This article is about J. Gresham Machen and his struggle with the Presbyterian church concerning foreign missions in the 1920s.

Source: The Outlook, 1997. 4 pages.

J. Gresham Machen and the Controversy Over Presbyterian Foreign Missions

The Presbyterian controversy over theological liberalism was not sim­ply a debate about the ideas of pampered scholars published in obscure theo­logical journals. Rather it concerned the very witness and practice of the church. Was Christ a Savior or was Jesus the great­est ethical teacher ever to live? How Pres­byterians answered that question had enor­mous significance for the weekly ministry of local congregations, the deliberations of the courts of the church, and the programs of denominational agencies. The differences between liberalism and historic Christianity were especially discern­ible on the mission field. In Christianity and Liberalism, the book that defined the deadly peril of Protestant modernism, J. Gresham Machen wrote that the "mission­ary of liberalism" sought to spread "the blessings of Christian civilization (what­ever that may be), and is not particularly interested in leading individuals to relinquish their pagan beliefs." On the other hand, the Christian missionary regarded "satisfaction with a mere influence of Christian civilization as a hindrance rather than a help." The Christian missionary's chief interest was "the saving of souls, and souls are not saved by the mere ethical principles of Jesus but by His redemptive work."

Machen wrote these words in 1923. Two years later, from the perspective of most observers, the fundamentalist contro­versy came to an end. In 1925 conserva­tive Protestants went down to bitter defeat at the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. Even though William Jennings Bryan suc­cessfully prosecuted John T. Scopes for violating states laws prohibiting the teach­ing of evolution, Clarence Darrow's ridi­cule of Bryan's beliefs, combined with national press coverage of the trial, made conservative Protestantism look so fool­ish that fundamentalism became marginal within North American culture.

Still, the controversy over liberalism did not stop with the conclusion of the Scopes trial or the death of Bryan which occurred only several years after the jury's verdict. In fact, the stormiest episodes in the Pres­byterian conflict took place in the 1930s. And the object of these struggles concerned the work of the Presbyterian Church in for­eign missions.

The Layman's Report🔗

After the defeats of the 1920s, conser­vative Presbyterians appeared to have no place to turn. They had been rebuffed by the General Assembly every year after 1924. They had also lost their most im­portant institution, Princeton Theological Seminary, with the school's reorganization in 1929. The clear message coming out of these events was that conservatives either had to leave the church, something they had hoped liberals would be forced to do, or remain in the church and keep their criti­cisms of the denomination and its agen­cies to themselves. The consensus within the church was that theological controversy was impeding the positive work of mis­sions and evangelism. Consequently, if conservatives continued to object to lib­eral theology they risked giving the im­pression that they were more concerned about vindicating their own agenda than advancing the cause of the Northern Pres­byterian Church.

Still, liberalism would not go away nor would liberals be as circumspect as denominational leaders expected conserva­tives to be. In 1932 the controversial survey of American Protestant missions, Re-Thinking Missions, appeared under the auspices of seven denominational missions boards, including the Northern Presbyterian Church, and funded by the Baptist oil magnate and philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. This report stated that the purpose of mis­sions was to seek with people of other faiths "a true knowledge and love of God" and express in life and word "what we have learned through Jesus Christ." Christian­ity was not hostile to other world religions but instead fulfilled them. For this reason the report persuaded missionaries to en­large their understanding of salvation. Evangelization was no longer the primary motive for conducting missions because humanitarian services such as education and medicine had religious value in them­selves.

If these expressions of liberalism were not enough for Presbyterians to wonder about the soundness of their missions agency, the statements of Pearl Buck, a Presbyterian missionary to China who eventually won the Nobel Prize for litera­ture, confirmed conservative suspicions. In widely cited articles for Christian Cen­tury and Harper's, Buck called Re-Think­ing Missions "a masterly statement of re­ligion in its place in life, and of Christian­ity in its place in religion." She added that traditional Christian notions about redemp­tion and salvation were "superstitious" and concluded that "the old reasons" for mis­sions were "gone."

Aside from the erroneous views ex­pressed both in the missions report and Buck's articles, what alarmed conserva­tives particularly about the whole episode was the anemic response of Presbyterian missions officials to these developments. Both Re-Thinking Missions and Buck had raised in a clear way whether the denomination's Board of Foreign Missions would tolerate views within its ranks that were completely at odds with the confes­sional standards of the church. Machen believed that members of the board should have stated plainly that their agency was "irrevocably committed" to the message at­tacked by Buck and by the re­port on foreign missions, that it would not "solicit a single penny" for any message other than that taught in the Bible and the Westminster Standards, and that it would not "tolerate among its missionaries any ... anti-Chris­tian propaganda." But instead of con­demning Buck or repudiating Re-Thinking Missions, the board remained silent. "Did ever a trumpet in time of battle, in a time when the very citadel of the Faith had been attacked," Machen asked, "give forth a feebler sound?" If anyone needed evi­dence of liberalism within the Presbyte­rian Church or the denomination's tolera­tion of it, the missions controversy could not have given better evidence.

In 1933 Machen and other conservatives wrote overtures for the General Assembly calling the Board of Foreign Missions to repudiate liberalism and establish policies that would insure the sound proclamation of the gospel. Machen also debated Rob­ert E. Speer, the senior secretary of the board, a man known to be an evangelical. But the popularity of Speer, whose stature was evident well beyond Presbyterian circles because of his leadership in foreign missions, along with the general confi­dence church members placed in evangelicals such as Speer, prevented conservatives from winning support for their overtures. Instead, the 1933 General As­sembly gave its stamp of approval to the Board of Foreign Missions, again prefer­ring the positive work of the church to any controversy that would sidetrack from that work. "Doctrine divides, ministry unites" was the common refrain heard at all levels of the church. Few were the Presbyteri­ans who saw that the ministry of the church could not go forward without doctrine, and, therefore, that rejecting erroneous and unorthodox theology was very much a part of the positive work of the church.

