J. Gresham Machen, the great Presbyterian theologian from the early decades of the 20th century, brilliantly assessed the state of modern Christianity and the rise of Protestant liberalism. Rather than seeing liberal theology as a variant of the Christian faith, Machen labeled it as some other religion that merely poses as Christianity. For Machen, nothing unified orthodox Christianity with Protestant liberalism—the former pursued theological fidelity to the God of the Bible, while the latter morphed into an entirely new religion altogether.
This dichotomy beamed in a recent article from the New York Times with a shocking yet revealing headline: “This Canadian Preacher Doesn’t Believe in God but Supports Her Church.” The subject of the headline is the Reverend Gretta Vosper, an avowed atheist who serves as a minister in the United Church of Canada (UCC). In November of last year, the UCC almost convened an historic heresy trial against Vosper to determine if an atheist possessed the qualifications of a pastor. The Canadian church, however, capitulated and reached “a settlement” with Vosper—a decision that allowed Vosper to remain a minister in her church despite her atheistic belief.
The controversy between Vosper and the UCC stretches back to 2008 when Vosper’s book, With or Without God, trivialized belief in God. Her own concept of morality and virtue eclipsed faith in God as the primary marks of a Christian. In 2013, Vosper made her atheism public, followed by a 2015 letter that Vosper wrote in which she disparaged God’s presence in the world and activity in historical events. God could not be responsible because God does not exist. Her argument: There is no God, no one’s in charge. Accidents just happen. Belief in God, according to Vosper, belongs to an outdated worldview.
Interestingly, in her zeal to depart from an antiquated, theocentric worldview, Vosper’s congregation dramatically shrunk in size. When she discarded the Lord’s Prayer, her church deteriorated from 150 attendees to 50—an exodus of 100 people or two-thirds of the congregation. It turns out that cultural relevance, rather than saving a marginalized church, only hemorrhages to a swift demise.
Her atheism provoked the local jurisdiction of the UCC to conduct what Vosper labeled, a “heresy trial.” The local panel ruled her unsuitable for ministry and almost defrocked the atheist minister. Then, the National Churches conducted its final review of her case and subsequently reached a settlement with Vosper. The UCC explained its decision to end the investigation stating, “This doesn’t alter in any way the belief of the United Church of Canada in God.” In other words, atheism and theism are not incompatible in the view of this church. The requirement that one believe in God does not contradict the reality that one denies the existence of God. This is capitulation of the highest order. The UCC, by legitimizing atheism as a possible expression for its ministers, has actually erased all the lines, safeguards, and convictions that should guide the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing is out of bounds; nothing can cross the line because the line has disappeared. The UCC reduced belief in God to an outdated, outmoded, and inconsequential tenet of the Christian faith.
Vosper celebrated the UCC’s decision, stating, “It’s going to be wonderful. We’ll be out from underneath the heavy cloud, now we’ll be able to really fly.” Indeed, her church members did fly—they flew right out of the church in droves.
Julian Falconer, Vosper’s attorney, explained why the UCC settled rather than conducting a trail: “Both parties took a long look at the cost benefit at running a heresy trial, and whether it was good for anyone, and the results speak for themselves.” This explanation reveals an extremely important and harrowing reality behind this case. The UCC conducted a cost benefit analysis and decided that heresy was the lesser of two evils. The church weighed faith in God against “inclusivity” and valued inclusivism higher than theological fidelity. For the sake of the church, belief in God had to go.
Kevin Flatt’s book After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church chronicles the theological downgrade of the UCC since the 1960s. Social justice propelled the UCC rather than theological commitments. As such, the UCC became an engine of secularism and liberalism in Canada. It pioneered transgender ministers, supported abortion, and championed same-sex marriage before it became legal in Canada. Flatt’s analysis identified the “keep up or die” trope that drove the UCC’s liberal transformation. Cultural relevance conflicts with supernatural doctrines and theology. The UCC, like so many denominations guided by the “keep up or die” mentality, have surrendered theological conviction for the misguided hope that survival in this secular age hinges on abandoning the doctrines and precious truths of the gospel that have guided the Church since its inception. The results of this idea, however, have devastated liberal churches. It turns out that “keep up or die” really means “keep up and die.” As Vosper declared, liberal churches do indeed fly; they fly right out of existence. Their members flee, their doors close, and the churches die fast.
Frankly, the number of liberal churches dying just serves to make the point learned from the Scriptures and 2,000 years of church history: A church that refuses to hold a heresy trial when faced with a heretic is no church of Jesus Christ.
This article draws from the February 8th edition of The Briefing. To listen to the full episode, click here. To subscribe to The Briefing–Dr. Mohler’s daily podcast that serves as an analysis of news and events–click here.