Scripture and the Church

How Has Postmodernism Subverted the Church?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
It has obliterated Biblical dividing lines between light & darkness, truth & error, and righteousness & permissiveness.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

In response to our recent series on dealing with apostasy in the church, readers have asked, "What has caused the problems we're seeing today?" In contemporary terms we can put the answer into three words: postmodernism, pluralism, and privatization. Beginning today, we'll explore each of these deadly influences.

The Ruinous Postmodern Mindset

The postmodernization of the church has led to the blurring and erasure of Biblical dividing lines between light and darkness (John 1:5, John 12:46, Ephesians 5:8), truth and error (1 John 4:6), righteousness and permissiveness (1 Timothy 1:9), the narrow way that leads to life and the broad way that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:14).

The foundational tenet of postmodernism is that there is no objective standard of truth. Immediate experiences, not transcendent laws, are the proper basis of thought and action. Therefore, says the postmodern mind, "both-and" thinking (fallen man's inclusivism) must replace "either-or" thinking (the holy God's dividing lines). Therefore, the collective is of higher value than the individual. And therefore, distinctions of all kinds must be eliminated, overcome, or ignored.

The philosophy that produced this mindset began to develop in the 1800s. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and his followers promoted the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth. All things are subjective. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) promoted the idea that there are no such things as facts, only varying interpretations of data. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) promoted the idea that groups and communities of people each arrive at their own versions of "truth" by consensus, by what he termed "a fusion of horizons."

During the last three generations in America, and for even longer in Europe, the postmodern philosophy has dominated education at all levels. Society is indoctrinated in this philosophy from grade school through graduate school. Thus postmodernism has come to saturate the thinking of every area of society - including many conservative churches. (This is one of the reasons that good Christian schooling and homeschooling are vital for our young people. Christian parents must protect their children from imbibing the poison of postmodernism by shielding them from the postmodern agenda promoted by the government-run schools, while grounding them firmly in Biblical truth.)

How Postmodernism Ruins Society At Large

One of the main results of society's saturation with postmodernism is that words no longer have definite and fixed meaning in context for the vast majority of people. What something means is "what it means to me" or to "my community." Therefore, how an individual or group feels about a subject is far more important than facts, logic, laws, or principles. Collective opinion is therefore more important than inconvenient facts, laws, logic, or principles. And therefore, religious, male/female, national, and other valid distinctions must be eliminated, overcome, or ignored. All lines of distinction must be blurred or erased.

How Postmodernism Undermines Christian Scholarship

Postmodern thinking has wormed its way into Christian colleges and seminaries over the last three generations. Its ruinous influence on much of Christian scholarship has produced a generation of preachers and churches that no longer stand for much of anything:

  • The postmodern Evangelical preacher believes that the same essential Bible term can mean different things to different individuals and groups. That is also how his church thinks. (Or, in the spirit of postmodernism, her church.)
  • Loose interpretation of Scripture and of secondary doctrinal standards is said to be permissible, and even desirable. No one wants to be viewed as "rigid."
  • Loose definition of what constitutes essential doctrine is said to be permissible, even desirable. In the postmodern church, there are few if any non-negotiables.
  • Therefore, says postmodern Evangelicalism, doctrinal distinctives that divide must be eliminated, overcome, or ignored for the greater good of "evangelism" (however you might define that term).
  • Therefore, Roman Catholic/Protestant distinctions must be eliminated or overcome, or can simply be ignored. Postmodern Evangelical preachers can say, with a straight face, that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

How Postmodernism Subverts Churches

Here are some examples of how postmodern thinking has subverted churches at the foundations:1

  • Individuals and groups use the Biblical term "justification by faith" to mean different things, even though all definitions but one are un-Biblical and therefore wrong. In many churches today, "justification by faith" (which the Bible defines as absolutely empty-handed faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ alone for salvation, Romans 3:19-31) has been twisted into "justification by faithfulness" - which is simply a postmodern way of saying "salvation by works."
  • The Bible has become "the greatest story never read." Since he doesn't deem the Bible to be that important, and certainly not the objective standard of truth, the postmodern Evangelical simply doesn't bother to read it. Only one in six Evangelical adults reads the Bible regularly. Nearly forty percent never read the Bible at all.
  • 37% of adults in Evangelical churches do not believe the Bible is totally accurate.
  • 45% of adults in Evangelical churches do not believe Christ was sinless.
  • 52% of adults in Evangelical churches do not believe Satan is real.
  • 57% of adults in Evangelical churches believe good works gain eternal life.
  • Over 50% of adults in Evangelical churches think other religions are equally valid ways to eternal life.
  • 70% of Evangelical young people leave the church when they reach adulthood. Their main stated reason is that they no longer believe the Bible is true, and the church has done little or nothing to answer their doubts.
  • Less than 10% of adults in Evangelical churches cite the Bible as the primary basis of their worldview & behavior.
  • 19% of those who are living with a partner outside of marriage, are members of Evangelical churches.

