Pastor, Why Do They Come to Your Church?

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (Matthew 11:7–9, ESV)

Christmas and Easter are the two holidays that cause a jump in attendance at churches all across the United States as people attend who don’t normally darken the door of the church. Many come to “feel close to God” during these precious Christian holy days.

But for those “churches” and “pastors” that are enamored with nickels and noses when people come into their buildings, Christmas and Easter are opportunities to “wow” their audiences with a spectacular show that will hopefully get them to stay and “experience” all that this type of church has to offer.

I don’t mean to disparage those churches that see the infrequent visitors as a mission field to whom they can minister to and share the wonder of the incarnation and resurrection with. We would be remiss as Christians not to take advantage of this opportunity. But there is a definite philosophy that loses the baby Jesus with the bathwater when productions, lighting, and stage histrionics take the place of the power of God vested in the gospel.

I point to Jesus’ words above from Matthew 11:7-9 as sobering truths for all of us. We need to ask ourselves, “Why do people come to our church?” In doing so, we reflect this time when Jesus asked the disciples why the crowds went out to see John the Baptist. Did they go out to see a reed shaken in the wind, or as we might say it today, a man taken by the latest fads and opinions of men? No, the people didn’t go out to see that.

As a matter of fact, Jesus asks if they went out into the wilderness to see a man dressed in soft clothing. But John was famously known to wear a rough-cut animal skin with a strip of leather for a belt around his waist. He ate what he could scavenge out there in the wilderness–locusts and wild honey. John wasn’t a skinny-jeans wearing, cappuccino-sipping, bearded hipster having “dialogues” with the people. He must have looked like a wild-eyed madman compared to the refined religious leaders of the times. Instead John looked like an Old Testament prophet of God, most notably, like the prophet Elijah. His sandals weren’t Birkinstocks, and his beard wasn’t oiled with shea butter and lavender. They knew if they wanted to see a man in soft clothes that they wouldn’t go out to the wilderness.

So why did they go out to see John? Because they wanted to hear from God. And to do that, they needed a prophet. Not a fancy boy who spends his days taking selfies in a mirror to gain more followers. Not a politically correct parrot who takes the temperature of the world to adjust his message to fit the popular opinions of men. They needed a faithful messenger who would speak the truth–unvarnished and true.

So, the next time you are considering what you can do to polish up your look, your sermon, or your church’s “stage,” remember John. People came out to hear a word from God. And if they want to hear something else, there are plenty of false churches and false teachers that will accommodate them.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:1–5, ESV)

5 Ways to Demonstrate A Thankful Heart

The history of Thanksgiving is interesting.

Although the tradition of Thanksgiving is being attacked like every other tradition in our land, it is still generally recognized that the holiday points back to the celebration of the pilgrims in the New World in 1621. The official holiday didn’t come about until a proclamation was made by President George Washington in 1789, although it was later discontinued. It wasn’t until 1828 that a campaign was begun to restore Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and formalized when it was proclaimed in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln to be the official National Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November. What a roller coaster!

But even this wasn’t the first thanksgiving. We could go all the way back to the time of King David, found in 1Chronicles 16 to see another Day of Thanks that came far before Lincoln made his proclamation.

Israel’s King David had finally found peace from the homicidal Saul and his foreign enemies. He moved into Jerusalem and had built a house for himself. Life was good for the king! He had finally brought the Ark of the Covenant into the city and placed it into a special tent made especially for the worship of the Lord.

In a spirit of great thankfulness and gratitude, David offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings to His God. He distributed gifts of food to everyone in the nation of Israel, and along with these national festivities, David brought in musicians and singers to offer songs of praise to the Lord. This song, written by David is also found in Psalm 105.

As we begin to prepare our hearts for this season of thanks, I wanted to take the first five verses of this song of praise (vv. 8-12), and direct your heart, dear reader, to worship the Lord, as David sought to direct the hearts of his people.

