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How to Preserve a Truly Christian Witness: 5 Lessons from Machen

In 1936, at the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America—later renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC)—official greetings were received from the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). These greetings were a boon for the fledgling church in her struggle against modernism. Cornelius Van Til recounts, “The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church of America immediately sent a telegram to the renewed and revived Presbyterian church wishing them God’s blessing. That was heartening to the brothers. Much opposition is being encountered. Just as it was during the Doleantie, the synods are doing everything they can to oppose the new movement.”[1] The Doleantie was a secessionist movement in the Dutch Reformed Church led by Abraham Kuyper in 1886, postdating an earlier secession in 1834 known as the Afscheiding. Van Til recognizes that the purpose for the secession in the Netherlands was basically the same as for the Presbyterian Church of America: not to fall away into modernism but to preserve a truly Christian witness in the world.

It was Van Til who initiated contact with the Synod of the CRC. In the Acts of Synod 1936 of the Christian Reformed Church, we learn that Van Til and R. B. Kuiper sent the following telegram to the Synod: “Presbyterian Church of America, organized yesterday as true spiritual succession of Presbyterian Church U. S. A. General Assembly meeting now. Will conclude its sessions tomorrow. Machen is Moderator. Our Synod could strengthen hands of brethren by sending greetings.”[2] The Synod received the telegram and sent the following reply:

The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, in session at Grand Rapids, Mich., conscious of the tie that binds us in the propagation and defence of our common Reformed faith, and convinced of the uncompromising devotion to that faith which has led to your organization, extends its Christian greetings and commends you, together with all who stand with you, to the guidance and blessing of the King of the Church. May He lead you as leaders and those who follow with you by His Spirit, strengthen you, and increase your numbers, and gird you on in the battle against our common foes of apostasy and unbelief in these critical times. Synod officially invites a fraternal delegate to attend its sessions next week.[3]

J. Gresham Machen comments,

One of the most joyful moments at the recent first General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church of America was the moment when we received the official greetings of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church. From no ecclesiastical body in the whole world could greetings have been more welcome, both because of the deep debt of gratitude that we already owe to the Christian Reformed Church—I need only mention the fact that that church has given to Westminster Seminary R. B. Kuiper, Cornelius Van Til and N. B. Stonehouse—and also because of the noble testimony which that church has carried on in the defense and propagation of the Reformed Faith.[4]

Machen proceeds to list five things about the life of the CRC at that time “which have kept it from falling away into the dominant Modernism and have been instruments in preserving its truly Christian witness.”[5] These things remain vital for the church and her witness in the world today. Modernism falsifies religion by situating autonomous man at the center of all things so that even God exists for his sake. But what follows are helps for the church in preserving her truly Christian witness that God is at the center of all things and that man exists for his sake. (The words in quotes in each heading are taken directly from Machen.)

1. “Separation for the Sake of Faithfulness” or Do Not Drink the Cup of Demons

Questions about the legitimacy and necessity of ecclesiastical separation have been around since at least the Reformation. According to Machen, to separate from a compromising association or denomination is not schism but the avoidance of schism. It is the compromising association that is guilty of schism, having separated itself from the true church of Jesus Christ in its doctrine and life. To separate from a compromising association is not to separate from the true church but to return to it. “It is separation undertaken not in the interests of schism but in the interests of the true unity and purity of the Church,” writes Machen.[6] In other words, it is separation for the glory of God and for the sake of faithfulness, even if it costs influence, numbers, and financial security. This was the story of the Afscheiding and Doleantie in the Netherlands and then of the Presbyterian Church of America. It was also for this reason that a group of churches found it necessary to separate from the CRC in the 1990s to form the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA), as the continuation of the church that Machen once commended.[7]

2. “Theological Consistency” or Do Not Be Merely Christian

“The Christian Reformed Church,” observes Machen, “has never been content with being vaguely ‘evangelical’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘fundamentalist,’ but has always endeavored to be truly ‘Reformed.’”[8] The church that is content with mere Christianity or lowest-common-denominator Christianity will inevitably lose its footing and fall away into modernism. It is like a person crossing a river by leaping from one small rock to another instead of by walking across a sturdy bridge—he is bound to land on a slippery rock and lose his footing. It is the church that holds firmly “to that glorious system of revealed truth which is summarized in the great Reformed confessions of faith” that preserves a truly Christian witness in the world.[9] Our Reformed confessions guard the church against gaps and inconsistencies in her theology that would otherwise weaken her walls against the bombardments of modernism.

