White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

The Church's Mission

Published Thursday, August 16, 2007 By D. G. Hart

We have all had similar conversations, the one with fellow believers where we agree with our friends about a particular matter of public policy but end up disagreeing quite strongly about specifics of Christian faith and practice. The frustrating thing about such encounters is the way Christians can passionately pursue specific legislative initiatives or rally around a particular political candidate, but in the realm of spiritual matters, things about which believers should be far more zealous, we are surprisingly indifferent and content to live with a diversity of perspectives. For instance, one would be hard pressed to find an evangelical who is not opposed to legislation designed specifically to sanction same sex marriages. Yet, trying to find an evangelical who believed that the use of images in worship involved breaking the second commandment is almost as hard as finding an American who thinks Major League Baseball players are underpaid. But this is what precisely has happened within many Christian communions. According to David Wells, the church has subsumed the love of God under the love of neighbor to such an extent that faith has come to mean “little more than seeking justice in the world.”

The point here isn’t that Christians should be indifferent to questions of public policy and social injustice or that there is a clear consensus upon the meaning of the decalogue. Rather, the point has more to do with the misplaced allegiance of contemporary Christians. For whatever reason (and there are a host that come to mind), evangelicals are increasingly defined and engaged by a fairly selective list of cultural and political issues. Conversely, evangelicalism has by and large become meaningless as a theological category. Not that anecdotes prove arguments, but an encounter with a young mother in a conservative Presbyterian congregation does illustrate the point. This woman said that she and her husband had decided to join this denomination because she knew it was Pro-Life. Did she understand the church’s beliefs about preaching, the sacraments, or polity? Probably not. But she knew exactly where it stood (even though the church had issued no formal declaration) about abortion. And that was a good enough reason to join that particular congregation.

This is just one example of the way questions concerning church and state have not only been muddied but have also begun to be answered in political rather than theological ways. Evangelicals are remarkably certain about the things of Caesar and surprisingly timid about articles of the Christian religion. For believers who identify and promote the teachings of the Reformation this is indeed a sad state of affairs.

Unfortunately, the woes of contemporary evangelicals are not that unusual. The history of Protestantism in the United States testifies to a fairly steady confusion of religion and politics. Presbyterians and Reformed have been especially guilty in this regard. Owing in part to the legacy of the state-church system in Europe and to the Reformed idea that Christ is Lord of all areas of life, including politics, Calvinists have been prominent in American government and in advocating various political reforms. But often many of these otherwise worthwhile endeavors came with the high price of attenuating Christian resolve in order to achieve greater political influence and build a Christian civilization.

J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) was one Presbyterian who stood apart from this general tendency. Machen came to prominence during the modernist-fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s when he opposed liberal Protestantism not just as a departure from Christian orthodoxy but as an entirely different religion. In his popular book (and still essential reading) Christianity and Liberalism (1923), Machen defended Calvinistic teachings about God, human nature, sin and grace as still the best summary of the Bible and the only way for salvation. Machen went on in 1929 to found Westminster Theological Seminary, and his pronounced views eventually drew fire from officials in the Northern Presbyterian Church. After being suspended from the ministry in 1936 Machen founded the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to perpetuate a vehicle for proclaiming and defending Calvinist orthodoxy.

Interestingly enough, Machen’s criticism of liberalism was linked directly to problems surrounding the relationship between church and state. He believed that liberal Protestants had substituted the reform of American society for the propagation of the gospel. On the one hand, liberals began to look to large bureaucratic institutions, including the government, to establish the kingdom of God, a task traditionally reserved in Protestant theology for the church. On the other hand, concerns for the welfare of the American nation subtly altered the liberal Protestant understanding of the kingdom of God. Increasingly, the desire to establish the reign of God in the hearts and lives of his people shifted to the pursuit of Christian civilization in United States. While not every liberal Protestant abandoned the older aim of converting the lost and nurturing the faithful, they nevertheless generally agreed that the difficulties facing the nation required the church to refashion the gospel if it was to remain relevant and influential. And if the church were to affect public policy, the exclusive claims of the gospel were ill suited to the inclusive and democratic aims of the nation.

