Growing up in a conservative Mennonite church, I’ll be honest: when I see a church whose mission statement includes words like “inclusive” “tolerant” “social justice” “diversity” “healing journeys,” etc., I am immediately skeptical. Even if their statement of faith sounds orthodox, I wonder what they really mean by it. I expect to see a rainbow flag hanging above their front entrance.
I think there’s a problem here.
It seems like the church is almost split like this:
Conservative (theologically) = not very involved in transforming society. Liberal (theologically) = greatly involved in transforming society.
The American church has (generally) split along liberal-conservative lines. And I think that is a good thing. J. Gresham Machen was calling for that in 1923. He was fed up with the dishonesty of “the equivocal use of traditional phrases, by the representation of differences of opinion as though they were only differences about the interpretation of the Bible…” (150). Liberals, by using the same vocabulary and a different dictionary, had managed to maintain good standing and even leadership within the church, while all the while holding to a ‘religion’ that “differs from Christianity not only in theology but in the whole of life” (146). Machen called for proponents of liberalism to speak clearly about what they really believed and make a clean break from the true, historical Christian church.
It makes sense to some extent why liberalism would lead to a more social-justice-oriented faith, because their focus is less on eternal realities and more on the here and now, tangible, experience of people’s day to day lives.
The truth, however, is that trying to achieve social justice without Christ is like trying to achieve “the kingdom without the King” as pastor and cultural commentator Mark Sayers has often pointed out. I think that the reality is that a historical, orthodox Christian faith provides the only real foundation for actual societal transformation and justice. Without a solid belief in the goodness and justice of God, the sinfulness of man, and the redemption of Christ, what hope is there for ever achieving justice?
Has the conservative Christian church become so focused on defending our orthodoxy that we fail to live out our faith? Have we become gun-shy of anything that smells remotely of social justice because we associate it with liberalism? Have we lost a sense for what the church was actually meant to be in society?
In making an argument for a split (“intolerance”) between conservative and liberal “Christians,” Machen also made a strong case for what the church should be, and how it should operate as a transformational force within society.
Souls are saved, not only individually, but into the Church (133). The church is “The true brotherhood… is the brotherhood of the redeemed” (134). The Global Church is the kingdom that can truly transcend all racial, national, ethnic, and personal boundaries. “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). The church is the company of the redeemed, a society which is the “highest Christian answer to the social needs of man” (135).
The Christian hope of a “transformation of society” is founded, not upon the “molding of human institutions under the influence of the Golden Rule” (what liberals hope to achieve) — but by “the influence of those who have themselves been redeemed” (134).
We must be intolerant of heresy such as liberalism so that the church can actually be the church: “a refuge from strife… where man can prepare for the battles of life… where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide… and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross” (152).
When the church is the church — when it is a safe place, a place of truth and honesty and worship and sound doctrine and love for God and others — then Christians will be equipped to go out and be a powerhouse of transformation within society. Maybe then we could truly value diversity, truly pursue healing, and truly achieve a social justice that not only provides material resources but calls the poor and lonely into the brotherhood of the redeemed.
Machen, J. Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism. 1923. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.
Sayers, Mark. “Mark Sayers: An Anxious, Post-Christian Culture Is Longing for Hope.” Church Leaders. [podcast]. 18 Sept. 2019