What is Liberalism in the Church?

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I am realizing that I am somewhat confused on what exactly a liberal is. And this confusion is not in regards to political liberalism. There is a difference between political liberalism and Church liberalism. This is from a young brain trying to process all the tribes in Christianity. References to liberalism are something that I have heard many times in my lifetime. It is a part of being part of North American Church culture.

I spent a lot of time with Baptist friends as well as Reformed friends in my younger years. I was well aware of what Christianity was as opposed to unbelief because I also had run into a huge variety of religious beliefs outside of Christianity including darker representations such as witches. My parents taught me faithfully and taught me to love the Church and the Reformed exposition of Scripture. So what were these liberal and conservative churches that were in the lingo of the United Reformed Churches? Was it primarily a doctrinal matter? Was it primarily a matter of practice? My Baptist friend was a conservative Christian, his parents also faithfully taught him the way of salvation and the authenticity of God’s Word. So what distinguished a Baptist Church from a Reformed Church other than infant baptism? And yes, I am a hardcore proponent of infant baptism. Infant baptism matters.

J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism has helped me to understand the whole conservative/liberal dilemma more. According to Machen, liberalism is a term used only by the friends of the liberals, because to those who contend with it, liberalism is a “narrow ignoring of many relevant facts.” Thus, a conservative should also be a liberal thinker, but not in the way that liberalism operated. Liberalism in the 1920s was impacted by modern trends of the day. Particularly by the propagation of science. This science was not “theistic” science because it was science done with a focus on natural processes. It was “naturalistic” science. It involved a denial of the hand of God working in nature. Essentially it was a type of scientism that was leading Christians to reject important Christian truths. I am working with Machen’s definition below:

Liberalism is movement within the church that is un-Christian and unscientific. It involves a questioning of a variety of core Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, the plenary inspiration of Scripture, the nature of sin, the sovereignty of God, the importance of doctrine, the hand of God in human salvation, etc.

I did not understand the full implications of this definition, although I knew that the debate between the United Reformed Churches and the Christian Reformed Churches had to do with the tolerance of a reading of the Bible that was challenging certain matters like women in office and matters of homosexuality. Many Biblical norms were beginning to be considered by some as culturally bound. The question became: well which principles are culturally bound and which are not? As such, the Word began to lose its authority. There were matters of Christianity & Liberalism at play there and there. How many years until we are engaged in similar debates again within our own “conservative” denominations?

At one time, I began to create a structure of more conservative and less conservative churches in my mind. But I was confused about whether to regard this in terms of practice or doctrine. And where. And how to be more Biblical as compared to conservative. And how sometimes very conservative churches could be hotbeds of liberalism. And then I went to New Saint Andrew’s College and had fellow students who were conservative with a different picture of liberalism in mind. I had heard people say that having one worship service on a Sunday was liberal. I had heard others say that if you don’t read Exodus 20:1-17 or its counterpart in Deuteronomy every Sunday morning in worship, then you are liberal. I had to wrap my mind around the various expressions of “conservative” Christianity in North America including the RPCNA, OPC, CanRC, CREC, ARP, PCA, and even “conservative” Anglicans. And I couldn’t really call any of them “liberal” even though many “conservative” churches down in the States come together for worship once a Sunday. And yet, that coming together  in worship is a beautiful and Biblical matter as well.

In my travels through Reformed Churches, I have often heard the statement that all the differences don’t matter. That could potentially be a statement of liberalism. But the differences do matter, maybe just not in the way that we make them matter. Infant baptism matters big time. But is it a matter of Christianity & Liberalism? Yes, many liberals say it doesn’t matter. But we can still be co-beligerents with Reformed Baptists when we consider all the deviant forms of Christianity in North America that are attacking integral points of Christian doctrine.

The goal of the church is never compromise. In fact, we should fight compromise with all our might. Instead, the goal of the church is further maturity in Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:13). There will always be different practices, and many of those practices will be bad and un-Biblical and they should be regarded as such. When seeing them, ministers should rebuke with all authority (II Tim. 4:2, Titus 2:15). But we should be ready to give a hit and take a hit when we realize that we also have not been faithful at all times. Repentance is part of the path to renewal. We must always go back to the Word of God in structuring church life and worship. The Word of God is the objective standard. The practice of the Church throughout history in submission to the Word of God is a good place to go to learn faithfulness.

There is a diversity in practice as we recognize in seeking unity through projects such as NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Committee). Truth is not relative and so we cannot say that there will be a diversity of doctrine, this is indeed a major problem of liberalism. But because we recognize sin and its effects on the mind, we also must humbly work together alongside Christians with whom we disagree as we speak the truth in love and grow into our one head, that is Christ (Eph. 4:15). Of course, one aspect of this unity project is: “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Eph. 4:14) The goal is to live by sound doctrine and so give glory to God. The path there is speaking the truth in love.


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