23 May 2007

On Controversy in the Church

by J. Gresham Machen
posted by Phil Johnson

The following article is excerpted from an address originally delivered in London on June 17, 1932. The whole article is well worth reading. I quoted part of it in a message in Atlanta last week, and Caleb Kolstad wrote to ask me for the source. I sent him the snippet he requested, but it occurred to me that this would make an excellent post here at PyroManiacs:
f we are to have Christian apologetics, if we are to have a defense of the faith, what kind of defense of the faith should it be?

In the first place, it should be directed not only against the opponents outside the Church but also against the opponents within. The opponents of Holy Scripture do not become less dangerous, but they become far more dangerous, when they are within ecclesiastical walls.

At that point, I am well aware that widespread objection arises at the present time. Let us above all, men say, have no controversy in the Church; let us forget our small theological differences and all repeat together Paul's hymn to Christian love. As I listen to such pleas, my Christian friends, I think I can detect in them rather plainly the voice of Satan. That voice is heard, sometimes, on the lips of good and truly Christian men, as at Caesarea Philippi it was heard on the lips of the greatest of the Twelve. But Satan's voice it is, all the same.

Sometimes it comes to us in rather deceptive ways. I remember, for example, what was said in my hearing on one occasion, by a man who is generally regarded as one of the leaders of the evangelical Christian Church. It was said at the climax of a day of devotional services. "If you go heresy-hunting for the sin in your own wicked hearts," said the speaker, as nearly as I can remember his words, "you will have no time for heresy-hunting for the heretics outside."

Thus did temptation come through the mouth of a well-meaning man. The "heretics," to use the term that was used by that speaker, are, with their helpers, the indifferentists, in control of the church within the bounds of which that utterance was made, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, as they are in control of nearly all the larger Protestant churches in the world. A man hardly needs to "hunt" them very long if he is to oppose them. All that he needs to do is to be faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ, and his opposition to those men will follow soon enough.

But is it true, as this speaker seemed to imply, that there is a conflict between faithfulness to Christ in the ecclesiastical world and the cultivation of holiness in one's own inner life? My friends, it is not true, but false. A man cannot successfully go heresy-hunting against the sin in his own life if he is willing to deny His Lord in the presence of the enemies outside. The two battles are intimately connected. A man cannot fight successfully in one unless he fights also in the other.

Again, we are told that our theological differences will disappear if we will just get down on our knees together in prayer. Well, I can only say about that kind of prayer, which is indifferent to the question whether the gospel is true or false, that it is not Christian prayer; it is bowing down in the house of Rimmon. God save us from it! Instead, may God lead us to the kind of prayer in which, recognizing the dreadful condition of the visible Church, recognizing the unbelief and the sin which dominate it today, we who are opposed to the current of the age both in the world and in the Church, facing the facts as they are, lay those facts before God, as Hezekiah laid before Him the threatening letter of the Assyrian enemy, and humbly ask Him to give the answer.

Again, men say that instead of engaging in controversy in the Church, we ought to pray to God for a revival; instead of polemics, we ought to have evangelism. Well, what kind of revival do you think that will be? What sort of evangelism is it that is indifferent to the question of what evangel it is that is to be preached? Not a revival in the New Testament sense, not the evangelism that Paul meant when he said, "Woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel." No, my friends, there can be no true evangelism which makes common cause with the enemies of the Cross of Christ. Souls will hardly be saved unless the evangelists can say with Paul: "If we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel than that which we preached unto you, let him be accursed!" Every true revival is born in controversy, and leads to more controversy. That has been true ever since our Lord said that He came not to bring peace upon the earth but a sword. And do you know what I think will happen when God sends a new Reformation upon the Church? We cannot tell when that blessed day will come. But when the blessed day does come, I think we can say at least one result that it will bring. We shall hear nothing on that day about the evils of controversy in the Church. All that will be swept away as with a mighty flood. A man who is on fire with a message never talks in that wretched, feeble way, but proclaims the truth joyously and fearlessly, in the presence of every high thing that is lifted up against the gospel of Christ.

But men tell us that instead of engaging in controversy about doctrine we ought to seek the power of the living Holy Spirit. A few years ago we had a celebration of the anniversary of Pentecost. At that time, our Presbyterian Church was engaged in a conflict, the gist of which concerned the question of the truth of the Bible. Was the Church going to insist, or was it not going to insist, that its ministers should believe that the Bible is true? At that time of decision, and almost, it seemed, as though to evade the issue, many sermons were preached on the subject of the Holy Spirit. Do you think that those sermons, if they really were preached in that way, were approved by Him with whom they dealt. I fear not, my friends. A man can hardly receive the power of the Holy Spirit if he seeks to evade the question whether the blessed Book that the Spirit has given us is true or false.

