John Shelby Spong

Bishop John Shelby Spong (1931-2021)

Jeffrey Walton on September 14, 2021

One of the Episcopal Church’s most controversial liberal bishops, whom IRD frequently critiqued, has died. The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong passed away at his home in North Carolina according to an announcement from the Richmond, Virginia parish he once pastored. He was 90 years old. 

The bishop claimed he wanted to “save” Christianity by deleting all parts conflicting with modernism and its particular version of science. But by his life’s end, theological modernism had largely expired, its themes no longer perceived as relevant for persons born after the 1960s.

Spong in his final years belonged to the now largely defunct Jesus Seminar, which voted with marbles on which scriptures were authentic, always rejecting verses that claimed the supernatural. With those scholars, Spong rejected divine interventions, including Jesus’ deity, resurrection, virgin birth and miracles. In the end, Spong denounced theism itself. He also questioned Christian teachings about the afterlife and suggested that their primary purpose was control of human behavior in this life.

“Heaven and Hell have got to go,” the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey retired bishop lectured at United Methodist-affiliated Drew Theological School after authoring his 2010 book Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell. “Nobody knows what the afterlife is all about; nobody even knows if there is one.”

Spong served as a bishop from 1976-2000 and was an outspoken proponent of the ordination of noncelibate homosexual clergy within the mainline Protestant church. His revisionist theological views brought him into conflict not only with Episcopal Church traditionalists, but also in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Spong struggled to understand a rapidly growing Global South Christianity that embraced traditional church teachings and upheld a high view of scripture as trustworthy and the Word of God — teachings that he insisted in his 1999 book Why Christianity Must Change or Die were detrimental to the church’s ability to reach modern people.

In a 1998 interview with the Church of England Newspaper, Spong said of Christians in Africa: “They’ve moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity. They’ve yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we’ve had to face in the developing world. That’s just not on their radar screen.”

In dismissing African and Caribbean bishops upset by his remarks, Spong countered, “that’s too bad: I’m not going to cease to be a 20th-century person for fear of offending someone in the Third World.”

Under pressure from fellow Episcopal Church bishops whom he had embarrassed, Spong partly backed down, stating that “superstitious” had been “an unfortunate” word choice.

Spong eventually described himself as a non-theist, rejecting not just historic Christian teachings in the Nicene Creed, but also the very idea of a personal God.

On multiple occasions I had the opportunity to hear from Spong in person as he articulated his revisionist viewpoint.

Memorably in 2013, as Spong preached at the Good Friday service of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, he asserted that several of the apostles were “mythological” and declared that Jesus Christ did not die to redeem humanity from its sins.

In addition to dismissing the historicity of biblical characters, Spong also attacked atonement theology, dismissing blood washing away sins as an “evangelical mantra” and a “barbaric theology.”

“Jesus does not die for your sins in this [John’s] gospel; he dies to make you whole,” Spong announced from the pulpit. “As evolving creatures, the problem is not that we have fallen, but that we are not yet fully human.”

“We are not sinners, the church got that wrong, we are rather incomplete human beings,” Spong concluded.

It remains unclear what aspects of Spong’s legacy might endure. After a 2016 stroke he mostly stepped back from public ministry, and his work fell by the wayside as younger seminarians did not share his modernist perspective. Students at the Episcopal Church’s Virginia Theological Seminary politely received him, but pushed back at his rejection of scriptures — ironically equating the rigidity of his viewpoint with the literalism of fundamentalists with whom he so strongly opposed.

Spong’s 2010 lecture at Drew University — a campus teeming with undergraduates — was memorable for a near-absence of young people. Unfamiliar with the Madison, New Jersey campus, I located the building in which the lecture took place by following a retirement-age lesbian couple. Together we entered a mostly full room in which I counted no more than 4-5 persons without gray or white hair.

But perhaps the most difficult item to square with Spong’s legacy is the Diocese of Newark itself. Among the most liberal parts of the church, Newark reflected more than any other place Spong’s revisionist beliefs. But Episcopalians in Newark declined by more than 43 percent during his tenure from 64,323 to 36,340, a loss of 27,983 members in 21 years — far faster than the denomination as a whole. Interviewed by 60 Minutes host Lesley Stahl for a report on Spong, Former IRD President and Episcopal Church renewal leader Diane Knippers recalled Stahl’s mouth “dropping like a rock” when Knippers shared the diocese’s own statistical report. Shortly after Spong’s retirement, journalist Robert Stowe England noted that the Diocese of Newark under Spong declined at a rate 20.1 percentage points higher than the rate for the entire Episcopal Church across the same time period.