Only one month after the 1933 General Assembly, Machen and twenty-four other conservatives formed the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. Machen believed that because the Presby­terian Church had forfeited its "true ... spiritual heritage," conservatives had no choice but to establish their own agency. As the word, "independent" suggested, the new missions board was designed to be au­tonomous from the Presbyterian Church and from "any other ecclesiastical body." But Machen, who hated the "sickly inter­denominationalism" of fundamentalists, thought the board's Presbyterian charac­ter was just as important to the new mis­sions agency's identity. The Independent Board's charter pledged to conduct and establish missions committed to the Westminster Standards and Presbyterian church government. In effect, the new board allowed conservatives to unite word and deed. It was one thing for them to object to liberalism while either not giv­ing to the denomination's agencies or con­tributing to non-Presbyterian missions. It was another for them to take the step of creating and soliciting support for the cause of Presbyterian missions.

Theology and Church Government Inseparable🔗

Still, the Independent Board was not simply an expression of courageous devo­tion to the cause of promoting the Reformed faith around the world. It was also part of conservative strategy within Pres­byterian Church politics. Machen wanted as many people in the church to see the corruption of the boards and agencies of the denominational hierarchy. By estab­lishing a rival missions board (a completely legal activity since the constitution of the church allowed congregations to support non-denominational missions) he not only created the opportunity to explain the need for the new agency and expose further the official board's infidelity. He also implic­itly defied Presbyterian leaders and pro­voked them to take action against the In­dependent Board. Machen believed that if the denomination took measures against the new agency it would demonstrate once again the church's true character and prompt conservatives either to reform the church or leave. In this regard Machen's strategy was successful. The Presbyterian Church passed a controversial (conserva­tives called it unconstitutional) ruling in 1934 requiring presbyteries to try Indepen­dent Board members for violating their ordination and or membership vows.

Conservatives interested in promoting outreach to the lost were particularly sad­dened that the cause of missions had de­scended to the level of politics. These were the same people who hesitated to oppose liberalism for fear that controversy would harm the reputation of the church and make its work of evangelism and missions less effective. But Machen had always seen the connection between theology and church polity, and this recognition is what made his criticisms of liberalism so force­ful. The last chapter of Christianity and Liberalism, written ten years before the missions controversy, demonstrated that opposition to erroneous and heretical views in the church always involved matters of funding, correct procedure, and denomi­national law. The ministry of the church did not occur in the abstract world of doc­trines and genuine piety. It also depended on money, the solicitation of contributions, and the proper allocation of church funds.

This was especially the case in the work of missions. He wrote in Christianity and Liberalism that church members had a duty to support the agencies of the Presbyterian Church. But what were people to do when the missions board sent out liberal mission­aries? If churches decided not to give any money they risked cutting support for the sound missionaries on the field. But if they continued to support the missions board which used their contributions to support liberal missionaries, then their giving would be "neutralized." In sum, the ap­parently abstract ideas of theology had tre­mendous practical implications. Churches not only needed good theology. They needed agencies and boards to implement that theology in all of their activities.

For Machen, the conflict between his­toric Christianity and liberalism involved not simply the preaching and writing of individual Presbyterian ministers but also the corporate witness of the church. The Presbyterian Church's witness was not in­dividual but collective. When a man oc­cupied a pulpit of the Presbyterian Church or went to another land under the auspices of the missions board he spoke not only for himself but for the whole church. This meant that if a man were to preach in a Presbyterian pulpit or work in a Presbyte­rian mission, "and obtain the endorsement which is involved in that position," he must be in agreement with "the message for the propagation of which the church, in accor­dance with its constitution, plainly exists." The corporate witness of the church also involved individual church members. Pres­byterians could not be content merely with the soundness of their own minister or their own congregation. In fact, Machen thought that ministers, elders and church members who failed to follow denomina­tional affairs and discipline those officers who violated the church's confessional standards were a greater danger than lib­eral ministers themselves. By tolerating liberals in the denomination while continu­ing to be faithful at the local level, conser­vatives made it appear that the church was basically sound. Whether they liked it or not, erroneous and heretical views expressed anywhere in the church could not be viewed in isolation.

The controversy over Presbyterian for­eign missions was essentially a struggle over the corporate witness of the church. Was the Presbyterian Church committed to the theology of the Westminster Stan­dards or not? If it was, then could it toler­ate a rival version of Christianity within its pulpits and agencies? Furthermore, if the church were to maintain its corporate witness to the truths of the Reformed faith how was that witness to be maintained? Machen believed that the church could not tolerate liberalism because it was an en­tirely different religion. But he also rec­ognized that the corporate witness of the Presbyterian Church could not be main­tained simply by proclaiming the truths of the gospel. The corporate witness of the church required opposing erroneous teach­ing at all levels, from the pulpit to denomi­national agencies. It also demanded in­volvement in the messy arena of church politics.

Because of that messiness many conser­vatives shied away from the conflicts over missions. But Machen knew that on this side of glory the church would always be the church militant. This meant that an important part of the way God preserved His church was through combating error. In times of crisis, he wrote,

God has al­ways saved the Church." But He "always saved it not by theological pacifists, but by sturdy contenders for the truth.

Defenders of the Reformed faith in Machen's day and ours may not agree with the ways he prosecuted his case against lib­eralism. But despite disagreement over specifics, the larger point remains. The witness of the church cannot be separated from the way churches oversee and conduct their ministry. This is a lesson Re­formed communions still need to learn if they would be faithful to their high and holy calling.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.