Again, men tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost from beginning to end. Some years ago I was in a company of teachers of the Bible in the colleges and other educational institutions of America. One of the most eminent theological professors in the country made an address. In it he admitted that there are unfortunate controversies about doctrine in the Epistles of Paul; but, said he in effect, the real essence of Paul's teaching is found in the hymn to Christian love in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians; and we can avoid controversy today, if we will only devote the chief attention to that inspiring hymn. In reply, I am bound to say that the example was singularly ill-chosen. That hymn to Christian love is in the midst of a great polemic passage; it would never have been written if Paul had been opposed to controversy with error in the Church. It was because his soul was stirred within him by a wrong use of the spiritual gifts that he was able to write that glorious hymn. So it is always in the Church. Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth.

J. Gresham Machen


36 comments:

art said...

This type of teaching from Machen is what led John Frame to write

Machen's Warrior Children

goodnightsafehome said...

Very enjoyable post. Machen's opposition to modernism was solid, well measured and completely free from the shrill, wide eyed stuff. And he fought over fundamentals... not the secondary stuff which some make fundamental.

David said...

Ooofh.

He's right.

However.

We often present some sort of false dichotomy between keeping the church pure from within and keeping the church pure from without. One God, one faith, one baptism.

Today, for instance, I used my blogging to ignore my neighbor in need.

Because we need good ecclesiology.

Pffffffff. . .

Sewing said...

He gave this in 1932? Wow. Like Spurgeon's mentioning of modern intellectual fashions—in the Victorian era. Or Matthew Arnold writing poems about the loss of faith about the same time. Or my shock when I discovered higher criticism goes way back to the 18th century. Well, heck, Paul was wrangling with all the stuff the Corinthians were getting up to 1950 years ago, and we face all the same problems today!

There truly is nothing new under the sun. Except for the Risen Christ. That was new. Okay, there has been nothing new under the sun since circa the Year of Our Lord 33.

Libbie said...

OK, that was scary. Mr Copelands teeth looked really sharp for a second in that picture. I need more coffee.

centuri0n said...

its nice to have Phil back. Now I don't have to post today.

:-)
__________

Libbie:

I've been watching that picture of Copeland for weeks now in the image archive, and I'm still scared.

Karen (Rosesandtea) said...

I appreciate the article; it is quite helpful to me. Thanks for posting it, Phil.


"The "heretics," to use the term that was used by that speaker, are, with their helpers, the indifferentists, in control of the church within the bounds of which that utterance was made, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, as they are in control of nearly all the larger Protestant churches in the world. A man hardly needs to "hunt" them very long if he is to oppose them. All that he needs to do is to be faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ, and his opposition to those men will follow soon enough."

It's true that if you are in a liberalism-tainted church (by whatever current name) all you have to do is try to be faithful to Christ, and you will soon find yourself in opposition.

I think that it may be the indifferentists who are the real problem. Those who say "oh well, it doesn't really matter, let's just get along" are why the "heretics" are able to last and have as much influence as they do. If those who are indifferent would study and have the attitude that truth (God's word) is important, I think there would be some big changes.

Art, I'm not sure if you are disagreeing with Machen? I read the article by Frame (thanks for the link btw) and he points out that Machen was disappointed in how bellicose his "children" were. He didn't accuse Machen of this. Perhaps I am misunderstanding your comment?

Whoa, that's Kenneth Copeland? I thought the man looked familiar, but seriously, I thought it was some actor on one of those new horror shows like buffy.

Jon Nunley said...

Again, men tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings.

Good stuff.

(((Sorry. Having to use my husband's blogger account. Mine is messed up for some reason.)))

Lisa

C. Andiron said...

I hope +Martyn Minns reads this. It may cheer him up.

Martin Downes said...

Good stuff.

Is this printed in God Transcendent?

Justin Walker said...

"Was the Church going to insist, or was it not going to insist, that its ministers should believe that the Bible is true? At that time of decision, and almost, it seemed, as though to evade the issue, many sermons were preached on the subject of the Holy Spirit. Do you think that those sermons, if they really were preached in that way, were approved by Him with whom they dealt. I fear not, my friends. A man can hardly receive the power of the Holy Spirit if he seeks to evade the question whether the blessed Book that the Spirit has given us is true or false."

