John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is email@example.com..
The following paper was written in December, 1990.
Our churches are lukewarm because they do not have convincing teachings that are evidently of great importance. The teachings that once carried this weight have been exposed as morally ambiguous and sometimes positively destructive: repression of sexuality, support of racism, repression of women, destruction of the earth. We have responded by regretting those teachings and making modest changes in behavior and doctrine. The result has been the sense of believing less with less confidence. The alternative is to think through the meaning of the challenges to past practices and doctrines to the point where a new vision arises. To stop halfway, clinging to the old while making concessions to the demands for change, is to insure lukewarmness and continuing decline.
I. CHRIST AND THE LUKEWARMNESS OF OUR CHURCHES
The general thesis of these lectures is that one major reason for the decline of our oldline churches is theological and that at least this cause of the decline could be reversed. I am trying to be careful here. There are certainly nontheological causes of the decline as well. For example, the mobility of the population works against stable local churches and therefore against those denominations that have organized themselves around such congregations. The rapid change of liturgical tastes, and especially musical tastes makes it very difficult to provide worship that is meaningful across the generations. This is closely related to the cultural change from orientation to reading to orientation to sound bites. Many people seem to need authoritarian direction in their lives that our oldline churches cannot, and should not, provide. I do not doubt the importance of these factors, but I will not address them because I have little to contribute on these topics.
My opinion is that if we were theologically in healthy condition, we would find ways to respond effectively to our context. Other Christians have done so. For example, while we have been declining, the Pentecostal movement has been growing phenomenally worldwide.
It may seem odd to hold up the Pentecostals as an illustration of how a movement that is theologically healthy can overcome obstacles that greatly weaken denominations that are not theologically healthy. We do not think of the Pentecostals as leaders in the field of theology. Just for this reason, using them as an example should enable me to explain what I mean by theological health.
Clearly, given my example, I do not mean by “health” theological sophistication or correctness of doctrine. What I do mean is strength of conviction, and that in two respects. First, members are convinced that what the community teaches is true. Second, they are convinced that it is extremely important. A community, large or small, whose members have these convictions is likely to be alive, active, and effective in involving others. It is the absence of these characteristics from most of the members of the oldline churches that leads to our lukewarmness. And lukewarmness is the deepest cause of our decline.
I have selected the term “lukewarm,” of course, because of Christ’s message to the church of Laodicea in the third chapter of the book of Revelation. “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16) These words attributed to the heavenly Christ seem extremely harsh, considering that the church of Laodicea had done nothing particularly bad. But the point may be that a lukewarm church has no future.
I trust you will not think that I am calling for the abandonment of the oldline denominations and joining the Pentecostals. Most of us could not share the convictions that give them such vitality even if we tried. And this fact points to another measure of a now healthy church’s theological wellbeing. Are the convictions that give it health capable of surviving encounter with broader realms of experience and understanding? Since the word “sustainable” is now in fashion, we can ask the question another way. Is the health of a now vital church sustainable?
We in the oldline churches ask this question with particular poignancy. The health we enjoyed at the beginning of this century has not been sustained. It was based on convictions that have not withstood the broader experience and understanding this century has brought us. To us it is evident that Pentecostal theology, in its present form, is also unsustainable.
The phrase, “in its present form,” is an important qualifier. Pentecostalism may produce leaders who can deal wisely and effectively with the broader historical, cultural, and intellectual issues to which its present teachings are inadequate. This may lead to a transformation of Pentecostal teaching that maintains its health and renders it sustainable.
Without such transformation no tradition or community can remain healthy indefinitely. Guiding such transformation is a central task of theology. And central to this theological task is the understanding of Jesus Christ. When many church members are convinced of the truth of the transformed teaching about Jesus Christ, and when they are convinced also of the supreme importance of this truth, then the church is healthy. Our sickness, that is, our current lukewarmness, results from the failure of our oldline churches to present a Christology that is convincing to late twentieth-century people in these two ways: truth and importance.
In the early part of this century many members of our oldline denominations were convinced of both the truth and the extreme importance of the Jesus Christ taught in their churches. It was he who proclaimed the coming realm of God and empowered believers to participate in its coming. For this purpose many Christians vigorously and enthusiastically engaged in missionary and evangelistic work. This missional activity was not narrowly focused on the salvation of souls and the establishment of new churches, important as those matters were considered. It dealt also with education, physical and mental healing, social justice, and peace.
