Lessons from a Man Who Has Been There and Done That
Crisis in the Church
I suppose that there are fewer things more obnoxious than a reformed smoker. I don’t know because I’ve never smoked, but I hear—from reliable sources, of course—that it’s true. Equally true—probably—is that there are fewer things more obnoxious than someone who was an Arminian and who by luck, fate, predestination, whatever, became Reformed. That I do know by experience because that was my journey and I became thoroughly obnoxious wanting all to come to se the truth of the doctrines of grace. Some might even still find me obnoxious, but that’s really hard to believe.
Anyway, for the next while I want to focus on a man who made quite a remarkable theological pilgrimage: the late Dr. John H. Leith. In 1997, Westminster John Knox Press published his work, Crisis in the Church. Admittedly it’s a relatively small book (125 pp.), but I simply could not put it down and read it in one sitting. Leith made a quantum leap from being on the left in the mainline Presbyterian Church to being truly right of center. I find his book so terribly timely in light of a number of occurrences and movements afoot in what we still call evangelicalism, even though some of the movements have jettisoned anything vaguely reminiscent of what evangelicalism originally stood for.
Primarily, Leith observed the ravaging effects of liberalism, engaging the culture, and “professional” as opposed to “pastoral” seminary education, although the two do not have to be contradictory. As I write this article, Christianity is embroiled in a number of conflicts about its own identity. It is faced with the question: what actually constitutes the true Christian faith? In other words, where are the boundaries so that by embracing certain positions you cross over out of Christianity into a heretical aberration? Few have the stomach to even ask such questions these days. Some have suggested that schism is worse than heresy. Can we see how far down the wrong path an incorrect concept of tolerance has taken us?
The Christian faith was almost completely watered down, dumbed-down by the likes of Robert Schuller and Bill Hybels in the early stages of the church-growth movement and continues to be dumbed-down by Rick Warren and Joel Osteen—not to mention my perennial favorites: Paul and Jan Crouch. But that just part of the story. As the aforementioned people plied their trade, they left a generation of church-goers bereft of any real scriptural knowledge. The net result is that devotees of the Emergent Church Movement seem to be clueless, rudderless in their understanding of the Christian faith and life. For example, a representative number in the ECM leaders don’t seem to know what the Word of God says about homosexuality. Currently a number of them--Chalke and McLaren included--are strongly in opposition to penal substitutionary atonement, which strikes at the heart of the gospel. Still others like Rob Bell are using a form of theological doublespeak to affirm that the Bible is still their center, but just a different kind of center.
But there is still more yet. There is still the urging and insistence that churches “engage the culture,” but few, if any, seminaries offer courses in exactly how to perform that task. Bavinck, Groen van Prinsterer, and Kuyper understood and taught he concept of "antithesis" regarding the Christian and culture, but the modern gurus are not aware of it. Moreover, a movement called the Federal Vision is challenging a number in Presbyterian circles to take another look at justification by faith, the writings of Anglican New Testament scholar N.T. Wright are doing the same thing, and a recent document entitled “Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together” is affirming that while the signatories embrace the Reformed tradition, it is nonetheless crucial to understand that the Reformed tradition itself has evolved (p. 1). While this is certainly true and the tenure of the paper is a kind of Rodney King approach to theology—Why can’t we all just get along?—there are a number of serious issues delineated in this “Call to Charitable Theological Discourse.”
If charitable discourse were all the signatories envisioned, the paper could have been substantially shorter. As it stands, however, there are no fewer than thirteen bullet points cited where charity is needed. The death knell to the entire document is not merely the thirteen points, but the very fact that there was not one signature on the original document. Admittedly, people were urged to add their names to the list of signatories, but originally there were none, which does not bode well. At best, it raises all kinds of questions. At worst, well…
But back to Leith. Given his pilgrimage from liberal to conservative it would behoove us to listen carefully and attentively to what he has taken away from the intramural “culture wars” over theology and “doing church.” In his prefatory remarks he states, “I have…become convinced that the left wing is a greater menace to the health of the Christian community than the right wing was prior to 1960. Certainly the left wing is more, not less, ruthless in imposing its will on the church.” This truth leads Leith to stress the following: “I emphasize in this book the overwhelming priority and significance in the life of the church of what God does and says, not what human beings do and say.”
From 1519 to World War II
Leith believes that “The Presbyterian Church from its earliest theological origins in the Reformation in Zürich in 1519 until World War II lived according to its traditions, but after World War II radical changes began.” As bad as these changes were, Leith is convinced that they “were not nearly as serious as the penetration of the church by the assumptions of a secular society.”
