Machen On The Responsibility And Spirituality Of The Institutional Church

There are certain things which you cannot expect from such a true Christian church. In the first place, you cannot expect from it any cooperation with non-Christian religion or with a non-Christian program of ethical culture. . . .

In the second place, you cannot expect from a true Christian church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force. Important are the functions of the police, and members of the church, either individually or in such special associations as they may choose to form, should aid the police in every lawful way in the exercise of those functions. But the function of the church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning aside from its proper mission. . . .

The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin; that the span of human life — nay, all the length of human history — is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that He has revealed Himself to us in His Word and offered us communion with Himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whosoever possesses it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth — nay, all the wonders of the starry heavens — are as the dust of the street.

J. Gresham Machen | “The Responsibility of the Church in the New Age,” in Selected Shorter Writings, pp. 375–76)
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  1. I appreciate the point made (and which is still worth making). Nevertheless, when the cultural situation reflects the (increasing) politicization of life, it is inevitable that individual Christians or congregations and/or denominations as a whole will appear to be making political pronouncements or taking political actions. If prayer in public or prayer to the Lord is outlawed then all prayer will appear to some as a subversive political act. If I say that according that abortion is murder and therefore sinful, someone today might well say that I am making a political statement. In fact I am making a theological statement that turns out to have political implications. Numerous examples could be cited. Simply preaching the Gospel and noting God’s Law and the exclusive claims Scripture makes for Christ will be regarded as political and anti-social or subversive by some.

    • David,

      You would agree, wouldn’t you, that there’s a difference between what we intend and how we are perceived. I agree that, as in the 2nd century, refusal to “go along” with the cultural religion will be regarded as subversive but that’s not the same thing as churches making pronouncements about monetary policy and the like.

      We ought to be regarded as subversive of the prevailing culture but for announcing the eternal kingdom not for this worldly socio-political ends.

      • I agree to a certain extent. Again, if the whole of life is politicized – an inevitable outcome of tyrannical systems of civil ordering – then we speak about politics every time our lips move. But there is the further matter of the discipline of members of the Church – are we occasionally (or sessions) is a situation like Ambrose contra Theodosius? Now we don’t go around making military policy per se for the powers, but we may certainly discipline the powerful when they act as public officials in ways that directly contradict the Faith. This discipline will be perceived as politics, just as it is today by many.

        There is also a great difference – and I think Machen is implicitly marking this – between the actions of a Christian citizen and the actions of the Church. The first may have things required of him that the second does not, and the reverse would also be true.

        I cannot exclude the idea of the Church speaking directly to a policy of some kind if that policy was directly hostile to the Law of God or sought to hinder the preaching of the Gospel. Would we remain silent if laws were introduced in certain US cities to make Sharia law acceptable in their moslem-dominated neighborhoods? No – well at least I wouldn’t be silent about that. I guess I can think of numerous examples where challenge and confrontation might be the best of all worlds.

        James Davison Hunter is offering an interesting critique of the methods of the past 20-40 years, one worth noting and pondering. His book ‘To Change the World’ is receiving a wide and well-deserved reading.

  2. Love Machen. (That was in both imperative and indicative moods. Yup, I’m good like that.)

    I tend to agree with Machen, but I feel David’s point, too. The church is a spiritual body with spiritual ends and means. She’s not a political party or merely an engine for social change. Just about everything in life, however, is political, or certainly has political ramifications. Churches that faithfully preach the whole counsel of God, will necessarily be treading on political ground regularly. It’s simply unavoidable. That’s not because the church is political in nature, it’s because the nature of life here on planet earth is political.

    Further (and more specifically biblical),if the magistrate is called by God to punish the wicked and reward the righteous, then the church must actively speak to the state to inform them of what God’s word say is wicked and righteous. If the state breaks down and doesn’t discharge her duty, then the church must call her back to her divinely ordained purpose. All this is, in one way or another, quite political.