Furthermore, the churches’ leaders, while not at the forefront of the intellectual currents of the day, had integrated into their thinking the major cultural changes of the nineteenth century, such as the new historical consciousness, the analysis of society in terms of classes, and biological evolution. They were showing that the health of the churches could be sustained in face of challenges such as these. There was no reason to suppose, in those years, that the health of the church could not be maintained in face of new challenges.
What went wrong? Why is a century that started out so promising for our then mainline Protestant denominations ending with our being sidelined? Are we helpless victims of sociological changes? Or have we participated in bringing about this massive decline in numbers, influence, and internal vitality? My view is that we have participated in these losses, and that without analyzing how we have done so and initiating some changes, we are doomed to continued decline.
Let me make clear before proceding that what I am deploring is not the loss of the cultural hegemony we enjoyed in an earlier period. That was not truly appropriate even in those days. Today it is clearly both undesirable and impossible. American society is now radically pluralistic, and any future health will be as one actor among others in a religiously pluralistic setting. I will devote my next talk to this question of faithfulness to Christ as we affirm and appreciate other religious traditions. But history shows that minority status does not preclude a healthy and vital Christian life.
So, what happened?
In the years after World War II we have encountered a variety of challenges. These have taken the form especially of forcing us to see that the Christian record is a very mixed one, that the way we have followed Christ has caused great evil as well as great good. We can recover the conviction that following Christ is our unqualified calling only if we reconceive Christ and what it means to be disciples.
Individuals have proposed reconceptualizations that are very promising. But these have been viewed as their private work. The denominations as a whole have made modest adjustments and sometimes acknowledged past failures. But they have not debated the issues and come to fresh conclusions. Most of their members suppose that the churches are committed to just that teaching that had the negative consequences we deplore. Rightly, they refuse to affirm these teachings with enthusiasm. They are not aware of other ways to understand Christ and discipleship. The result can only be lukewarmness.
I have already mentioned one of the most important challenges, that of religious pluralism. For most of Christian history, most Christians have affirmed Christ in a way that negated the positive value of other religious traditions. As members of these other religious communities became friends and neighbors, this kind of Christology ceased to be convincing. Few are aware that Christ can be conceived in ways that are free from this exclusivism and pejorative treatment of others without reducing Christ’s centrality. Accordingly they weaken their commitment to Christ so as to avoid the negative consequences of strong commitment. The result can only be lukewarness. How this can be avoided will be the topic of my second lecture.
But our Christology’s damage has not been only in our relations with other communities of faith. In addition, it has led to a dualistic understanding of body and spirit that has in turn caused sexual repression, irrational guilt, and destructive social practices. It has turned attention away from the natural world in such a way as to make us collectively unobservant and insensitive to the ecological destructiveness of our economic practices. It has encouraged an anthropocentrism that has justified the infliction of enormous suffering on other animals. It has accepted and sometimes promoted racist ideas and judgments, and participated in their institutionalization. It has justified and sanctioned patterns of political organization that have included slavery and extreme exploitation of the poor. It has supported the patriarchal structure of human society in ways that have dehumanized women, treating them as instruments for the satisfaction of men’s desires and as responsible for men’s sins.
This list could be expanded, but it suffices to indicate that the triumphalist histories of earlier times are now quite impossible. If we invite others to join our communities now, we must ask them to share with us in our repentance for past and continuing sins. This is a more difficult invitation than the one we issued when we were quite sure that following Christ is the highest possible ideal and that, despite all its limitations, the church was the community and institution through which this ideal was promoted and realized. It is not surprising that our invitations are now extended with some discomfort.
This situation is now inescapable for thoughtful and sensitive Christians. We cannot simply celebrate our traditions and seek to transmit them intact into the future. Actually, that has never been possible, but it often has been possible to obscure the extent of the changes needed and view them simply as development of what was implicit in the earlier teaching. Now we must acknowledge that what is required is profound transformation. For the sake of Christ we must repent of the way Christ, and faithfulness to Christ, have been understood in the past. Only so can we come again to the conviction of the truth and positive importance of what the church teaches about Christ.