As Christians, we are to have a thankful heart on a daily basis, and David would have agreed. But Thanksgiving in the U.S. is a special day set aside so that we might dedicate our hearts heavenward, because of all the people on earth, we as sinners saved by unmerited grace should be the most thankful for his electing grace and mercy.

In today’s post, I’d like to share with you Five Ways Which We as Believers Can Show Thankfulness in Our Lives

1. Depend Upon His Strength For Your Needs (v. 8a)

“Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;”

Part of giving thanks is recognizing that the Lord’s past gifts are a reminder of His future provision. It is interesting how quickly we forget the Lord’s past provision as we grow anxious about our future. Israel struggled with this as well. Look at Exodus 15:11 in what is called the Song of Moses. It says, “Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” Later, in verse 22 it says, “Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water.”

Did you see how long has passed? Three days! Verses 23-24 continue, “When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” What happened to the great God they sang about only a few days earlier?

And we are the same sometimes, aren’t we? We gather on a Sunday and sing “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing, our helper, he amidst the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” And then we go home, and a few days later crumble in despair over our situations, trials, and circumstances.

We need to understand that our thanks and praise must not only look backward, but forward. We must thank the Lord and praise him for what he will do in our unforeseen future. Give him thanks for future grace–those blessings and the strength that you have not yet received, but like manna, we will receive in due time according to his perfect will.

2. Declare How He Has Answered Your Prayers (v. 8b)

“make known his deeds among the peoples!”

We ought to start thanksgiving in how we talk with one another, shouldn’t we? Part of stirring one another up in the community of saints is to share not only our needs but also the glorious ways in which the Lord answered our prayers. We have seen the miraculous deeds of God over and over again. Our living Savior has heard our prayers and satisfied our needs repeatedly. We should have words of praise and thanksgiving constantly on our lips.

But in this song, David was speaking primarily about our testimony to the unbelieving world. “The peoples” is a reference to the nations outside of Israel, the pagan world. Spurgeon wrote, “Let the heathen hear of our God, that they may forsake their idols and learn to worship him.”

Do you remember the name Dr. Kent Brantly? He was the Samaritan’s Purse doctor who recovered from the deadly Ebola virus that he had contracted while working with Ebola patients in Liberia, Africa. In 2015, Dr. Brantly and his wife published a book of their account, and Time Magazine wrote a short story about it. Listen as Dr. Brantly declares how God answered his and many others’ prayers:

“I know that some consider it controversial for me to claim that God saved my life when I had received an experimental drug and some of the greatest medical care available in the world. I can see how these two realities appear to contradict each other. I also feel the dissonance with claiming God saved my life while thousands of others died. These issues are not clear-cut for me. I wrestle with these tensions… Some may call it a grand coincidence, and I couldn’t argue against them. But when I see the unlikely and highly improbable events that occurred—not only during my illness, but also for decades preceding the Ebola epidemic in West Africa—I see the hand of God at work, and I give him the credit.” [http://time.com/3965989/ebola-survivor-brantly-book/]

Most of us won’t ever get that sort of stage to declare the glory of God to the world. But we have a small stage of unbelieving family, friends, and co-workers who are watching and listening. We need to declare to them how God has been working in our lives, so that as Spurgeon said, “that they may forsake their idols and learn to worship him.”

3. Direct Your Praises to Him Alone (v. 9)

“Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works!”

Now, this might mean that we need to make sure that we don’t do what Israel did in Exodus 32, in redirecting our worship from God to something else, like a golden calf. This can happen the way it did for the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 3:3-5, where there were different factions in the same church, who weren’t really worshipping Christ, but their favorite teachers. That is a real danger for some.

But there is another pitfall that we need to avoid. We can see it in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:9-12, where Jesus speaks about the Pharisee and the tax collector. Although this is called a parable by Luke, this scenario probably was enacted many times right before the people who frequented the temple. The godly-looking Pharisee prays with arms extended, speaking in pious tones, while the tax collector stood off in a corner looking as guilty as he was before God. To the casual observer or even the so-called worshipper, this looks like thanksgiving and praise. But it isn’t, is it? It’s self-worship and congratulations.