Today, the Diocese of Newark has declined another third, down to 23,045 baptized members in the most recent report (2019). The diocese that most heeded Spong’s words that Christianity must change or die found itself in an uninterrupted collapse across four decades.

Spong’s passing met with words of support from fellow theological revisionists both within and outside of the Episcopal Church:

More: Read Mark Tooley’s account of his evening with ecclesiastical provocateur John Shelby Spong here.

  1. Comment by Bob on September 14, 2021 at 5:40 am

    It’s not often a person can be described as utterly useless and completely destructive as this man was. You’ll notice he denied everything a Christian believes but was happy to collect the income of a bishop including a generous retirement. A more crooked personality can’t be imagined. And a the Episcopalians will honor and mourn him. He deserves his well earned obscurity just as much as James pike, who he admired.

  2. Comment by Jeff on September 14, 2021 at 7:17 am

    “But, beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; how that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts. These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit. But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”

  3. Comment by Mike on September 14, 2021 at 8:37 am

    Jude 12: These are spots in your feast of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear; clouds they are without water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots.
    13: Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever.

    This is what God thinks of the life and ministry of John Shelby Spong.

  4. Comment by Katherine on September 14, 2021 at 9:00 am

    How ironic that his former diocese of Newark should publish that “rest in peace and rise in glory” line, since Spong did not believe in the Resurrection or in anything else.

  5. Comment by Loren Golden on September 14, 2021 at 10:17 am

    William Ralph Inge, Anglican pastor, professor, and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, once famously quipped, “He who marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”

    John Shelby Spong proved this famous maxim in spades. The Modern Age was profoundly opposed to the supernatural and made idols out of reason and empirical observation. Accordingly, Spong made it his life’s mission to remake the Church of Jesus Christ into the image of the Modern Age by stripping Christianity of everything supernatural—God Himself included.

    But then the Modern Age itself died, to be replaced by the Postmodern Age, which eschews reason and empirical observation and makes idols out of the notion that there are no absolutes (itself a self-contradictory absolute) and human sexuality. Spong accommodated the latter idol, while still holding fast to the anti-supernatural mantra of the now-dead Modern Age. Thus seeking to be relevant, Spong became profoundly irrelevant. He was “cancelled” by today’s “Cancel Culture” because he had made an absolute out of the Modern Age’s idols, conflicting with one of the Postmodern Age’s most cherished idols.

    “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12.2)

    The Church of Jesus Christ has no business conforming itself to the ways of this unbelieving world, nor of bowing its collective knee to the world’s idols. The Modern Age has perished, but the Church of Jesus Christ remains, and will still remain after the Postmodern Age has perished. Instead of seeking to be “changed” to become more palatable—or “relevant”—to the unbelieving world, as Spong sought, the Church must always seek to be conformed to Christ and His calling for her, as taught in His holy Word, the inerrant Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, the Church must always seek to be thus “changed—or die.” For as the Lord Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is who bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (Jn. 15.4-6)

  6. Comment by Gary on September 14, 2021 at 11:48 am

    Spong was a frequent target of the late radio talk show host Les Kinsolving, who was a former Episcopal priest.

  7. Comment by Brian Evers on September 14, 2021 at 12:58 pm

    If Heaven and Hell left, where did he go when he died?

  8. Comment by Ken on September 14, 2021 at 1:36 pm

    Thank God that he has met the Ultimate End! Now, let him go meet Jesus Christ and justify if he should enter heaven or hell

  9. Comment by Palamas on September 14, 2021 at 4:31 pm

    John Spong was an apostate, pure and simple. The Episcopal Church ceased to be a Christian church before it approved gay ordination or marriage; it ceased being Christian when its bishops made clear they were perfectly comfortable having an apostate sitting among them. There are Christians in the Episcopal Church, but the denomination itself is nothing more than Unitarianism in drag. Spong was the harbinger of what was to come, and when the Episcopal Church inevitably dies, his book titles can be engraved on its epitaph.