What is called for has in some respects, and in some measure, occurred in our old-line denominations. Of this we can be proud. We have repented of the dualism of spirit and body that has pervaded our thinking and of our sustained repression of sexuality. We have repented of our indifference to the condition of our natural environment. We have repented of our sanctioning and support of racism in all its insidious manifestations. We have repented of our participation in the unequal treatment of women that has pervaded our culture and our church life.
The English word “repent” primarily connotes regret about what we have been doing and ceasing to act in that way. The Greek word “metanoia” which it translates emphasizes turning and going in a different direction. For real metanoia to occur, regret about the past can only be the prelude to a deep transformation. If this occurs, then powerful convictions can form around the new understanding and pattern of action. Unfortunately, this has not yet occurred. We remain in the intermediate state of regretting our past sins and ceasing to commit them without a convincing vision of who Christ is for us today and what Christ calls us to do and to be. In that condition, lukewarmness is inevitable. In the remainder of this lecture, we will review what has happened in the four areas in which repentance has gone furthest, and then consider what true metanoia would involve.
For Protestants, collective repentance is easiest when we can understand it as recovery of Biblical teaching. For example, the sexual revolution forced us to rethink our teaching about the body. When we did so, we saw that the dominant teachings of the tradition were not in harmony with the Bible. Biblical authors did not demean the body by contrasting it with the mind or soul. We came to see that Paul’s contrast of spirit and flesh was of two modes of life-orientation, not of ontologically distinct soul and body.
We saw also that the Christian preoccupation with sexual sins was not characteristic of the Bible. Of course, for Biblical authors also human sexuality is one of the areas of life that should be in the service of God, and, to be sure, our failure to respond to this call is sinful. But morality is not primarily focused on the sexual sphere. This is not an area in which the Bible typically stands against the dominant mores of the time. It accepts the polygamy of the patriarchs, but in later times it reflects the assumptions of a monogamous culture. In both contexts it fails directly to challenge the patriarchal pattern that shapes sexual mores. In the New Testament there are atypical affirmations of celibacy, but these are not rooted in negative views of sexuality. Instead, they reflect the tensions between playing a responsible role in family life and being open to the exacting demands of developing a new movement.
Given some such understanding of Biblical teaching, twentieth-century Christians have genuinely regretted that the church has so long communicated the idea that sex is dirty and that its pleasures are to be avoided as much as possible. We have come some distance down this road. What we have found more difficult is the formulation of a positive new sexual morality.
There are many views held by equally committed Christians, but two types are easy to distinguish. One group, having repented of the negative teaching about sexuality, wants to maintain the remainder of traditional teaching largely intact. That teaching was that sexual intercourse should be restricted to marriage. Although there is no systematic exposition of sexual and marriage regulations in the Bible, much of it was written in a context in which for women, at least, the restriction of sexual expression to marriage was strictly required. On the whole, therefore, advocates of this position can claim explicit Biblical teaching in support of their views.
A second group holds that because sexual and family patterns are not the subject of Biblical teaching, the correct Christian response is to move from the basic Biblical understanding of human existence to the formulation of an ethic for our time. Here the central teachings are that sexuality, with the intimacy and ecstasy that accompany it, are inherently a part of God’s good creation. Also, all rules should be formulated for the good of human beings and especially for those who are particularly disadvantaged. This good, of course, includes and is shaped by the orientation of all of life to the service of God through the service of neighbors.
In this context, most Christians continue to hold up as an ideal for all who can reach it, a faithful union of a woman and a man who love each other and are open to the gift and responsibility of children. But the fact that this is a particularly blessed pattern does not render all other patterns immoral. For the many for whom this pattern does not work there is always the need to discover what is best. Sometimes it is divorce and remarriage. Sometimes it is a faithful union with a person of the same sex. Sometimes it is celibacy.
Although much is to be said for waiting until marriage to engage in intercourse, this group of Christians does not automatically reject sexual activity before marriage. Indeed, in a culture in which this is the norm, the need may be more for helping young people develop patterns of responsible sexual behavior at this stage of their lives than simply condemning all such activity equally.
