A half century ago, liberals were taking over the power centers of almost every major old-line denomination in the United States. At that time, Bible-believing Christians divided into two groups: one was composed of those who left those denominations; the second, of those who stayed in their denominations and tried to build a general evangelical establishment. Looking back over the years, there have been problems on both sides.
Those Who Left
Looking back to the thirties, I can now say that an early mistake was made after we left the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Northern—now part of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.). It was a mistake that marked the “separatist movement” for years to come. There were many who, before the division, said they would not tolerate a liberal takeover; but when the time came, many of these remained in. Without judging their motives, it is true to say that the few who came out felt deserted and betrayed. Some of those who stayed in urged that the Constitutional Covenant Union—the vehicle for all of their working together previously—should not be dissolved so as to enable those who stayed in and those who came out to continue to work together. But in exasperation and, perhaps, some anger, those who left dissolved it at once. All the lines of a practical example of observable love among the brethren were destroyed.
The periodicals of those who left tended to devote more space to attacking people who differed with them on the issue of leaving than to dealing with the liberals. Things were said that are difficult to forget even now. Those who came out refused at times to pray with those who had not come out. Many who left broke off all forms of fellowship with true brothers in Christ who had not left. Christ’s command to love one another was destroyed. What was left was frequently a turning inward, a self-righteousness, a hardness. The impression often was left that coming out had made those who did so so right that anything could then be excused. Having learned such bad habits, they later treated each other badly when the resulting new groups had minor differences among themselves.
To be really Bible-believing Christians we need to practice, simultaneously, at each step of the way, two biblical principles. One principle is that of the purity of the visible church: Scripture commands that we must do more than just talk about the purity of the visible church, we must actually practice it, even when it is costly. The second principle is that of an observable love among all true Christians. In the flesh we can stress purity without love, or we can stress love without purity; we cannot stress both simultaneously. To do so we must look moment by moment to the work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. Without that, a stress on purity becomes hard, proud, and legalistic; likewise, without it a stress on love becomes sheer compromise. Spirituality begins to have real meaning in our lives as we begin to exhibit simultaneously the holiness of God and the love of God. Without this simultaneous exhibition our marvelous God and Lord is not set forth. It is rather a caricature of him that is shown, and he is dishonored.
Happily, this hardness generally has greatly diminished over the years among the groups that withdrew—but we paid a terrible price for what was there in the earlier days.
One of the joys of my life occurred at the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. Some men from the newly formed Presbyterian Church in America asked me to attend a meeting there, made up of men who had just left the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern) to form the PCA, and some men who had not left. Spokesmen representing both sides said that meeting was possible because of my voice and especially my book, The Church Before the Watching World. I could have wept, and perhaps I did. We can do better than we would naturally do—but not without foreseeing the fleshly dangers and looking to our living Lord for his strength and grace.
I see the second problem of those who left the UPCUSA as a confusion over where to place the basic chasm that marks off our identity. Is the chasm placed between Bible-believing churches and those that are not, or is it between those who are Presbyterian and Reformed and those who are not? When we go into a town to start a church, do we go there primarily motivated to build a church that is loyal to Presbyterianism and the Reformed Faith? Or do we go to build a church that will preach the gospel that historic, Bible-believing churches of all denominations hold, and then, on this side of that chasm, teach what we believe is true to the Bible with respect to our own denominational distinctives? The answers to these questions make a great deal of difference. There is a difference of motivation, of breadth and outreach. One view is catholic and biblical and gives promise of success—on two levels: first, in church growth and healthy outlook among those we reach; second, in providing leadership to the whole church of Christ. The other view is inverted and self-limiting—and sectarian.
Those Who Did Not Leave
Those who did not leave the liberally controlled denominations 50 years ago also developed two attitudes. The first was the birth of a general latitudinarianism. If those who came out were inclined to become hard, some of those who stayed in tended to become soft. Some said: This is not the moment to come out, but we will do so if such-and-such occurs. But the other attitude led some to develop their own kind of hardness—a decision to stay in no matter what happened.
If one accepts an ecclesiastical latitudinarianism, it is easy to step into a cooperative latitudinarianism that easily encompasses doctrine, including one’s view of Scripture. This is what happened historically. Out of the ecclesiastical latitudinarianism of the thirties and the forties has come the letdown with regard to Scripture in certain areas of evangelicalism in the eighties. Large sections of evangelicalism act as though it makes no real difference whether we hold the historic view of Scripture or the existential methodology that says the Bible is authoritative when it teaches religious things but not when it touches on what is historic or scientific, or on such things as the male/female relationship.
Not all who stayed in the liberal-dominated denominations have done this, by any means. I do not believe, however, that those who made the choice to stay in no matter what happens can escape a latitudinarian mentality. They will struggle to paper over the difference regarding Scripture so as to keep an external veneer of evangelical unity—when indeed there is no unity at that crucial point of Scripture. When doctrinal latitudinarianism sets in, we can be sure both from church history and from personal observation that in one or two generations those who are taught by the churches and schools that hold this attitude will lose still more, and the line between evangelical and liberal will be lost.
