Churches as the Biggest Threat to Religion?

Churches as the Biggest Threat to Religion? June 1, 2022

We usually assume that threats to Christianity come from the outside–the forces of secularism, postmodernism, the sexual revolution, etc., etc.–but what about threats to Christianity from the inside?

Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist John Archibald has written a provocative column entitled When churches are the biggest threat to religion.

He is reacting to the report on sex abuse and coverups among the Southern Baptists, with reference also to the scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, the politicization of Christianity, and revelations of other kinds of corruption.

Archibald is not against Christianity.  He is a Methodist and comes from a long line of Methodist pastors.  He acknowledges the great good that churches and church members do.  But he concludes, “the ones who exploit religion for personal gain, or political power, or god forbid sexual satisfaction do more to drive people away from the church than any avowed atheist ever did.”

He cites the decline in religious belief and church membership.  Today, he says, the “nones”–those with no religious affiliation–constitute 30% of the American population.  While Christians still outnumber them two to one, as late as 2007, Christians outnumbered the unbelievers five to one.  Over half of Americans now say they attend church either seldom or never.

“It is a remarkable swing,” says Archibald, “made possible by scandal, hypocrisy, and politicization of religion, among other things.”

Now we’d need more research to see if these church scandals directly caused the declines, but I recall seeing evidence that a large number of “nones” used to attend church and were raised in a church.

And in considering external threats to Christianity such as secularism, it is a fair question to wonder whether the church might be a major reason for secularism.

To be sure, churches are for sinners.  We should not be surprised to see sin in the church.  But these particular sinners in the church seem to be oblivious to the Law, carrying on their wickedness with impunity, refusing to repent.  That suggests it is problem not just of morals but of faith.  If they believed God, they wouldn’t dare do the things they do.

And it isn’t the poor miserable sinners in the pews but the ministers who are supposed to care for their souls and the church leaders who are supposed to discipline errant pastors who are the transgressors.  So this suggests a problem that is not just with individual malefactors but is a broader ecclesiastical problem.

From having perused briefly the Southern Baptist list of offenders, I would note that many of the offenses involve the sexual abuse of children–rape, molestation, child pornography.  (The list, by the way, is of men who have been convicted of sex crimes and have gone to prison and are registered sex offenders, or who have otherwise had their crimes been proven.)  This is in addition to the #MeToo accusations that are rampant across denominations and in megachurches and the cases of adultery and fornication, which may not be criminal offenses but are offenses against the Word of God.

Yes, the world will hate Christians, just as they hated Christ (John 15:18).  But in this case, it isn’t that non-believers are hating Christians for their faith or for being like Christ.  They are hating Christians because they are not following Christian teachings and because they are so unlike Christ.

Non-believers who are themselves permissive about sex are shocked by Christians’ sexual immorality.  And it isn’t just the theological liberals who want to conform to the world who are doing these things.  It’s conservatives!  The scandals are about the sexual revolution among ostensibly orthodox, Bible-believing Christians!  Those who oppose homosexuality, adultery, and fornication are practicing such things themselves!  And sometimes by exploiting children!

Amidst such scandals, though, are two rays of hope for the church.  First, these evils are being exposed.  For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).

Secondly, if the threats to Christianity are coming from inside the church, they are within reach of Christians and are something that churches can address.  The primary task is not just convincing non-believers to be religious, but convincing Christians to be religious.  The former remains important, of course, but reaching those already within the church may be a task less daunting.

If the unfaithfulness of churches is causing secularism, putting the house of God in order might have an impact beyond its walls, making Christianity credible again and influencing the broader society.

And a movement of the Holy Spirit within the church–call it revival, renewal, reformation–could bring religion back.


Photo:  “Famed Steeple Topples” [Christ Church, Boston] via Get Archive, Public Domain

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