To the eyes of the first group, the second appears to be condoning sin and compromising with the world. But those in the second group experience their work more as redefining sin. There is no question but that the sphere of sexual activity is pervaded by sin. Much of current practice is dehumanizing and exploitative. Too much of it is tinged with violence. Some of it expresses male hatred of women. The power dynamics between the partners are often corrupting. Placing sexual gratification at the center of life is unquestionably idolatrous. But this analysis of sin and the effort to identify and support life-giving sexuality can hardly begin when the only line the church draws is between marriage and singleness.
The issues between these two groups of Christians are theologically important. The oldline churches can join with more conservative groups in adopting the former position. When they do so, they do not convince most of the youth in their own congregations to follow their precepts, but they may succeed in qualifying disobedience with guilt. On the whole the traditional teaching appears irrelevant to most of the wider society which then looks elsewhere for moral leadership in this important area. Many of the older members in these congregations go along with the official teaching of their churches but make no effort to transmit it to their own children and grandchildren. This lack of fit contributes to their lukewarmness about the church.
The second group calls for a real transformation of the church’s teaching. In my view, if it prevailed, a new situation would emerge. There could be an honest discussion throughout the church, involving also many who have abandoned the church about the wide range of complex issues involved in sexual relations. Discussing these issues as disciples of Jesus Christ would lead to quite different conclusions from those of the sexual revolution. But the conclusions could nonetheless be taken seriously by society in general and by youth in the churches. It would be possible to be convinced about the value and importance of being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. One main obstacle to placing Christ in the center of the lives of young adults would be removed. If people could really look to the oldline churches for guidance in this important area of their lives, the possibility of conviction about the truth and importance of the churches’ message would be renewed.
In the 1960s Lynn White, Jr. argued that the Western church had encouraged an anthropocentric reading of the Bible. That is, it taught that the end of creation was the wellbeing of human beings, and that all else exists only to serve us. The Western church thus provided a context in which the natural world could be freely exploited for economic purposes. When this exploitation led to consequences threatening to the future of human beings, it became clear that this anthropocentrism required correction. Once again, the issue was a theological one.
The first reaction of many Christians was to attack White’s thesis. Often they did so by arguing that the Bible is in fact not anthropocentric. This was a poor argument against White, who had carefully stated that the problem was the way the Bible had been read in the Western church. But this defense of the Bible was a positive step in the repentance of the oldline churches.
As in the case of sexuality, Christians were helped to realize that the anthropocentrism to which they had grown so accustomed separated them from Biblical teaching. This made repentance, in the sense of regret and rejection of past teaching, quite easy for Protestants. In many official statements, Christians reaffirmed the doctrine that God is the creator of the whole world and that the whole world is good. It does not exist only for the sake of human beings. In the language of the World Council of Churches, creation as a whole has its own “integrity.”
In this case, it has been even easier than in the former one for Christians to add this doctrine in conformity with the Bible without engaging in significant metanoia. The distinction here is not between conservatives and liberals. Both conservatives and liberals are deeply immersed in anthropocentric modes of thought, and neither, as a group, have transformed these in light of the recognition of the intrinsic value of all of God’s creation. When the issue of the integrity of creation is directly raised, there is almost uniform assent. When that issue is not made explicit, the discussion typically proceeds on anthropocentric grounds.
In the local church, the situation is similar. Many congregations celebrate Earth Day. There is a service once a year in which they affirm the importance of the Earth and all its inhabitants. But the liturgy employed the other 51 Sundays is little affected.
Some preachers do touch on the Earth in other sermons. Exploitation of the Earth is added to the list of social concerns of the congregation. Some congregations try to be more ecologically responsible in their purchasing and to engage in recycling.
This regret for past sins, the affirmation of an improved doctrine, and gestures in the direction of practical change are all to be celebrated. They give some hope to outsiders, passionately committed to saving the Earth, that the church is no longer their enemy, that it may become their ally. But these beginning steps do little to overcome lukewarmness.
Alongside these limited changes in the churches are Christian writings that explore the deeper meaning of a changed view of the natural world. These provide a whole new cosmology or worldview that points to a very different way of ordering individual life and society as a whole. Instead of seeing the natural world as one among the social ethical concerns of human beings, it displays the human race as one species of God’s creatures alongside others, a species with special prerogatives and responsibilities within creation.
