Reformed Reflections

Moderator Phipps and the United Church of Canada

A hot dog vendor in downtown Ottawa has been asking his customers what they think about Jesus. His interest was sparked by the Rev. Bill Phipps, a United Church of Canada minister and elected moderator of the church, who said publicly that Jesus was not God. The UCC is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada.

In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Rev. Phipps said that the divinity of Jesus is irrelevant. He also cast doubt on the fact of the resurrection. For Phipps, what "really matters" is "the mending of a broken world." And his lapel button, "Zero Poverty" reflects his views, which resemble those of a left-wing politician rather than those of a Christian theologian. Phipps also does not believe in hell. And he is not sure whether there is a heaven. He believes that "there is a continuity of the spirit in some way, but I would be a fool to say what that is... We've got enough problems trying to live ethically and well here, to have any knowledge or understanding of what happens when we die."

In an interview with Gail Reid of the Fellowship Magazine, which is dedicated to upholding the historic Christian faith of the United Church of Canada, Phipps was also asked about the divinity of Jesus. His reply was that Jesus is unique and that God is acting through Jesus in a unique way.

Rev. Phipps exudes tolerance. He says that a United Church minister has to understand that there is a whole variety of interpretations of Scripture, many of with which he or she would not agree. "To be a minister in the UCC you have to be open to many points of view." But Phipps's tolerance does not include the evangelicals in his denomination. Gail Reed asked Phipps, "Will there be a place for someone who believes this orthodox way (that Jesus Christ is the only way to God) to be ordained?" His reply? "It's fine for that person to believe it, but it is not okay for her or him to feel that other people are also required to believe it."

Phipps's publicly stated views created a storm of protest. Hundreds of United Church congregations voiced their disagreement. Dr. Graham Scott, president of Church Alive (a conservative theological association within the denomination) said that "Moderator Phipps's denials, unbelief and agnosticism are not good news. They seem to be an invitation to suicide. They do not even inspire me to care for the poor."

Rev. Bob Ripley, the senior minister of the Metropolitan United Church in London, Canada's largest and one of its most conservative UCCs, immediately co-authored and distributed a statement repudiating the moderator's views. The Community of Concern, a small group of orthodox Christians in the UCC, issued a statement which began, "Shocked, disheartened, and grieved do not adequately describe the feelings of the members of the Community of Concern."

Dr. John Stackhouse, former president of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association called Phipps a heretic, because he "denies the creeds that all Christians have subscribed to, whether they're Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox."

Not all are disenchanted with the Rev. Phipps. The elders of Toronto's Bloor Street United Church wrote to the denomination's executive that Rev. Phipps's remarks are not new. They said, "We have heard similar statements from our pulpit for the last 30 years.... We do not wish to have some people tell others what they should believe."

Rev. Robert Bater, a United Church minister, former principal of Queen's Theological College in Kingston, Ontario and participant in the Jesus Seminars, wholeheartedly supports Rev. Phipps. Like the moderator, he also denies the physical resurrection of Jesus. Bater says that the bottom line for Christians is a belief that Jesus was a unique messenger from God who revealed God's. nature and will in a way never done before or since. And not surprisingly, Tom Harpur, former clergyman and for many years religion editor and columnist with the Toronto Star, praises the leader of "Canada's most courageous church" for dramatically raising the question of Christ's identity.

Rev. Phipps has not been disciplined by his church. The national executive backed his views "as falling within the wide range of views accepted and celebrated by the denomination."

Despite the protests and cries of heresy, there is nothing new in Rev. Phipps's denial of the essentials of the Christian faith. It's the same old unbelief which has plagued the United Church for more than half a century. When the UCC came together in 1925, the result of a three way merger of Methodists, the majority of Presbyterians and most of the small Congregationalist churches in Canada, they issued a statement of faith. "The Basis of Union" was evangelical, but it had two major flaws. First, it declared that the Bible "contains" the Word of God. Second, it tried to accommodate both Calvinist and Arminian theology. The denomination has also failed to discipline those who have departed from their denomination's creedal affirmations. As one leader in the UCC church said about Phipps's views, "My own confession of faith is not that of Mr. Phipps, but the United Church has always been a church of diverse beliefs." He referred to the Basis of Union as one which tolerates those who believe in predestination as well as those who believe in free will as both a strength and a weakness of the denomination.

