My husband has an irrational fear of food poisoning. I can’t even tease him about it, because I would then be the one who has to deal with the imagined stomach aches. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard him ask some sort of question before we sit at the table to the effect of, “This meat is cooked all the way, right?” Some of our friends have witnessed the infamous “cross-contamination” speech that he has given before fondue parties.
Well, I read about a different sort of cross-contamination at an invitation to a very different table in Thomas Oden’s, A Change of Heart. It was a much more dangerous form of poison coming from a chapel service at Drew University. And it was the confirmation for Oden to speak out about the quality of theological education the liberal universities are feeding the future pastors of mainline churches.
I knew it was getting bad, but when I read this I was completely shocked.
Even though most of the women who attended Drew were moderate to conservative family women, there was a small group of feminists inserting themselves as the female voice for the university. This led to a truly blasphemous service sponsored by the women’s caucus. The popular feminist who was leading the service coauthored a book, Wisdom’s Feast, introducing the goddess Sophia as worthy of Christian worship. Oden describes this service beginning with a hijacked hymn that touted Sophia as a “lover, comforter, and counselor,” a feminist agenda disguised as a sermon, and then an invitation to the Lord’s table that was not going to be in the Lord’s name. Instead, “the invitation came not on behalf of the Lord of glory crucified on a cross but the idea of wisdom seen through the lens of feminist political activism” (260).
With that, Oden quietly excused himself from the service.
Shortly after this he wrote his book Requiem (1995) to help the laity understand what was going on behind closed doors at the seminaries their pastors are coming from. This service wasn’t a mere isolated event that somehow slid through the cracks. It was one of many ideological dishes on the menu of bad theology that the seminaries were serving. Strangely enough, Oden explains how this is all in the name of ecumenism:
The predominant theme of the 1993 Re-Imagining Conference was the audacity of reimagining God, using Sophia worship as its key liturgical expression. It was sponsored by the National Council of Churches in Minneapolis, touted as a major ecumenical event and funded by United Methodist, United Church of Christ, and Presbyterian boards and agencies. (261)
Oden couldn’t believe something so divisive and contrary to historical, orthodox Christianity could ever be brazen enough to call itself ecumenical. Of coarse it’s the irony of ironies to completely miss true Wisdom in the name of worshipping wisdom, as well as to come to the Lord’s table and miss the feast that he bids us to receive. Oden argued for a rediscovery of the classic Christian faith. He stayed in both his denomination and his seminary to try call them back to the ancient faith.
But I love how Oden didn’t merely focus on the seminary and the religious professionals. He wrote a book to expose them to the congregants who were affected by this poison. Discerning worshippers had already been noticing something different being preached from their pulpits. When theology is reduced to ideology, it’s the local church that is starved and poisoned in the end. Oden faced great opposition from some in his own denomination and faculty for his work. But that didn’t stop him.
He quietly slipped out of that blasphemous communion service and worked even harder to make the words of the early church commentaries available to all. Many frustrated congregants in mainline churches were protesting the teaching in liberal seminaries and church bureaucrats by leaving their church. I wondered, where did they go? I’m sure it was a mixture of some leaving for a more confessional church, and some leaving the church altogether.
Twenty years later, this is still a wake-up call to the laity. Liberal theology is still soliciting its ideologies to the church. Congregants need to take responsibility in seeking true wisdom. We need to make sure that there is no cross-contamination at the table that we approach or the pulpit that we sit under.
While I am thankful for many wonderful professional theologians, their qualifications do not take away my responsibility to discern whether the meat has been fully cooked. We don’t need an irrational, suspicious fear of theological poisoning every time we come to worship, but we do need an appropriate fear and awe of our holy God.
That being said, I am thankful for good pastors who faithfully preach the Word of God to their congregations without getting caught up in the latest movements. And I am thankful for leaders like Oden who have the integrity to stick their neck out and confront false teaching in the institutions they are serving while also taking the time to inform the laity.
*Originally published on January 26, 2015