Reaching theological liberals – Guest Column
How might we reach out to those with a liberal mindset infected with anti-supernaturalism? How might we reach liberal pastors even, of the old mainline denominations?
If an ongoing opportunity should present itself, what methods might we use to reach these men and women? This is what I faced four years ago, when a very liberal minister came knocking on my door.
He was looking for another pastor to fill an empty spot for his Tuesday morning fraternal. I did not seriously consider his request, since I knew there was nothing theologically compatible between us.
A week later he called again and my interest grew. ‘Perhaps this is providential’, I thought. So I accepted the invitation to attend this weekly conclave of liberal ministers.
My first action was to pray. I had no idea what to expect, except to be prepared to be asked to leave soon after joining with the group! I asked the Lord for wisdom.
The first few weeks I remained very quiet but friendly, attempting to get a ‘compass bearing’ on the eight men. I began reading books on evangelism, but came away disappointed since they did not address my situation.
I needed something different, so began thinking ‘outside the box’ of traditional evangelism. In the meantime, I kept going to the meetings and slowly began to interact with the men.
I thought it would be profitable to begin reading the authors they esteemed, as well as ones promoted by their particular seminaries and theological schools. You will recognise the names of Rudolf Bultmann, Walter Rauschenbusch, F. C. Baur and particularly Friedrich Schleiermacher, among others.
Our meetings are on Tuesday. So every Monday I would spend time in preparation. This included perusing the Scriptures for insights as to what kind of a response would be most appropriate in gaining their trust.
All of the Scripture was profitable, but those I found particularly helpful were: ‘For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God?’ (Galatians 1:10); ‘to speak your word with all boldness’ (Acts 4:29); ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith’ (Ephesians 2:8); and finally, for myself, ‘I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think’ (Romans 12:3).
I had to consider the purpose of my attendance upon these meetings — first, to glorify God in my apologetic and tone; second, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to bring the Scriptures to bear against error; and finally, to pray God might convert their minds and souls to his truth.
Since it was such an unusual situation, how might these goals be accomplished? My first clue came from Matthew 5:42: ‘Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you’.
I have heard the phrase ‘the frozen chosen’ over the years. It did not take long for these pastors to understand my foundational belief in the absolute sovereignty of God and the doctrines of election, predestination and justification by faith alone.
But I was not ‘frozen’, nor did I want them to think so. Whenever an opportunity presented itself, I would offer to assist them, for example, the loan of my automobile whenever they had a need; watching their property, when they were out of town; attending their non-religious events, and showing a personal interest in them and their families.
I organised some of the men and women from my church to assist one pastor in the renovation of his church building. In addition to these acts, I would make appointments to pray with them one-on-one, as well as taking them to lunch.
It was all about establishing a personal, sincere friendship with them, building trust so they would hear what I said when refuting false practice and doctrine. I made it my practice to distribute excellent books and DVDs on doctrinal matters. Before long I had all of the men reading solid biblical materials.
The first big challenge came early on, in discussing the apostle Paul’s apologetic in several New Testament passages where he refers back to the early chapters of Genesis. Several of these ministers deny the historicity of Genesis 1-11.
I make it a point always to be cordial in my argumentations, and furthermore not feel ‘I must win a debate’. One need not win the debate; one only need make a biblical or doctrinal point here and there.
They may argue strongly against it, but, if the Holy Spirit is present, they will hear it; and it will continue to trouble them long after the discussion is over. We always need to remember it is the Holy Spirit who quickens souls, not our fine and persuasive arguments.
And the Lord God has answered our prayers. All the pastors I have been meeting with, I am delighted to say, have at least given propositional assent to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And, amazingly, some have begun to teach the same to their congregations!
Think upon it: some of them teaching and preaching ‘grace’ to their congregations, even if without full comprehension. Dare we hope that, by the power of almighty God, formerly liberal church members and pastors might soon be converted?
I hope this synopsis of what we are doing here in Clarkston will be an encouragement to reach out and evangelise liberal pastors and congregations. They are lost, ignorant, or both.
Did not the great missionary William Carey write: ‘Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God’?
Paul K. Christianson
The author is pastor of Grace Reformed Church, Clarkston, Washington, USA