This is a fascinating point because it seems that the modern Church has a love/hate relationship with society. On the one hand, church leaders bemoan the fact that culture is so decadent and immoral. Hardly a day passes when some evangelical doesn’t take a shot at the lyrics of a hip-hop song, the soft porn on MTV, the immorality on our college and university campuses, the filth that passes for literature, the rampant growth of child molesters and predators, and the Hollywood movie industry, just to mention the most obvious. Yet, on the other hand, when it comes to worship, music, and “doing church,” the modern Church is all to willing to take over a number of questionable approaches of secular culture in order to--so the "reasoning" goes--to make church more acceptable to the non-believer.
So the modern Christian is now not only abysmally ignorant about fundamental truths of the Christian faith, they are now also assuming more and more of what the culture passes off in terms of toleration and general lifestyle. George Barna has chronicled the general moral malaise in 21st century Christianity and it’s getting worse.
Leith pleads for all churches to perform a periodical review concerning failed policies, decisions, and programs rather than rushing ahead full speed with the policies that have led to crises and problems. From his Presbyterian Church USA vantage point, he wants to place seminaries under the microscope, for he is convinced that many of the problems actually begin there. He writes, “The seminaries are deeply involved in the crisis of the church. The crisis itself is sufficient indication that the seminaries are not graduating ministers who are effective leaders in the life of the church. Why should it be otherwise, when seminary faculties no longer include persons who have been effective pastors themselves?.... There are virtually no faculty who have given leadership in the building of churches.”
Let’s pause and dissect those words and give them a contemporary application. What should be one of the main tasks of a seminary according to Leith? The short answer is: to graduate preachers. Granted, these preachers should be well-prepared and well-grounded in the biblical languages, church history, exegesis, and a good grasp of the general overview of the Bible. He will offer some very good specific advice later, but for now it’s important to take heed of why the crisis is upon us.
Second, he objects to persons serving on the faculty of a seminary who has not been an “effective” pastor himself—notice I did not say herself. I placed the word effective in quotation marks because that word does not designate someone who has built a large congregation. That can be the case, but more to the point is the pastor who has faithfully preached the Word of God, has taught the requisite classes so that his congregation knows Scripture, has catechized both the youth and adults, and has performed his administration tasks well.
When you stop and reflect on the matter, what normally happens in seminary is that a “bright boy” without pastoral experience starts teaching young seminarians about how to be pastors, when they, themselves, have never been pastors. That is tantamount to hiring me to be a hitting instructor for a Major League Baseball team when I’ve neither played nor hit at that level. I am not convinced, however, that every seminary faculty member must have served in the pastorate. It is desirable, but not necessarily obligatory. Having said that, I do believe that a prudent mix at the seminary level would be 70% with pastoral experience and 30% without it. Let me give another example. When I did my Drs. studies in Holland, I attended liberal schools. I had received a very good and solid conservative, traditional education, but wanted to study the liberals first hand, which I did. My point, however, is this: at those liberal schools it was required that each professor had a minimum of five years of pastoral ministry before he was considered for a teaching position. Liberals being liberals, all kinds of loopholes were found, but at least in a large majority of instances this was the case. Something to think about.
This crisis possesses a “trickle down” effect. Seminary professors don’t know how to be pastors so they are ill-equipped to teach aspiring pastors to be pastors. “The consequence is that too many church leaders and ministers are subject to being blown about by every wind of doctrine and every fad, lacking a clear identity and the power of self-determination.”
In a number of seminaries various “theologies” are offered such as, Theology of the Secular; Feminist Theology, Liberation Theology, Death of God Theology, Process Theology, Gay and Lesbian Theology, and the list goes on. And while no one can doubt the importance of the various “causes” that come our way (peace, justice, dignity of the homeless, “rights” of women, just war, capital punishment, racism, and the environment to mention a few), Richard Niebuhr reminded us that all the “causes” for which we live die. As Leith puts it, “Our only security is in God.” 
Ironically, we are a generation in which precious little is known about the nature and character of God. Moreover, it doesn’t seem that all that many in the modern Church are all that concerned about knowing his character. It is almost as if modern Christians are searching for a “minimalist” approach to the Christian faith: what’s the minimum I can know and still get by; still be known as a Christian?As the modern Church confronts and is confronted by a vast array of issues and causes we would do well to remember that “it is always easier to get into a problem that it is to get out.” That being the case, we should be very circumspect before we jump on any theological bandwagon be it women’s ordination, the so-called new perspectives on Paul, which, by the way, they aren’t, the so-called Federal Vision, the forty days of purpose, or the general pop-psychology, feel-good theology. Next issue we shall continue, Lord willing, to allow Leith to describe the crisis he lived.
 John H. Leith, Crisis in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. x. Leith writes, “From 1940 until 1959 I was in conflict with the theological right wing of the church…”
 Ibid. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 6.
 H. Richard Niebuhr, “Faith in Gods and God,” in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, (NY: Harper & Brothers, 1960), p. 99.
 Leith, CiC, 6. Italics mine.
 Ibid., 7.