Last week I ran a across a very interesting (and needful) article by John J. Murray published by The Banner of Truth. The article addresses the perennial battle of Middle Earth—Truth versus Error. The author was mostly interested in how we go about choosing up sides. While I think that the article is very helpful, I also think that there some very large issues that lie at the heart of the conflict that go beyond just neatly dividing the combatants into “shirts and skins.”
Decades ago when the fundamentalists attacked Billy Graham for his willingness to share his platform with theological liberals, it was easy to dismiss their concerns with a roll of the eyes. At that time, modern evangelicalism still had something of a doctrinal backbone, and it was possible to see the whole effort as a form of strategic evangelism. But since that time, in what he is willing to bless, Billy Graham has capitulated both to Roman Catholicism and liberalism. Far from winning liberals with the gospel, the liberals tragically won him. And, so as far as this issue goes, the fundamentalists were demonstrably right. But underneath the controversy was another issue, and in this matter the fundamentalists were as compromised as Billy Graham was and contributed equally to the problem.
Because American evangelicals (and fundamentalists) tend to believe that the invisible church is visible, this means that to include someone in the church is tantamount to a declaration of peace and harmony. Conservatives see that the Christian faith and liberalism are two antithetical faiths in principle, and so they exclude liberals. The whole thing is so simple: those guys can’t be Christians. Evangelical moderates see that schism is distressing, and so they raise the welcoming glass to just about anyone, and try to promote the general glow of bonhomie. The conservative wants standards and no unity. The moderate wants unity and no standards. The biblical requirement is to demand both unity and standards, backing up the demand by fighting for both.
So the covenantal alternative is to accept these liberal gentlemen as fellow Christians, and then fight them to the death.
Take the example of marriage. A theological liberal in a mainstream denomination should be considered covenantally a Christian, even though he denies the virgin birth, the substitutionary death of Christ, the resurrection, and the final judgment. He is a Christian in just the same way that an adulterous husband is a husband. The unfaithful man remains a husband—even though he has slept with Suzy, Sally, Shirley, et al.
The fact such a man is a husband compounds his guilt; it does not lessen it in any way. If we knew that a man was promiscuous, and then found out he was married, we wouldn’t say, “Well, at least he’s married!” His covenant vows make his sin worse. When a single man sleeps around, his sin is great. When an infidel says that God didn’t create the world, his sin is great. When a married man is sexually treacherous, his sin is multiplied many times over. And when a liberal bishop says that Christ was merely a man, he is more than wrong. He is an antichrist. But he does belong to that which he betrays. Judas was this kind of liberal bishop (Acts 1:20).
So in the traditional debate over ecumenical issues, a false assumption has plagued us throughout the whole thing. One side knows we must fight this or that heretical error, and so we say those who are guilty of the error are not Christians in any way. Those who know they are Christians in some way assume that we should therefore not fight with them. But we must fight them especially because they bear the name of Christ.
What does a faithful shepherd do with a savage wolf? He fights. And where do savage wolves appear? “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29—30).
So, are these men in the covenant? Of course they are, which is why they are so dangerous.
If we learn this, we will learn to fight without being schismatic in attitude. Because we conservatives think this way, we have come to divide almost as a matter of course. And this becomes (soon enough) the way we handle disagreements among fellow conservatives—our spirits have become narrow and truncated. But in a fight a man needs a large heart and a narrow sword. We have jumbled everything and now have narrow hearts, and our swords are clumsily made from two by fours.
American Christians only know one method of fighting, which is to divide and run off to yet another splinter denomination, the presbytery of the True Flame. This, to use the military parlance, is called retreating. Moderates fraternize with evil covenant members and call it unity. A better term would be betrayal. Conservatives run from evil covenant members and call it purity. A better term would be rout.
Of course, as we learn this, it will not be long before the local liberal ministerial association writes you a polite letter (with typing all up and down the margins and a lot of exclamation points) that indicates, ahem, that perhaps you might be able to find another association more to your liking. We cannot do what we cannot do.
But something we can do is alter our language. We can stop talking as though we can see hearts. We can stop acting as though Christ’s standards for fighting are optional. We can stop acting like the hireling, who doesn’t care about the sheep.