Whatever Happened to the Scripture-Driven Church?

These are the facts, and we need to wake up and face them. We need to ask the question, "Whatever happened to the Scripture-driven church?"

Clearly, postmodernism has cultivated the mushy swamp of equivocation into which the Evangelical church is sinking today. Postmodernism has facilitated the rise of Missionary Atheism in our time. 16% of Americans today hold no religious belief at all. That number has tripled in the last 20 years, and most of the growth has been among young adults ages 18 to 29.

Postmodernism has also facilitated the resurgence of Roman Catholicism. Today, Roman Catholicism is making more converts in America than just about any other religious group. According to Time magazine, many of them are young married men and women who grew up in Evangelical churches. Many of them have turned to Rome because of the outward shallowness of the contemporary-style Evangelical church service. In America today, Roman Catholicism's area of fastest growth is in the Southern Bible Belt.

Postmodernism has also facilitated the aggressive growth of Islam in this country. In more and more cities and towns in the United States, you will find Muslim mosques springing up. The Bible-belt city of Greenville, South Carolina now has at least eight mosques, with more in the works. Islamic missionaries are coming here from the Middle East. They are well-financed. And their stated goal is to turn the United States of America into an Islamic state.

Postmodernism has also facilitated the passage of so-called "hate crime" laws that make it a felony to "offend" some protected class of people (e.g., sexual perverts, or those of another religion) by simply preaching the one true Gospel from the Bible.

I believe the present situation is a judgment upon the Evangelical church in America today. In many ways, we are no longer the Scripture-driven church.

A Postmodern Takeover in Your Church?

In all of our churches, and in all of our ministries, we need to ask this question: Has there been a postmodern takeover in your church? Is the Bible your supreme authority, or have other things taken first place? We cannot lightly brush aside this question. Too much is at stake if our answer is the wrong one.

Often our conditioned response goes like this: "Of course the Bible is our authority. We're a Bible-believing church." And often, that's the end of the discussion. But Lord of the church doesn't let us off so easily. The authority question persists in the pages of God's Word.

Do the leadership and people of your church really understand what the Bible has to say about the exclusiveness of its authority - that God will have no rivals? Does your church continually compare everything it says and does against the Biblical standard? Does your church understand how easily, how insinuatingly, other things can supplant the Bible's authority? Does your church understand how easily these other things can take the church off-message and off-mission? Does your church understand how easily these other things can put the people of the church in spiritual danger? Does your church understand how easily these other things can neutralize its testimony to the unbelieving world?

These are not impertinent questions. The evidence tells us that they are very valid ones. The Word of God has been pushed aside. We must give God's Word its rightful place once again. We must become the Scripture-driven church once again.

Thus says the Lord: "Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls" (Jeremiah 6:16).

 

1. Sources of data cited in this article:

 

  • Gary M. Burge, "The Greatest Story Never Read," Christianity Today, August 9, 1999
  • Dr. Stephen Prothero, Chairman, Department of Religion, Boston University; author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't (HarperCollins, 2007); C-SPAN interview broadcast on May 13, 2007.
  • Bible Literacy Center, www.centerforbibleengagement.com
  • Barna Research, www.barna.org, especially the Barna Research report, Religious Beliefs Vary Widely By Denomination, 2001, and a Barna Research survey commissioned by Answers In Genesis, 2005.
  • U. S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008, religions.pewforum.org
  • Robin D. Perrin, Paul Kennedy, Donald E. Miller, "Examining the Sources of Conservative Church Growth: Where Are the New Evangelical Movements Getting Their Numbers?" in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 36, No. 1, March 1997, pp. 71-80

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