Wow! What an obvious statement of truth that is overlooked in the popular preaching of our day.

Benjamin Nitu said...

At least back then people still believed that there is such a thing as right and wrong, a difference between an heretic and a believer.
Post-modernism has left us empty handed. Nowadays, we have to explain people that truth exists and matters, that there is a huge gulf between right doctrine and wrong doctrine, and so on.

DJP said...

Sewing— some time treat yourself to a read of Machen's What Is Faith?, or Christianity and Liberalism. They'll give you the chills, they're so prescient.

DJP said...

Centuri0nits nice to have Phil back

I was starting to think we should print up a milk carton.

donsands said...

The false teachers do come as ministers of righteousness.

Either they use the Bible for their own glory, or they semi-disdain the Bible.
Instead of honoring the Bible for the truth of God, and seeing it as a precious treasure, which we are privileged to posses.

Wonderful words to read from a true hero of the faith. A great example for us in our day.

Trashey said...

RE: MACHEN'S WARRIOR CHILDREN

See especially 7,11,12,13,14,18 and 21.

My sense of the Pyros is that you are at your best when you are writing about what is true and good and beautiful, you can be good when you write about what is false, and you can be awful about what is false.

The context of Paul writing about false teaching, or Machen's battle with liberalism, are far different battles than the ones we might have with, say, infant baptists, charismatics, or Anglicans.

I would much prefer to see your indominable brains be put to work against athiests, relativists, theological liberals, social issues, and the ever encroaching Islamic world.

Timotheos said...

Thanks, Phil.
What a challenge.

fool4jesus said...

I appreciate the Frame article, and it points out things we all need to be wary of; but it seems to me that there's a false dichotomy being approached here (which I am coming to associate with "emerging" circles). Doctrinal concerns OR concern for the lost. How many times have I heard as a comeback to somebody arguing about doctrine the fallacy "oh yeah, well why don't you care about the lost?" (There's an excellent posting over on oldtruth.com about identifying this and other elementary logic fallacies, BTW. My kids are not homeschooled but I am about to buy their materials for them to read anyway.)

The truth is, most people in reformed churches do not evangelize as much as they ought. For that we should repent and ask God for help in doing better. But nobody should feel superior, because the truth is that most people in non-reformed churches don't evangelize as much as they ought. It's easy to mistake sitting around candles and making friends with "sinners" for evangelism (or, worse, sitting in a "seeker friendly" service and imagining you are fulfilling the Great Commission), but if you don't pull the trigger - so to speak - all the candles and conversations amount to nothing, Kingdom-wise.

wordsmith said...

Good stuff by Machen.

Glad I'm not the only one who thought that pic of Copeland was eerie. All it needs is horns and a pitchfork :)

stratagem said...

"A man hardly needs to 'hunt' them very long if he is to oppose them. All that he needs to do is to be faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ, and his opposition to those men will follow soon enough.'"

Update: if you are in a Purpose-Driven(TM) church, then they will be hunting you - and will throw you out. Out, cursed spot!

SolaMeanie said...

Libbie and Frank,

That is indeed a haunting picture of Copeland. First think I thought of when I saw it was the poster for the film "The Lost Boys," starring Kiefer Sutherland in his pre-24 days.

If those cuspids start elongating, I'm outta here.

Kevin Rhyne said...

Copeland pic - "like the face of Robert Tilton without the horns..."

Cash cow comin' ta gitchya!

Sorry. A little Steve Taylor throw back.

lordodamanor said...

"All that he needs to do is to be faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ, and his opposition to those men will follow soon enough."

I noticed that he did not say that the opposition of those men would follow, but his opposition would follow. Machen here as he always did, led out. He knew well what was happening with the growth of "cooperative" ecumenism. His era saw the ideals of Schaff's Hegelianism rise to the fore in a worldwide effort to reunify the protestant and Roman Catholic churches. The result would be social and theological liberalism and the birth of institutions like the Ntl Council and the World Council of Churches along with numerous encumenical associations. He witnessed the watering down of confessionalism and the option of latitudinarianism which sacrificed doctrine on the alter of evangelism. He knew his enemies never slept and warned us that if sleep, a little folding of the hands to slumber and proverty will over takes us as a thief.

"A man cannot successfully go heresy-hunting against the sin in his own life if he is willing to deny His Lord in the presence of the enemies outside. The two battles are intimately connected. A man cannot fight successfully in one unless he fights also in the other."

