Church Society Conference
Christianity and Liberalism – Are they two different religions?
The aim of the conference was to show how liberalism is contrary to Scripture, to learn from those who have stood against it in the past, and to examine its impact on Evangelicals in the Church of England today. The main speakers were Lee Gatiss, Ian Hamilton, John Richardson and Melvin Tinker.
John Richardson (assistant minister at Henham, Elsenham and Ugley) opened the conference by using Colossians 1:13-14 to show the distinction in doctrine between Evangelicals and liberals.
The work of Christ means that there are two groups of people – the saved and unsaved. This is a stumbling block for liberals because they believe that God loves all people without distinction. They therefore favour an inclusive church.
Liberals hold these beliefs because they do not understand from Scripture who Jesus is. Colossians 1:15-21 presents Christ in all his fullness. God is incarnate in Christ, by whom and for whom all things were made, and in whom all things hold together. Therefore, because Christ made everyone (including Mohammed!) there can be no other paths to God.
J. Gresham Machen
Lee Gatiss (associate minister of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate) then spoke about J. Gresham Machen, and the Presbyterian controversies in the USA during the 1920s and 30s. Machen was New Testament Professor at Princeton Seminary between 1915 and 1929.
The aim of the talks was to examine Machen’s stand for biblical truth and then look at some parallels for us in the Church of England today.
The US Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) was built on solid biblical foundations – the Westminster Confession of Faith – but by the 1920s had become modernist (liberal). How did this happen?
Modernism came to dominate mainly because of a laissez-faire attitude to doctrine by moderates who sided with the modernists against the Bible-believing ‘fundamentalists’. Machen tried to restore faithfulness to the Westminster Confession but to no avail, and he left to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).
Machen predicted that Princeton would follow the PCUSA into modernism. Eventually an alliance of liberals and moderate conservatives in 1925 turned Princeton into a moderate school.
Machen left Princeton to form Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia (1929) and also ended his involvement with PCUSA’s Board of Foreign Missions due to liberal inroads. In 1933 he set up a new organisation, The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
What can we learn from this? Firstly, that conservative foundational documents are not sufficient to maintain a biblical denomination. The gospel must be fought for in every generation.
Furthermore, we see that moderate (‘middle of the road’) Christians who side with liberals inevitably take the church in a liberal direction – such movements never stop halfway.
However, finally, we can take encouragement, knowing that we are not the first generation to face these difficulties. Those who forget history are more prone to make the same mistakes.
The day ended with David Phillips leading an open session discussing some current issues in the Church of England. David talked about the submission on behalf of Church Society, Reform and FWS (Fellowship of Word and Spirit) to the legislative drafting group on women bishops. He later went through a list of the dioceses where there are problems due to the support of homosexual practice.
Faulty view of the gospel
Day two began with John Richardson’s second Bible exposition. Colossians 1:19-22 sets out the work of Christ. Although liberals believe that Christ died for our sins they don’t believe that he did so according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3).That is, they do not see that, in making atonement for sin, the Old Testament sacrifices pictured Christ – who has now been sacrificed for our sins that we might have peace with God.
Because liberals have a faulty view of the gospel their ministry is defective. True gospel ministry is to present God’s word in its fullness (1:25) – to seek to present every believer perfect in Christ (1:28).
Do we see this kind of ministry in the Church of England? Sadly, not often. Ordinands are seldom trained to give people a deeper understanding of Christ. Instead, many deceive their hearers by fine sounding arguments based on hollow philosophy and human tradition (2:4-8).
After John’s exposition, Ian Hamilton (minister of Cambridge Presbyterian Church) spoke about his personal experience with the Crieff Brotherhood. This was formed in 1970 by William Still who invited thirty Church of Scotland ministers (including Ian) to meet in Crieff (Scotland).
The aim of the Brotherhood was to foster a brotherly spirit amongst evangelical ministers in the C of S and to try to return the church to the standards of the Westminster Confession of Faith through ‘quiet infiltration’.
