Reformed and Presbyterians, at least of the more conservative brand, are known to be scrappy. J. Gresham Machen, one of the founding pastors of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, wrote in his book Christianity & Liberalism: “In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.” While Machen’s “Warrior Children” took this a little too far when they began to scrap over the type of wood in the pews of the sanctuary, Machen’s point itself is one that should not be easily dismissed.
It is a Biblical point that Machen begins to formulate here in his polemic against liberalism in the church. Jude writes, calling on Christians to contend for the faith (Jude 3). Paul’s letter to Titus and Timothy are both a code of conduct in the battles that they must fight in the church and the world. Especially when it came to really important matters like Jewish people eating with Greek people in the church, the Apostle Paul was willing to stand up and confront his colleague the Apostle Peter (Gal. 2:11-14). I’m sure I could come up with many more examples of a call to conflict. We must contend for the truth.
Of course, I can already hear cheering from the bleachers, but you might realize that it is mainly the church foot ball team and a few farmers. On the other hand, there are a number of people who are wondering if this is tactful and helpful for the church. This group refers to Christ’s blessing on the peacemakers. Or as The Apostle Paul states in his letter to Timothy: “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling;” (I Tim. 2:8). This is probably one of the most unpopular verses in Scripture among the anti-effeminacy crowd. Remember, even King David says: “Your gentleness made me great.” (Psalm 18:35)
Calvin’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount was helpful for me. I recall that he explains that the word ‘peacemaker’ is a compound one. It involves peace, but it also involves an active making of peace. Machen realized that the peace of his time was a false peace. But he was also very careful making distinctions between members and office-bearers. Although Presbyterian, he was careful to recognize his solidarity with other variations of Protestantism and even Roman Catholicism to some degree against liberalism.
So if fight we must, how shall we then fight? Obviously any warfare in the church should engage with the whole counsel of God including Paul’s command to lift holy hands without anger or quarreling. This mean that we should also engage with the whole counsel of God for Christian living. So asking the question “how shall we fight?” brings up other questions “who shall we fight?” “what ideas shall we fight?” “when shall we fight?”. Is direct confrontation always the best mode of attack? Much more could be said about what is a hill to die on and what exactly is worth dividing over.
But there are other important questions. In your fights, is your speech exemplary and are your actions just as exemplary? Is your combat shaped by bitter jealousy and selfish ambition (James 3:14), or is it shaped by the wisdom from above which “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere” (James 3:17)? Again, James permits an active “peacemaking” here, but it must have a goal: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:18)
I am thankful for the battles that Machen fought almost 100 years ago. I am thankful for the battles that leaders in the Christian Reformed Church fought 25 years ago as they worked to form the United Reformed Churches. But in a church of splinters and fragments we should not forget to ask the question “how should we then fight?” Yes, we must fight, but we must also lift holy hands without quarreling and anger, as well as submit to the wisdom that is from above in all our contention for truth. Machen himself wrote at the close of his book on Christianity and Liberalism:
Is there no refuge from the strife? Is there no place of refreshing where a man can prepare for the battle of life? Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling over industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? if there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive a weary world.
I have more questions than answers here. But I believe that some of the Biblical principles laid out above are a good start. One thing that I have learned is that if men who love the Holy Bible don’t contend for peace, those who love brawling and error/heresy and sin will win the day. So yes, the word ‘peacemaker’ does indeed involve contention.