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It is not often that a dead Presbyterian can offer a way forward to living Methodists, but J. Gresham Machen can.
In February 2019 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) passed the “Traditional Plan,” which reaffirmed the church’s ban on ordaining LGBTQ clergy and forbade current clergy from officiating at or hosting same-sex marriages. The close vote (438-384) highlighted long-term divisions within the denomination.
Division seemed inevitable, and now the inevitable has come: Early this January, a group of eight Methodist bishops and eight church and lay leaders recommended dividing the UMC into two denominations. The current UMC would remain and pursue a more theologically liberal agenda, while conservative churches would form a “traditional Methodist” denomination and retain their property. Some form of this plan will likely come to a vote at the 2020 Methodist General Conference in May.
Although he has been dead for nearly 83 years, Machen can speak to Bible-believing Methodists today. Machen (1881-1937) taught New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, laboring for Biblical Christianity during the rise of theological liberalism in early 20th-century America. When Princeton embraced liberal theology, Machen left and founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia to carry on Biblical training for Presbyterian clergy. When the Northern Presbyterian Church later suspended Machen and others for supporting Biblical missions, Machen exited that denomination to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church as a Biblically faithful alternative.
Methodists now stand at a crossroads not so different from the one Machen straddled. While the church in Machen’s generation rejected Biblical miracles—repudiating the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, and the bodily resurrection—the present generation is rejecting Biblical morality, repudiating Biblical sexual ethics, redefining marriage, and categorizing sin as not sin.
In 1923, at the height of the controversy over theological liberalism, Machen published Christianity and Liberalism, which offered a theological justification for a separate, Bible-believing denomination a decade before it became necessary to form one. Addressing those who called for unity at all costs, Machen argued, “It is often said that the divided condition of Christendom is an evil, and so it is. But the evil consists in the existence of the errors which cause the divisions and not at all in the recognition of those errors when once they exist.”
In enumerating those errors, Machen defined theological liberalism not as the product of an alternate interpretation of the Bible, but as a repudiation of the Bible. He saw it not as a different Christian view but as a competing religion: “The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism.’ An examination of the teachings of liberalism in comparison with those of Christianity will show that at every point the two movements are in direct opposition.”
Bible-believing Methodists are not dividing the Church today any more than Bible-believing Presbyterians were in Machen’s day. They are separating the true Church from a rival religion. Evangelical Christians should celebrate, not mourn, the impending split of Christian Methodism from a non-Christian rival religion that merely bears the name “Methodist.” As Machen observed, “Christianity is founded upon the Bible. … Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”
If history offers any insight, evangelical Methodists have reason for optimism. Mainline Presbyterians, Lutherans, Congregationalists, and other adherents of theological liberalism have watched their denominational numbers fall for decades. Many of their evangelical, Bible-believing counterparts continue to thrive.
That should not surprise us. Christ is building His Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail.
—This story has been updated to correctly describe the composition of the group that recommended dividing the UMC into two denominations.