During the 1970s and early 1980s the Brotherhood grew to 250 (about one-fifth of the ministers in the C of S). Rutherford House was then developed and it seemed as though the Brotherhood was making its mark.
However Ian saw that few of the Brotherhood ministers (around 10%) were in Evangelical churches and came to the conclusion that there was an unwillingness to ‘grasp nettles’. When difficult decisions had to be made, many refused to embrace the cross – that is, they were not prepared to lose their livings for the gospel.
Eventually Ian left the Brotherhood – and the C of S because of its acceptance of women in leadership. William Still was later to respond, ‘we are not where we should be’.
Melvin Tinker (Vicar of St John Newland in Hull) then spoke about the influence of liberalism upon evangelicalism. We need to understand what a real Christian is since many people treat different ‘brands of Christianity’ as if they are all valid contributions that bring richness and variety – ‘like ice cream flavours’.
However, because evangelicalism is the only biblical expression of the Christian faith, we cannot relativise it in this way. In spite of this, liberalism has influenced evangelicalism, as can be seen in the different types of ‘evangelical liberalism’. We can identify:
Rational liberals – those who place human reasoning on a par with divine revelation. These include people like Jeffrey John and Steve Chalke.
Experiential liberals – those who place experience before biblical truth, claiming that God can be approached mystically even though what is believed may be contrary to the Bible. However, this results in enslavement to experience.
Institutional liberals – in academy and church. To gain acceptance as scholars (they argue) we have to surrender to liberal beliefs. Evangelicals sacrifice gospel truth for a place within academia, or compromise with liberal clergy to gain an influence in leadership.
Separated but engaged
The final day began with Melvin Tinker’s second talk, ‘Engaging with liberalism’. Some ‘Evangelicals’ do not think liberalism is bad. For instance, George Carey is very positive about it, proposing that ‘liberalism is a creative and constructive element for exploring theology today … it is difficult to find any real ground for the contention that the enemy of the faith is liberalism’.
However, according to Scripture we have a duty to separate from false teachers. If we examine church history we find that effective Christian leaders have always split from false teachers (e.g. Polycarp, Athanasius, the Reformers and so on).
But if we do separate, how are we to engage with liberalism? We are to have confidence in God, believing that his Word is true (2 Timothy 3:15-17). In the long term, liberalism is self-destructive because it is parasitic.
We need advances in evangelical scholarship and we need to engage more effectively with liberals rather than retreat. Our church members need to be equipped to deal with liberal theology – otherwise they will be weakened by it.
Applied in daily life
The conference ended with John Richardson’s final talk on Colossians 2:16 – 3:17. A right understanding of the gospel needs to be applied to daily living – otherwise it will lead to dead orthodoxy.
Since liberals don’t have a right understanding of the person and work of Christ they don’t have a right understanding of the church. Liberals use the law in the church to do what they want – and are also often ‘high church’ in practice because without Christ they seek a spiritual experience from tradition (cf. 2:18-19).
Liberals are also unable to live authentic Christian lives since they are unable to put sin to death (3:5). Sexual immorality has spread so widely in the church because liberals have turned from the truth (Romans 1). As a result, sexual relations have become perverted and society degraded.
Positively, we are to put on virtues to build one another up (3:12). We are to love because love binds everything together (3:14). Disunity is never good for the church and a passion for truth calls for compassion and love – even for liberals. We are to keep ourselves in the truth by teaching and admonishing one another, and do everything in Jesus’ name (3:16-17).
Overall the conference was an edifying and encouraging time of teaching, prayer and fellowship. Some of the concepts discussed were complicated and challenging, but God’s word is plain.
If Evangelicals are prepared to think, contend and act, then there is hope for the Church of England. Hopefully we will all be strengthened to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.
David Meager (Church Society)
The conference was held at High Leigh, Hoddesdon