We need to be aware that when we sing or pray or speak about the Lord that we aren’t twisting worship to God into worship of self. We see this when a musician is all about himself, absorbing all the attention and praise–as he supposedly sings to “the Lord.”

Instead, we need to focus all our attention and praise on the Lord alone. Listen to Spurgeon again, “Bring your best thoughts and express them in the best language to the sweetest sounds. Take care that your singing is “unto him,” and not merely for the sake of the music or to delight the ears of others. Singing is so delightful an exercise that it is a pity so much of it should be wasted upon trifles or worse than trifles. O ye who can emulate the nightingale, and almost rival the angels, we do most earnestly pray that your hearts may be renewed that so your floods of melody may be poured out at your Maker’s and Redeemer’s feet.”[C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Psalms 88-110, vol. 4 (London; Edinburgh; New York: Marshall Brothers, n.d.), 336.]

4. Delight Yourself in God More Than Just His Gifts (vv. 10-11)

“Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice! Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!”

Notice the focus here, “Glory in his holy name….those who…seek the Lord (2x)….seek his presence.” Today we will find ourselves giving thanks for many blessings and gifts, and we should. But our love and the thanksgiving that accompanies it, should be more for God and not only for what he can and has given to us.

Remember what it says in Habbakuk 3:17-19? “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” (Habakkuk 3:17–19, ESV)

Our ultimate joy and thanks should be for receiving Christ as our Savior and Redeemer. That is the best gift we have ever or will ever receive. Everything else is simply grace upon grace. Jesus said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:36–37, ESV).

5. Dwell on What the Lord Has Said and Done (v. 12)

“Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered,”

Our struggle with being discontent is usually a memory problem. The root of our discontentedness is most often found in our unwillingness or inability to recall all that the Lord has already said to us and done for us.

I always think it’s a perfect sign of the self-centered world we live in that the day after “Thanksgiving” we have the biggest shopping day of the year. We are thankful, but we must have more! And we as Christians can get sucked up into that same attitude. Instead of dwelling on the eternal blessings and gifts given to us, we look at the flashy bobbles everyone else seems to have and we want to know why we don’t have them. We want to know how we can have them. And it’s not just tangible “stuff” that we crave. We crave prestige, power, influence, friends.

But listen to the prophet Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”” (Jeremiah 9:23–24, ESV)

Our greatest riches are not from the Lord: our greatest riches is the fact that we know the Lord. Let us give thanks for this most magnificent gift!

Discernment in an Undiscerning Age

Several months ago, we added another member to our family. Jack was a yellow Labrador puppy who lacked discernment. It didn’t seem to matter to Jack whether he was eating the inner sole of a shoe, a dirty sock, or the expensive dog food we had purchased for him. It all went down just the same. If a sock went missing, we’d sometimes find it again when Jack would cough it up on the kitchen floor. The reality of Proverbs 26:11 played out right before our eyes. It says, “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who repeats his folly” (NASB). Thankfully, our socks and shoes are safe from Jack these days. He’s grown in size, weight and discernment.  

When it comes to making wise and sound judgments, the Bible speaks about the naïve and the fool. The naïve are like children who have not honed their senses to be able to discern what is harmful and what is not. The fool lacks sense because he may know what is harmful, but he still rushes into danger with little fear of the consequences. Both of these types of people, the naïve and the fool can be found in the world we live in, as well as in the Church.

Children and fools lack discernment. The former because of a lack of teaching, inexperience and immaturity. The latter lack it because they will not listen to their teachers, nor will they learn from their experience.

In the wisdom literature, it is the wise person who is discerning, while the transgressor and fool walk in darkness, unwilling to discern the way of the Lord. According to Hebrews 5:14, maturity comes when the senses are trained to discern through practice. This reference to practice is a clear reference to the “Word of righteousness,” the Scriptures (Heb. 5:13). Broadly speaking, this idea of discernment is closely connected to the concept of wisdom and as such is a major theme throughout Scripture.

