Today’s Protestant churches can learn from an old Arab fable which tells of a nomad and his camel who hunkered down during a sand storm. As the storm approached, the man hurriedly crawled into his tent, with the camel kneeling just outside. When the first flecks of sand swirled past, the camel asked his master, “Master, I don’t need to ask for much. My nose is very sensitive, and the sand irritates it very much. Might I perhaps stick my nose inside your tent for protection?” The master thought this was a reasonable request—not to mention harmless—and readily granted it.
Not long afterward, the camel spoke up again. “Master, the storm has grown harsher. The sand is blasting my eyelids and ears. Would it be alright if I stuck my whole head inside the tent?” Now the master cared for his camel, and didn’t want to cause it such cruel discomfort. He allowed the camel to reach his head into the tent.
A short time later, the camel petitioned his master once more, “This storm is quite exhausting. I won’t be able to endure much longer without a short rest. I hope you will allow me into the tent to escape the storm; I won’t need to stay long.” Now the nomad needed his beast of burden in good shape to complete his journey; he told the camel that he could enter the tent and stay as long as he needed.
As soon as the camel was completely inside the tent, he kicked the master out into the midst of the storm. “What have you done?” cried the master. “Did I not give you everything you asked for? Why then have you treated me so unfairly?” The camel replied, “You are a foolish man for allowing me to put my nose in the tent in the first place.”
The Decline and Fall of the Mainline Empire
Moral relativism is the camel inside the tent of American Christianity today. Its effects are most obvious among mainline Protestant denominations. Some statistics from a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center provide a snapshot: only 32 percent of mainline Protestants believed in absolute standards of morality, and 24 percent of mainline Protestants looked to religious teachings as a moral guide. 25 percent of mainline Protestants said Christianity was the only religion that led to eternal life.
What caused three-quarters of mainline Protestants to give up on the absolute nature of Christianity’s teachings on sin, righteousness, and eternal life? It likely began with a rejection of Scripture—the authoritative standard by which to understand these things. While 62 percent of mainline Protestants agree the Bible is the Word of God, only 24 percent say that it should be interpreted literally. If the Bible is not interpreted literally, then how is it supposed to be interpreted? Metaphorically? Allegorically? Creatively? Saying that the Bible is not to be interpreted literally is for saying you can interpret the Bible to mean whatever you want.
When Biblical interpretation is unmoored from the plain reading of the text, then the reader loses confidence in even the ideas most clearly presented. As a result, now only 60 percent of mainline Protestants believe in hell and 80 percent believe in heaven. Only 63 percent believe in a personal God with whom they can have a relationship. Only 66 percent of mainline Protestants could say they were absolutely certain that God exists (substantially down from 73 percent seven years earlier).
Mainline Protestants have had a particularly hard time maintaining the core Gospel message of the Protestant Reformation, that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone, “not a result of works” (Ephesians 2:9). In 2008 when Pew Research asked mainline Protestants how to obtain eternal life, only 16 percent believed that eternal life is obtained through belief in Jesus or God, while 10 percent speculated salvation required a combination of faith and works, and 33 percent said that eternal life was obtained through good deeds. Other noteworthy answers from mainline Protestants were that the respondent didn’t know what determines who obtains eternal life (18 percent!), that it was some other syncretistic combination of beliefs, generic beliefs, or one’s own personal truth (9 percent), that there was no eternal life (5 percent), or that nearly everyone obtains eternal life (3 percent).
If you can call yourself a mainline Protestant and believe literally anything, it’s hard to tell what the value of the label is anymore. What is the point to remaining in a mainline Protestant church? At least, it seems many members of mainline Protestant churches have followed this line of thinking. The IRD’s president Mark Tooley commented in 2015 that mainline denominations in America have shrunk dramatically both in total membership and a fraction of the population over the past fifty years. The IRD’s Anglican Action director Jeff Walton has recently noted the particular danger to the Episcopal Church and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Tooley noted elsewhere that the largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church (UMC), has only escaped the general decline because it continues to grow in other areas of the world like Africa—which is less saturated with postmodern relativism. The camel is thrashing around inside the tent of mainline American Protestantism.
Successor Churches: Successes or Failures?
The point is not to knock mainline Protestants, but to warn that evangelicals may soon suffer the same fate. During this era of mainline decline, evangelical churches have continued to grow numerically if not as a percentage of the population. However, the Apostle Paul warned, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). In context (1 Corinthians 10:6-11), he is reiterating the well-established Biblical principle of taking heed of one’s own path based on the fate of others (Psalm 95:7-11, Proverbs 22:3, Proverbs 27:12, Hebrews 3:7-4:11, Revelation 2-3). IRD’s Evangelical Action director, Chelsen Vicari, recently pointed out that many evangelicals perceive themselves to be innovating new approaches to the culture when in reality they are veering into the same byways as mainline denominations before them.
The same 2014 Pew Research study revealed that greater proportions of evangelicals held onto traditional doctrines than among mainline Protestants, but the numbers are still concerning. 50 percent of evangelicals expressed a belief in absolute standards of morality, and 52 percent said they looked to religious teachings as a moral guide. A mere 58 percent of evangelicals said that only Christianity can lead to eternal life. While 88 percent of evangelicals declared the Bible was the word of God, only 55 percent believed it should be interpreted literally. Only 56 percent of evangelicals retained the belief that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone. More evangelicals retained belief in some core doctrines. For example, 88 percent believed in heaven, and 82 percent believed in hell. 88 percent were absolutely certain God exists, and 80 percent believed in a personal God.
Is this good enough? We might be tempted to think in terms of politics, where any result over 50 percent is a win, and anything in the 80 percent range is “virtually unanimous.” We might be tempted to think in terms of schooling, where 50 percent is a failing grade, but 80 percent is a decent showing—a B average. But a little false teaching “leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9). According to the Pew survey, there is more than a little false teaching among evangelicals—12 percent are not sure whether—or positively believe—that the Bible is not the Word of God and that heaven does not exist; 18 percent are not sure about—or positively deny—the existence of hell; 20 percent don’t believe in a personal God; 42 percent say, or at least remain open to the possibility, that non-Christian religions can lead to eternal life; it goes on from there.
The universal church of Jesus Christ is described as the “body of Christ” in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians. When people in the church reject God’s teaching, they are acting as aberrant parts of the body. Modern medicine helpfully provides us with a name for a condition where cells in the body behave abnormally and stop performing their proper function; it’s called cancer. If a human body was 12 percent, 20 percent, or 40 percent cancerous, would we call that body healthy? The world thinks Christians are hypocrites; can we blame them?
Someone may object that my language is too strong, that I go beyond the pale of what the Bible teaches. Here is how Jude 12-13 describes those in the church who teach false doctrine, “These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted, wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.”
A 2018 study by LifeWay and Ligonier, two Christian publication ministries, provides further and more specific evidence of the extent to which false beliefs have permeated the church, including evangelicals. I encourage you, the reader, to investigate their findings at your leisure. If nothing else, they drive home the confusion in the church amidst a culture steeped in moral relativism.
It may be that this camel has only got its head into the tent of evangelicalism. But if evangelicals continue to imitate the mistakes of the mainline denominations, then we too will prove that where the camel’s nose goes, the rest is sure to follow. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy is as appropriate now as at any moment in church history: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”