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Fall 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 2 · pp. 244–47 

Ministry Compass

Things That Change and Things That Don't Change

Herb Kopp

The decade of the 90s was filled with the call for “the church to change,” a call so strongly voiced that it almost became a slogan, a battle cry. There is no doubt that the church has changed enormously and that the process begun is not yet completed. Change always unnerves the church. When things begin to change an innate fear arises in the community of faith that the tide of change will also sweep away those things which we hold to be truth, the things which we cannot afford to allow to be swept away. Forms change, worship patterns change, caring systems change, leadership structures change—these changes the church readily accepts. But the church knows instinctively that there are some things that ought never to change.

The service Bishop Shelby Spong performs for us is that he frames the questions which society asks, and then answers them in such a controversial and unacceptable manner that it forces us to come up with more satisfying answers.

Adding to the uncertainty which change unleashes within the church is the problem of the close connection between our Bible-based understandings and our culturally-immersed values. Faith is always practiced within a context. For example, the way we live, placing such enormous emphasis on material possessions, will color the way we read the New Testament which has a great deal to say about materialism. Furthermore, the way we read and interpret the Bible is always connected to the questions which society frames for us and for which we must discover an answer. {245}


A book with a strange title, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, caught my attention recently. The title implies that it is not that churches must change or die, rather, that Christianity itself must change or die. Of course, when I noticed that Bishop John Shelby Spong was the author, the title made sense. Spong has a way of getting under the skin of many Christians, so much so that in the preface to his latest book he tells of having received at least “sixteen death threats, all of which came from Bible-quoting ‘true believers’ ” (Why Christianity Must Change or Die, xvii).

If it is true, and I think it is, that the church must always have an answer for questions which the pagan world asks, then it must also be true that the severest critics of the church and of the Scriptures will set the agenda for us. This was true in the first century when Paul, in Athens, addressed directly and courageously the strongly held pagan view of multiple gods (Acts 17:16-34).

Now, to Bishop Spong and his writings. He has written, at last count, fifteen books. Probably not many Mennonite Brethren church leaders have read these, and if they have they most certainly will not agree with his central theses. Bishop Spong, ultimately, does not set the agenda for the church—society itself does that. Spong simply is the voice which brings the views of a secular world to the believing community. Therefore, the service Spong performs for us is that he frames, in popular easy-to-understand language, the questions which society asks, and then answers them in such a controversial and unacceptable manner that it forces us to come up with more satisfying answers.

The questions which society asks, and which Spong answers in his controversial manner, will not go away. They deserve an answer from the believing community because increasingly society accepts the answers which Spong and his colleagues give to us as being the only available ones.


Spong raises five critical issues over which Mennonite Brethren church leaders must mull and then respond in a biblical manner. First—in a book which by his own admission was not a best-seller (Into the Whirlwind: The Future of the Church, 1983)—Spong introduced the idea that society, with its rapidly changing values, would have a powerful impact on how the church would be viewed. He predicted a continued drop in attendance because the church no longer addressed the critical issues of the day. So far, so good. Church attendance statistics certainly validate his claim. However, when he postulated a solution which {246} included accepting the ways of the new society which was emerging and embracing the practitioners of the sexual revolution in the church, he set himself directly in opposition to biblical Christianity which sees the people of God as a counterculture and who, ethically and morally, stand over against promiscuity and self-indulgent living.

The second great issue of contemporary society concerns the person and identity of Jesus. Spong (This Hebrew Lord, 1974) argues that when Peter confessed Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16 NIV), he was merely affirming that Jesus was the person through whom the word of God had come. We reply that this answer is not adequate. Jesus, though born of woman, was qualitatively different from any other person ever born into humanity. Of course, the structures of the church must change—there are many ways to do things—but what must never change is our belief that Jesus, indeed, is the Son of the living God.


Third, when Spong asserts (Living in Sin: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality, 1988) that “betrothal,” as a concept, ought to supplant the flighty engagements which characterize so many premarital relationships, he is onto something which has potential for good. A betrothal period of time would help many persons prepare for marriage in a more realistic, wholesome manner. But when he includes the possibility of sexual union within this betrothal period, he goes too far. And certainly his views on same-sex relationships are far beyond what we could accept. Indeed, if we do not accept the high standard which Jesus sets for faithfulness and commitment to one spouse for all of life (Matt. 5:27-31), we then do nothing less than baptize pagan behavior and attempt to make societal values normative for life within the church. It is not difficult for us to argue that some things in church life ought to change. But it is wrong to contend that the historic values which Jesus taught clearly to his followers ought to change in order to make them more palatable for contemporary society.

Fourth, the matter of how we read the Scriptures also comes under Spong’s scrutiny (Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, 1991). This book was certainly the Bishop’s most popular. He writes, for example (215):

Am I suggesting that these stories of the virgin birth are not literally true? The answer is a simple and direct “Yes.” Of course these narratives are not literally true. Stars do not wander, angels do not sing, virgins do not give birth, magi {247} do not travel to a distant land to present gifts to a baby, and shepherds do not go in search of a newborn savior.

Should we then purge the Bible of these stories? Absolutely not! These birth narratives are not only among the most beautiful parts of Scripture, but they are among the most profound. It is the beast of literalism that must be purged so that the depth of truth contained in these narratives can be rescued and heard in our generation.

How do we read the Bible? Do we read it literally? Do we read it literally all of the time? What about the miracle stories, the healings, the nature-defying acts of Jesus? To be sure, when we argue for a different worship form, or when the church organizes pastoral care in a new way to accommodate changing realities, the church is in step with the times. However, when we accept the basic premise that the Bible is a dated book and no longer reflects the reality that exists, then we have gone too far.

Fifth, the final issue which Spong addresses concerns the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (Resurrection: Myth or Reality? 1994). While Paul makes the argument forcefully that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14 NIV), Spong argues that the resurrection was a late developing tradition in early Christianity and therefore has no impact on the nature and integrity of the Christian faith. Of course, if Jesus was simply another human being, born of a woman and fathered by a man, then the following biblical claim of Jesus is bogus: “No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18 NIV).


The issues are clear. Bishop Spong has done a service to all Christians by naming some of the issues which will not go away and by answering them in such a manner that we are obligated to a biblical response. While Bishop Spong has the right to propose answers to these questions, they must not be the only word on the subject. We dare not be silent on these matters. Every concerned church person is involved in making the faith relevant to life by bringing biblical answers to the profound questions of human existence. The church, while in essence being the bride of Christ, is also an institution. Institutions need change. Institutions, left to themselves, soon become stale and outdated. The gospel, however, must remain fresh and vibrant because there are things that change—and things that don’t change!

Herb Kopp is currently District Minister of the Manitoba Conference, and moderator of the General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church. He has been in ministry for the past twenty-eight years.

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