Discipline, Dirty Hands, and the Silent Abolition of Christianity

The third area where Machen anticipates the kind of dilemmas now faced by the contemporary church is in the matter of discipline.  In a post-Freudian, post-Foucaultian world, the very notion of discipline sounds repressive and abusive, yet Machen clearly understood that this is vital for a healthy church.

Machen grasped the basic Pauline point that the primary area of combat for the church is the church itself.   Writing in the midst of the Roman empire, Paul has almost nothing to say about the empire; instead, he focuses his attention on the doctrine and discipline of the church.  The war will be against those who have an appearance of godliness, yet who deny its power.  

Sound teaching and sound behavior are thus the two focal points of Paul’s thinking regarding the church.  It is arguable that the church, at least the conservative Protestant church, has generally done a better job of promoting the former than the latter.

Thus, in his own day Machen stated the following in Christianity and Liberalism:

The greatest menace to the Christian Church today comes not from the enemies outside, but from the enemies within; it comes from the presence within the church of a type of faith and practice that is anti-Christian to the core.

There is no doubt that Machen was thinking here primarily of liberal theology and the way in which the church had allowed its exponents into the ministry and onto the mission field.  Yet notice that he cites not only faith but also practice.   The principle to which he points – the sheer lack of discipline – is surely an essential component of our current situation.  It is also one for which conservatives need to take proper responsibility.   Many churches have done a decent enough job of maintaining an orthodox confession of faith on paper; but practice has undone them.  The battle against liberalism has been generally conceived of as a doctrinal struggle.  And so it is.  But in the current climate, the connection between doctrine and ethics is critical; and practical failures are proving lethal.

It is very clear that the ethical practices – or lack thereof – of the church has fundamentally weakened her testimony not only externally before the world but internally before congregations.  The Roman Catholic child abuse scandal has shattered her testimony on matters of sexual ethics.  Many of the best writers on sexual ethics and identity are Roman Catholics but their crediblity in the wider world is undone by the past behaviour of their church.

Yet conservative Protestants should not think that they are really in a any better position.  The easy evangelical acceptance of no-fault divorce and other unbiblical criteria for the dissolution of marriages, as well as (anecdotally) frequent failure to hold adulterers, spousal abusers and the like to account, has left her compromised with regard to maintaining the idea that marriage should be for life and between one man and one woman.  Marriage was not redefined in 2015.  It was redefined the moment that Christians decided to accept the legitimacy of no-fault divorce and thus turned marriage into a temporary contract of convenience rather than a lifetime covenant to be broken only under the most extreme conditions.  Every time an unrepentant adulterer takes communion, every time a session or an elder board lack the courage to stand up to those who have violated the marriage covenant, then they witness to the church's redefinition (and thus rejection) of the Bible's teaching on marriage.

We might express the issue this way.  A church’s creed, what she actually believes, is embodied in the range of beliefs which she allows to be expressed from her pulpits and  a church’s ethics are embodied in the range of behaviours in which she allows her members to engage.  Failure to make the official paper standards of confessional orthodoxy into the actual practical standards of belief and practice in the church is lethal.

Two subsidiary points are important here.   First, Machen’s chapter in Christianity and Liberalism on the church is also an implicit polemic against broad-based, minimal creed orthodox churches.  The historic confessions were elaborate and they were elaborate for a reason: in institutional practice, Christian orthodoxy contained a certain level of ineradicable complexity such that, if this was lost, the institutional maintenance of orthodoxy would be nigh on impossible.  The doctrine of, say, the Lord’s Supper, stands in positive connection to a network of other doctrines.  To change one often requires modifications of others.

The modern age showed a remarkable distaste for the precision and elaborate nature of traditional confessions.  This connects to the aesthetics of our age.  The repudiation, for example, of scholastic theology was as much the result of a dislike of the kind of objective doctrinal elaboration which scholasticism represented as it was of any deficiency found in scholastic systems.  This is a pity, as precise definitions often allow charitable nuance between differing positions.  Take, for example, that between heresy (something which if consistently and persistently maintained denies the gospel) and error (something which merely represents some aspect of biblical teaching in a faulty way but which does not contradict the gospel).  Deny this scholastic distinction and one has no choice but to characterize those with whom one disagrees on almost any point, however minor, as being always heretical.

Practically, we might also note that an institution such as Princeton Theological Seminary was not undone so much by direct liberalism as by the piety of a tolerant orthodoxy which manifested itself in precisely the kind of practical laxity relative to precision and complexity to which I have alluded above.  In my experience, churches, institutions and organizations do not go bad because of coups by liberals.  They go bad because otherwise orthodox people sit on their hands – hands of whose cleanness they are always so very proud, yet hands which are clean only because others have dirtied theirs by taking the tough decisions and putting their careers and reputations on the line.  The spineless orthodox sleep safe at night only because the very people they so often despise have first made the ecclesiastical and institutional streets safe for women and children.

Second, Machen’s argument points to the failure to connect the church as institution to the church as confessional body which is itself the function of a suspicion of traditional institutions.   In an era where, to use Rieff’s taxonomy, we see the rise of psychological man and thus the downgrade of forms of external authority, it is inevitable that institutions become increasingly implausible to the extent that they represent external authority rather than means of individual self-realization.  In short, the decline in church authority is simply the institutional manifestation of the general decline in forms of external authority in our society.

In Machen’s day, these two combined to create a situation where there was a deep fear of excluding anyone from the church, even those who had ceased to believe in her confessional standards.  And if that fear of exclusion and dislike of dogmatism was pungent in Machen’s day, then today, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Balkan crisis etc., the cultural fear of exclusion has become all pervasive.  Combined again with the psychologizing of identity and thus the location of oppression in the psychological realm, this has placed confessional Christianity in a beleaguered position, both culturally and institutionally.  Yet exclude we must, at local and denominational levels, for if we fail to draw practical and doctrinal boundaries, then we abolish doctrinal and moral boundaries and thereby abolish Christianity.