“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)
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?
–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.
–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.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Evangelical Unity: An Appeal,” in Knowing the Times, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 254.
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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. 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.”
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.” Machen saw his actions as contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
 Billy Graham, Just as I Am, (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 291.
 George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 162.
In the 2017 World War II movie, The Darkest Hour, Winston Churchill cries out in frustration, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” Although these words are more than likely an artistic embellishment for cinema, they do fairly sum up Churchill’s frustration with the policies of Neville Chamberlain that sought to appease Adolph Hitler by ignoring his aggressions in Europe. Chamberlain truly believed that by signing the Munich Agreement and giving the Sudetenland to Germany along with Hitler’s promise not to continue invading other nations, that Europe would be saved. Chamberlain famously came home and declared that they he had achieved “peace for our time.” Chamberlain thought Hitler was a misunderstood man, when he was in fact the blood-thirsty tiger that would never be satisfied. Churchill understood this and knew that war was the only way to stop him.
The notion of appeasement is not only shared among politicians. Unfortunately, in a world that requires vigilance and sometimes engagement in theological battles, there are those who would seek appeasement and compromise for the sake of “peace in our time.” But as I hope to demonstrate with some examples from recent history, appeasement, and compromise in the face of theological liberalism are always the easier route, but they never achieve the promise they claim.
Setting the Stage: The Fundamentalist and Modernist Controversy
To be clear, we need to understand that prior to the mid-19th century, “evangelical” was synonymous with “fundamentalism.” All Christians who identified with the evangel, the gospel message of Christ, were “evangelicals.” Fundamentalism was a movement that derived its name from those evangelical Christians that sought unity across denominational lines but were committed to certain “fundamental” doctrines that have been accepted by historic Christianity. The number of these fundamentals varied at times, but they almost always included:
The inerrancy of Scripture
The virgin birth of Christ
The substitutionary vicarious atonement of Christ
The bodily resurrection of Christ
The reality of miracles
The imminent and physical return of Christ
Fundamentalists stated that a person had to minimally ascribe to these core doctrines to be within the historic Christian Church because a denial of these doctrines often leads to a wholesale denial of the faith. Modernists (theological liberals), on the other hand, wanted to focus not on the content of belief, but rather the feeling or spirit of Christianity. By denying the need to subscribe to core doctrines of the faith, they could cover the fact that they denied many or all of them, while still insisting they were a part of the Christian church and represented Christianity.
Fundamentalism rejected this minimalistic and emotion drive religion as inadequate at best, and heretical at worst. Several courageous defenders rose up in obedience to Scripture’s call to purify the church:
2 John 9–11 (ESV): “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”
Galatians 1:8–9 (ESV): “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
1 Timothy 6:20–21 (ESV): “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you.”
By the middle of the 19th century, theological liberalism has already entered almost all mainline denominations. This was possible because liberal theologians subscribed to the biblical creeds of their denominations and institutions while at the same time teaching non-evangelical theology. Following German liberal Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), modernists asserted that Christianity was not primarily about doctrine, but rather a “feeling, intuition and experience.” As such, Schleiermacher set the stage for the setting aside of doctrine in favor of a Christianity that affirmed a faith based upon feelings and experiences.
Along with the growth of liberal Christianity came a desire to put aside doctrinal differences among different denominations to bring unity around an ecumenical spirit. This led to the establishment of the World Council of Churches in 1948, made up of “churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior.” That brief doctrinal statement was all that was required of those joining the WCC, and none were required to expand on what they meant by those words.
Often portrayed as ignorant, uneducated, backwards, anti-science, and anti-progressive by liberals, and “fighting fundamentalists,” uncharitable, ungracious, and divisive, by evangelicals, the fundamentalists stood their ground and called the church to put out of its churches, missions agencies, educational institutions, and para-church organizations all those that were unfaithful to Christ and His Word. But not everyone within evangelicalism agreed with them, thinking there was a better way—a middle way.
My next post will highlight two examples of this attempt to navigate a middle way.
 Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000), 5.
What did Paul mean when he wrote of his “weakness…in fear and much trembling?” Clearly, Paul was connecting his preaching to these things (“…my speech and my message…”). I think that Paul’s words here are a much-needed correction to the celebrity culture within the Western church today.
The Apostle to the Gentiles stood before this church in Corinth as a weak man. He did not have the polish and trappings that the false teachers of Corinth had, and to many, this was a severe disadvantage. Although they might not say it this way, there are many who would imply strongly that the message is secondary to the method. If you don’t have a media empire pushing your message, then the world won’t listen and you’ll be ineffective. I wonder how Paul would have responded to that sort of thinking. Well, we don’t have to wonder because his Spirit-inspired words are given to us.