William M. Hobbs
It was the Depression and times were hard. The entire nation (not to mention the world) wondered what could be done to fix things. Unemployment was high, business was bad, goods were expensive, and people were worried. Public confidence in the possibility of "better times" was gone. Big-city newspapers published panel discussions dealing with the situation. "Experts" everywhere weighed in on what should be done.
So it was on November 11, 1932, that the American Academy of Political and Social Science held a symposium, inviting three experts to address this matter. They were a prominent labor-management consultant, a Jewish scholar, and a Christian scholar.
The Christian scholar was Professor J. Gresham Machen, and his address stands today, not only as a remarkable warning against the "nanny state," but also as a beacon for a proper view of the church in such a troublesome climate. Machen knew the times (1 Chron. 12:32; Luke 19:44), and his message was a clear and concise light into a very dark and dangerous place. It was dangerous because Machen knew that the collectivist instinct brings along with it tyranny, not liberty. It was dangerous, too, because the church was being asked to do things that were outside her sphere.
Machen's address was entitled "The Responsibility of the Church in Our New Age." It may be found as an appendix in Fighting the Good Fight, by D. G. Hart and John Muether, and in Machen's book of addresses, What Is Christianity?
Machen wished to look beyond the immediate and mechanical fixes of the bureaucrats and politicians and to press the case for social scientists (and the rest of us) to understand the underlying dilemma. He knew that wrong diagnosis always leads to wrong treatment. For Machen, the modernism of his day was dominated by a faulty worldview that he called "pragmatist skepticism." Of course, pragmatism is the secular world's only real ethical system. It favors "whatever works" and teaches that "the ends justify the means."
Along this line, Machen spoke of the tyranny of the "materialistic paternalism" of the state and of "the expert." He termed its product a "metallic civilization," since it effectively denied the value of anything beyond what was utilitarian. But it wasn't only the blandness of the secular vision that struck Machen; it was also the danger that control would follow the new monopolistic uniformity. He knew that man was all too willing to follow Esau and give away the farm in exchange for a free meal.
Machen's response to the collectivist instinct of his day was based on three observations. First, he observed that from as far back as Plato's Republic, there had been a constant battle between state tyranny and individual liberty. The "new era" wasn't that new. Machen asserted that the old weapons of fire and sword had simply been replaced lately by such things as state-controlled educationmore subtle maybe, but no less effective.
Second, Machen noted that the "machinery of modern life has recently ceased to function," thereby sounding the alarm that the nation's problems could not ultimately be fixed by external means. The real problem, he said, resided in the soul of man. Interestingly, in that same year a Lutheran pastor in Detroit published a book making the same point (Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society).
Third, Machen argued that the church was not created to address, let alone solve, the problems of the Depression as they were popularly understood. Was the church just another set of "societies of general welfare," like a civic or governmental bureau, as so many assumed? What was her real purpose or mandate? Machen came to the conference of social scientists that November day to say that the Depression was not the church's concern. In spite of pressures everywhere to say differently, he knew that the church was created to address, instead, a far greater problem, one that she also had the means to solve.
Thus, Dr. Machen moved from addressing the Depression to informing his audience about the true nature of the church. He noted that the early church embraced three important distinctives that in his day had become all but obscure. First, the church, far from being an agency of social service, was something very different. In its early days, the church was first and foremost radically doctrinal. Christianity wasn't a description or an expression of a kind of life; quite the contrary, said Machen, it was and is a particular message. He looked to the simple text of 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. Doctrine does not follow salvation; it is necessary to salvation: "Ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivereth us from the wrath to come." Machen believed that the gospel was not an exhortation to right social ethics, but a rehearsal of facts. Of course, facts have consequences for men, but the matter must begin with the facts and then proceed to a personal response.
Second, the church was radically intolerant. Those days, like our own, were ones of prevailing synchronism (we might say synchretism) and tolerance. But for the church, the call is one of complete and exclusive devotion to the living God, and our response to the world's opposition is not accommodation to the "many ways," but instead one of proselytizingthe universal appeal to turn to Christ.
Third, Machen observed that the early church was radically ethical. The pragmatic skepticism of Machen's day was a world of enforced social ethics cut loose from any robust sense of personal ethics. The gospel message is that men are saved by the righteousness of Another in order to be holy. God is holy; man was made to be holy. While perfection is impossible, no one professing salvation in Jesus Christ can "get by" while continuing in sin.
Why did Machen go over this ground? It was because the prevailing enthusiasm in most of the American churches was one of a "self-sufficient humanity," as he put it. Such an autonomous creature might well try to use the collectivist instinct to solve something like the Depression. But what if that presumption was vain? Then the collective process would be doomed. Machen sought here to show the Bible's focus to his audience by drawing a map of the biblical church, a map that took men to heavennot to economic and social progress on earth. How much we all need to be reminded of this point, as there will always be pressure from inside and outside the church to alter her message in order to accommodate the desires of men.
The true church can only be what it was in its infancy: radically doctrinal, radically intolerant, and radically ethical. All the ecumenical movement was accomplishing, with its abandonment of creeds and confessions, was simply to rob the church of her distinctive message and power. For this reason, Machen also opposed any connection between the church and public education. He knew that true Christianity cannot be forced upon men, compelling them "to assent to the church's creed or conform to the church's program." And the church as a proper voluntary society will, or at least should, always be a place that "will exhibit the beginnings of the new life which is the gift of God."
Machen asserted that the church could make no outward alliances, either with government or with other religions. No hope may be held out for man in any sphere apart from "the great redemptive center and core." Machen believed that the church has no business making public or official pronouncements upon political or social questions of the day: "The 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." His point was simply that the church already has her one message, a message that may not be enforced by great numbers, nor by human authority.
In closing, Machen told the audience that they should find an assembly, however small, that was resisting the prevailing culture by proclaiming the truth as it is in Jesus: "If you do hear it and heed it, you will possess riches greater than the riches of all the world." Most remarkably, especially given his distinguished audience, Machen finished his speech as a preacher of the gospel:
This, then, is the answer that I give to the question before us. 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 lifenay, all the length of human historyis an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there is a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that He has revealed Himself to us in His Word and offered us communion with Himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whosoever possesses it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earthnay, all the wonders of the starry heavensare as the dust of the street.
An unpopular message it isan impractical message, we are told. But it is the message of the Christian church. Neglect it, and you will have destruction; heed it, and you will have life.
The author is pastor of Calvary OPC in Tallahassee, Fla. Professor Machen was teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary when he gave this address in 1932, four years before he led the effort to establish the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. New Horizons, March 2011.