3. “Indoctrination by the Pastors” or Do Not Teach in a Desultory Way

The practice in the CRC was for the pastor to preach one sermon every Sunday from the Heidelberg Catechism moving consecutively through its three parts of sin, salvation, and service under the theme of our only comfort in life and in death. The catechism was divided into fifty-two Lord’s Days so that it could be taught throughout the year and repeated the next and the next and so on. This resulted in the congregation being “soundly and systematically indoctrinated.”[10] But this orderly method of catechetical preaching contrasts with the popular desultory method that jumps and skips around from one idea to another. The latter method assumes that our theology ought not to be an organized system but a jumble of disconnected ideas. The danger is that it is much easier to smuggle an enemy into a crowded store with people bustling in every direction than into a battalion of soldiers marching in perfect sync. The systematic orderliness of the marching lines reveals when someone is out of place.

4. “Church Discipline” or Do Not Join the Church to the World

The aim of church discipline is the opposite of modernism’s. Modernism aims to join the church to the world. Church discipline aims to separate the church from the world. The holiness and purity of the church can only be maintained when church discipline is properly exercised in accordance with the Word of God. While Machen commends the CRC for exercising church discipline, he still warns that modernism knocks at the door of every church no matter how pure. “Pray God that the door may be kept locked to such an enemy as that!”[11]

5. “Christian Schools” or Do Not Give Covenant Children a Non-Christian Education

The necessity of a thoroughly Christian education for covenant children was ingrained in the mind of the CRC. Machen writes, “In an overwhelmingly predominate way . . . , [the Christian Schools] are conducted and supported by the people of the Christian Reformed Church. . . . . They love God and love their children too much to allow Christian instruction to be tagged on one day in seven as a kind of excrescence upon an education fundamentally non-Christian. They have tried to make the education of their children Christian throughout.”[12] It was often the case that wherever a CRC was planted a Christian school soon followed. While many good things vied for their time, it was for good reason that Van Til, Machen, and others devoted much of their efforts to the promotion and furtherance of Christian education. It honored the God of the covenant whose promises are for us and our children.

Conclusion

Machen recognized that on account of these five things—separation for the sake of faithfulness, theological consistency, indoctrination by the pastors, church discipline, and Christian schools—God had wonderfully blessed the efforts of the CRC. God continues to bless the efforts of those churches today whose ecclesiastical lives are characterized by the same. By them, they are prevented from falling away into modernism and preserve a truly Christian witness in the world for God’s glory.


[1] Cornelius Van Til, “The Presbyterian Church of America,” De Reformatie vol 16, no 46 (14 Aug 1936): 392, my translation.

[2] The Acts of Synod 1936 of the Christian Reformed Church, 19: https://library.calvin.edu/ld.php?content_id=71769097.

[3] The Acts of Synod 1936 of the Christian Reformed Church, 19–20. According to the Minutes from the First General Assembly, “The telegram extended an invitation to the Assembly to send a fraternal delegate to the meetings of the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church.” Van Til was appointed as that fraternal delegate.

[4] J. Gresham Machen, “The Christian Reformed Church,” The Presbyterian Guardian 2, no. 8 (20 July 1936): 170.

[5] Machen, “The Christian Reformed Church,” 170.

[6] Machen, “The Christian Reformed Church,” 170.

[7] This is not to say there were no faithful churches that remained in the CRC to continue the struggle, but the denomination began to teach doctrines that contradicted its own confessional standards—that is, the Three Forms of Unity. It moved away from the inspiration and authority of Scripture and taught the Arminian view of the love of God. Some held that women could hold ecclesiastical office, advocated evolution, and denied some parts of Scripture as the Word of God. This led to thirty-six churches forming a federative unity. In 1996, these churches held their first Synod and adopted the name The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA).

[8] Machen, “The Christian Reformed Church,” 170.

[9] Machen, “The Christian Reformed Church,” 170.

[10] Machen, “The Christian Reformed Church,” 170.

[11] Machen, “The Christian Reformed Church,” 170.

[12] Machen, “The Christian Reformed Church,” 170.

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