The "New Curriculum" Sunday School material, published by the United Church in 1964 and 1965, demonstrated this lack of doctrinal discipline. It omitted the Virgin Birth, focused on Jesus' humanity while minimizing His divinity, doubted His ascension, ignored His Second Coming, and alleged that the kingdom of God is the ideal society on earth. An evangelical scholar who reviewed the UCC's new curriculum at the time said that "to a large extent the New Curriculum promotes a religion of the natural man."

By the 1960s key members of the denominational elite, especially those teaching in the seminaries, no longer placed great emphasis on the new birth of the individual, on the supernatural or on the transcendence of God, but rather on the reformation of Canada through social action. The elite melded with the far left of secular culture. Someone said that the bureaucracy of the United Church had become the New Democratic Party at prayer. The elite, in a desire to remain relevant and keep abreast of the times, accommodated themselves to the secular spirit of the age. And in the process they separated themselves from many people in the pew who still adhered to a form of evangelicalism.

Rev. Phipps said at a press conference that his views are well within the theological mix of the United Church. And he is right. Former moderator Ann Squire said that Mr. Phipps's views of Jesus' life and death reflect current scholarship about the Bible that is being taught in theological colleges. And like Rev. Phipps, she too is agnostic on the issues of the afterlife.

Already in the 1920s and 1930s, virtually every academically recognized Canadian Protestant seminary was in liberal hands, as were the administrative elite in mainline Protestant denominations.

The late Dr. George Rawlyk wrote: "By the end of the second decade of the 20th century ...most Canadian Protestant leaders and...their intellectual `deputies' in the seminaries - were determined `to win over the traditional strata' to support their new liberal and modem version of `social, economic, political' and, one might add, religious order."

By 1930, at least at the seminary level, the evangelical hold on Canadian Protestantism had been definitely broken by the secularizing forces of liberal Christianity. In this liberal camp were the new seminaries of the United Church, Emmanuer Toronto, Pine Hill in Halifax, Queen's in Kingston, the Cooperative College in Montreal, Wesley College in Winnipeg and the United Theological College in Vancouver.

Today, students trained at liberal seminaries may be sensitive to politically correct diversity, gender biases and inclusive language, but they are incapable of asserting Biblical truth on matters of faith and morals. Their Christology is the product of higher Biblical criticism and the Jesus Seminar.

Rev. Dr. Victor Shepherd, past editor of the Theological Digest & Outlook published by Church Alive, relates that when he entered seminary in 1967 sensitivity training was "all the rage." After sensitivity training it was bio-feedback. Then it was small group dynamics and then it was environmentalism. This was followed by the new-age movement, and extreme feminism.

Rev. John Niles, a UCC minister in Toronto, commented in Fellowship Magazine: "Sadly and tragically our United Church Seminaries have been teaching and encouraging the introduction of theology which would incorporate creation spirituality, goddess terminology and radical feminist theology. We have allowed New Age thought to creep into our theology.”

When a denomination departs from the historic Christian faith it can expect loss of membership. When church leaders do not believe the Gospel they are called to proclaim, decline is the consequence. When a church no longer adheres to the fundamentals of the faith, follows every new theological trend, refuses to oppose abortion and approves of homosexual conduct, it has nothing to say to the nation. And few are listening to the briefs and pronouncements which flow from the UCC's head office. Rev. Phipps admitted as much in his interview with the Ottawa Citizen.

Few liberals attend the worship services of the UCC, and most who do are either orthodox Christians or possess a sense of loyalty to the denomination as an institution. It is now the fastest shrinking church in Canada. The Sunday School curriculum controversy in the 1960s led to a drop in membership. In 1988 the decision to ordain homosexuals caused the largest exodus in the church's history. Fellowship Magazine noted that many who withdrew were renewal minded Christians who felt they had been pushed out of the United Church. Although about three million Canadians claim affiliation with the UCC, there are only about 320,000 worshipers on any given Sunday.

The current controversy over the nature of Christ will contribute to further losses. And if it continues to lose members at this rate it will likely not survive another generation. The fastest growing churches in Canada are conservative, evangelical, and their growth is at the expense of the mainline denominations.

The several renewal groups in the UCC need our prayers as they seek to uphold the essentials of the evangelical Christian faith. And those Protestant churches that continue to worship the living Triune God and proclaim the gospel of salvation by grace and faith alone should be ready to welcome those United Church members who are tired of fighting heresies.

Johan D. Tangelder
January, 1998