    501 (c) (3) status is, I think, a gag order aimed at the churches in particular. I think we’re foolish (for the sake of money) to allow the state to put any limits whatever on what the church may preach. Christ is our Lord – He tells us what to preach.

    It seems that what’s needful is an integrated view of the spiritual nature of the church coupled with the political and social nature of man. It’s too easy (for me, at any rate) to get categories mixed up.

    • Tim, you mention 501(c)3. I hope you are not under the impression that churches are 501(c)3 organizations; they are not. Non-profit organizations are subject to limitations on “speech”; churches are not. Non-profit organizations are subject to governmental audits; churches are not. UNLESS, that is, a church has registered itself as a “non-profit organization” (aka 501(c)3). It is a common misperception that a church needs 501(c)3 status in order to obtain tax exemption for itself as well as for contributions to be considered tax-deductible. While this is true for non-church entities, it is not true for churches. Churches, under the U.S. Constitution operate with full exemption from government oversight; this freedom is not granted by the IRS upon registration — it is inherent.

      One of the first steps in forfeiting the constitutional protection afforded churches in this land is the (voluntary) registering of a church as a non-profit organization (aka, 501c3 status). A friendly word of advice for those who might be thinking of “legitimizing” their congregation’s existence (in the sight of the IRS) by filing for 501(c)3 status: “just say no”. For anyone who sees that their congregation is registered as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, it is relatively simple for your Consistory to undo the damage and “un-register” with the IRS — but it will take some patience and perseverence on the telephone. 🙂

  3. Further (and more specifically biblical),if the magistrate is called by God to punish the wicked and reward the righteous, then the church must actively speak to the state to inform them of what God’s word say is wicked and righteous.

    I think that is going to be a pretty unpopular position to take. I think you are supposed to recognize that the magistrate is to use natural law only, and the church is not to attempt to influence the magistrate with respect to what the scriptures teach regarding right and wrong.

    The church can still say stealing is a sin, but it can’t apply that to state monetary policy. The church can still say murder is a sin, but it can’t apply that state’s population control policy. The church can still say that committing adultery is a sin, but it can’t apply that to the state’s marriage laws.

    Pretty simple really.

    And what moral authority does an institution like the church have to say anything to the state when it can’t even get its own application of the 2nd and 4th commands under control with respect to the 2nd and 4th commandments, not to mention the 5th, 6th and 7th commandments? It would only give rise to the state’s mockingly saying “Physician, heal thyself.”

    For the record, the use of the word “church” above is not limited to those churches with Reformed Confessions, but all such as claim the title of Christian, legitimately, or not.

  4. Svandyken, I’ll check into the 501 C 3 thing more. Thanks for the info.

    Andrew, taken in reverse order: Just because we don’t have our house in order doesn’t mean we, as a church, have no prophetic voice to the state. Thus saith Yahweh is simply that. It’s not, “Thus saith Yahweh cuz we got our act together.”

    As to pretty simple really: your solution is simple, but I don’t think it’s biblical. The two-kingdom view (as I read it from the Westminster guys) is not what I’m familiar with in Reformed history. Now, maybe I’ve missed a good deal of Reformed thought in this regard, but I have my doubts. The basic tenants of two-kingdom thought are manifest. (Church is not State. Different officers, different appointments/ends.) The modern extensions, however, e.g., that biblical law being only applicable in the church and the state being subject to “natural law,” are entirely foreign to me, based upon my Bible reading and my knowledge of Reformed history. The stuff coming out of Westminster is called R2k for a good reason. God’s law applies to every moral being, which includes those in the state and in the church.

    • Tim,

      You make a fair point. It’s not as much a matter of credibility as it is calling. But the onus is on those who would that the church is called to proclaim to the world the gospel plus something else (namely law). It seems to me that this claim is the ecclesiological version of the soteriological notion that we are justified by faith plus works.

