Theological Liberalism

Confidence in the Bible was weakened by theological liberalism and Darwinian evolution, and this greatly affected the spiritual power of churches. Though liberalism took many forms, its essence is an attack upon the authority of the Bible.

The Northern Baptists became liberal in theology at the beginning of the 20th century. (They were known as the Northern Baptist Convention until 1950, when the name was changed to American Baptist Convention.) For example, in 1918, Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the influential Riverside Church in New York City, published The Manhood of the Master, denying that Jesus Christ is God. In 1926, the Northern Baptist Convention voted by a margin of three to one not to evict Riverside Church from the convention.

Liberalism entered the Southern Baptist Convention in the first half of the 20th century. By 1902, J.W. Bailey of North Carolina wrote in the Biblical Recorder that there were a multitude of “theologies” in the Southern Baptist Convention. He said, “Theologies change every day. … [Baptists do not stand for] formulated dogmas.”

A Baptist pastorate that was probably largely unregenerate stopped depending on spiritual weapons and turned to carnal weapons such as denominational programs and an efficient organization.

There was an emphasis on “efficiency” and “pragmatism” (using whatever works to produce a desired goal). “Efficiency consisted not in purity or obedience, but in system, organization, and rationality in all areas of church activity. … progressive church leaders held that the church in the modern age needed a polity based not on ancient authority but on science, rationality, and system. They looked to social scientists and efficiency experts such as Frederick Winslow Taylor, who in this era developed management into a science for producing efficient organizations” (Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, Kindle loc. 2167-2174).

In the 1920s, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary appointed Gaines Dobbins as a “professor of church efficiency.” His 1923 book 
The Efficient Church had a wide influence. He claimed that Christ’s ministry in the Gospels was “the perfection of efficiency” and Paul was the “world’s greatest efficiency expert in religion.”

Churches began leaning to the spirit and wisdom of the times instead of God’s Spirit and God’s Word. Instead of separating from the world and its unenlightened thinking, they learned from the world.

They bowed to the American spirit of individualism and consumerism. They stopped requiring evidence of salvation and practicing discipline so as not to offend potential members. The churches appeased the people’s idolatrous, me-centered desire to shop for a church that met their felt needs. They lowered the spiritual standards, became entertainment-oriented, borrowed the world’s music to make Christian music more appealing to the unsaved and carnal, softened the preaching, created “youth ministries” that encouraged the generation gap and were merely Christianized versions of the world’s pop culture. By the last half of the 20th century, this spiritual appeasement produced the seeker-sensitive, megachurch movement.

Churches bowed to the influence of the “new morality” and allowed church members to live worldly lives. Such things as dating, pre-marital sex, drinking, jazz, rock, divorce, and unisex fashions flooded the weak churches. Churches bowed to the philosophy of non-judgmentalism and non-dogmatism that permeated society. The concept of Christians as pilgrims and strangers in a foreign country was replaced by Americanism and flag waving. The Social Gospel produced an emphasis away from evangelism and church planting. Building God’s kingdom on earth through social-justice projects and maintaining good social order began to replace “saving brands from the burning.”

In 1910, William Poteat, president of Wake Forest College, told the annual Southern Baptist Convention that Baptists were in the best position to save civilization. In 1920, Richard Edmonds wrote, “Upon the Baptists of the South may rest the salvation of America and of the world from chaos and from sinking back into the darkness of the middle ages” (The South, America and the World)

David Cloud

Way of Life Literature|Port Huron, MI