From Machen’s perspective, liberal Protestant hopes for America misconstrued woefully the nature and task of the church. (It should be added that he also criticized fundamentalist and evangelical efforts to establish Christian civilization in the United States through the more religious means of revivals and individual morality.) As he declared to a gathering of political and social scientists in 1933,

you cannot expect from a true Christian church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force…[T]he function of the church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning aside from its proper mission, which is to bring to bear upon human hearts the solemn and imperious, yet also sweet and gracious appeal of the gospel of Christ.

Machen’s perspective on the work of the church reflected a doctrine which some has been commonly called the spirituality of the church. According to this teaching the church’s sole task, the one for which Christ ordained it, was to proclaim the good news of salvation in Christ and make disciples. In the words of a nineteenth Presbyterian assembly, “The church of Christ is a spiritual body, whose jurisdiction extends only to the religious faith, and moral conduct of her members.” Some have attributed this belief to the Southern Presbyterian Church’s justification for tolerating slavery. But, in fact, this doctrine is clearly expounded in the great statements of the Reformed Faith. John Calvin in Book Four of the Institutes wrote,

there are two governments to which mankind is subject… [T]he first of these, which rules over the soul or the inner man, and concerns itself with eternal life…the second, whose province is the establishment of merely civil or external justice, a justice in conduct…Anyone who knows how to distinguish between body and soul, between this present transitory life and the eternal life to come, will not find it difficult to understand that the spiritual kingdom of Christ and civil government are things far removed from one another. It is a Judaic folly to look for the kingdom of Christ among the things that make up this world, and to shut it up among them; our opinion, which is supported by the plainest teaching of Scripture, is that on the contrary, the fruit we reap from grace is spiritual fruit.

The same sentiment appears in the Westminster Confession of Faith where in chapter thirty-one it reads, “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary. . .”

The idea of the spirituality of the church also follows from the Reformers’ teaching about the marks of the church. Those marks-the true preaching of the word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and practice of regular discipline-pertain not to temporal or physical affairs but concern strictly what the apostle Paul calls the “unseen and eternal” things. This doctrine does not deny in a docetic fashion the reality or essential goodness of the body and creation. Rather, it merely stipulates the scope of the church’s work and refers to the family and the state the physical or temporal concerns of civic duties and community affairs. And while in the dispensation of the old covenant Israel was both a political and a spiritual entity requiring statutes that regulated civil life as well as worship, in the age of the new covenant the church’s means are strictly spiritual in the light of the work of Christ who fulfilled the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law.

Furthermore, the spirituality of the church is also intimately connected to the Reformed doctrine of the regulative principle. Presbyterians have historically held to the idea that because God alone is lord of the individual’s conscience and because Scripture alone reveals God’s will, the church is only permitted to teach and practice what is commanded in God’s word. Unlike Lutherans and Episcopalians who believe that the church may do whatever is not prohibited by Scripture, Presbyterians and Reformed affirm that the church may do only what is directly commanded in the Bible. Therefore, just as the Scriptures do not reveal a God-ordained form of government or a divinely inspired system of economics, so the church cannot speak where the word of God is silent.

Machen’s ideas about the ministry of the institutional church did not mean that individual Christians could be derelict in their obligations within the realm of public morality and civic responsibilities. In fact, he was remarkably active in the political realm, testifying before national and local authorities, joining and supporting various political organizations, and sending a steady stream of letters for publication to the editors of newspapers and magazines such as the New York Times and The New Republic. But just as Machen’s ideas about the church veered from the mainstream of modernist and fundamentalist thought, so his politics revealed a unique perspective among American Protestants on public life.

For instance, during World War I he opposed the draft of citizens for “compulsory military service.” In a letter to his congressman he wrote that even though the United States was fighting the war to protect freedom, conscription was threatening “American liberty and the whole American ideal of life.” He believed such a policy was a “brutal interference of the state with the life of the individual and of the family.” For similar reasons he opposed the registration of immigrants and fingerprinting of criminals because he thought these policies would in effect create a police state and destroy liberty.

