The United Church of Christ’s Blame-Shifting
If you watch TV or read the papers, you may have noticed a vocal new movement among some religious liberals. Perhaps you’ve seen the television commercials where single mothers, gay couples, and others are literally ejected from their church pews by the push of a button. At the end of the ad, viewers are invited to visit a site called “Rejection Hurts” to share their own stories of being rejected by churches.
The ads are sponsored by the United Church of Christ (UCC). And it was the president of the UCC, John Thomas, who made a recent speech at Gettsyburg College that was even more divisive than the ad. Thomas blasted “religious groups seeking to use . . . political [means] to press their reform agendas.” He singled out the Institute on Religion and Democracy—the IRD—a Washington organization whose mission is “to reform . . . churches’ social witness in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings, thereby contributing to the renewal of democratic society at home and abroad.” Thomas charged the IRD with deliberately causing turmoil in mainline churches and giving them misleading information.
And that’s not all. In a prominent article in the New York Times, some members of mainline congregations attacked the IRD’s new president, Jim Tonkowich, for belonging to a small conservative denomination instead of a liberal church. Now, I can tell you from personal experience that attacks on Jim are completely out of line. Until recently, he was managing editor for this radio program. Not only is he a good friend, but he is also an able pastor and Christian thinker, and well-qualified for this new position.
So what’s going on? Why the effort to drive conservatives out of the mainline church?
The New York Times explains it this way: “After years of turning the other cheek, the United Church of Christ, among the most liberal of the mainline Protestant denominations, has recently staked out a more pugnacious stance toward the Christian right.” The Times speaks of “a growing impatience among the mainline denominations with their far-right brethren and an increasing willingness to take some of them on.”
Okay, but there’s more. The truth is that the United Church of Christ—along with many liberal denominations—has suffered an alarming loss of members in recent years. Ironically, as they’ve become more “inclusive,” more and more members have left. As Jim Tonkowich comments, “It is not surprising that the head of a denomination that has lost over 40 percent of its members should blame outside forces for its plight rather than examine its own mistakes. Liberal theology has failed for the UCC and for all mainline churches. IRD reports about that. But we did not cause it.”
Let’s be perfectly clear about what’s at issue here. The debate is not a political one. Rather, it goes to the very heart of what the Church is. The real issue is simply, do we follow the Bible and the orthodox teachings of Christianity, or do we rewrite our beliefs to be culturally relevant?
The UCC’s answer to that question is clear—and what’s also clear is that it’s turning Christians away. If they want to be taken seriously again, they could start by listening to their own new slogan—“God doesn’t reject people. Neither do we”—and then start by not rejecting people who happen to be Bible-believing Christians.
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“United Church of Christ President Blames IRD for His Church’s Decline,” IRD press release, 7 April 2006.
Here is an example of the criticism against Dr. James Tonkowich.
Neela Banerjee, “Liberal Denomination Fires Salvos at Right,” New York Times, 7 April 2006. (Times Select subscription required.)
John H. Thomas, “The IRS, the IRD, and Red State/Blue State Religion,” an address at Gettysburg College, 7 March 2006.
John Bryson Chane, “A Gospel of Intolerance,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 5 March 2006.
View the TV ads here.
Visit the website of Biblical Witness Fellowship, a renewal organization seeking change in the UCC.
“A Third Way, or a False Compromise?: A Statement of the Association for Church Renewal,” Faith & Freedom, Fall 2005 (see page 8). (Free Adobe Acrobat Reader required.)
Mark Tooley, “The Church of SpongeBob,” Faith & Freedom, Summer 2005 (see page 16). (Free Adobe Acrobat Reader required.)
Allan Dobras, “A Tale of Two Denominations,” BreakPoint Online, 9 January 2006. Also read part two.
Allan Dobras, “Men at Church: How to Find Male-Friendly Worship,” BreakPoint Online, 9 May 2006.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 040505, “As Long As We All Get Along: Selling Truth for Unity.”
Charles Colson and Ellen Vaughn, Being the Body: A New Call for the Church to Be Light in the Darkness (W Publishing, 2003).