological liberalism is its dangerous “slippery slope.”

The term “slippery slope” originated with England’s late-nineteenth-century “prince of preachers,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon. The image is almost self-explanatory. Once you’ve finally worked up the courage to start down that water slide at your favorite summer theme park, no natural force is going to bring you back up to the top platform. A skier contemplating her jump may decide to abort it before her descent begins; but once she begins, turning around and skiing back to the top is essentially impossible.

Apply this concept to spiritual life in the kingdom of God and theology. Writing under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, the Apostle Paul wrote the following in his zeal for the Corinthians:

For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present {you} {as} a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2).

Like the first inch or two down a slippery slope, once stealthy and deceitful theological liberalism creeps into faithful realms within Christ’s vast kingdom, it begins to woo believers to a more worldly, humanly manageable, pseudo-Christianity which is nothing more than moralism with Christian wrapping. Like the diabolical work of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who led ancient Israel into idolatry, theological liberalism is spiritually seductive.

A Tale of Two Charlies

Adding insult to injury, theological liberalism goes on to the treachery of sanitizing the apostasy it has engendered. It provides justification and rationale for the slippery slope descent of a previously faithful Christian church or denomination. The mid-nineteenth century provides a classic example. Imitating Dickens, we might call it “A Tale of Two Charlies.”

The less-well-known Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) and his fellow Englishman Charles Darwin (1809-1882) both advanced what (in their day) were radical ideas. Lyell assumed uniformitarianism—the idea that the same geological forces observable today are responsible for all the earth’s features (stratified sedimentary rocks, the Grand Canyon, etc.). This fatal assumption led him to conclude that the earth was far older than a biblical worldview will allow. Darwin, self-consciously dependent on Lyell’s ideas, advanced the theory which today bears his name and also despises the clear teaching of Scripture. We can think of these two men as the fathers of the twin errors of pseudo-science: (1) that the earth is untold millions of years old, and (2) that all life on earth arose by evolution. The unbelieving masses, as if intuitively seeing in this doctrine an escape from accountability to the Creator God of the Bible, drank in the twin errors like water. The “scientific” establishment of today regards the twin errors as twin pillars and bulwarks of truth!

What about the Church? Like the little leaven that leavens the whole lump, theological liberalism crept into many branches of the Church—the true pillar and bulwark of truth—because of the way she reacted to the ideas of the two Charlies. Instead of being willing to appear foolish for Christ, to stand for the truth of Scripture though Mr. Worldly Wiseman lampooned and mocked, some Christians compromised. They became willing to allow the Holy-Spirit-inspired, infallible, inerrant, fully authoritative Word of God to be judged and distorted by the sin-corrupted, fallible mind of man. Compromising doctrines such as “theistic evolution” were baptized and put forth as orthodoxy, when in reality they are as far from orthodoxy as is a Christology with no virgin conception and birth. Thus, we have today not only a pope who declares evolution and Christianity to be compatible, but leaders and teachers of formerly evangelical bodies asserting the same thing. The sneaky lie has suddenly taken on the authoritative trappings of truth!

Although the term “theological liberalism” is fairly new, spiritual declension, of course, is not. The wisdom of God in Ecclesiastes tells us that “{there} {is} nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). Thus, we can find the same force that drives theological liberalism in the pages the Bible itself.

Consider the book of Judges. In the days when the judges ruled, when “everyone did {what} {was} right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25), there is a self-evident, cyclic nature to the history of God’s people. Finding themselves unoppressed by enemies, prosperous, and all things going well, they would forget God Who gave them all their blessings. In their sinful folly, they would begin to serve other (false, of course) gods—such as the Canaanite idols, Ashtoreth and Baal—forsaking the one true and living God. The Bible clearly teaches that this one true and living God is, indeed, the God of love; but He is also a jealous God, a consuming fire. Seeing His people forsake Him, His wrath would rise against them, yet not so as to completely destroy them. To chastise and correct them, He would raise up adversaries against them to oppress them. This would have the effect of causing them to call out to the LORD for deliverance. God would then allow Himself to be moved by their entreaty, and raise up a judge, an heroic deliverer such as Moses and Joshua had been, who would remove the yoke of bondage. For a season, all would be well. Then the cycle would repeat itself, as the people forgot God, served false gods, and were again disciplined by the true God who condescended to tolerate them again and again, having determined that He would have a people for Himself, often in spite of themselves!

This trend among the covenant people of God didn’t change with the end of the period of the judges and the advent of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The prophet Jeremiah wrote:

“‘Has a nation changed {its} gods, which {are} not gods? But My people have changed their Glory for what does not profit. Be astonished, O heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid; be very desolate,’ says the LORD ‘For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, {and} hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water’ ”(Jeremiah 2:11-13).

Nor did this fatal human tendency to apostasize end in Jeremiah’s day. Jesus and the Apostles dealt with the Sadducees, who “… say that there is no resurrection— and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both” (Acts 23:8). Down through Church history and up to the present, there are the Pharisee-type heresies wherein many of the cardinal, supernatural doctrines of the Bible are confessed but legalism or other problems exist. However, there are also the Sadducee-type heresies where the satanic strategy seems to be to set up “… a form of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). The first type of error self-consciously distances itself from historically orthodox (which means “true glory”) Christian bodies by saying the truth is with us only. The second type of error usurps the place of historic orthodoxy within Christian bodies, hence it effectively neutralizes it. Theological liberalism is rightly categorized in the latter group.

