J. Gresham Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism”–Continued Relevance for a Continued Liberalism

As contemporary Christian continues its debate over homosexuality and (so-called) same sex marriage, my mind keeps drifting back to one of my favorite books of all time, Christianity and Liberalism (originally published in 1923) by J. Gresham Machen, one of my favorite authors of all time. (See my review of this book here.) This ‘Christian’ position in support of same-sex marriage as Christian is merely one manifestation of an ever present liberalism to which Machen’s words are as relevant as the day he originally wrote them.

If you haven’t yet read this book, please do yourself a favor and do so immediately. But in the meantime, allow me to share with you some snippets that I think exemplify this current relevance.


On standing for and proclaiming the truth.

The type of religion which … shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight. (1-2)

The things that are sometimes thought to be hardest to defend are also the things that are most worth defending. (8)

Truth cannot be stated clearly at all without being set over against error. (174)

It is strange how in the interests of an utterly false kindness to men [e.g., not proclaiming sin as sin], Christians are sometimes willing to relinquish their loyalty to the crucified Lord.  (175)

On the nature of compromising Biblical truth.

There is sometimes a salutary lack of logic which prevents the whole of a man’s faith being destroyed when he had given up a part. But the true way in which to examine a spiritual movement is in its logical relations; logic is the great dynamic, and the logical implications of any way of thinking are sooner or later certain to be worked out. (172-173)

On the true nature and source of the Church’s problems.

The fundamental fault of the modern Church is that she is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task–she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to bring men [and women] into the Church without requiring them to relinquish their pride [i.e., by denying that sin is sin]; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin. … Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He. (68)

The greatest menace to the Christian Church to-day comes not from the enemies outside, but from the enemies within; it comes from the presence within the Church of a type of faith and practice that is anti-Christ to the core. (159-160)

On separation of liberals and conservatives denominationally.

It is often said that the divided condition of Christendom is an evil, and so it is. But the evil consists in the existence of the errors which cause the divisions and not at all in the recognition of those errors when once they exist. (50)

A separation between the two parties [i.e., liberals and conservatives] in the Church is the crying need of the hour. Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” … Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. Narrowness does not consist in definite devotion to certain convictions or in definite rejection of others. But the narrow man is the man who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them, the man who makes no effort to look at things from the other man’s point of view. … Unity in the Church … could never be advocated by anyone who had made the slightest effort to understand the point of view of his opponent in the controversy. The liberal preacher says to the conservative party in the Church: “Let us unite in the same congregation, since of course doctrinal differences are trifles.” But it is the very essence of “conservatism” in the Church to regard doctrinal differences as no trifles but as the matters of supreme moment [i.e., importance]. (160-161)

The effort to sink doctrinal differences and unite the Church on a program of Christian service is unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory because … it is dishonest. … Evangelical churches are creedal churches, and … if a man does not accept their creed he has no right to a place in their teaching ministry.  Another course of action is perfectly open to the man who desires to propagate “liberal Christianity.” … He may may either unite himself with some other existing body or else found a new body to suit himself. There are of course certain obvious disadvantages in such a course…. But there is one supreme advantage which far overbalances all such disadvantages. It is the advantage of honesty. … [And] honesty is not trifle. (162, 164-165)

He [i.e., a conservative church clergyman] cannot honestly support by his gifts and by his presence a propaganda which is intended to produce an exactly opposite impression [of Biblical truth and/or practice]. If the liberal party, therefore, really obtains control of the Church, evangelical Christians must be prepared to withdraw no matter what it costs. (166)

Certainly the withdrawal of liberal ministers from the creedal churches [with whose creeds they disagree] would be enormously in the interests of harmony and co-operation. Nothing engenders strife so much as a forced unity, within the same organization, of those who disagree fundamentally in aim. (167)

On assurance in times of crisis like this.

In such times of crisis, God has always saved the Church. But He has always saved it not be theological pacifists, but by sturdy contenders for the truth. (174)

What the immediate future may bring we cannot presume to say. The final result indeed is clear. God has not deserted His Church.

* Emphasis added.

2 thoughts on “J. Gresham Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism”–Continued Relevance for a Continued Liberalism

  1. I am glad you oppose “narrowness” as above defined. But “Let us unite in the same congregation, since of course doctrinal differences are trifles.” No. Let us unite in the same church, because our opponents in this issue are Christians, and because they just might possibly be right; and if they are not, we just might be able to persuade them. What we share is far more important than what divides us. What do we gain? Knowledge of a human being, whom we may come to respect even though we disagree.


  2. I know that I always notice the stuff that’s less relevant to the posts, but it just struck me as something I’ve not thought about before…

    We are actually still using “Modernism, Conservative, Fundamentalist, and Liberal” as if these words are still relevant to Believers today.

    Fundamentalists have left the fundamentals – sure they believe in the virgin birth, literal creation, etc… but for the most part are some of the least missional people in the Church universal.

    Modernism died out years ago. I suppose there’s still people out there who are so into their “logic” and stuff that they don’t believe in miracles and such… but those people are fundamentalists now.

    I know this doesn’t have much to do with the actual post, but the title caught my attention. It was a great post overall though. O.o

    PS relevant issue today is postmodernism, post-postmodernism, new-pauline theology (thanks NT Wright), and the roar of the Second Gospel.


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