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Mea (Nos?) culpa et redemptio, (Matthew 7:1-5)

July 1, 1993

Mea (Nos?) culpa et redemptio, (Matthew 7:1-5)

By Dr. Robert R. Kopp

I’ve been thinking about updating “Why the Old Denominations Are Going to Hell” (Monday Morning, 7 March 1994) to “Why the Old Denominations Have Gone to Hell.”

These days, although statistics show their memberships spiraling downward, anyone who suggests the old denominations are nothing more than holding tanks for pulpiteers and pewsitters longing for the good old days is either ignorant or arrogant.

Previously, I said the decline of mainline denominations can be attributed to unconverted clergy, unconvinced laity, and pharisaical reincarnations substituting organizational order for biblical authority.

Before restating the obvious, a few confessions are compelling.

First, acknowledging my culpabilities within a Davidic and Pauline context (e.g., Psalm 51; Romans 3:23; 12:3; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; cf. Proverbs 28:13), I am sorry for past sins that compromised the integrity of my witness. While I rejoice in personal redemption of biblical proportions (see John 3; Acts 9), I comprehend if not appreciate those who try to discredit what I say by referring to whom I was.

Though I claim Christianity’s redemptive ethic for myself—“It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from; all that matters is where you’re going!” (Brian Tracy)—I am mournfully aware (Matthew 5:4) of not being as good as Mom had hoped. I may not be as bad as antagonists advertise, but I have not been as good as pretended.

Hence, I preferred to remain silent since being born anothen. Yet I cannot exorcise past personal hypocrisies by ignoring current corporate hypocrisies (disconnects between creeds and deeds).

Second, if Robert Frost had “a lover’s quarrel with the world,” mine is a lover’s quarrel with the mainline church. Or as Frederick Buechner explained in Wishful Thinking (1973), “A prophet’s quarrel with the world is deep-down a lover’s quarrel. If they didn’t love the world, they probably wouldn’t bother to tell it that it’s going to hell. They’d just let it go.”

I was introduced to Jesus by mainline members, Sunday School teachers, pastors, and seminaries. While I owe my soul to Jesus, He’s had a lot of help from mainliners; and, therefore, I feel a profound sense of indebtedness to them.

Finally, our Lord’s high priestly prayer “that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17) evokes ecumenical passion and parochial shame. Does anyone really believe Jesus lived, died, rose, and reigns to enable ecclesiastical ghettos?

I am convinced divisions in Christendom discourage a desperate world from looking to churches to inspire global reconciliation. Does a fragmented family of faith have any credibility to tell the world how to get along?

Navel-gazing institutional survival schemes along with color, class, and culture bigotries have blunted our Lord’s intent for a truly inclusive church enabled by the common confession of His saving Lordship in Jesus.

Fortunately, the recent movement of mainliners from museums of spirituality to mausoleums of theological uncertainty at best or duplicity at worst makes little difference to the advancement of the Kingdom. As Jesus assured, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Unfortunately, aside from the rapidly continuing shrinkage of membership rolls, updating 1994’s etiological essay is unnecessary.

My franchise, for example, has lost 1.76 million members since 1965 (PCUSA); though in amusing irony, more bureaucratic and paradenominational booths pop up in the exhibition halls of our annual meetings as the membership plummets.

Many observers assert a connection between decline and the dissipation of core confessions: (1) Jesus is Lord and Savior; (2) The Bible is God’s revealed rule for discipleship; and (3) Depending upon God’s grace, we are called to holiness as exemplified in Jesus and explained in the Bible.

Denominational renewal is envisioned as plausible with a clear, consistent, courageous, enthusiastic, and unequivocal commitment to such confessions.

Or as an older elder said to me many years ago, “Watch the birds! They go where there is food!”

Of course, you can’t give away what you ain’t got for yourself.

Unconverted clergy or women and men without faith infect every level of church life. They are easy to identify. Talking about Jesus by name is onerous for them. If you aren’t sure about this, approach a suspect and ask her or him to say a few words about personal faith in Jesus. Ask for commentary on Romans 10:9. I have never experienced anyone who believes in Jesus who isn’t psyched to talk about Him.

Unconvinced laity are products of unconverted clergy. It’s the old shepherds don’t follow sheep axiom. Sadly, to borrow a line from Margaret Thatcher, “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by traffic from both sides.” Obviously, mainline laity are sheep without shepherds (Isaiah 53:6). With undershepherds (clergy) misunderstanding the Good Shepherd (Jesus) through confessional confusion, sheep (members) are like two mainliners at fellowship hour. One says, “I don’t know who I am or where I’m going.” The other says, “Don’t worry about! Our pastor is going through the same thing!” Getting back to the real issue, John Eldredge identifies the problem and provides the solution in one sentence: “Healing never happens outside of intimacy with Christ” (Wild at Heart, 2001).

Pharisaical reincarnations substituting organizational order for biblical authority explains how mainliners can violate biblical ethics on everything from the sanctity of all human life to human sexuality so blithely. Assuming the Bible is not bigger than their favorite parts, they embrace an ethical relativism which enslaves all issues of faith and morality to the most recent popular vote. Apostasy is acceptable as long as parliamentary procedure is used. No wonder missionary and seminary professor Samuel Moffett bellowed at the Presbyterian Congress on Renewal in Dallas, Texas (January 1985), “I’ve had decency and order up to here! But where’s the power?…Where’s the power to propel us across the world?…Some of the most creative and effective periods in the Church were those periods when the Gospel was hot and not respectable.”

Time is running out for mainliners.

Here’s why: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember…from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand” (Revelation 2:1-7).

Many observers believe the lampstand has been removed already from mainliners.

In a letter addressing the unspoken reality for all mainline denominations, a lawyer (former pastor) wrote, “Is the PCUSA simply old wineskins that must be abandoned? Or is there a sense of corporate forgiveness and redemption for past sins? It’s one or the other. It cannot be both. If it’s a wineskins problem, don’t waste your time trying to reform. Get out! But if God truly is redemptive and forgiving, He can give these gifts to the organization.”

I’m not sure.

If our lampstand or efficacious place in the Kingdom hasn’t been removed, it’s flickering, fading, and failing.

But just as I have experienced the joy of redemption in Jesus through confession and repentance, I believe the same is possible for mainliners.

That’s why I’m not giving up on them.

The Christophers are right: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness” (see John 3:17-21).

Personally and corporately, I’ll also keep shaking salt; or as Georges Bernanos explained the prophetic: “Salt stings on an open wound, but saves you from gangrene” (The Diary of a Country Priest, 1937).

This is the kairos moment for mainliners.

Turn back. Or turn over.

Dr. Robert Kopp is the pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church, Loves Park.

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