Seen in this way, much that society in its deeply entrenched anthropocentrism has taken for granted appears violent and sinful. The political debates of our time seem miscast. The churches’ continuing preoccupation with individuals and institutions seems profoundly shortsighted. a salvation without which our efforts to help individuals can have only a marginal role to play.
Those who view matters in this way believe that Christians are The deep need is for the salvation of the whole world, called into the service of God for the salvation of the Earth. No call has ever been more urgent than this. One who hears this call can never be lukewarm again. But one who hears this call and observes the efforts and concerns of the church from the point of view it engenders, is very likely to be lukewarm about the church.
Obviously, one cannot appeal to the Bible in a simplistic way for support in calling the church to transform its understanding of salvation and the will of God. But if we compare the present vagueness and near irrelevance of what is typically said about salvation and the will of God in our oldline churches today with the call to save the Earth from the destruction we are inflicting upon it, the latter appears more continuous with Bible. We could show how Jesus Christ is the savior of the world. The lukewarmness engendered by vagueness and irrelevance could, in principle, be replaced with wholehearted conviction of truth and importance.
The greatest success story with regard to repentance is with respect to race. In this area repentance has been nearly universal across the whole spectrum of predominatly white churches. Here the fact that the Bible is so clearly against racism has been a great help.
But it is important to acknowledge that for centuries millions of white believers read their Bibles and thought and acted as racists. Some even developed arguments for racism from the Bible. It takes more than the clear words of the Bible to shake people into recognition of the sinfulness of established social patterns from which they benefit. It is only very recently that conservative Biblicists have openly expressed regret for their long support of racist policies and practices. In the United States, the most important step in the erosion of official racism came with the work of Martin Luther King. Of course, this was not the first attack on racism, but it was the one that forced the attention of the entire nation, and especially of the churches, to a topic they had marginalized since the abolition of slavery. And the churches did respond in fairly healthy way. Their opposition to racism was convincing both with respect to truth and importance. Their support of King’s crusade for racial justice contributed significantly to national legislation and to a changed climate of opinion.
Whereas care for the Earth is affirmed when the question is asked and forgotten most of the time, racism is now part of the evil against which a wide spectrum of churches struggle. That our denominations have been racist in the past is widely acknowledged, and regret is sincere. There are arguments about whether some policies are racist, but noone defends racism.
Obviously, this does not mean that the churches are now free from racism. Far from it. They do not claim to be. In our culture racial identity and attitudes based on it are so central that there is little prospect of becoming altogether free of them. But we can work, and have worked, to end the overt and obvious discrimination to which these attitudes long gave rise. We can insure that members of minority groups have positions of power throughout our denominations.
Yet even in this area, where there is most to celebrate in the church’s response, the metanoia has not gone far enough to contribute significantly to the long-term health of the oldline denominations. Although the Black churches led the nation in a moral crusade and the white churches gave significant support, the church has not led in thinking through to a new vision of our life together in a multi-ethnic society. Our denunciation of enforced segregation of minorities and of unequal treatment is clear. We are not clear as to what should replace this.
During the early days of the civil rights movement the call was for color-blindness. It soon became clear, however, that this was not wise. Generations of slavery and segregation had put Blacks at a severe disadvantage. The majority concluded that justice now required special support of some kind for those who had long been oppressed, not simply ignoring race.
But this could, in turn, be regarded as racist. And often those Blacks who could take advantage of special considerations were those who had suffered least from the history of exploitation and repression. The new policies deepened the divide between middle class and lower class Blacks, creating a leadership vacuum among the latter.
This is not the place to rehearse the continuing problems of race in the United States. The brief comments are intended only to point out that there are basic theological questions raised by our efforts to overcome racism. Should we treat one another simply as individuals, ignoring categorization by race? Or should we treat one another as members of particular communities, some of which are racially or ethnically defined? Are American whites collectively guilty for our enslavement, segregation, and exploitation of Blacks over the centuries? Or is each person responsible only for personal sins? Should one generation receive compensation for injustices inflicted on earlier generations?
