30
Apr
2014

J. Gresham Machen on Church Unity

In light of the recent discussion on “The Future of Protestantism,” I thought I would post Machen’s take on church unity as he deals with this topic in his classic work, Christianity and Liberalism:

We are not dealing here with delicate personal questions; we are not presuming to say whether such and such an individual man is a Christian or not. God only can decide such questions; no man can say with assurance whether the attitude of certain individual “liberals” toward Christ is saving faith or not. But one thing is perfectly plain—whether or not liberals are Christians, it is at any rate perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity. And that being the case, it is highly undesirable that liberalism and Christianity should continue to be propagated within the bounds of the same organization. A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour.

Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin.

Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. Narrowness does not consist in definite devotion to certain convictions or in definite rejection of others. But the narrow man is the man who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them, the man who makes no effort to look at things from the other man’s point of view. For example, it is not narrow to reject the Roman Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Church. It is not narrow to try to convince Roman Catholics that that doctrine is wrong. But it would be very narrow to say to a Roman Catholic: “You may go on holding your doctrine about the Church and I shall hold mine, but let us unite in our Christian work, since despite such trifling differences we are agreed about the matters that concern the welfare of the soul.” For of course such an utterance would simply beg the question; the Roman Catholic could not possibly both hold his doctrine of the Church and at the same time reject it, as would be required by the program of Church unity just suggested. A Protestant who would speak in that way would be narrow, because quite independent of the question whether he or the Roman Catholic is right about the Church he would show plainly that he had not made the slightest effort to understand the Roman Catholic point of view.

The case is similar with the liberal program for unity in the Church. It could never be advocated by anyone who had made the slightest effort to understand the point of view of his opponent in the controversy. The liberal preacher says to the conservative party in the Church: “Let us unite in the same congregation, since of course doctrinal differences are trifles.” But it is the very essence of “conservatism” in the Church to regard doctrinal differences as no trifles but as the matters of supreme moment. A man cannot possibly be an “evangelical” or a “conservative” (or, as he himself would say, simply a Christian) and regard the Cross of Christ as a trifle. To suppose that he can is the extreme of narrowness. It is not necessarily “narrow” to reject the vicarious sacrifice of our Lord as the sole means of salvation. It may be very wrong (and we believe that it is), but it is not necessarily narrow. But to suppose that a man can hold to the vicarious sacrifice of Christ and at the same time belittle that doctrine, to suppose that a man can believe that the eternal Son of God really bore the guilt of men’s sins on the Cross and at the same time regard that belief as a “trifle” without bearing upon the welfare of men’s souls − that is very narrow and very absurd. We shall really get nowhere in this controversy unless we make a sincere effort to understand the other man’s point of view.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 136–37.

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