So how does one grow in maturity so that they are not a naïve babe in their understanding? Hosea 14:9 says, “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; Whoever is discerning, let him know them. For the ways of the Lord are right, And the righteous will walk in them, but transgressors will stumble in them” (NASB). This text speaks about the need for understanding and knowledge of the ways of the Lord. Knowing the ways of the Lord is necessary because they are just and righteous. Therefore, those who strive to be wise, must first know the ways of the Lord and then they must walk in those ways. This is wisdom and discernment. We cannot grow wise and mature in the Lord if we remain ignorant of the ways of the Lord as described in the Scriptures. One who is lacking discernment is this way because they do not avoid the ways that are not of the Lord and may even rush headlong into them. The one who transgresses the Law is the one who will stumble in many ways. He does not care to discern, and so is indiscriminate in how he walks in life.

Philippians 1:9-10 also connect the idea of knowledge and discernment. It says, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ” (NASB). Paul had seen the evidence of the love of the Philippian church, and he prays that it would abound more. But his prayer does not disconnect it from discernment, but rather includes knowledge and discernment so that the love of the Church is approved by God. Sincere and blameless love will be discerning and will withstand the day of Christ because it was not a foolish love of mixed or impure things. There are many people in the church that act as if discernment is unloving. They don’t like it when someone says that the book they are reading is from a false teacher, or that the song they love singing in church or listening to in their car in has bad, unbiblical theology. Like little children who see no problem playing in a pig sty, they want to continue blissfully ignorant of those things that oppose God, while still claiming that they do not themselves partake in the sins of those they promote. But discernment is not unloving. The truth is that willfully remaining undiscerning and immature and gullible to lies and deception is irresponsible and dangerous.

As mentioned above, Hebrews 5:14 speaks of solid doctrinal “food” that can be absorbed by the mature—those who have made it a practice to train themselves as to what is good and evil through their growing sense of discernment. Maturity is a product of discernment. The means to such maturity is knowledge and application of the Word of God. Bible reading is just the beginning, just like putting the food into your mouth is only a means for nourishment to be received into the body. We must begin by choosing the correct spiritual meals, but we must also make sure that it is digested and becomes fuel for the spiritual life through wise practice of the precepts and commandments of Scripture.

For Christians, discernment and wisdom are not spiritual options for a few believers, while all others can remain in a perpetual state of spiritual infancy. Rather, the natural course of spiritual life comes as the result of biblical discipleship that is required by the Great Commission when one teaches all that the Lord has commanded. All Christians are to hear and understand the Word of God, and then are to grow into maturity, which is marked by a proper practice in life that can process daily decisions, questions, dilemmas and scenarios through a biblical grid. This biblical framework of thought will allow the wise believer to narrow down his or her responses and come to one or more conclusions on how to act in a God-honoring way.

This, of course, takes time to develop. Nobody ever grows wise after hearing a few sermons or reading their Bible through one time. Discernment, as all spiritual and natural growth, is incremental and grows over time. A new Christian will have less discernment than a mature believer. The steps to growing in discernment and maturity are: 1. Growth in the knowledge and understanding of the Word, 2. Growth in application of the Word through the empowerment of the Spirit of God in several situations, 3. As success and failure comes in application or failure to apply the Word, the discerning Christian who seeks to grow in biblical maturity will add these successes and failures to his wealth of knowledge so that he can either repeat or avoid them in the future. This process is both linear and cyclical. It is linear in the sense that the steps need to happen in this order. But they are also cyclical in a process that must go through several repeated cycles in which former biblical lessons are built upon newer ones, and each layer of spiritual lessons contribute to a richer life of growing maturity. This process cannot be shortened, although it can be accelerated or slowed. This is what leads to a person who may be chronologically younger being quite mature beyond his or her years and an elderly person who still acts like a fool.

