Machen: A Church is Voluntary and Intolerant

In the first place, a true Christian church, now as always, will be radically doctrinal. It will never use the shibboleths of a pragmatist skepticism. It will never say that doctrine is the expression of experience; it will never confuse the useful with the true, but will place truth at the basis of all its striving and all its life. Into the welter of changing human opinion, into the modern despair with regard to any knowledge of the meaning of life, it will come with a clear and imperious message. That message it will find in the Bible, which it will hold to contain not a record of man’s religious experience but a record of a revelation from God.

In the second place, a true Christian church will be radically intolerant. At that point, however, a word of explanation is in place. The intolerance of the church, in the sense in which I am speaking of it, does not involve any interference with liberty; on the contrary, it means the preservation of liberty. One of the most important elements in civil and religious liberty is the right of voluntary association – the right of citizens to band themselves together for any lawful purpose whatever, whether that purpose does or does not commend itself to the generality of their fellow men. Now, a church is a voluntary association. No one is compelled to be a member of it; no one is compelled to be one of its accredited representatives. It is, therefore, no interference with liberty of a church to insist that those who do choose to be its accredited representatives shall not use the vantage ground of such a position to attack that for which the church exists. . .

But when I say that a true Christian church is radically intolerant, I mean it presents the gospel of Jesus Christ not merely as one way of salvation, but as the only way. It cannot make common cause with other faiths. It cannot agree not to proselytize. Its appeal is universal, and admits of no exceptions. All are lost in sin; none may be saved except by the way set forth in the gospel. Therein lies the offense of the Christian religion, but therein lies also it glory and its power. A Christianity tolerant of other religions is just no Christianity at all. . . .

There are certain things which you cannot expect from such a true Christian church. In the first place, you cannot expect from it any cooperation with non-Christian religion or with a non-Christian program of ethical culture. There are those who tell us that the Bible ought to be put into the public schools, and that the public schools should seek to build character by showing the children that honesty is the best policy and that good Americans do not lie nor steal. With such programs a true Christian church will have nothing to do. . . .

In the second place, 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. 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. . . .

The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin; that the span of human life — nay, all the length of human history — is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that He has revealed Himself to us in His Word; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whosever possesses it has for himself  a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth — nay, all the wonders of the starry heavens — are as the dust of the street. ( “The Responsibility of the Church in the New Age,” 1933)

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13 Comments on “Machen: A Church is Voluntary and Intolerant”


    Remember this, at least—the things in which the world is interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as stewards of the mysstery of God, are called to deal with the unseen things. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s word, out of the crash, and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still water; you alone, as ministers of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give—the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God


    Gal. 2:19 (For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God)

    The law . . . led men, by its clear revelation of what God requires, to relinquish all claim to salvation by their own obedience. In that sense, surely, Paul could say that it was through the law that he died to the law. The law made the commands of God so terribly clear that Paul could see plainly that there was no hope for him if he appealed for his salvation to his own obedience to those commands.

    This interpretation yields a truly Pauline thought. But the immediate context suggests another, and an even profounder, meaning for the words.

    The key to the interpretation is probably to be found in the sentences, I have been crucified together with Christ, which almost immediately follows. The law, with its penalty of death upon sins (which penalty Christ bore in our stead) brought Christ to the cross; and when Christ died I died, since he died as my representative.

    In other words, the death to the law… which the law itself brought about when… Christ died that Since He died that death as our representative, we too have died that death. Thus our death to the law, suffered for us by Christ, far from being contrary to the law, was in fulfillment of the law’s own demands. Notes on Galatians, p. 159


    Thoughtful people, even many who are not Christians, have become impressed with the shortcomings of our secularized schools. We have provided technical education, which may make the youth of our country better able to make use of the advances of natural science; but natural science, with its command over the physical world, is not all that there is in human life. There are also the moral interests of mankind; and without cultivation of these moral interests a technically trained man is only given more power to do harm. By this purely secular, non-moral and non-religious, training we produce not a real human being but a horrible Frankenstein, and we are beginning to shrink back from the product of our own hands.

    The educational experts, in their conduct of their state-controlled schools, are trying to repair this defect and in doing so are seeking the cooperation of Christian people. I want to show you why such cooperation cannot be given.

