One aspect of Thomas Oden’s life which is both admirable and perplexing is his denominational loyalty. Oden is a United Methodist and it is clear from his autobiography that he is committed to his church and perhaps even optimistic that she might be rescued from all the liberal nonsense with which she has come to be identified. In an era when denominational loyalty means little and choice of church is often built on consumerist preferences, such commitment is admirable. In the case of mainlines, however, it is sadly now naïve and misplaced.
In fact, in perhaps my one major dissent from Oden’s arguments in his autobiography, I believe that it is now clear that the mainline Protestant denominations are lost and irrecoverable for orthodoxy.
Arguments for optimism regarding mainlines generally involve at least one of three things. First, there is often an assumption that liberalism, because it is ultimately a species of secularism in religious idiom, will simply die away, unable to offer more satisfactory answers to life’s questions than honest, open secularism. Second, there is the belief that numbers equate to influence and power. Third, there is failure to see how the battles within the church are now aligning with battles within the wider world in an unprecedented way which is serving to marginalize the orthodox cause in ways previously unimaginable.
As to the first, there is some truth here: as the religious idiom becomes more implausible, so the sale of secularism in religious wrappings is surely becoming harder. As to the second, this is the Stillite fallacy/fantasy. William Still, the revered leader of evangelicals in the Church of Scotland, led his followers to abandon involvement in denominational structures and believe that simply preaching the gospel would rescue the church from apostasy. Unfortunately, though, denominational power is a function not of numbers or of which party has the most vibrant congregations; it is a function of who sits on what committee, and which of those committees wields influence. The Church of Scotland evangelicals learned that lesson in the last decade in way they are unlikely to forget and Still’s legacy is far more ambiguous than he might have hoped
As to the third, it is one thing to be fighting battles within a denomination in which people outside have no interest – on inspiration, or Christology, or supernaturalism. In such circumstance, the orthodox might appear to those outside to be simpletons or harmless lunatics. But when the battle lines are over issues such as sexuality, then the outside world has an interest and the pressure from the culture has a more aggressive role. Harmless lunacy is one thing; bigoted hate is quite another. The orthodox are not simply opposed by the cuckoos in their own nest; they are facing the fury of everyone outside of the church as well. It is hard to fight such a ferocious two-front war.
In such circumstances, there is really no hope of really turning the mainlines towards orthodoxy. I appreciate Thomas Oden’s love for the church and commitment to his denomination but I do not share his optimism for a major change in the theological trajectory of mainline Protestantism.