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.