    … I am opposed to the reading of the Bible in public schools. As for any presentation of general principles of what is called “religion”, supposed to be exemplified in various positive religions, including Christianity, such presentation is opposed to the Christian religion at its very heart. The relation between the Christian way of salvation and other ways is not a relation between the adequate and the inadequate or between the perfect and the imperfect, but it is a relation between the true and the false. The minute a professing Christian admits that he can find neutral ground with non-Christians in the study of “religion” in general, he has given up the battle and has made common cause with that syncretism which is today, as it was in the first century, the deadliest enemy of the Christian Faith.


    I do not make void the grace of God; for if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Galatians 2:21)

    “I do not make void the grace of God,” says Paul in concluding the report of his speech to Peter; “for if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died in vain.” The “for” here gives a reason for the use of the harsh words “void”–” ‘that is just the right word, since if Judaizers say, justification comes even in part through our obedience to the law, then Christ died in vain.”

    This verse is the key verse of the Epistle to the Galatians; it expresses the central thought of the Epistle. The Judiazers attempted to supplement the saving work of Christ by the merit of their own obedience to the law. “That,” says Paul, “is impossible; Christ will do everything or nothing: earn your salvation if your obedience to the law is perfect, or else trust wholly to Christ completed work; you cannot do both; you cannot combined merit and grace; if justification even in slightest measure is through human merit, then Christ died in vain.”

    —J.Gresham Machen, Notes on Galatians, p 161

  5. markmcculley Says:

    The Christian school is to be favored for two reasons. In the first place, it is important for American liberty; in the second place, it is important for the propagation of the Christian religion. . . . In the first place, then, the Christian school is important for the maintenance of American liberty. In Russia freedom is being crushed out by what is perhaps the most complete and systematic tyranny that the world has every seen.

    But exactly the same tendency is also being manifested, more slowly but none the less surely, in America. It has been given an enormous impetus first by the war and now by the economic depression; but aside form these external stimuli it has its roots in a fundamental deterioration of the American people. Gradually the people has come to value principle less and creature comfort more; increasingly it has come to prefer prosperity to freedom; and even in the field of prosperity it cannot be said that the effect is satisfactory.

    The result of this decadence in the American people is seen in the rapid growth of a centralized bureaucracy which is the thing against which the Constitution of the United States was most clearly intended to guard.

  6. markmcculley Says:

    But someone will say, Congress will never in the world be so foolish as that; the amendment does give Congress that power, but the power will never be exercised. When I listen to an argument like that, I sometimes wonder whether the person who advances it can possibly be convinced by it himself. If these stupendous powers are never to be exercised, why should they be granted? The zeal for the granting of them, the refusal of the framers of the amendment to word the amendment in any reasonably guarded way, show plainly that the powers are intended to be exercised; and certainly they will be exercised, whatever the intention of the framers of the amendment may be. I will tell you exactly what will happen if this amendment is adopted by the states. The exact degree of enforcement will be left to Washington bureaus, and the individual family will be left to the arbitrary decision of officials. It would be difficult to imagine anything more hostile to the decency of family life and to all the traditions of our people. If there ever was a measure that looked as though it were made in Russia, it is this falsely so-called “child-labor amendment” to the Constitution of the United States. In reality, it can hardly be called an amendment to the Constitution. Rather is it the complete destruction of the Constitution; for if human life in its formative period — up to eighteen years in the life of every youth — is to be given to Federal bureaucrats, we do not see what else of very great value can remain. The old principles of individual liberty and local self-government will simply have been wiped out. . . .

  7. markmcculley Says:

    Tolerance, moreover, means not merely tolerance for that with which we are agreed but also tolerance for that to which we are most thoroughly opposed. A few years ago there was passed in New York the abominable Lusk Law requiring private teachers in any subjects whatever to obtain a state license. It was aimed, I believe, at the socialists, and primarily at the Rand School in New York City. Now certainly I have no sympathy with socialism. Because of its hostility to freedom, it seems to me to be just about the darkest thought that has ever entered the mind of man. But certainly such opposition to socialism did not temper in the slightest degree my opposition to that preposterous law. Tolerance, to me, does not mean merely tolerance for what I hold to be good, but also tolerance for what I hold to be abominably bad. (Selected Shorter Writings, 418-19)


    mark— we have a situation ethic, and “back then” we were not in the position to do the stuff that we can do now? And because we can vote now, it’s our duty to do so. And because we can have coalition influence now, we must. And because we now have the atomic bomb, we who are on the right side of history are obligated to use the new technology as a demonstration of what happens when the other side (the bad guys) do stuff….

