A theologian #1: Rev. John Shelby Spong

Recently, I started reading some of John Shelby Spong who is a liberal Episcopal priest and bishop. For conservatives, he is as liberal as they come. Besides being a supporter of radical feminism and racial equality, he also supports gay rights. A while ago, someone gave me one of his books to read. It is called: Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: a Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (HarperCollins, 1991). I have not taken the time to read it until only recently.

Spong says he was taught the bible as a child from a fundamentalist perspective but has rejected it but he speaks as if he does not have, in the least, any sense of who evangelicals are and what we represent–and perhaps he really doesn’t. When I read his book, I got the feeling that he loves to broad-stroke literalists as backwards, ignorant, oppressive and fundamentalist, and also, as haters of women, racial and visible minorities, and gays and lesbians.

It would be safe to say that even most female and racial minorities who are evangelicals would feel he is condescending toward evangelicals. Sometimes, what he says comes across feeling like a slap in the face. If he could only express his views in a softer, gentler tone, he wouldn’t come across as so repulsive.

Spong does not care to differentiate between evangelicals and fundamentalists. He seems to identify both as the same–as literalists. His refusal to use the term “evangelical” makes him come across as disrespectful of those who hold a conservative evangelical theology. If anyone in liberal scholarship is not yet aware of this: Christians of the conservative stream do not like to be labelled “fundamentalists.”

I can actually agree with some of what he says concerning scripture (but not his theology); however, it is difficult to take the medicine he dishes out that comes along with it. So why do I find him a little harsh? Much of the new evangelical biblical scholarship is already dealing with some the issues that he brings up in his book. It is not the liberal positions on scripture or theology that annoys me. I have read enough literature from a liberal perspective to know that I can’t be easily annoyed by it. I read with interest the scholarly articles and books written from a liberal perspective. What annoys me is actually the negative and condescending attitude he takes when he is trying to prove his point about fundamentalists, whom he labels as, literalist. Here is a small taste of Spong’s style of rhetoric concerning evangelicals:

[ Mainline churches ] (emph. mine) would be embarrassed if they had to defend the patterns of segregation among southern fundamentalists, but many of them are quite convinced that their prejudice toward women, for example, is a justified part of God’s plan in creation. It is for them [i.e., fundamentalists](emph. mine) God-given and biblically based. It is no surprise, then, that the twentieth-century battle for the right of women in the church and for the casting off of the male-imposed definition of women has produced heated and emotional ecclesiastical conflict (Spong, p.5).

I think most conservative mainline Christians would also be embarrassed by this statement. It is very easy to spot his distaste of conservative evangelicals. What he says and how he says it can sound hurtful toward evangelicals. If it was dished out back to liberals in the same way, not even liberals would appreciate it. I also expect the same respectfulness from conservatives toward liberals.

What can we do to remedy this type of ignorance that exists in the minds of liberal Christians? Is there anything we can do to build bridges with liberals without the feeling that we are forfeiting our conservative-evangelical theology?

Also see similar posts:
A theologian #3: Rev. Carlton Pearson
A theologian #2: Rev. Francis Schaeffer

8 thoughts on “A theologian #1: Rev. John Shelby Spong

  1. Iyov, I also support racial equality and women’s rights myself. I meant to say that racial equality and feminism are only some of what he supports. I was referring to his liberal theology. He can be very unorthodox in his theology.


  2. I’m sorry, I don’t understand — in 2008, why does supporting “racial equality” make one “as liberal as they come”?


  3. L. Wells, thanks for the links. I found it an interesting read. Things are getting very complex with lawyers on both sides trying to position their side as the rightful owners of the properties. I just hope that parishes that have already lost their properties will have a place to worship.

    Being that you’re in conservative country down in Alabama, would I be correct to assume that most other Episcopalians are generally conservative there? If so, it’s easier to remain conservative and not get bashed for speaking out. In Canada, it’s quite sensitive. Speaking one’s mind can be risky because one would be labelled as fundamentalist or literalist or narrow-minded, at least in mainline circles. It’s not fun being conservative in Canada. But someone has to hold the fort up here (and you down there in Alabama as well).

    As salt and light, our struggle for the truth is part of our Christian duty but I also remind myself that it’s also done in love. It takes a lot of patience with those who don’t understand or who wish to see things only from their perspective. Liberals and conservatives can equally be very subjective, one-sided and stubborn. Tempers can fly on both sides. It’s hard to find that balance sometimes. I will sometimes find myself with little patience but the truth of God’s word and the love of Christ calls me back. It’s not easy to always be understanding, open-minded, but remain firmly standing our ground.


