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RCT7: A Liberal Church

Christianity and Liberalism
Today we come to our final reading in Gresham Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism. Let me apologize once more for disappearing last week. I went on vacation and completely forgot that I was supposed to be posting something about the final chapter. So here we go, a week late.

The final chapter of Christianity & Liberalism concerns itself with the church and the stark contrast between the liberal and Christian conceptions of church. The first couple of paragraphs offer a brief explanation:

It has just been observed that Christianity, as well as liberalism, is interested in social institutions. But the most important institution has not yet been mentioned— it is the institution of the Church. When, according to Christian belief, lost souls are saved, the saved ones become united in the Christian Church. It is only by a baseless caricature that Christian missionaries are represented as though they had no interest in education or in the maintenance of a social life in this world; it is not true that they are interested only in saving individual souls and when the souls are saved leave them to their own devices. On the contrary true Christians must everywhere be united in the brotherhood of the Christian Church.

Very different is this Christian conception of brotherhood from the liberal doctrine of the “brotherhood of man.” The modern liberal doctrine is that all men everywhere, no matter what their race or creed, are brothers. There is a sense in which this doctrine can be accepted by the Christian. The relation in which all men stand to one another is analogous in some important respects to the relation of brotherhood. All men have the same Creator and the same nature. The Christian man can accept all that the modern liberal means by the brotherhood of man. But the Christian knows also of a relationship far more intimate than that general relationship of man to man and it is for this more intimate relationship that he reserves the term “brother.” The true brotherhood, according to Christian teaching, is the brotherhood of the redeemed.

There is nothing narrow about such teaching; for the Christian brotherhood is open without distinction to all; and the Christian man seeks to bring all men in. Christian service, it is true, is not limited to the household of faith; all men, whether Christians or not, are our neighbors if they be in need. But if we really love our fellowmen we shall never be content with binding up their wounds or pouring on oil and wine or rendering them any such lesser service. We shall indeed do such things for them. But the main business of our lives will be to bring them to the Savior of their souls.

He goes on to say, “It is upon this brotherhood of twice-born sinners, this brotherhood of the redeemed, that the Christian founds the hope of society. He finds no solid hope in the improvement of earthly conditions, or the molding of human institutions under the influence of the Golden Rule.” If there is to be any great improvement in society, if there is to be any great change, it will be through people being saved. Liberalism seeks societal change without the personal spiritual transformation. Machen insists “The Church is the highest Christian answer to the social needs of man.”

And yet the church of his day, and the church of our day, is weak. Why is this? He offers several answers, the most foundational of which is this: “But one cause is perfectly plain—the Church of today has been unfaithful to her Lord by admitting great companies of non-Christian persons, not only into her membership, but into her teaching agencies.” Of course it is inevitable that the church will always allow some into membership and even into leadership who are not saved. After all, we cannot see a man’s heart. However, the church has neglected its responsibility to ensure that all members and all leaders make a credible profession of faith. “The greatest menace to the Christian Church today 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.”

Machen has much to say about the way forward and the reformation of the church—more than I could easily summarize in a paragraph or two, so I will leave it to you to read that. Let me instead share just a quote from near the end of the chapter where Machen passionately returns to the church’s problem and the solution he suggests:

The present is a time not for ease or pleasure, but for earnest and prayerful work. A terrible crisis unquestionably has arisen in the Church. In the ministry of evangelical churches are to be found hosts of those who reject the gospel of Christ. By the equivocal use of traditional phrases, by the representation of differences of opinion as though they were only differences about the interpretation of the Bible, entrance into the Church was secured for those who are hostile to the very foundations of the faith. And now there are some indications that the fiction of conformity to the past is to be thrown off, and the real meaning of what has been taking place is to be allowed to appear. The Church, it is now apparently supposed, has almost been educated up to the point where the shackles of the Bible can openly be cast away and the doctrine of the Cross of Christ can be relegated to the limbo of discarded subtleties.
 
Yet there is in the Christian life no room for despair. Only, our hopefulness should not be founded on the sand. It should be founded, not upon a blind ignorance of the danger, but solely upon the precious promises of God. Laymen, as well as ministers, should return, in these trying days, with new earnestness, to the study of the Word of God.
 
If the Word of God be heeded, the Christian battle will be fought both with love and with faithfulness. Party passions and personal animosities will be put away, but on the other hand, even angels from heaven will be rejected if they preach a gospel different from the blessed gospel of the Cross. Every man must decide upon which side he will stand. God grant that we may decide aright!
At the end of it all—at the end of this reading and at the end of the book, I find that those who have suggested that Christianity & Liberalism is as relevant today as when it was written, are exactly correct. Machen describes the theological landscape of his day and there are marked similarities with our day. This book is a gift, not just to the men and women of the early 20th century, but to Christians today, who continue to grapple with issues related to Christ, to the Bible and to the church—to all of those things that are at the heart of the Christian faith. Truth is still under attack. But through it all, truth remains firm and constant.

Your Turn

The purpose of this program is to read these books together. So if you have something to say, whether a comment or criticism or question, feel free to use the comment section for that purpose.

Note: If you are mentioning Reading Classics Together on Twitter, we’ve got the hashtag #rctmachen set aside for that purpose.