Machen also expressed libertarian convictions when he spoke out-writing letters to local newspapers and testifying before the city council-against Philadelphia’s jaywalking laws. While he hated to see people taking foolish chances on the street and believed that outrageous and unreasonable behavior by pedestrians which obstructed traffic should result in fines, Machen was “dead opposed to subjecting a whole city, because of these comparatively few incautious people to a treadmill regime like that which prevails in Western cities.” Such laws prevented people from the “best and simplest pleasure a man can have,” namely, walking, and encouraged drivers to think of city streets as highways which should remain free and clear of pedestrians.

Even more unusual was Machen’s opposition to Prohibition. Again he thought that the state should not attempt to eliminate the evils of drunkenness by prohibiting the sale and distribution of alcohol. He was also concerned that the federal government would gain more power at the expense of local and state governments through the Eighteenth amendment. What Machen found especially erroneous was for the church to support such legislation. “The church ought to refrain from entering in its corporate capacity into the political field,” he wrote. But “in making of itself . . . an agency of law enforcement, and thus engaging in the duties of police,” the church was in danger of losing sight of its proper function, “which is that of bringing to bear upon human souls the sweet and gracious influences of the gospel.” While the functions of the police were important, and while members of the church as citizens should support agencies of law enforcement, “the duty of the church in its corporate capacity is of quite a different nature.”

Two other areas of American politics very dear to Machen were education and the family. He was an outspoken critic of any effort, whether at the federal or state level, to regulate the work of schools. So he opposed foreign language legislation drafted in the wake of World War I which was designed ultimately to assimilate ethnic groups in the United States. He also testified before Congress against the creation of a federal department of education. On the one hand such laws made government regulation of private Christian schools a real threat, and on the other hand encouraged the idea the students were the possession of the state. Interestingly enough, in keeping with his strong separationist views, Machen believed that prayer and Bible reading should be prohibited from public schools because of the potential for coercion of belief.

His ideas about education were intimately connected to his high regard for the family. Machen was an important critic of federal legislation to regulate child labor. While he believed that the conditions children faced as workers were a cause for concern, even more alarming was the idea that the government could dictate to parents how they should rear their children. And in back of Machen’s opposition to governmental regulation of education was the idea that parents were first and foremost responsible for children, not the state. Just as parents should be able to decide the kind of schooling their children would receive, so it was up to families to determine whether children would work and how much they would do.

The political philosophy that emerges from Machen’s thought about these various issues is one that is decidedly libertarian and anti-federal. While he believed that government was necessary, he also believed it was a necessary evil and that restraints of all kinds should be put upon rulers. Because men and women are sinful by nature, their possession of power, no matter how benign the individual might appear to be, was always something that could be abused. For this reason, it was far better for there to be too little rather than too much government.

Machen’s libertarianism and his advocacy of the separation of church and state flowed from this view of government. For rulers to exert influence in a variety of spheres always raised the possibility of tyranny and coercion. Yet Machen was no advocate of liberty for the sake of securing greater rights for individuals to do or become whatever they desired. Rather, he advocated liberty and small government for the purpose of restraining the coercive and homogenizing powers of the liberal nation-state. What many scholars have had trouble reconciling in Machen is his confessional, dogmatic understanding of the church, which tolerates no theological diversity, with his libertarian pluralistic views about society which appear to result inevitably in chaos. But actually, such narrowness in the church is quite compatible with libertarian resistance to centralized government. For the growth of big government has been synonymous with the growth of individual liberties. And the growth of the state and the liberation of the individual has come at the expense of churches, families, schools and local communities.

