I had the wonderful opportunity to speak last night at the WSC conference, Christianity & Liberalism Revisted. My topic was â€œThe Perennial Machen,â€ which I changed to â€œThe Perennial Problem with Machen.â€ Since evangelicals, neo-Calvinists, and even secular do-gooders malign the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, I attempted in one point to explain the doctrine and to show that it was an important if not necessary piece of Machenâ€™s widely lauded critique of Protestant modernism in Christianity & Liberalism.
Here is an excerpt of my talk and a lengthy quotation from the conclusion of Machenâ€™s book:
The other part of THE BOOKâ€™s last chapter on the church that deserves attention is the doctrine of the spirituality of the church. This conviction continues to be misunderstood, and is often denounced as a cover for Christians and churches who want to forsake their obligations to contribute to social well-being. To be sure, this doctrine became prominent among Old School Presbyterians at a time when American Christians debated slavery and the U.S. Constitution. But it was a teaching that extended back before the nineteenth century and tapped Augustineâ€™s remarkable insights into the differences between the city of God and the city of man. What the spirituality of the church taught Machen especially was that the church was a spiritual institution with spiritual means for spiritual ends. Because of salvationâ€™s fundamentally spiritual character, believers could not identify the fortunes of the kingdom of God with the empire of Rome or the industrializing republic of the United States.
This was the insight that prompted Machenâ€™s conclusion to THE BOOK. The solution to the crisis over liberalism, as he argued, was for the churches to â€œface the facts, and regain their integrity while yet there is time.â€ This needed to happen immediately because so many of the denominational bureaucracies were under control by official either modernist themselves or indifferent to it. Another solution was to form new churches because the existing works could not satisfy â€œthe fundamental needs of the soul.â€ Whatever the solution, he wrote:
There must be somewhere groups of redeemed men and women who can gather together humbly in the name of Christ, to give thanks to Him for His unspeakable gift and to worship the Father through Him. Such groups alone can satisfy the needs of the soul. At the present time, there is one longing of the human heart which is often forgotten â€“ it is the deep, pathetic longing of the Christian for fellowship with his brethren. . . . There are congregations, eve in the present age of conflict, that are really gathered around the table of the crucified Lord; there are pastors that are pastors indeed. But such congregations, in many cities, are difficult to find. Weary with the conflicts of the world, one goes to Church to seek refreshment for the soul. And what does one find? Alas, too often, one find only the turmoil of the world. The preacher comes forward, not out of a secret place of mediation and power, not with the authority of Godâ€™s Word permeating his message, not with human wisdom pushed far into the background by the glory of the Cross, but with human opinions about the social problems of the hour or easy solutions of the vast problems of sin. Such is the sermon. And then perhaps the service is closed by one of those hymns breathing out the angry passions of 1861 . . . Thus the warfare of the world has entered even into the house of God. And sad indeed is the heart of the man who has come seeking peace. Is there no refuge from strife? . . . . Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesusâ€™ name, . . . to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? If there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world.
The church as the house of God, the gate of heaven, a place for weary souls seeking refuge from the conflicts of this world through the cross of Christ â€“ that is actually what the spirituality of the church begins with and it is precisely how Machen concluded his important book.
If this is why God gave us the church, why would anyone want it to meddle in civil law, social policy, or economic development? Donâ€™t we have other institutions to do that? And arenâ€™t the affairs of law, policy, and economics trivial compared to the fellowship of the redeemed person with the infinite God through the work of Jesus Christ?