Unity Around the Gospel: Machen on the Church

This is the last installment in our seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In the book, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasts the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. This post covers the final chapter, in which Machen contrasts the incompatible visions for the church in Christianity and liberalism, and calls for the church of his day to re-orient itself on the gospel.

Machen argues that Christianity and liberalism are unified in concern for social institutions, but the greatest social institution is the church of redeemed men and women. Liberalism taught the doctrine of the universal brotherhood that unites people regardless of race and color, but neglected the biblical doctrine of an even closer brotherhood that unites those who have been born again in the church of Jesus Christ. The greater hope for society and the world is found in the church, because real transformation of society comes through the gospel message that the church treasures and spreads.

A False Unity

The problem that Machen saw within the visible church of his day was that both Christians and liberals were joined in a false unity. The church of his day allowed those who did not truly hold to a confession of faith to remain as full members. Not only were orthodox Christians and modern liberals considered members of the same church, but it was considered narrow-minded to try to divide the two camps. Those who held to central biblical doctrines like the cross of Christ and substitutionary atonement were viewed as conservatives fussing about unimportant doctrinal matters. The church climate of the time believed that liberals and conservatives should live together in unity and get on with Christian service.

If we really love our fellow-men 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. (p. 158)

The Height of Dishonesty

Machen shows that to continue on in this kind of false unity is the height of dishonesty. The narrow person is the one “who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them” (p. 160). When New Testament Christians and modernist liberals understand one another, they will see that their beliefs are entirely different—one views the death of Christ as an unimportant doctrinal point, while the other believes it is the very heart of Christianity.

This kind of unity is dishonest, Machen argued, because many ministers in the church of his time were claiming to agree with confessions of faith that they in fact manifestly disagreed with. It is a bold-faced lie, Machen insisted, to be a minister of the church, which by its very nature is devoted to spreading the gospel message, and then oppose the very message one is committed to hold. Machen writes, “Nothing engenders strife so much as a forced unity, within the same organization, of those who disagree fundamentally in aim” (p. 141).

An Entirely Different Religion

Machen argues throughout his book that liberalism is an entirely different religion from Christianity. For the church to passively accept those who disagree with the biblical gospel and allow them to preach another gospel is to betray not only Christ, but all those who have gone before and funded church mission agencies that were supposedly committed to the spread of the gospel. Machen believed that the church could not just get on with “Christian” life and service while it tolerated false doctrine that detracted from the gospel message at the core of the church.

Shall we be satisfied with preachers who merely “do not deny” the Cross of Christ? . . . God send us ministers who, instead of merely avoiding denial of the Cross shall be on fire with the Cross, whose whole life shall be one burning sacrifice of gratitude to the blessed Savior who loved them and gave himself for them! (p. 148)

In light of this sad confusion of Christians and modern liberals in the church of Machen’s time, he called leaders in the church to continue not only to preach the gospel, but also to defend the faith, to carefully consider the qualifications of potential leaders, to encourage local congregations to find pastors who were passionate about the cross of Christ, and, most importantly, to promote the study of Christian doctrine.

A Concerned but Confident Conclusion

Though Machen was deeply concerned about the widespread influence of modern liberalism throughout the church in the world, he concludes Christianity and Liberalism on hopeful note, confident that God will revive the church again and bring reformation.

This is the final post in the series on J. Gresham Machen’s classic Christianity and Liberalism.