  4. Kevin, the situation is truly dire. I think there would be even more realignment if there wasn’t fear of losing parish property. Parishes and dioceses are virtually, if not in fact literally being held hostage due to this hanging over their heads. I’m not certain of this, but I was told that according to Canon Law properties would revert back to the Episcopal Church. However, there are pending lawsuits I do believe, so perhaps some attorneys have found ground to stand upon to fight for the parishioner’s and dioceses’ property rights.

    1Co 6:7 NRSV
    In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?

    I wonder what the great Apostle Paul would’ve said of the magnitude of our present situation?

    Fortunately where I live, it hasn’t become an issue as of yet. I live in Alabama, which being in the Bible Belt is very conservative country compared to most other regions. I often ponder whether to leave, or to stay and refuse to let the left wingers take over our churches without a struggle. We are after all, called to be “salt and light”. I am very happy in the Anglican faith,and within my parish walls, and there aren’t really many alternatives down in this part of the country, as Anglicanism is not very popular here.

    I get through the frustrations by recalling Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares. For I do believe this to be a very accurate application of it. I suppose the reasoning of some is to realign, and let the tares be left in their own garden, few in number, destitute of the showers of sound doctrine, destined to fail for their fallacies. Is this the proper method? I wish I knew. For the time present I will hang in there.

    Thank you for the link also, a very interesting, albeit heartbreaking story. Below I have posted a link about the Bishop in California, who is now being sued by the Episcopal Church. The other link is relative to the Pittsburgh story.




  5. L. Wells, thanks for your comment and expressing it the way you did. I think those like Spong, known as revisionists are trying revision what is really orthodox Anglican theology. I kind of sense there is something sinister in all of this.

    I can empathize with your situation in the U.S. right now. I’ve been reading that the Anglican Church in Canada is also in realignment right now. I had heard about J.I. Packer but didn’t know what is happening in California. An entire diocese is not small potatoes. It’s huge. The same thing is also happening in Canada. The threat is huge because the courts are involved with parishes potential loss of church property and buildings. Parishes in the ANiC (evangelical Anglicans in ) are now being threatened with abandoning Anglican doctrine and charged with trespassing if he walks into his parish property. It’s not looking good. Here’s the link to the blog.


  6. Kevin, I appreciate the respectful manner in which you have protested to some of Spong’s attitudes, as well as your tolerance of his views, which you do not adhere to.

    I am an Episcopalian as you may recall, and this man has been one of the numerous embarrassments more moderate to conservative thinking Episcopalians have had to suffer and endure lo these many years.

    Forgive me if my patience with him is thinner than yours, but I seriously feel that people as far left as he is cannot possibly take the Bible seriously. His camp of thinkers within our church are constantly spewing forth a radical political agenda that not only does not square with scripture, but flies directly into the face thereof.

    It is because of such ecclesial “politicians” that the Anglican community in North America is fracturing further by the day. Recently an entire diocese in California voted to realign with the Southern Cone of the Anglican Communion in Argentina (I have heard that another in the Pittsburgh area is contemplating the same). Even more recently to do so was the great theologian J.I. Packer, when he made the same trek from the Anglican Church of Canada to the Southern Cone, within the past week I believe.

    Sorry for the plain speak concerning Mr.(I refuse to refer to him as Bishop)Spong, but my patience has long worn slick of this movement of liberal elitists that seems to constantly cast a bad reputation over the Episcopal Church.

    Honestly, I am very respectful toward liberal theologians, at least those who are dubbed liberal due to their adherence to things like higher textual criticism. I have taken much from their ideas, just as I have from more conservative scholars. My problem with this particular line of thinking is that it isn’t about textual dating, or what literary classification a biblical book fits into, or even biblical interpretation, as I cannot fathom any possible way to interpret the Bible to produce some of their outlandish ideas.

    I appreciate your bringing this topic to discussion, as it grants me opportunity to express the view of conservative and moderate Episcopalians in a public and ecumenical environment. Again, you have my apologies if my post was too bold or brash sounding, this was not my intention.


  7. Hi Gary, nice to see you around again. It’s been a while. Yes, the chasm is very wide indeed.

    I think it would be a good thing for evangelicals to build bridges with non-evangelicals. It might be the only way for non-evangelicals to learn more about evangelicals, and vice versa. It would broaden our understanding of one another’s theology and maybe they won’t see us as so close-minded as they think we are.


  8. Build bridges between us and liberals? It’s a tough question, Kevin. The chasm is deep and wide. But I commend you for reading the Spong book. Somebody’s got to read it and find out what they’re thinking! 😉


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