Paul warned the elders of the church at Ephesus of the crucial need for them to be vigilant:
Pay special attention to yourselves and to all the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the Church of God, which he has obtained by his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come among you, not sparing the herd; and from among you shall arise men who shall speak perverse words, to draw away the disciples after them. So be vigilant. . . (Acts 20:28-31) This apostolic warning was not just for the church at Ephesus; it is a warning that is needed for every church in every age.
Paul’s warning was taken very seriously by many churches and ministers in the fundamentalist-liberal controversy of the 1920s. , even demonic. Dr. J. Gresham Machen, in the most valuable and enduring critique of liberalism written in the 1920s, Christianity and liberalismconcluded that Christianity was one religion and liberalism another.
While Dr. Machen’s analysis was accurate and moderately presented, many in the churches of his day did not accept it. Why is that, and what can we learn today about being vigilant in defending and promoting biblical Christianity?
The spirit of liberalism
First, we should try to understand how liberals saw themselves and how they communicated their beliefs to others. The liberals insisted that they were evangelical Christians. They believed they held to the essentials of the Christian faith. They insisted, affirming the language of the 1924 Auburn Affirmation, that they stood by fundamental Christian doctrines and rejected only some of the theories that fundamentalists used to craft those doctrines. For example, they believed that Jesus was God with them, but not in the virgin birth. 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 said of liberals:
By the equivocal use of traditional formulas, by the representation of differences of opinion as if they were only differences of interpretation of the Bible, entry into the Church was assured to those who were hostile to the the very foundations of faith. But the liberals have denied these accusations and, using ambiguous language, have persuaded many that they are not as bad as their critics claim.
The controversy between liberals and fundamentalists was not just about truth for Dr. Machen, it was about ethics. Liberals were neither direct nor honorable in clarifying their beliefs. He wrote that “honesty is being abandoned en masse by the liberal party in many ecclesiastical bodies today”. They had promised in their ordination vows to defend doctrines in which they did not believe.
The conservative spirit
Dr. Machen believed that the majority of church members in his day were fundamentally conservative. They did not want major changes in the doctrine or life of their churches. They were somewhat anxious to know where the liberals wanted to take the church. However, they tended to be optimistic about the future and worried about criticism of liberalism that seemed too negative or strident to them.
The leadership of the conservative wing of the church did not present a united front. While staunch conservatives like Dr. Machen were highly alarmed and critical of liberals, other moderate conservatives argued that too much negativity and division would undermine the mission of the church. Conservative church members often did not know who to believe or follow.
The division of opinion among conservative leaders and the optimism of many conservatives disposed them to avoid 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-controversial, gentle and light-hearted way, which is but meat for the wolves. I don’t want to use harsh phrases in a harsh way, and my language should be understood as biblical. As Paul had warned the elders of Ephesus that wolves were attacking the sheep of the church, Dr. Machen worried that the sheep of the church in his day were very vulnerable to liberal wolves.
The sectarian spirit
While Dr. Machen was often considered the greatest intellectual leader in the fundamentalist movement, he was not entirely comfortable with the fundamentalist movement. He did not believe that it was enough to defend only five fundamental principles of the faith. He believed that fundamentalism was too individualistic, too reductionist, and too indifferent to history. For Machen, true Christianity was a historical community with a complete 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 that a confession expressed the spirit of the church and showed church members what the church confessed as the great and necessary teachings of the Bible. Confession should serve as an antidote to doctrinal ignorance in the church as the church diligently teaches its confession to its members. The confession must show the Church what doctrines it must fight to defend. This should strengthen the church as a bulwark of truth.
Today, evangelical churches face doctrinal challenges just as serious as those of the 1920s. Some evangelicals reject the inerrancy of the Bible. Some reject the historical doctrine of God for what they call “open theism.” Some reject the biblical doctrine of justification which was co-opted by the Reformation for a certain form of moralism.
However, evangelical churches today are much 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 has generally not learned the lesson of sectarianism. Doctrinal knowledge, biblical understanding, and disciplined Christian living appear to have declined rather than advanced since the 1920s.
Paul’s call for thoughtful vigilance is needed more than ever today. Ministers, elders, and church members today are to be renewed in truth by a thorough and careful knowledge of the doctrine contained for us in the great denominations of the churches. Then we will know where and when to fight, and the truth we are fighting for. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Watch yourselves closely and watch the teaching. Persist in this, for by doing so you will save yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).
This article first appeared in Tabletalk, the Bible study magazine of Ligonier Ministries. To learn more, visit TabletalkMagazine.com or subscribe today at GetTabletalk.com.
Dr. W. Robert Godfrey is a Lecturer at Ligonier Ministries and President of Ligonier Ministries. He is President Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Church History at Westminster Seminary in California. He is the star teacher in many Ligonier teaching series, including the six-part series A Survey of Church History. He is the author of numerous books, including God’s Pattern for Creation, Reformation Sketches and An Unexpected Journey.