Paul warned the elders of the church in Ephesus about the critical need for them to be vigilant: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…” (Acts 20:28–31). This apostolic warning was not just for the Ephesian church; it is a warning that is necessary for every church in every age.
Paul’s warning was taken very seriously by many churches and ministers in the controversy between fundamentalists and liberals in the 1920s. Fundamentalists seeing their churches and schools deserting historic Christianity viewed liberals as devious, deceptive, even demonic. Dr. J. Gresham Machen, in the most valuable and enduring critique of liberalism written in the 1920s, Christianity and Liberalism, concluded that Christianity was one religion and liberalism was quite another.
While Dr. Machen’s analysis was accurate and presented in a temperate manner, many in the churches of his day did not accept it. Why was that, and what can we learn in our day about being vigilant in defending and promoting biblical Christianity?
The Mind of Liberalism
In the first place, we should try to understand how the liberals saw themselves and how they communicated their convictions to others. Liberals insisted that they were evangelical Christians. They believed that they did hold to the essentials of the Christian faith. They insisted, affirming the language of the Auburn Affirmation of 1924, that they held to basic Christian doctrines and only rejected some of the theories that fundamentalists used to elaborate those doctrines. For instance, they believed that Jesus was God with them, but not in the virgin birth. The liberals sincerely believed that they alone would save Christianity in the modern world by making it more relevant. As such, they were active missionaries for their cause.
Dr. Machen was right when he stated of the liberals: “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.” But the liberals denied such charges, and by using ambiguous language, they persuaded many that they were not as bad as their critics claimed.
The controversy between liberals and fundamentalists was not only about truth for Dr. Machen, it was about ethics. The liberals were not straightforward or honorable in making their beliefs clear. He wrote that “honesty is being relinquished in wholesale fashion by the liberal party in many ecclesiastical bodies today.” They had promised in their ordination vows to uphold doctrines that they did not believe.
The Conservative Mind
Dr. Machen believed that the majority of church members in his day were basically conservative. They did not want extensive changes in the doctrine or life of their churches. They were somewhat anxious about where the liberals wanted to take the church. However, they tended to be optimistic about the future and were concerned about criticism of liberalism that seemed too negative or strident.
The leadership of the conservative wing of the church did not present a united front. While the staunch conservatives like Dr. Machen were very alarmed and critical of the liberals, other moderate conservatives argued that too much negativity and divisiveness would undermine the mission of the church. Conservative church members often did not know whom to believe or follow.
The division of opinion among conservative leaders and the optimism of many conservatives disposed them to shy away from a fight. As early as 1915, Dr. Machen saw the potential danger of this situation: “The mass of the Church here is still conservative — but conservative in an ignorant, non-polemic, sweetness-and-light kind of way which is just meat for the wolves. I do not mean to use harsh phrases in a harsh way, and my language must be understood to be biblical.” As Paul had warned the Ephesian elders about wolves attacking the sheep of the church, so Dr. Machen worried that the sheep of the church in his day were very vulnerable to liberal wolves.
The Confessionalist Mind
While Dr. Machen was often seen as the greatest intellectual leader of the fundamentalist movement, he was not entirely comfortable with the fundamentalist movement. He did not believe that it was enough to defend just five fundamentals of the faith. He believed that fundamentalism was too individualistic, too reductionistic, and too unconcerned with history. For Machen, true Christianity was an historic community with a full and coherent theology. True Christianity, as Dr. Machen knew it in the Reformed tradition, came to doctrinal expression in a full confession of faith, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Dr. Machen believed a confession expressed the mind of the church and showed church members what the church confessed as the great and necessary teachings of the Bible. The confession should serve as an antidote to doctrinal ignorance in the church as the church diligently teaches its confession to its members. The confession should show the church what doctrines it must fight to uphold. It should strengthen the church as the bulwark of the truth.
Today, evangelical churches face doctrinal challenges every bit as serious as those of the 1920s. Some evangelicals reject the inerrancy of the Bible. Some reject the historic doctrine of God for what they call “open theism.” Some reject the biblical doctrine of justification that was recovered by the Reformation for some form of moralism.
Evangelical churches today, however, are far less troubled by the serious doctrinal errors that divide them than they were in the 1920s. They are less vigilant than they were then. The church generally has not learned the lesson of confessionalism. Doctrinal knowledge, biblical understanding, and disciplined Christian living seem to have declined rather than advanced since the 1920s.
Paul’s call to thoughtful vigilance is needed more today than ever. Ministers, elders, and church members today must be renewed in the truth by a full and careful knowledge of doctrine contained for us in the great confessions of the churches. Then we will know where and when to fight, as well as the truth for which we fight. As Paul wrote to Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).