Book Club: Christianity & Liberalism – Ch. 7 “The Church”

Machen(Earlier posts in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6a, part 6b)

Whew! It has been a little while. They say the secret to blogging to ABP, “Always Be Posting.” To which I say I have a full-time job and five children so no. After family visits, a brief hospital stay for one of my children, and painting a room in my house (among other things) we can FINALLY conclude Machen’s book! There will be a final post on the book overall and what I took away from it. Also, I am always looking for feedback. Please feel free to contact me using the contact page.

Machen’s last chapter is focused upon the church itself. This chapter, perhaps more than any other in the book, brings to fore Machen’s particular concerns for the church in his time. He flirts with the idea of a necessary separation but says the time has not yet come. It is interesting for the reader who knows that not thirteen years later Machen would lead just such a separation in the formation of the OPC.

Defining Christian brotherhood

Biblically speaking there are two basic aspects of brotherhood. There is a general form of brotherhood we all share as human beings. All mankind has this brotherhood in common as we are made in the image of God and thus have an inherent dignity and worth. All life, not just Christian life, is valuable and worthy of protection and encouragement. The second type comes in the brotherhood which is shared by Christians who serve the same Lord and are saved by the same savior Jesus Christ. While this brotherhood is open to all it does not include all of mankind. Christian brotherhood is a brotherhood of the redeemed who confess salvation in Christ, his cross, and resurrection. Machen contends that Christian liberalism has conflated these two brotherhoods to the degree that the former has overshadowed the latter. Thus it is considered loving to allow church membership of adults who do not profess faith in Christ. This for Machen is unacceptable. Consideration of the debate raises an important question:

What makes a church?

Machen’s essential point here is that the church is a creedal institution. Thus if someone is going be a member of that institution they ought to be required to confess the faith of that institution. Further, an institution should be able to enforce the creedal standards upon its officers and those who are seeking that office. He makes an appeal to basic honesty for in that time men would use vague language to appear they were orthodox, but they were in fact not at all. Machen makes the argument that if one doesn’t agree with the creed of a particular institution then they should not seek to join or lead that institution. Instead, they should foud their own organization and proceed from there. The opposing argument is raised that the church should not require conformity to a particular creed as that would be binding someone’s conscience in a way that is intolerant. In response, Machen argues that while it is the duty of involuntary organizations to be tolerant, it is the duty of voluntary ones to be very intolerant. A person born as a citizen in America has no choice whether they are an American citizen or not. Therefore the government must be very tolerant of its citizenry and their personal and professed beliefs. However, in the church, no one is forced to be a member and thus the church ought to be intolerant when it comes to its confessions and creeds for these are what make the church distinctive from other groups. If doctrinal standards cannot be enforced especially among the ministers of a church then, practically speaking, the church enters into an identity of incoherence.

A call to Christian duty for officers in the church

Machen concludes the chapter with an appeal to church officers and their duty which is four-fold:

  1. Officers need to encourage those who are struggling in their faith.
  2. Officers need to decide on and enforce qualification for ministerial candidates.
  3. Officers need to be faithful members of their own congregations.
  4. Officers need to be committed to a renewal of Christian education.

Machen understands the difference between those who are struggling with their beliefs and those who are willfully obfuscating just to skirt affirming orthodox doctrine so they can pass their ministerial exams. He calls upon the elders of congregations to help those who struggle and to hold ministers accountable to the doctrinal standards of the denomination. He prays,

 “God send us ministers…whose life shall be one burning sacrifice of gratitude to the blessed saviour who loved them and gave Himself for them” (176)!

What the church needed then (and now!) is a commitment to teaching what Christians believe and why we believe it. We need more doctrine, not less. We need more church history, not less. Machen complains that so many leave the church rejecting doctrines they never understood in the first place.

Person Reflections

It is remarkable that Machen’s concerns regarding voluntary organizations have come up recently on college campuses with respect to the voluntary clubs. College administrations have cracked down and banned Christian groups because they have the gall to enforce doctrinal and ethical standards for their officers such as requiring them to be professing Christians.

We still need some honesty, even in my own denomination. Those ministers and candidates who do not really hold what we believe yet claim to by obfuscating their answers in their exams should leave. There are other denominations and churches which would allow their views. Likewise, churches need to be clear about what they profess to believe. It is always a red flag for me when I am on a church’s website and they don’t have even a basic confession of what they believe. It could be a technical oversight, something nefarious or they just haven’t thought about it that much.

Finally, there is certainly something lacking in the education of Christians today. But there is also a desire to learn and dig deep into subjects that matter. I find people are quite willing and ready to engage in difficult subjects and actually are quite happy to wrestle with difficult doctrines so long as it is made clear why these doctrines matter. No one enjoys a dry theological lecture, not even the guy delivering it. Our aim needs to be for Christians who are educated in the content and structure of the scriptures, centered upon the gospel and seeking faithful lives for the sake of Christ. I am preaching on a doctrine of God series right now and we just completed our tenth week. I have been told by several people they just want to keep going because they have never heard sermons on the attributes of God. I am grateful for such a rich theological heritage to draw upon because I am young and inexperienced. I can’t tell you how many times I have referred back to books and documents like Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics or the Westminster Confession of Faith and the catechisms for help.

All that said I am always hopeful for the church because of her bridegroom. Jesus will not abandon his bride. He will see us through to his glorious end.

He died for her, “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Eph. 5:25-27

But until that day comes all we can do is seek by the Spirit’s power to be more faithful today than we were yesterday and more faithful tomorrow than today.

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