The Blessedness Of The Margins

The margins of a screen or a piece of notebook paper are the spaces between the very edge and the area where we are allowed to write. There are also social and cultural margins. Some institutions in society are right in the middle of things. The visible church used to be among the institutions that helped to form culture but that day has been past for some time. In the USA we might point to the 1930s, when the liberals and “the moderates” (today known as evangelicals) forced confessionalists and religious conservatives to choose between their conscience and their wallets. Many of the families and congregations forced out of the mainline American Protestant denominations in the 1930s had been faithful members for decades. They had helped to build church buildings and other institutions (e.g., schools and hospitals). With the ascendency of the liberals (with the help of “the moderates”), i.e., those who no longer believed the Scriptures or the creeds and confessions of the churches, the confessionalists (i.e., those who still believed the Scriptures as historically understood and confessed by the church in her creeds and confessions) were either driven out of the “mainline” churches into small, separating denominations or more or less into hiding within the mainline.

The very phrase “the mainline” is illustrative. It refers to an old-money area of suburban Philadelphia situated along a railroad line. Every town of any size has something like it. In my home town there were a couple of areas that fulfilled the same function. Sheridan Boulevard is the heart of the old-money, country club area in Lincoln, Nebraska. The old “mainline” denominations had representative congregations there. Sociologists speak of the “Seven Sisters of the Mainline” (the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the United Churches of Christ, the American Baptist Church, the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church USA). Once upon a time, the mainline denominations were also at the heart of American culture. The movers and shakers of American commerce, education, government, and culture were mainstays of the mainline churches. People used to go to church just to be a part of something socially or culturally significant. The great newspapers of the land paid attention to what transpired in them.

Of course, today, all of that has changed and that is the point. The mainline churches gave up their adherence to the Scriptures as God’s infallible Word. They gave up the historic creeds and confessions as part of their “broadening” (L. Loescher). They gave up everything and anything that they thought might prevent them from remaining “relevant” or culturally significant or influential. It did not work. Today, the culture makers in the USA could not care less about the mainline churches. In seeking relevance, they sold their inheritance, as it were, for a bowl of soup. Now, the soup is gone.

The roots of the desire for the church to be “relevant” run deep. As soon as Constantine legalized the church, which was a good thing, and restored to her members property (a good thing), pastors in the church began posturing to gain influence with the Emperor and the civil authorities. Before legalization, the church had been on the margins of society. We wrote defenses of the faith, we met quietly and often secretly for worship. We were misunderstood and misrepresented. We gave witness to the faith by dying for it. The noun martyrmeans “witness.” When Christianity became a legal religion in the Empire it had not been all that many years since the authorities had been putting us to death for refusing to say “Caesar in Lord” and for refusing the renounce Christ and for refusing to make an offering to the gods.

In the nineteenth century, Charles Hodge (1797–1878) wrote that there was no way for the Presbyterian Church (now the PCUSA) to be a truly “national” Presbyterian church and, at the same time, insist that all her ministers subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith without exception or even to hold all the Five Points of the Synod of Dort. I detailed Hodge’s views in Recovering the Reformed Confession. He was being realistic. He simply assumed that given the priority of being a “national” Presbyterian church, something (namely confessional fidelity) would have to give way. He was right but he made the wrong choice. God does not give a fig if a denomination is “influential” or “national,” in the sense in which Hodge used the word.

God the Son became incarnate and lived his life not in Rome but in the provinces. Christ’s death passed with little notice in Rome. The Apostles established no influential social organizations nor did they seek influence in or recognition by the culture. Indeed, our Lord Jesus warned about cultural popularity: “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26; ESV). He had a radically different idea of blessedness. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:11-12; ESV).

Bob Godfrey has been warning us about the “myth of influence” (here is an interview with Bob on this same topic) for years. He is exactly right. There is simply no warrant in Scripture for the visible church seeking to be “influential” or to be a “culture maker” or “culture shaper.” There is every expectation in the New Testament that the visible church shall be composed of “exiles (1 Pet 1:1) and “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11).

The paradoxical thing about Scripture’s call to embrace the blessedness of the margins is that this is where the visible church is most influential. It was when the church sought to use the levers of civil power that we lost our real influence. It was when the visible church became absorbed by the broader culture that we became indistinct. Now that we have been expelled by the broader culture we actually have a renewed opportunity to be martyrs, i.e., witnesses to the truth as it is in Christ.

This is not a call for Christians as individuals or as groups to flee the culture. We have much work to do as citizens of a twofold kingdom, including cultural work but our vocation as individuals and as groups of (Christian) citizens is not that of the visible church, which has an explicit, clear, and limited charter given to her by her Lord: preach the law and the gospel, administer the holy sacraments, and use church discipline for the correcting of sin. The visible church must embrace the blessedness of the margins for the sake of her witness and for the sake of the culture she hopes to influence through her members.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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11 comments

  1. Unfortunately, I fear Reformed Churches are heading down the same path they once left. To many Reformed Churches allow non-reformed individuals to participate in the sacraments ,or even allow on the pulpit condoning that which our forefathers detested and/or called heresy. The next logical step in this evolution(or devolution) is to change confessional standards and make nice with every church out there, thus losing any identity which can be called reformed. I hope and pray this isn’t the case, but it certainly is not out of the realm of possibility if we don’t hold fast to the truths of Scripture as summarized in the confessions.

