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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.
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The holiday season is a time for extended family reunions. A huge one came earlier this year for Japanese Americans smiling and embracing in the Holiday Inn lobby here. From the lobby’s leather couch, 90-year-old Bacon Sakatani gazed at the gathering from under bushy gray eyebrows and a Korean War veteran’s cap. His wrinkled skin, stretched over high cheekbones, crinkled with the smile of a thankful grandfather watching his loved ones gather.
Sakatani, though, said the reason for this Heart Mountain Pilgrimage was not a happy one: “We went through an injustice together.” For decades he has spurred efforts to bring Japanese Americans back to where the federal government incarcerated them from 1942 to 1945. Now, for two days each year, about 400 former Japanese American incarcerees and their families and friends gather in northwestern Wyoming to pass on their stories and teach younger generations what resilience looks like.
In 1941, Bacon Sakatani, age 12, hoped to buy a new bike like other boys at school. Sakatani’s parents and four siblings lived on a small rented farm near Los Angeles where they grew cauliflower, cantaloupes, and onions. He vividly remembers Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and what came next: The FBI arrested Sakatani’s father along with 6,600 other “high risk” Japanese Americans the government suspected could be loyal to the emperor of Japan. Sakatani’s older brother dropped out of high school to run the farm in their father’s absence.
Ten weeks later, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the military removal of Japanese Americans from a West Coast military exclusion zone. The new War Relocation Authority made plans to move 120,000 Japanese Americans to 10 hastily built camps scattered throughout the West. Families could only bring what they could carry.