      And I’m not sure why you think 2K doesn’t think God’s moral law applies to every moral being inside and outside the church. Is it really because 2K makes careful distinctions between the cultural mandate and the Great Commission? How is it so radical to say that subduing the earth isn’t discipling and baptizing nations?

  5. Zrim, the ministers of the church are to proclaim the whole counsel of God which includes law. Construing this in terms of ecclesial sola fide is not at all helpful. Futher, I think you’re changing the subject. I’m not saying that the church subdues the earth through state legislation. I absolutely agree that it’s Christ through the proclamation gospel (word and sacraments), that is, through the worship of the people of God, that will subdue the world. What I have argued is that God’s appointed the state both to punish the wicked and reward the righteous. The state has its job to do relative to God’s word and the church has her job… they’re not the same job. I just don’t see how the state can do its job without the law of God and the church’s ministry of proclaiming it.

    Dr. Clark, I have not read VanDrunen’s work. I don’t have it. But I will get it and I will read it. I need to. I admit great amounts of ignorance when it comes to 2K theory. The works of the Calvin, some of the Puritans and Orthodox, however, are not unfamiliar to me. Further, I’m have some knowledge of the Covenanters, Huguenots, and the Dutch fathers in the nadere reformatie. Of all them, I have not read a whole lot that sounds like modern 2k theory. That’s why the way some 2K guys speak too often knocks me sideways.

    • Tim,

      If we follow a law/gospel hermeneutic, then why wouldn’t it apply to questions of ecclesiology as well as soteriology? Maybe that’s a big “if” in the first place in your mind, but where in the Great Commission (or anywhere in the NT, for that matter) is there any calling to proclaim law? All I see are bids to proclaim gospel.

      And magistrates have been doing their God appointed jobs to punish the wicked and reward the good without the church in all sorts of times and places. Recall when Abraham lied about Sarah and almost got Abimelech creamed. That Abimelech knew he’d almost sinned and was irate with Abe shows no church proclaiming law was needed. Or remember when Pharaoh threw Joseph in the clink for thinking he’d attacked his wife. Granted, he got the story quite wrong, but did he have a sense of justice because it was written on his conscience (natural law) or because the Hebrews were in the earth? And what about all the great human civilizations (far east and Greek) built without a hint of churchly witness? And when Paul, in Romans 13, tells us to render the magistrate obedience because he is God’s servant to punish the wicked and reward the good he doesn’t seem to assume Caesar needs any witness from the church; what he commands is obedience from the church to the magistrate, not instruction to tell him what he already knows. And it’s worth noting that one way (obedience) has the power to foster relative good will toward the church, while the other (meddling) might kindle something else.

  6. The church is to proclaim the whole counsel of God, Zrim, which includes both law and gospel. All the writers of the NT teach both law and gospel (as do the OT writers.) Whence cometh this new limitation to proclamation of only gospel?

    As to the magistrate, that everyone has some notion of God’s justice doesn’t mean that the prophetic office of the church to the world is the absolved. The church is to proclaim God’s righteous demands on everyone, including the magistrates. In any event, granted I have some work to do, but I don’t know where to direct anyone to find natural law? I do know where to direct them to show them what God requires. How will the magistrate know what is *actually* righteous and wicked? Caesar thought is moral to murder Christians as subversive atheists, was he right? He thought he was. Natural law seems hopelessly subjective. Biblical law doesn’t suffer from that problem.

    • Tim,

      When I say that the church is only called to preach the gospel it is certainly assumed that includes the second use of the law (and the third). But what isn’t as clear is that she is called to preach the first use, that is, the civil use, or the belief that the law serves the commonwealth or body politic as a force to restrain sin. This falls under the general revelation discussion in most of the scholastics as well as natural law (Rom 1-2).

