In Praise of Ecumenical Protestants (For a Change)

Still at It

The July 2, 2012 edition of the Christian Century features an interview with David Hollinger, professor of history at the University of California at Berkley.  Dr. Hollinger has some good things to say about “mainline” churches – what he prefers to call “ecumenical Protestants.”  When asked to comment on the standard narrative of “mainline decline,” he offers a more nuanced assessment of the “failures” of liberal Protestantism:

The ecumenical leaders achieved much more than they and their successors give them credit for. They led millions of American Protestants in directions demanded by the changing circumstances of the times and by their own theological tradition. These ecumenical leaders took a series of risks, asking their constituency to follow them in antiracist, anti-imperialist, feminist and multicultural directions that were understandably resisted by large segments of the white public, especially in the Protestant-intensive southern states.

It is true that the so-called mainstream lost numbers to churches that stood apart from or even opposed these initiatives, and ecumenical leaders simultaneously failed to persuade many of their own progeny that churches remained essential institutions in the advancement of these values.

But the fact remains that the public life of the United States moved farther in the directions advocated in 1960 by the Christian Century than in the directions then advocated by Christianity Today. It might be hyperbolic to say that ecumenists experienced a cultural victory and an organizational defeat, but there is something to that view. Ecumenists yielded much of the symbolic capital of Christianity to evangelicals, which is a significant loss. But ecumenists won much of the U.S. There are trade-offs.

As ecumenical Protestants meet the challenges of ministry in the 21st century, we stand on the shoulders of leaders who understood the risks involved in putting their faith to work.  It is still the case that the church is called to be faithful, even at the risk of its own life.

Dr. Hollinger is not suggesting that numerical decline is something to be desired, or that the loss of members is entirely attributable to the struggle for justice.  Still, he provides a welcome perspective.

There are those who say that the mainline denominations have lost members because they departed from Biblical principles.  I think that many factors have contributed to the current situation; one of them has been faithfulness to the God revealed in the Bible.

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