    • Peter Kok and Angela Werner,

      How do we encourage our brothers and sisters to read and study the Scriptures, to read and study the Creeds, Catechisms, Confessions and to memorize these?

      How do we engage the process of Sanctification as a Church?

      It appears that the obedience of faith involves each person increasing his understanding of the Bible, confessional Reformed Theology and the sanctification by the Spirit our Lord prepared for us in His Church.

      I see the lack of committment to read and study the Bible and the Reformed Confessions weakens discernment and interrupts ‘good communication’, making distinctions, setting boundaries and applying Church discipline. As a result setting and communicating boundaries can devolve into a ‘social problem’ in the Church. It’s the messy work in ‘God’s Bootcamp’, His Church.

      How do we encourage people to hear the truth spoken in love, to increase their participation in Sanctification, and to receive and apply Church discipline? This is also messy work because we are not perfect, HC 115, but want to be. And so we engage in communicating our own sin, errors, and misunderstandings in order to build unity in the Spirit among us who believe. Also I find that hospitality works to build friendships in which ‘good communication’ can occur. Finally, it’s learning to trust His Spirit, in us who believe, in the midst of communication which requires lots of prayer and confessions because after all, though I believe, I am a sinner in my flesh (Romans 7).

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Being in a Church in the margins is blessed work. His Plan to build His Kingdom according to His Glorious Will edifies us as we hear the Gospel preached faithfully, trust the value of Church discipline, and participate in the Sacraments.

    Thank you for referring to our identity ‘chosen sojourners’, ‘exiles’.

    • Catherine, I wish I had an answer for you. I know that for myself, there was an expectation to memorize the catechism. My grandmother could recite the catechism to her dying day. It seems that with each passing generation, we lose something. We can only pray, and thank God that He sustains His church through all time and places and events.

  3. Thanks for raising these questions. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I believe DG Hart’s book, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism has uncovered some genuine insights. When confessionalists learned from the pietists to redefine faith as experience, instead of primarily trust based on truth, the stage was set for compromise on basic doctrine. When experience defines reality then it’s on the road to theological compromise to buy influence.

    • Thank you for the recommended reading. I think in questions.
      My experience of ‘trusting/using experience’ validates your observation ‘that when experience defines reality then it’s on the road to theological compromise to buy influence’. My assurance that faith alone in Christ alone, through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit increased as He used Reformed Theology – hearing the Gospel preached, participating in the Sacraments, seeing Church discipline applied – to uncover, lay bare and kill my confusion and dependence on experience as a foul barter. I appreciate your thoughts and it’s good to know you don’t have all the answers.

    • Catherine, I think David has really identified the source of many of the problems you bring up, and which I too am concerned about. The gospel, through the Word, and summarized by our confessions, is the only legitimate and reliable means of knowing God. Guilt, grace, and gratitude for so great a salvation is the key to true sanctification and piety in our churches. Many people are trying to use rationalist approaches to produce an artificial enthusiasm through appeals to our emotions and desire to be amused and entertained. This is not according to the Word and sacraments that God has provided for knowing Him, so it misleads people into a subjective religion of their own making! I think you and I should both read Dr. Hart’s book.

    • David, your comment piqued my interest, so I ordered Dr. Hart’s book and dove right into it when it arrived. It really shines a light on the how and why of American religion, and why the Reformed Standards, as the Church’s summary of biblical doctrine, emerge as the most faithful approach to understanding the Christian faith. Thanks for recommending this book.

  4. Peter,
    What a blessing to have witnessed your Grandmother’s devotion to memorize the Heidelberg Catechism. I find great joy and comfort in memorizing the HC and the Scripture proofs. I am on HC 1 due to a very late start. My husband says letting the Word and the HC marinate me is good. I agree. Please say hi to your mom and dad for us.

  5. At the risk of saying something controversial, let’s not make an idol out of our confessions! I have met Reformed people who, when you ask them about their faith, will tell you that they hold to the confessions. Yet if you ask them what they believe, they will tell you they believe the confessions! Some women, when you press them on what they believe from the confessions, will refer you to their husband, because he can tell you what they believe! Some will even recite the words from the confession, but it you ask what it means to them, will simply repeat it, change the subject or walk away. It is one thing to hold the confessions in high esteem, as expressing true doctrine, and another thing to actually understand and apply personally what that doctrine means. It is the truths, summarized from the bible, expressed in the confessions, that is what makes the confessions so valuable. If those truths are not applied, to us personally, they cannot make us wise to salvation. 2 Tim. 3:15 In the church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue. 1 Cor. 14:19 I fear that there is a danger in holding the confessions in high esteem for their own sake, so that to recite them becomes a version of the ten thousand words in an unknown tongue, rather than as simply a tool that helps us understand the truths of the Scripture by providing a convenient, accurate summary. Like any tool, it’s value is in its application.

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