      Speaking of which, I wonder if what is at play on your part is the assumption that general revelation is insufficient to norm general tasks? But if Paul says it is written on the human heart then why so puzzled as to how to direct anyone? You point to Caesar’s murdering as if that proves that he needs special help. But all it shows is that he did something wrong, not that he doesn’t know right from wrong. Unless you are willing to excuse churchless magistrates (or ordinary people) from wrong doing simply because they never had a Christian witness to make it all clear, I don’t see how you can keep pressing your thesis, to say nothing of prosecute criminals. Sinners sin because they are sinners, not because they don’t have the Bible or Bible-believers to “make it clear.” Besides, isn’t it a tad arrogant to think general stuff goes better just because we’re at the table, supposedly shedding light? The only thing we know that they don’t is that Jesus is the only propitiation for sins. How does heavenly knowedge give us a leg up on earthly concerns?

      • You point to Caesar’s murdering as if that proves that he needs special help. But all it shows is that he did something wrong, not that he doesn’t know right from wrong.

        Exactly. One of the most remarkable things about Israel’s civil law is how ordinary it is. The eye-for-an-eye stuff was and is pretty commonplace. The same goes for the notion that the innocent shouldn’t be punished, while the guilty go unpunished. The poor should get a fair shake in court; that’s not new. Neither is the notion that leaders shouldn’t take bribes or the idea that we should look after widows and orphans.

        Is there a magistrate anywhere that tries to claim that these things are right? I know many do these things, but that’s not at issue. Knowing that these things were wrong didn’t stop Israel’s leaders from doing them. Why should we think that present-day leaders simply need to know right from wrong?

  7. Zrim, you ask “if Paul says it is written on the human heart then why so puzzled as to how to direct anyone?” I’m not saying there’s no direction, I’m saying it’s not sufficient. Justice is something that fallen humans don’t just get right by nature… in fact they get it wrong. In fact, it seems quite fantastic that anyone could look at the history of humanity and think that the light of nature is sufficient to enlighten people at to exactly what’s right and wrong. I think there’s a general conception of right and wrong, but God’s provides a good bit of detail (a great deal more than Rhett lets on) in the Bible. The point is that God’s appointed the state to reward righteousness and punish wickedness. The church has a prophetic voice in heralding what God says about righteousness and wickedness. Again, I think I have a great deal of Reformedom on my side. (That said, I do want to read VanDrunen’s work. If I were more financially solvent, I’d but it tonight!)

    The Caesar example demonstrates more than that Caesar simply did bad stuff. He thought that wickedness was righteousness. According to justice (as he conceived of it), Christians deserved death for atheistic social/political subversion. The martyrdom of Christians was just, at least according to Caesar’s morals. Granted, he wasn’t privy to discussions of the Scholastics.

    • Tim,

      That’s what I suspected: you deny that general revelation is sufficient to norm general tasks. That seems to be a common denominator amongst those who cast two-kingdom theology as “radical.” But if general revelation is insufficient to norm general tasks, what exactly is it there for? It just seems to me that to say the conscience, though totally depraved, isn’t good enough to help make admittedly imperfect decisions daily because they can go wrong is like saying our legs, though out of shape, aren’t good enough to get us across the room because sometimes we get cramps. I sometimes wonder if your side of the table believes in utter depravity instead of total depravity. It’s true that our totally depraved consciences aren’t nearly good enough to win salvation, just like our out of shape legs aren’t nearly good enough to win Olympic gold, but they are both good enough to hobble through this temporal life. Maybe good enough isn’t good enough in your mind.

      And I wonder why God would appoint the state to reward good and punish evil (as we agree) if the light of nature were insufficient to inform exactly what’s right and wrong (as we disagree)? But let’s bring it down to an even more basic level: when you go to the store, do you really doubt the pagan cashier’s knowledge and ability to give you correct change? I’m guessing you’re like me and you actually put more trust in her knowledge and ability than your thesis allows.

      I keep forgetting to recommend DVD’s monograph, “A Biblical Case for Natural Law.” Cheaper than the latest and a good primer.

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