  10. Comment by Phil on September 14, 2021 at 5:21 pm

    You didn’t have say or write anything. You could have let the man’s death pass unremarked upon. Instead you couldn’t resist the temptation to tear him down one last time. I’d heard of Bishop Spong before today. I’ve never read anything by him nor followed his career closely. Like most of you, I’ll probably never quite understand why he chose to be priest, much less a bishop, but being that he was not my priest or bishop personally, I never gave it too much mind. I was taught in Sunday School that you don’t speak ill of the dead nor rejoice in their passing, regardless of how you felt about them in life. After all, are we not judged as Christians by how we treat our perceived enemies even more than how we treat our friends? Whatever ways you think this man wronged you, the church, or whomever, consider the fact that he was still not just a man, but also a father, a husband, and a grandfather. I encourage you all to hold off on the parade of abuse toward Spong and take a moment to lift up his loved ones who are grieving right now in prayer and remember what the simple, but still-wise advise I’m sure your parents all gave you when you were small. If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say nothing at all. Let Spong’s loved ones bury him now in peace. They’ll be plenty of time to criticize his legacy later.

  11. Comment by Jeff on September 14, 2021 at 8:43 pm

    >> They’ll be plenty of time to criticize his legacy later.

    Precisely when, then, will it be acceptable for us to comment on Spong’s nasty progressive legacy, according to your rules, Phil? Please “show your work” so we can understand how you came up with the diktat. Thanks!

  12. Comment by Phil on September 14, 2021 at 10:07 pm

    Jeff,

    For everything there is a season, time to mourn and time to dance. I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast length to these seasons, but I think it’s reasonable to say most of us probably haven’t already gotten past mourning when the body of someone we love is not even yet cold or in the ground. I’m guessing your season of mourning for past loved ones was never so brief. But if you’re just dying (no pun intended) to release your pent up feelings toward Spong and his legacy now, go ahead. But before you do, you might take at a moment of sincere prayer that God comfort those in mourning for the Bishop.

  13. Comment by Phil on September 14, 2021 at 10:22 pm

    “Cum vivis bellum sum, cum mortuis convenio.” Hamilcar Barca

  14. Comment by David S. on September 14, 2021 at 11:38 pm

    Sadly Phil, polite society says one should never speak ill of the dead. Unfortunately, Mr. Spong was a wolf, whom the cowardly shepherds guarding the flock within the Episcopal Church chose to let ravage the flock, destroying the faith of many. It is right and correct to note that this man claimed and later rejected Christ.

    While one hopes at the last he changed his tune, it is fitting and proper to reflect on the fact that by all accounts he was an apostate/heretic until the end. Yes, ultimately God only knows where he went, but ultimately, without convincing evidence to the contrary, he will be considered among the goats and told, “Depart from me…” and cast into everlasting torment.

    Lastly, arguing that its unkind to judge is a cop out and a twisting of what Scripture meant. We make moral, philophical, ethical and other judgments all the time. Calling out heretical teaching is not being judgmental, when done in a proper spirit.

  15. Comment by Phil on September 15, 2021 at 12:04 am

    David,

    I did not say anything about your judgment of him. I only said there is a time for that just as there is a time for mourning. I think our first priority when someone dies should be to care and comfort those who grieve for them, not tear them apart or show glee in their passing. I would be less upset with what I saw here if it were at least balanced somewhat with compassion for his loved ones and respect for grieving, but I did not see this either the article above or in the comments. Christ tells us blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the Beatitudes aren’t just hopeful expressions of what we can expect in the final Kingdom, but also instructions to us as Christ’s followers of where our hearts and hands should be in the world today.

  16. Comment by Pastor Mike on September 15, 2021 at 11:27 am

    Another miserable heretic gone. Good riddance.

  17. Comment by Diane on September 15, 2021 at 4:19 pm

    Jesus did not call us to judge, that agency belongs to God, who is Spirit. We are simply called to love. Thank-you to John Spong for loving us.

    Jesus did talk about God’s judgment –

    “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me…”

    You can quote the apostles, I’ll stick with Jesus. Jesus says nothing about one’s faith tradition, race, gender, ethnicity, ability, family or economic circumstance, sexuality, hair color, age. Entry through the pearly gates is all about the choice to love unconditionally, especially the marginalized. Leave judgment to God; we are simply calls to love
    radically, to walk the talk. Love requires us to meet people, to get to know people, to provide for people in love.

    I did not see evidence of love from most of those who responded to John Spong’s death. I found him to be a loving human being. God will be the judge.

  18. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on September 16, 2021 at 12:54 pm

    We agree, Diane, that God will be the judge. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

  19. Comment by Phil on September 15, 2021 at 6:54 pm

    Pastor Mike,

    Would be kind enough to tell me the name of the church you serve? I want to make sure I never visit it by accident.

  20. Comment by Barbara on September 19, 2021 at 6:32 pm

    May God have mercy on his soul.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.