First remove the log from your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother's. This admonition to become clear sighted is only half obeyed if we do not then turn and restore our brother. Far from restricting judgement, it instructs us to judge righteous judgement as Jesus commands us in John. As with the other statement, begin doing doctrine and you will soon find yourself rebuking, admonishing and instructing in it. Note the order. Study to show yourself approve, then you will not be ashamed to remove the splinter.

...indifferentists.... What a term. Indifference, luke-warmness. What more needs to be said.

"Was the Church going to insist, or was it not going to insist, that its ministers should believe that the Bible is true?

...Machen's What Is Faith?, or Christianity and Liberalism. They'll give you the chills, they're so prescient."

Both these books are great, truly prophetic. However, Machen embraced cooperative efforts with fellow conservatives who were Arminian. For some reason he was not willing to say that it is heretical. like his forerunners did. In view of what Falwell said before he died, and what has become of modern evangelicalism and the overwhelming Romanism of Arminianism that dominates the Church today, Machenesque reluctance to confront Arminianism can be just as dangerous as not confronting liberalism.

The hot button debate of the time was the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, and so, there was a willingness to compromise the Gospel for unity among fundamentalists. In other words, even Machen was pulled by the power of politics just as we of the "moral majority," are today. The councils of Dort defined what it meant to believe in inerrancy by defining that the biblical doctrines were what they were. They determined that the Arminian view of Scripture was deficient, and therefore not Scripture. To, on the one hand support biblical inerrancy and infallibility and then on the other, to compromise between two mutually exclusive oppositional theologies is irrational.

Rational interpretation of the Scripture is what Machen defended over against rationalism, which subjugated the revelation of Scripture to the rationalistic logic of human understanding. The Arminian rejects exegetical, rational, interpretation for that very hermaneutic that denies the infallibilty of Scripture. They distroy its internal consistency by importing external proofs from experience. Their interpretations then can never rise to the level of revelation and are therefore fallible. The contradiction in Machen was this willingness to embrace the irrationality (not that he himself was a rationalist) of the Arminian, to fight against the irrationality of the liberal. That compromise has lead us to today.

How can we answer the accusation that Calvinism is heresy without the return volley that the councils of Dort were correct? How can these two oppostitional religions abide in one house? If we contend that both postitions, even though contradictory are nontheless Scriptural, we testify to the world that our opinion of Scripture is that it is both errant and fallible. They know that both truths, the free-will doctrines of Arminians and the bondage of the will doctrines of Calvinism, cannot stand. They themselves believe in free-will. It seems they know better than we that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Yet, they are content to let heresy brew. The question for us, is just which one is their ally.

As many have recognized, where ever there is a compromise of doctrine, specifically the doctrines of grace, it leads to ever increasing degradation of the faith. So, Machen is a good read and he was willing to fight singly and then to abandon his native church when he saw that it would not reform. And thanks to him a strong orthodox Calvinistc church survives. Will we take actions, as he said, "his oppostition to those men will follow," before we have to abandon our churches?

Sewing said...

Speaking of confronting moral relativism, etc., even within our own churches, praise the Lord that I have learned that the senior pastor at our church is a Reformed theologian to the core—and a first-rate expositor (forgive me for the gloating! ;) ).

Please pray for him, because he's starting 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 this weekend coming up. Maybe I'm making too much of it, but he's really going to need the Holy Spirit for this one, especially as our church is in the middle of an urban hotbed of post-modern, me-first secularism. Heck, according to Phil's scripture index, even Spurgeon didn't go there! (Although Spurgeon wasn't an expositor....)

Sewing said...

Wow, I'm turning up donuts even for Lloyd-Jones!

Rev. M. Brewer said...

This defense is the reason that I was removed and barred from attending my youth group in the church I grew up in. And it is one of my greatest drives.

Wonderful article! I was so stirred up by it (in a good way) that I had to link it from my blog.

Blessings.

art said...

Karen said:

Art, I'm not sure if you are disagreeing with Machen? I read the article by Frame (thanks for the link btw) and he points out that Machen was disappointed in how bellicose his "children" were. He didn't accuse Machen of this. Perhaps I am misunderstanding your comment?

I'm not in disagreement with Machen. He fought the good fight within his context and fought it well. The reason that I linked to the Frame article was to (hopefully) bring some people to realize that Machen was, like you said, disappointed in his "children" in the way that they took his legacy and turned it into justification for staging in-house battles.

To be sure, Machen was fighting against damned liberalism (and that is not frivious swearing, but a proper use of that adjective). He was not fighting with other Christians who believed in a different eschatological scheme, view of baptism, view of the atonement, or against Arminianism. He was battling liberals who denied miracles (i.e. the resurrection) and the inspiration of Scripture.