In defending the prerogative of the Presbyterian Church to exclude liberals from its communion, Machen was also defending the freedom of association. In opposing the federal department of education Machen was arguing that religious groups and local communities should be able to educate their children according to their own traditions. And in opposing the Child-Labor Amendment Machen was trying to protect families from a paternalistic government intent upon telling parents what to do with their children. In each of these cases, freedom meant refuge from the power of centralized government, not liberation from legitimate authority. And in each case Machen was not defending individual rights as much as he was protecting the freedom of association. As he never tired of arguing, narrowness or intolerance within families, churches, communities, and schools was essential to the liberty and authority of those institutions. To say otherwise was to deny freedom altogether and insist upon a standard of tolerance that would obliterate all differences.

What is disconcerting about Machen’s understanding of politics is that it seems to leave the door wide open for either anarchy or a godless nation. Still, the record of big government over the past sixty years does not inspire confidence. While federal power has expanded, public morality has taken a precipitous turn for the worse. And to answer the critics who label such a proposition as nostalgic, one need only remember that fifty years ago the top problems in public schools as identified by teachers were talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in halls, cutting in line, dress code, infraction, littering. Today teachers are worried about drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide rape, robbery, assault. The moral, as Richard John Neuhaus has written, is “Don’t knock nostalgia.” To which we might add, don’t trust government and legislation to curb human depravity. The best check upon human sinfulness and the best defense of public decency are local institutions, what sociologists call “mediating structures,” the institutions which stand between the individual and the state, namely, families, churches, schools and neighborhoods. If evangelicals want to make a significant impact upon American society, they need to think less in terms of the nation, the White House and the Supreme Court, and more about school teachers, neighbors, and community associations.

This still leaves the problem, however, of ceding the United States to secularism. Many Christians still cling to the notion that America was founded-and should return to its former status-as a Christian nation. In point of fact, while the majority of citizens in the new nation were Christian and while many states still had established churches, some as late as 1830, the United States Constitution clearly establishes the freedom of religion and prohibits the federal government from establishing religion. Machen was one of the few Protestants in his day to recognize this. While the Constitution makes it difficult to find a moral consensus and to pursue public policy on the basis of explicit Christian principles, it does grant the freedom (at least in principle) for believers to practice their religious convictions without the fetters of the state. One need only be reminded of difficulties which Protestant churches faced from European states during the three centuries after the Reformation to recognize the genuine advantages of religious freedom which the American experiment offers. For rather than using the church as a vehicle for pursuing political or national goals, America has afforded Christians as well as the adherents of other religions to worship without having to worry about political compromise. But this blessing comes with a price and that price is a system of religious pluralism in which no single religion governs public policy.

When American Christians begin to put the welfare of the nation above the health of the church, the political pressures that undermined the witness of Europe’s state churches also threaten the ministry of churches in the United States. What Machen saw, with his understanding of the church and his ideas about American politics, was that the effort to build a Christian civilization on the scale of the United States would invariably undermine the integrity of the gospel. Christians need to remember, as Machen did, to keep first things first. Our ultimate allegiance is to God as revealed in his holy word, no matter what the political or cultural consequences. If God blesses our efforts to be faithful with the peace and stability of an orderly society, then we need to be thankful. But if we experience difficulty and persecution for our beliefs or if we find ourselves living in a godless culture, we cannot let our desire for and pursuit of a congenial society distract us from the things to which God has called us.

Machen summarized well the principle, paradoxical though it may be, which should guide the Christian’s thought about politics and society. He wrote, “Do you think that by becoming citizens of another world you will become less fitted to solve this world’s problems; do you think that acceptance of the Christian message will hinder political and social advance? No, my friends. I will present to you a strange paradox but an assured truth-this world’s problems can never be solved by those who make this world the object of their desires. This world cannot ultimately be bettered if you think that this world is all.” Christ told his disciples, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” But if we seek the kingdom of God so that those things will be given to us, we will, as Machen warned, “miss both those other things and the Kingdom of God as well.” This reminder may sound strange in the highly charged atmosphere of American politics which seems to pit evangelicals against the White House. But they are important considerations which we need to heed if we want to avoid the perils of putting our society ahead of our God.

  • D. G. Hart


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