The poor spiritual state of the Church in many places lends itself to the fact that it is largely undiscerning. The Church’s inability to tell truth from error shows that it has lost its discernment. Like the loss of the human body’s immune system, the loss of discernment in the Church means that all sorts of wickedness and false teaching has come to roost in the pulpit of the Church all over the world. The root of this epidemic can be largely traced to the fact that the church has failed to clearly teach the Bible and doctrine. By skipping doctrine and teaching shallow sermons in a desire to rush to application and tips for living, the church has become poorly equipped to handle much of life through a biblical lens. What many have thought was the cure for moral ills has actually disarmed the Church to handle life in a truly biblical way. Additionally, the pablum of what is most popular in many pulpits has ill equipped our churches to handle the growing onslaught of false teaching. The only remedy is to return to a hearty, biblical pulpit that dispenses strong doses of the Spirit empowered Word of God. Watering down messages will only continue to exacerbate the problem as the spiritually starving in our churches continue to feast on cotton-candy sermons when they actually need to be satisfied with the meat of the Word. Warnings are needed, as are large doses of doctrinal lessons.

Where can we begin? First, by admitting our part in this epidemic that has resulted in the loss of discernment. Whether it is the pastor that has taught shallow sermons, the layman that has not spoken up when she is spiritually starving, or those that have purchased the best-selling Christian books that are full of spiritual poison. The reality is, if nobody listened to Joel Osteen, his ministry would die overnight. If nobody purchased Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling or Bethel Music, then they would never be given a chance to produce more of their products filled with bad theology. But the reality is that simple economics are why these books and music CD’s are carried in every retailer all over the world. 

Second, we must go beyond recognition of our own part to prayer. We need to ask the Lord to forgive us in as much as we have been a part of the problem. We need to pray that He will help us as we seek to discern what is edifying and what is not in our homes, churches and schools. We also need to be patient and to have a spirit of grace as those that are more mature guide the less mature into understanding and growing aware of the things that they have net previously seen. After all, who among us does not still need to grow in some area?

Where there is biblical discernment, the Scriptures will guide and direct us. Where it is lacking, another inferior source of authority will take the place of Scripture in informing our understanding. May we seek to live lives saturated by biblical thinking so that in all things, Christ will have preeminence.   

Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 3)

In my last two posts (read them here and here), I laid out the danger of those that seek a middle ground between biblical fidelity (biblical fundamentalism) while also chasing acceptance by the liberal/modernist/progressive church and academy. Those that have sought acceptance in this way often find that they have made a deal with the devil that brings about either a theological slide, or forces them to abandon the hope of ecumenical cooperation because the stakes are too high.

These historical examples are worthless if we don’t stop and take some time to consider what this means for the situation in the church today. Certainly some of those that tried the middle ground and failed would warn us if they were still living (You can read about some of Billy Graham’s regrets here). So, how can history help and warn us?

Considerations for Today

I wish I could teach this subject as an odd historical lesson that we have learned from we should now move one, but we have not. Today the same faulty logic is being promoted among many conservative Christians, churches, and denominations. 

Consider how many Christians today do not think that doctrine is important, but only what one feels about Christ? How many evangelicals see Roman Catholicism as basically compatible with Protestant Christianity, and say things like, “We believe the same things and worship the same God.” This same false idea is spoken of by some regarding Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, and other aberrations of historic Christianity. The whole Charismatic Movement is driven by emotions over doctrine.