    Judge inside was back then, when people had this undue certainty about who was in and who was out, but now we have learned that the best way to enforce sanctions is to leave those kind of judgments to God and welcome way more people to the inside. Why merely threaten those on the outside, when you can get more leverage over people by talking about “us” and “our”? Compel the outsiders to come inside, and then God (through us) will be in a position to enforce warnings.

    The next chapter I Corinthians 6: 2 Or do you not know that the saints WILL judge the world? And if the world IS TO BE judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!

    Never avenge yourselves, but instead become public agents of the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Privately do not overcome evil with evil, but it’s your public duty to overcome public evil with official power, because if you now providentially have that kind of power it’s not evil in our situation.

  9. markmcculley Says:

    the legal solidarity between the justified elect and Christ is no fiction. The sins of the elect imputed to Christ result in the just punishment of Christ their surety for their guilt, and until that legal reconciliation was received by these elect by means of God’s real legal imputation, these same elect were born in sins and under condemnation.

    When these elect are placed into Christ’s death (not by water) but in reality by God’s legal identification (Romans 6), they are already justified in this present age, not because of what they will do or because of what God promises to do, but because of what Christ has in reality already done back then when He died on the cross.

    And since those who have been justified are already citizens of Christ’s kingdom in this age, we need to obey the commands of our King who said—-

    Matthew 6 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them… 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
    7 “And when you pray, do not heap up EMPTY PHRASES as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 DO NOT BE LIKE THEM.

    We can say that it’s not the Court’s job to decide which rituals are empty and which are not, but the attempt to not be sectarian is already the mark of the merely ceremonial….

  10. markmcculley Says:

    John Fesko– “That the righteous deeds of the saints….are given to the saints is evident in both Isaiah 61:10 and Revelation 19:8. When we correlate these data with Revelation 20:11-15 and the book of life of the Lamb that was slain (Rev. 20:12; 13:8), what emerges is that it is the obedience, or righteousness, of Christ that is imputed that is the ground of judgment for the believer. We see the same wedding-garment imagery connected with the work of Christ in Paul [Ephesians. 5:25-27) The bride of Christ, then, is clothed in righteousness which by imputation is the righteous deeds of the saints” ( Justification, p 327)

    Romans 14: 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on herself for what she approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if she eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin

    I Corinthians 4:5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart

    Revelation 2:17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’

    Letter to Diognetus: “As the visible body contains the invisible spirit, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen.”

    Jonathan Malesic (PhD, University of Virginia), Secret Faith in the Public Square–”A majority of Republican primary voters told pollsters that it was important that a candidate share their religious commitments.”

  11. markmcculley Says:

    xcerpts from the essay Make War No More? by D.G. Hart (Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey)-
    When Machen wrote that liberalism was un-Christian he did so within the context of a church, the PCUSA, which functioned very much like a old boys’ club where accusations of infidelity were not only in bad taste but also constituted a breach of the ninth commandment…

    Machen’s defense of militancy went in two directions. The first was to argue for the civil necessity of intolerance. The state, he wrote, was an involuntary organization and so citizens, by virtue of being born into it were forced to be members of it whether they wanted to or not. For the state, therefore, “to prescribed any one type of opinion or any one type of opinion or education for its citizens” was the crassest form of intolerance. In other words, the modern state was ideally a tolerant society. But churches were different. By nature churches and other kinds of voluntary organizations were inherently intolerant or else they would “cease to exist…”

    The second argument for combativeness was to go to Scripture itself… he defended intolerance again but this time linked it directly to the gospel. He declared, To pray for tolerance without careful definition of that of which you are to be tolerant, is just to pray for the breakdown of the Christian religion; for the Christian religion is intolerant to the core. There lies the whole offense of the Cross–and also the whole power of it. Always the gospel would have been received with favor by the world if it had been presented merely as one way of salvation; the offense came because it was presented as the only way, and because it made relentless war upon all other ways.