As much as I wish that people would be unified in their eschatological scheme, view of baptism, view of the atonement, and their view of Calvinism, I would much rather see Christians doing battle with unbelievers (like Machen was doing). Christians believing in the correct theology is important, but unbelievers coming to salvation is much, much more important. Let's spill our ink and have our battles there.

centuri0n said...

Trashey:

Sorry. The massive flaw in the charismatics we criticize is that they do to scripture what the liberals do to scripture: that is, they set scripture aside for experience -- the liberal for a "rational" experience and the charismatic for a "supernatural" experience.

Sometimes what it beautiful is also painful.

Thanks for your opinion.

centuri0n said...

I have some other thoughts on Trashey's post which perhaps deserve some wider airing out. If Dan doesn't have anything today, I'll get those up here later today.

Tom Chantry said...

The balance between unity and truth is easily defined, but much more difficult to accomplish. Machen was right to oppose liberalism, and he was right to be saddened by infighting among genuine believers. The fact remains that he could not avoid conflict with The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, a conservative board within Presbyterianism which he had helped to found. And the break wasn't over gospel truth, either, but over (gasp!) alcohol. It wasn't that Machen viewed alcohol as a central point of the gospel, but, being unwilling to be coerced into making a stand which he believed was unbiblical, he was willing to part ways with other Christians. Truth, even non-essential truth, mattered more than unity, so far as that truth prohibited Machen and others from doing what they viewed as contrary to God's will.

That sad chapter in history demonstrates how difficult it is to distinguish which areas are worth fighting over. It is noteworthy, though, that Frame's list of issues which should not preclude unity includes such doctrines as covenant, justification, and the relationship between law and gospel - all critical points in the view of most Reformed theologians. Frame is not a man willing to compromise what he believes to be central gospel truth, but it ought to be acknowledged that not everyone agrees on what those truths are.

Caleb Kolstad said...

WOW! At the national FIRE conference i found out that i was the first person to ever ask Phil about joining his blog team.

He said he wouldn't do that to anyone he likes. I guess having my name appear on this post with Machen is my side reward for asking. :)

On a more serious note i posted the following in our weekly church newsletter...

Last Sunday we noted how the tone of the preacher's sermon often reflects that of his Biblical text. (I would argue it should reflect that of his sermon text). Jude's epistle is very urgent and sober in tone in large part because the fundamentals of the faith were under attack (note Jude 3-4). Apostates were attacking both in practice and in doctrine.

In his wonderful article on "The Importance of Christian Scholarship in the Defense of the Faith" J Gresham Machen wrote,
"Men tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost from beginning to end... It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of the truth."

Martin Luther adds some helpful insight here as well. He said, "If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except that little point which the world and the Devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him."

These are some helpful quotes to consider as we continue our exposition through the book of Jude....(or as this article points out in many portions of Holy Scripture).

DJP said...

He said he wouldn't do that to anyone he likes

Um... Frank?

DJP said...

Here's the thing, Art. When you say Machen "was not fighting with other Christians who believed in a different eschatological scheme, view of baptism, view of the atonement," you join Trashey in sounding as if you hadn't actually read the article.

Machen is specifically talking about doing battle with professed Christians who pervert the faith. And, depending on what you mean by it, I hardly think that Machen would agree that "view of the atonement" was a peripheral area, nor perhaps an eschatology that would assert that ALL prophecy has already been fulfilled, etc.

art said...

Dan:

The article was about doing battle, correct; but it in itself was not doing battle.

Again, Machen battled those who were truly outside the faith. In his published works is where Machen threw down....and he threw down against liberalism. The Origin of Paul's Religion was polemical against those who saw discontinuity between the teachings of Jesus and Paul; The Virgin Birth of Christ was against liberalism's disbelief in the supernatural; Christianity and Liberalism is, obviously, polemical against liberalism.

And by "view of the atonement," I'm talking about someone who would stress the christus victor view and another person who would stress penal substitution.

And yes, full preterism is bad. But I'm talking about dispy/amill/premill/postmill; not the extreme fringe views that are alive and well only in the mountains of West Virginia.

Caleb Kolstad said...

DJP,

That was a partial quote. You & Frank can handle the mayhem of this place. Me being a young pastor, a young father, etc, etc could not.

You guys are cool pyros as well. Phil is phil but everyone appreciates the work of Dan and Frank too. :)

CK

Steve said...

That picture of Copeland reminds me of Bram Stoker's infamous character....