Fearing that they would be seen as judgmental, many Christians are content to accept all that come in the name of Christianity without question. The results have been disastrous. London pastor Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones spoke in 1966 about the dangerous middle-ground that Christians in the 20th century were mired in regarding the idea that doctrine divides and we mustn’t judge people’s faith by what they believe:

I argue that people who do not believe the essentials of the faith, the things that are essential to salvation, cannot be guilty of schism. They are not in the church. If you do not believe a certain irreducible minimum, you cannot be a Christian, and you are not in the church. Have we reached a time when one must not say a thing like that? Have evangelicals so changed that we no longer make an assertion like that?[1]

–D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Seeing what was on the horizon of the theological compromise in America, J. Gresham Machen said in 1924:

Paganism has made many efforts to disrupt the Christian faith, but never a more insistent or insidious effort than it is making today. There are three possible attitudes which you may take in the present conflict. In the first place, you may stand for Christ. That is the best. In the second place, you may stand for anti-Christian Modernism. That is next best. In the third place, you may be neutral. That is perhaps worst of all. The worst sin today is to say that you agree with the Christian faith and believe in the Bible, but then make common cause with those who deny the basic facts of Christianity. Never was it more obviously true that he that is not with Christ is against Him.[2]

–J. Gresham Machen

I certainly agree that the Bible speaks against a brawling, pugnacious spirit (1Tim 3:3; Titus 1:7). This is good and true, but the Bible also calls us to fight for some things, including doctrine (1Tim 1:18-20; 6:12; 1Cor 10:4-6). This is the basis or our spiritual war.

Like the modernists who followed Friedrich Schleiermacher, many in conservative Christian churches affirm his idea that Christianity is less about what you believe and more about what you feel in your heart. This dangerous idea sets the stage for the outright rejection of all orthodox doctrines of our faith. We are seeing the ravages of this idea among our young people leaving the faith because they have no doctrinal anchors for their souls. They are adrift upon a sea of subjectivity and the church has aided that.

Today, the church and denominations often function like big money corporations that are very slow to change and reluctant to put at risk the surface sense of unity for fear of putting at jeopardy the large amount of financial giving that benefits it. Because of this, “statesman” leaders arise within the church and denomination that seek to walk the middle ground and keep peace among all parties. This is a long cry from Jesus words:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. (Matthew 5:10–13 (ESV) 

Many have lost their saltiness because they refuse to suffer hardship, persecution, and being reviled for their faith. The middle ground has proven to be not only ineffective, but deadly. May the Lord raise up more courageous Christians who are not afraid to speak up for truth, even if it may cost them friends and influence in this life.


[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal,” in Knowing the Times, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 254.

[2] Quoted in Beale, 159.

Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 2)

In my last post, I laid out an abbreviated history of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy and a working definition of what I mean by fundamentalism. You can read my first part here. In part 2, I will give two historical examples of why this middle ground is a dangerous compromise for those that desire to stay true to the biblical doctrines. My final post will address some considerations for what this means in the Church today.

Seeking the Middle with New Evangelicalism

Around the time of the establishment of the World Council of Churches, the inauguration of a new movement was underway. Seeking to leave the separatistic fundamentalism that seemed to be more insulated from the world, conservative evangelical men such as Charles Fuller, Carl F. H. Henry, E.J. Carnell, Harold Lindsell, Harold J. Ockenga, and Billy Graham sought to influence the liberal denominations and scholars while still maintaining conservative evangelical doctrine through what they called “new evangelicalism.” All these men held to fundamental doctrine but felt that more needed to be done to reunite the churches, win back the denominations, and engage the liberal church.

The New Evangelical movement established (among other things) Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (1950), and Christianity Today magazine (1956). Graham sought a kinder, gentler evangelicalism as evidenced in his vision for Christianity Today, a magazine begun by Graham and his father-in-law Nathan Bell. Of CT, Graham said, “It was my vision that the magazine be pro-church and pro-denomination and that it become the rallying point of evangelicalism within and without the large denominations.”[1] Over time, and under the influence of Dr. Bell, Graham had moved from separating from apostate denominations to seeking their approval and cooperation in hopes of winning them back to conservative theology.