Perhaps, we can further expose liberalism by considering some of its fruit. Let’s return to the example of evolution. What has accommodating this evil, anti-Christian system of thought brought about?

First, it allows people to reason that they are only animals—a particularly bright species of primates. Some animals kill and devour other animals. Some animals abandon their young … or devour them! Animals heed only their instinctive sexual drives when it comes to mating, no higher morality is involved. Why, then, should we be surprised if children kill other children, if parents abort their babies, if promiscuity and associated evils like pornography and the “sex industry” proliferate? Why marvel when one ethnic group asserts its supremacy over another? Perhaps, they reason they are entitled to do so, because they are the more highly evolved version of humanity!

The Church is called to be the preserving salt and the exposing light in this corrupt, dark world. When she believes the biblical truth that man was specially created in the Divine image, a rational and spiritual being as far above the animals as the heavens are above the earth, she can powerfully proclaim, “thus says the Lord” to them who knew themselves to be His creatures accountable to Him. What does the theologically liberal preacher say against adultery, abortion, and murder? “You shouldn’t do those things because they are icky, Okay?” Or “Just say NO – because … because … well, just because!” Can he effectively oppose racism when his own doctrine provides an (erroneous) rationalization for its legitimacy?

Another fruit of liberalism is the way it changes people’s view of the Bible. If the Bible is inaccurate about the nature of creation, the miraculous birth of Christ, the historicity of the Exodus, etc. how can we trust it on anything? At 1 Thessalonians 2:13 we read:

“For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed {it} not {as} the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.”

Instead of such a high view of Scripture, theological liberalism allows the (practical, if not confessional) position that says, “I’ll take 7 out of the 10 Commandments that seem plausible to my ultimate judge—my own mind.” Theological liberalism cuts out of Bible the parts that don’t have what it considers the feel of authenticity. When subjective “inner light” usurps the place of objective revelation from on high, the “search for the historical Jesus” is underway. Although the Jesus of the Bible IS the historical Jesus, theological liberalism’s false wisdom asserts that much of what the Gospels attribute to Him He could not possibly have said … “Not MY Jesus …”

God’s Word is truth. Truth anchors the human soul. Without it, one is adrift in a sea of relativism—a shadowy realm where there is nothing to depend upon. The story of New Testament Scholar Eta Linnemann, as disclosed in her book Historical Criticism of the Bible, is revealing. (Historical criticism is a theologically liberal approach to Bible study which assumes that statements in Scripture regarding place, time, sequences of events, and persons are accepted only insofar as they fit in with established assumptions and theories.) Writing as a convert out of theological liberalism, in the introduction to her book Ms. Linnemann says:

“… God through His grace and Word has given me insight into the theoretical dimensions of this theology. Instead of being based on God’s Word, it has its foundations in philosophies which made bold to define truth so that God’s Word was excluded as the source of truth.”1

There is surely a place in Christian practice for a legitimate version of the high ideals which come to mind when we remember our fine old family of English words: liberality, liberate, liberty, and even liberal. In fact, those ideals can only be “fleshed out” in the context of moral absolutes and bedrock truths. Among believers there must be loving tolerance, mutual acceptance, and respect when it comes to non-essentials. Some Christians kneel to pray, some do not. In the apostolic church, some ate meat sacrificed to idols, some did not. Some Christians are very animated and sanguine in worship, others are more reserved and quiet. Whether or not a Christian is theologically liberal, however, is not a matter among the “non-essentials.” All should pray in faith, and worship in spirit and in truth, and all should stand against this form of idolatry … for that is what theological liberalism is! The ancient Israelites forsook God and served man-made idols in the days of the judges. So God’s people do today, when they despise His word and remake “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) into “the faith that has the approval of modern man.”

How can Christians fight this plague? Let’s revisit the book of Judges. Like the intermittently besieged descendants of Jacob, the Church is under great oppression in our land in these days. Might this be on account of wholesale backsliding into complacency, compromise, and theological liberalism? Would God afflict us needlessly with a surrounding society that is perhaps, worse than Sodom? “For he does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33). Is He not the Sovereign without Whose permission not even Satan can lift a finger (cf. Job 1)? “When a man’s ways please the LORD, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Proverbs 16:7). The American Church’s compromising ways have not pleased Him, thus He is allowing our enemies to chastise us.  Today, the battle is spiritual; we wrestle not against flesh and blood Canaanite oppressors.

The Ashtoreth of theological liberalism has seduced us, and we have served Baal: theological liberalism dressed up as orthodoxy. Now is the time to cry out to the Lord! Cry out to the Lord of the Harvest. Implore Him that mighty deliverers be raised up. What is needed in America today is not another program for economic or educational aid run by the government, not a clever political solution, but loud, trumpeting blasts of the pure, unadulterated Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ!Ω

Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. would like to thank Pastor Keith Graham for his second contribution to the Journal. Keith was a 1978 graduate of what was then named the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Episcopal Church. His ministerial credentials are in the P.C.A. (Presbyterian Church in America). He is  47-years old and is happily married to his wife, Jeanette. They are living in New Jersey, where  Keith  is currently seeking a new pastoral call, most recently having been pastor of  The Locktown Presbyterian Church, near Flemington, NJ

© 2015, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.

  1. Eta Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), introduction

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