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Notebook History

Machen’s miracles, Methodists’ morality

Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kan. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

History

Machen’s miracles, Methodists’ morality

J. Greshem Machen’s 20th-century take on liberalism could guide faithful Methodists today

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.

Comments

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  • Janet B
    Posted: Sun, 02/02/2020 04:43 pm

    It is a difficult place right now, but I can assure you that the conservative Methodists will follow the Word of God with enthusiasm.  Right now, we ask all to pray that this separation will at least be amicable.

  •  phillipW's picture
    phillipW
    Posted: Wed, 02/05/2020 01:29 pm

    "It is not often that a dead Presbyterian can offer a way forward to living Methodists, but J. Gresham Machen can."

    Are you sure any Methodists are "living"?  Seems to me that they are dead in their sins and trespasses.

  • TWH
    Posted: Sat, 02/08/2020 08:41 am

    There are sheep and goats in every human assembly. "Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall."

  •  frankiepb's picture
    frankiepb
    Posted: Fri, 02/21/2020 10:02 am

    I commend Mr. St. John for courageously stating the truth as viewed through the lens of Machen's writings. From a letter I sent some months ago to the local UMC episcopal leader, I offer these words of warning for all who are captains of vessels full of souls and who are sailing along in ships of beliefs based on "the shifting emotions of sinful men:" 'Those who accept your teaching [about same-gender marriage and gender identity] as true may or may not find acceptance with God when this life is over, risking that “Welcome Home” experience in exchange for a few decades of the “happiness of human love.”' Based on Machen's distinction between Christianity and liberalism, with sadness and humility, I change "may or may not find acceptance" to "will NOT find acceptance with God."

  • Carla
    Posted: Tue, 04/21/2020 11:54 am

    Thank you for this article. Every Southern Baptist, of which I am a member, need to read this article. I'll do my best to get it to who I can.