This also proved true for Graham’s crusades as well. In 1957, the year after CT was launched, Graham held his famous New York crusade in Manhattan where he fully broke with his fundamentalist roots and connections by cooperating with “a group that was predominantly non-evangelical and even included out-and-out modernists. It also meant sending converts back to their local churches, no matter how liberal those churches might be.”[2] Iain Murray notes that newspapers at the time of the crusade reported Graham saying, “We’ll send them to their own churches—Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish…The rest is up to God.”[3]

The mindset of new evangelicalism was such that if evangelical Christians could shed their embarrassing fundamentalism and its unwillingness to bend, then liberalism would be willing to let them sit at the table as equals. As someone has said this “deal with the devil” was such that if conservatives would call liberals “Christians,” then liberals would call conservatives “scholars.” 

Church historian George Marsden observes, “ Such successes in culturally influential religious circles were leading Graham toward the conviction that he could make marvelous inroads into America’s major denominations if he could jettison the disastrous fundamentalist image of separatism, anti-intellectualism, and contentiousness.”[4] That Graham was in fact moving in this direction is made abundantly clear in a letter written by Graham to Harold Lindsell, then a professor as Fuller Seminary, regarding Graham’s vision for Christianity Today, to “plant the evangelical flag in the middle of the road, taking a conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems. [Christianity Today] would combine the best in liberalism and the best in fundamentalism without compromising theologically.”[5]

Fuller Seminary, BGEA, and Christianity Today stand as the most obvious examples of this failed philosophy, and today each of them stand as a testimony to the bankruptcy of the idea that one can seek a middle ground without compromising, and the eventual theological slide is clearly seen not only upon these institutions, but upon evangelicalism today.

Seeking the Middle within Presbyterianism

This challenge to historic Christianity happened across denominational lines. Another important example of this was in the Presbyterian Church U.S. denomination (not to be confused with the later PCUSA denomination that emerged from it). The flagship school of the PCUS for many years was Princeton Seminary, and as other schools, it was deeply affected by the incursion of theological liberalism in its faculty. Among the few remaining conservative professors stood J. Gresham Machen, professor of New Testament. Seeing the influx of liberalism into Christianity as a whole, Machen wrote in his book Christianity and Liberalism (1923) that “it may appear that what the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.” In other words, liberalism is not Christianity at all, but another religion altogether.

This stand for orthodox Christian doctrine at Princeton came to a head with the denomination and faculty in 1924-1925, when the Auburn Affirmation was signed by 1,274 ministers in the PCUS. The Affirmation made it clear that the fundamentals of the faith (particular the first five listed from page 1 of my notes) did not need to be affirmed by PCUS candidates for ordination. This allowed for new ministers to deny these core doctrines privately while being ordained for ministry, so long as they subscribed to the Bible and Westminster Confession of Faith.

Conservative in theology but seeking a middle road for the sake of unity, Charles R. Erdman, professor of theology at Princeton, sided with the so-called moderates in the PCUS General Assembly and created a peace commission to “study” the issue. The commission was to be made up of liberals and conservatives, but only conservatives that sought peace above all else.[6] Erdman himself was Premillennial, a Bible conference speaker, and a contributor to The Fundamentals. But all of these didn’t matter when it came to his alliances. Seeking the middle ground, Erdman held the door for liberals to walk in and overtake the denomination and seminary without question. As fundamentalist Ernest Pickering wrote, “This new evangelicalism approaches the liberal bear with a bit of honey instead of a gun.”[7]

Realizing that the PCUS was apostate and lost to modernism, Machen and the remaining conservative faculty members left and began Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA in 1929. In 1936 he began the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) denomination after being suspended by the PCUS regarding his establishment of an independent mission board that only supported conservative missionaries. The establishment of a new denomination and separation from the PCUS came at great personal cost to Machen who lost many friends for his abandonment of the PCUS. Was Machen overreacting? He didn’t think so. He wrote, “It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”[8] Machen saw his actions as contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).


[1] Billy Graham, Just as I Am, (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 291.

[2] George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 162.

[3] Murray, 29, fn. 2.

[4] Marsden, 159.

[5] Ibid., 158.

[6] David O. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications, 1986), 158.

[7] Murray, 31.

[8] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1923), 67.