As the churches led in the struggle to end segregation and gross discrimination against Blacks, they might have been the locus in which serious reflection on these difficult questions took place. They might thus have exercised a leadership function in shaping the thinking of the nation. Those seriously concerned with this central issue in American society might have seen the church as the place where they could participate in critical reflection guided by Christian commitments.
Nothing like this happened. The positions taken by the church were efforts to speak morally and to be on the side of the oppressed. But they did not express any serious reflection about the difficult theoretical issues the nation faces. When the backlash against quotas came, the church was in no position to speak helpfully. Against gross and egregious evils, moral passion can be a powerful force. But if that is all the church can offer, it cannot call for strong commitment.
The limitations of the churches’ opposition to racism are apparent also at the personal level. Treating it simply as a moral issue arouses guilt and efforts to change overt behavior. But guilt does not help in overcoming racist feelings themselves. In complex ways it may make matters worse. Since none of us can endure the pressure of guilt feelings indefinitely, we may become angry with those who cause them in us. The objects of our anger may be the moralists who criticize us; they may also be the objects of our racist feelings. Alternately, we may decide that our racist feelings are nothing to feel guilty about. The rise of extreme forms of white nationalism, and the much wider latent sympathy for this reaction, indicate that this response is not entirely uncommon.
The church has other means of dealing with sin than condemnation. It preaches confession and forgiveness. With less clarity and consistency it preaches that we can overcome the power of sin in our lives, or at least of particular sins. Its fellowship and its sacramental life are intended to have these effects. But for them to be effective in relation to particular sins such as racism, more is needed. This “more” begins with understanding of the rise of racism in societies and in individuals and continues with the analysis of how it can be uprooted. Based on such analysis the church could work to help those who do not want to be racist to free themselves from racist attitudes. Individual Christians have contributed to this “more,” but on the whole our oldline churches have offered little help. The kind of conviction about the truth and importance of the churches’ teaching that could follow if the there were really helpful teaching and practice in this area is not possible. There is nothing to counter the growing lukewarmness.
The fourth area in which our oldline churches have repented is with regard to gender. This repentance has been, theologically, the most difficult, because it is less clearly called for by the Bible. The Bible does not support the view of sexuality in general as demeaning or dirty. It does not support the idea that the rest of creation has its value and meaning only in relation to us. It does not support any claim for the superiority of the white race. But the Bible does offer support for patriarchal patterns and structures.
For this reason it is likely that progress in repenting of gender discrimination would have been slow had internal pressure within the oldline denominations not been strong. But in this instance, those who resented discrimination were an important part of the life of the churches. Their expectations and demands could not be ignored or dealt with erratically.
The issues raised here were more clearly theological than in the other instances. The churches have to decide between those Biblical teachings that reflect the patriarchal assumptions and contexts of the time and those that call for justice and oppose oppression. Such decisions require theological reflection about how to judge among Biblical themes.
The decision to apply teachings about justice to gender matters was facilitated by fresh study of the New Testament. This led to the recognition that Jesus and the earliest community were far less patriarchal than either the dominant Jewish society of the time or the Christian church from the second century on. Accordingly, it could be argued that the Christian gospel worked against patriarchy and toward the equality of men and women.
The repentance of the oldline churches has been considerable. As ministerial leadership has been opened to women, their numbers have risen dramatically. Equality in numbers and power in the professional leadership of the churches is foreseeable. Some project the less desirable outcome that, as ministry continues to decline in professional prestige, it will come to be typed as a woman’s role.
The broader theological ramifications of overcoming patriarchy have also been far more discussed in the churches than have those of sexual, ecological, and racial questions. Again, this is because women constitute a large portion of the membership of the oldline churches and a sufficient number of them are feminists to keep the issues alive. Their reflections have led to some changes other than that of public gender roles.
The most important of these has been with regard to language. Women have persuaded the denominations that the use of masculine language to speak of human beings generally has obscured the role of women. Many congregations have tried to avoid this practice: gender neutral translations of Biblical passages have been made available: and denominational publishing houses have developed policies about the language used in their publications. The change is now affecting the language of denominational hymnals. Although there is resistance to this type of change, it is not admittedly theological.