Unless we reject the existential methodology as a whole, we will be confused in our thinking, and succumb to the general relativism of our day and compromise our ecclesiastical duties.
How Shall We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? This article is based on an address given at the Consultation on Presbyterian Alternatives in Pittsburgh, sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in America. Portions were published previously in the PCA Messenger of June 1980.
The second problem for those who did not leave the liberally controlled denominations is their natural tendency constantly to move back the line at which the final stand must be taken. For example, could such well-known evangelical Presbyterians as Clarence Macartney, Donald Grey Barnhouse, and T. Roland Phillips have stayed in a denomination in which the crucial issues are the ordination of women and the refusal to ordain a young pastor whose only “fault” is that while he says he will not preach against the ordination of women, he will not change his own view that it is unbiblical? Can you imagine that these men would have considered it a victory to have stalled the ordination of practicing homosexuals and lesbians? What do you think Macartney, Barnhouse, and Phillips would have said? Such a situation in their denomination would have been inconceivable to them.
Evangelicals must beware of false victories. The liberal denominational power structure knows how to keep Bible-believing Christians off balance. There are many possible false victories they can throw to evangelicals to prevent them from making a clear pullout. There are still those who say, “Don’t break up our ranks. Wait a while longer. Wait for this, wait for that.” Always wait, never act. But 50 years is a long time to wait while things are getting worse. Because of my failing health, I am in a good position to say that we do not have forever to take that courageous and costly stand for Christ we sometimes talk about.
Let us now shift our focus. What does the future hold? What can we expect for ourselves, our congregations, our physical and spiritual children in the days ahead? America is moving at great speed toward a totally humanistic society and state. Do we suppose this trend will leave our own little projects, lives, and churches untouched? When a San Francisco Orthodox Presbyterian congregation can be dragged into court for breaking the law against discrimination because it dismissed an avowed, practicing homosexual as an organist, can we be so deaf as not to hear all the warning bells?
Unfortunately, the liberal denominations often support humanistic trends, publicly and financially as well as formally. Is this what evangelicals should support, by denominational affiliation, with their names and their finances? If so, they support not only what is wrong, but what will destroy us in the rapidly worsening scene.
In what presbytery in the UPCUSA can you bring an ordained man under biblical discipline for holding false views of doctrine and expect him to be disciplined? We should first of all, of course, do all we can on a personal, loving level to help the liberal; but if he persists in his liberalism he should be brought under discipline, because the visible church should remain the faithful bride of Christ. The church is not the world. When a denomination comes to a place where such discipline cannot operate, then before the Lord her members must consider a second step: that step, with regard to the practice of the principle of the purity of the visible church, is with tears to step out. Not with flags flying, not with shouts of hurrah or thoughts that in this fallen world we can build a perfect church, but that step is taken with tears.
Evangelicals who come to this point must still keep on loving the liberals, and must do so because it is right. If we do not know how to take a firm stand against organized liberalism and still love the liberals, we have failed in half of the call to exhibit simultaneously the love and the holiness of God—before a watching world, before a watching church, before our children, before the watching angels, and before the face of the Lord himself.
This is not a day of retreat and despair. Christians can still make a difference if they put the Lord before ease in their congregations. But they need to have pastoral examples as well as teaching. Pastors cannot give either clear teaching or clear example if they exhibit a relativistic, latitudinarian stance toward liberalism, instead of a loving, clear, and courageous one. Pastors cannot give the example and leadership an often latitudinarian evangelical establishment needs today if they do not pay the price necessary. They must not just talk about the truth; they must practice truth where it is costly.
Evangelicals must work on the basis of a proper hierarchy of things. The real chasm must be between true Bible-believing Christians and others, not at a lesser point. The chasm is not between Lutherans and everybody else, or Baptists and everybody else, or Presbyterians and everybody else. If evangelicals do not exhibit this truth in the way they teach in their seminaries and in the churches they build, they cannot give the leadership the whole church of Christ needs. Further, not to do this is to fail to show love and unity among all true Christians as commanded by Christ. His command is for observable love and observable unity among all true Christians, not just among those of one denomination. The real chasm is between those who have bowed to the living God and his Son Jesus Christ—and thus also to the verbal, propositional communication of God’s Word, the Scripture—and those who have not.
Let us be careful to keep things in their proper order. Let us find ways to show the church and the world that while we indeed maintain our denominational distinctives and do not minimize them, because we believe they are biblical, evangelicals are brothers in Christ in the severe battles of our day.
Learning from the mistakes both sides have made in the past, pastors who leave liberal-dominated denominations, with their congregations, can raise a testimony that may still turn both the churches and society around—for the salvation of souls, the building up of God’s people, and at least the slowing down of the slide toward a totally humanistic society and an authoritarian suppressive state.
Having done all these necessary things, let us never forget that while our call is first to be the faithful bride of Christ, that is not our total call. We are also called to be the bride in love with the divine bridegroom. This is our call for the days ahead.
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