Written by John R. Muether |
Sunday, February 19, 2023
The abiding value of Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism will be lost on those who fail to give his last chapter a careful study. A church that locates its calling in the flourishing of an individual’s personal religious experience is one that has succumbed to worldliness. Machen directs us instead to see the church’s calling as stewarding the doctrine found in the Word of God and summarized in its confessional standards.
Contrary to the claim of modernists, the historic Christianity that J. Gresham Machen defended was not individualistic. Christianity “fully provides for the social needs of man,” he wrote in chapter 5 of Christianity and Liberalism, and he ended that chapter with reflections on the social consequences of salvation: the gospel transforms human institutions, including families, communities, the workplace, and even government.
But Machen was not finished. What remains is the highest and the most important institution of all—the church of Christ. Indeed, the entire thesis of Christianity and Liberalism comes to bear on the final chapter as Machen urges the recovery of a high view of the church. Judging from the current state of the church even among those who claim to love this book, however, we may wonder how many have carefully read this final chapter.
Machen begins by challenging a thin form of community that is premised on the “universal brotherhood of man.” Clear doctrinal boundaries are required to sustain a genuine fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ, simply because, as he clearly demonstrated in the preceding pages, liberalism is a complete departure from Christianity. “The greatest menace to the Christian Church today,” he wrote, “comes not from the enemies outside, but from the enemies within; it comes from the presence within the church of a type of faith and practice that is anti-Christian to the core.” Consequently, “a separation between the two parties in the church is the crying need of the hour.” Machen’s “straightforward” and “above board” appeal earned him the respect of “friendly neutrals” (as the secular journalist H.L. Mencken described himself as he followed the debate closely).
How would this separation take place? At the time the book was published, what seemed the most likely prospect—from both sides of the divide—was that a small number of liberals would leave the church. And Machen invited them to take this step of honesty. But he also anticipated another scenario, wherein conservatives would be forced to leave the church. A decade later, this is how the struggle would play out, as he himself was defrocked for the high crime of “disloyalty” to the boards of the church that were beset with modernism. Faithfulness to their ministerial calling compelled him and his allies to bear this cross.
Countervailing appeals to preserve the unity of the church obscured the issues that Machen laid out, and such ecclesiastical pacifism provided neither lasting peace nor unity: “Nothing engenders strife so much as a forced unity, within the same organization, of those who disagree fundamentally in aim.” Tolerance of doctrinal deviation is “simple dishonesty.”
Machen anticipated another option: some ministers might gravitate toward a functional independence, finding contentment in the orthodoxy of their own congregations or the soundness of their presbyteries.