The far more difficult question is how of speak of God. Although official church teaching is generally that God is not a sexual or gendered being, many believe that God can be rightly imaged only in masculine ways. Despite the presence of some feminine images of deity in the Bible, there is no question but that God is view overwhelmingly in masculine terms. Many Christians cling to the idea of “the heavenly father.” To avoid gendered imagery altogether tends strongly to a depersonalization of God that many Christians oppose. The alternative is to balance masculine imagery with feminine. Some progress has been made, but a real change for most members of our churches has not yet occurred.
What would happen if our oldline churches truly developed a postpatriarchal mode of being? It is impossible to say. Perhaps many of their current members would leave. Attachment to a patriarchal deity is strong, and habits of organization and institutional practice developed in a patriarchal context are deepseated. Many men might feel oppressed by the changes, as would some male-identified women.
Nevertheless, one may hazard the guess that lukewarmness would give way to excitement. Women struggling with some success to gain a voice in a patriarchal institution may give real support to that organization. Nevertheless, their commitment to it can only be lukewarm. Women shaping an institution in light of Christian feminist ideals and vision would not be lukewarm.
I have spoken as if this is purely women’s work, and there is no doubt that they have played and must play the leadership role if a transformation of this kind is ever to occur. But if the result of transformation were simply a church for women, the postpatriarchal form of Christianity for which we may hope would not have been realized. The vision of a Christian postpatriarchal society, particularly if it is inspired in part by the earliest Christian communities, fully includes men. Furthermore, the liberation of men from patriarchal norms can be as enriching and significant for them as the liberation of women from those norms. If this transformation is to be realized, Christian women and Christian men must work together to listen again to the gospel and dare to embody it in quite new forms.
Although the emergence of a truly postpatriarchal church still appears remote, there is more energy in our oldline denominations for this kind of transformation than for any other. Fortunately, it does not stand in competition with the other forms of repentance of which I have spoken. A postpatriarchal church would have fresh ideas about sexuality that deepen the most positive trends now present in Christian thinking. A postpatriarchal church would experience the rootedness of human life to the Earth in a far richer way and work out its implications for social and economic life. A postpatriarchal church would understand human relationships in ways that would undercut the current grounds of continuing racial feeling.
But such a postpatriarchal community would be truly a church only if Christ remains at its center. Obviously, the Christ who would be at its center would not be the Cosmocrator of the ancient Eastern churches. It would not be the God-man who satisfies the wrathful judgment of the Father by his sacrifice. It would not be the isolated hero who single-handedly overthrows the powers of evil.
The Jesus of the postpatriarchal church would more likely be the central figure in a community of Jewish women and men who participated in a new style of life together, one that profoundly threatened the established patriarchal powers of both Jews and Romans. The Christ of this church would be the Spirit present in that community and in all genuninely human community, a Spirit that extends also to the community with the other creatures who make up our world. This Spirit would be experienced as liberating, healing, empowering, uniting, and challenging. It would be the one power that is capable of saving the Earth and its inhabitants from devastation. Devotion to this Christ in the name of Jesus would be wholehearted.
At present the movement of women’s liberation in the church does little to counter the lukewarmness of our oldline denominations. The women who lead this movement are, understandably, more enthusiastic about the movement than about the resistant churches. Those who consciously and intentionally oppose the changes they advocate become less committed to the church as it yields to those changes. Those who go along with the changes without understanding their full implication are halfhearted. Thus far, therefore, all these forms of repentance have contributed to the lukewarmness of the old line churches. My thesis is that it need not be so forever.
In conclusion let me reiterate my central thesis. Our churches are lukewarm because they do not have convincing teachings that are evidently of great importance. The teachings that once carried this weight have been exposed as morally ambiguous and sometimes positively destructive. We have responded by regretting those teachings and making modest changes in behavior and doctrine. The result has been the sense of believing less with less confidence.
There is an alternative — one that our churches have followed in previous crises. That is to think through the meaning of the challenges to past practices and doctrines to the point where a new vision arises. This new vision can then be understood to be more faithful to Christ than was the old. Christ is seen in the movement from the old to the new, and Christ is seen in the center of the new.
To stop halfway, clinging to the old while making concessions to the demands for change is to insure lukewarmness and continuing decline. To move forward wholeheartedly is a great risk, but it is our only chance for new life. I am convinced it is Christ’s call to us today.