    … The offense of the cross and the claims of Christ upon the believer made it impossible for the church and the Christian individual to avoid controversy, “Show me a professing Christian of whom all men speak well, and I will show you a man who is probably unfaithful to His Lord”… A Christian who avoids argument,” he argued, “is not the Christianity of the New Testament…”

    “Controversy,” Stonehouse wrote, “lays bare sins and weaknesses which must be deplored and overcome. But controversy is also a necessary feature of the life of the Church of Christ as it wages its battle for the truth.” In fact, “only a dead church” would be without controversy in “days of unbelief and ungodliness, of doctrinal indifferentism and lukewarmness and compromise.” Consequently, disputes within the church, according to Stonehouse, would actually be the basis for encouragement. Folks who do not see the error of their position would, of course, think that controversy with them, at least, was wrong and unnecessary.

    But Machen knew that militancy was not simply part of his heritage at Old Princeton. It was part and parcel of being a follower of Jesus Christ. As he told Westimentster students in 1931,
    I we face the real situation in the church and in the world, and decide, despite that situation, to stand firmly for the gospel of Christ, we shall be very likely indeed to find ourselves engaged in controversy. But if we are going to avoid controversy, we might as well close our Bibles, for the New Testament is a controversial book practically from beginning to end. The New Testament writers and our Lord himself presented truth in sharp contrast with error, and indeed that is the only way in which truth can be presented in any clear and ringing way.

  12. markmcculley Says:

    Machen—‘How shall I be right with God?’, ‘How do I stand in God’s sight? ’ There are those, I admit, who never raise that question; there are those who are concerned with the question of their standing before men but never with the question of their standing before God; there are those who are interested in what ‘people say’ but not in the question what God says. Such men are apt to go with the current; they are apt to do as others do

  13. markmcculley Says:

    Scott Clark— It is true the theological liberalism Machen described in Christianity and Liberalism is not Christianity. Orthodoxy and liberalism are two distinct theological systems but there is some distinction to be made between the theological views published by individual authors and what is confessed by the churches. On that score the story is more complicated. The PCUSA’s Confession of 1967 is highly problematic and impossible to square with the Reformed confession at key points (e.g., Scripture) but the question remains whether the PCUSA is still a church even if corrupted by error?

    Has any NAPARC body declared any of the Seven Sisters to be apostate? Until a church acts officially to declare, e.g., the PCUSA to be a sect, a cult, or to deny that it is a church, then we receive their baptism in roughly the same way we receive a Roman baptism. After all, it is not unknown for a PCUSA minister to migrate into the ministry of the NAPARC churches. We do not treat such candidates for ministry as coming from an apostate church nor as coming from a sect/cult such as the Mormons. We do not baptize such a candidate on the grounds that he has never been baptized.

    In the early days of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (from 1936) virtually all their members came from what today we know as the PCUSA. Machen and the old Westminster faculty, board, and student body came out of the PCUSA. They were not, to my knowledge, re-baptized.

    We accept mainline baptisms for the same reason we accept Roman baptisms: because they are Trinitarian. It may be that NAPARC denominations should take a look at what it means to accept the baptism of those who are baptized in a congregation where the minister openly denies the ecumenical faith. Still, we must be careful of not becoming Donatists. Since the time of Augustine (and arguably since Cyprian in the mid-3rd century) we have agreed that the validity of baptism is not contingent upon the character of the minister. The validity of baptism is contingent upon objective (not subjective) realities. There are limits. Should a PCUSA minister administer baptism in the name of Gaia, however, then it would be hard to see how such could be considered a Christian baptism, whatever the PCUSA confesses. Even though individual ministers do take heretical positions, the PCUSA et al still formally affirm the ecumenical creeds.

    As grossly undisciplined as the mainline churches are, neither Rome nor the mainline churches today are any more wicked and corrupt than Rome was in the 16th century, when the Reformed were accepting Roman baptisms. The sixteenth-century Reformed congregations accepted Roman baptisms while they denounced the papacy as Anti-Christ and denounced the manifold abuses and corruptions of the Roman communion. They continued to accept Roman baptisms even after Rome condemned to hell all who confess the gospel as revealed in holy Scripture. I do not think we are more concerned about theological and moral corruption in the mainline than were our sixteenth-century forebears about corruption in the Roman communion. If they accepted Roman baptisms as valid then we, on the same grounds, should accept baptisms administered in corrupted mainline congregations as valid, even as we denounce those corruptions and call for separation by those among them who still believe the historic, orthodox Christian faith and for repentance and faith where apostasy has occurred.

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