Building New Watchtowers
April 22, 2021

In 1923, J. Gresham Machen wrote the book he is perhaps most remembered for, “Christianity and Liberalism”. Machen wrote it to help map out the cultural currents that were impacting the church with the hope that the church could be vigilant against the dangers theological liberalism posed to historic Christianity. At that time, Christians were trying to discern how to understand their faith in light of the rapid changes that modernity was bringing about: How were new discoveries to be understood in light of Scripture? Was the biblical teaching on sin, atonement, God’s wrath and it’s demand for a substitutionary sacrifice incompatible with the modern mindset? Did modernity and science relegate the Christian faith to the dustbin of history as an archaic relic? Was it time for a major overhaul to save Christianity from itself and to bring it into the 20th century? Machen was alarmed that some in the church were answering these questions by rejecting central tenets of the historic faith. Machen wrote to warn that the changes being made to the faith were in fact turning it into something that was Christian only in name and form. 

Almost 100 years later, I would humbly submit that it is time for a companion piece (by someone far smarter than me) about the cultural waters in which we swim. This is especially true for those in the church who go by the name of evangelical. As a pastor in the reformed baptist tradition, my spiritual tribe has been greatly impacted by and benefited from Machen’s work over the past century. His warnings can still be heard in our seminaries, our churches and beyond. In many ways, he was a key architect of our spiritual and doctrinal watchtowers that we still employ today, since he as much as anyone helped to define which discordant theologies to be on guard against. 

But as descendants of the ones who cried “semper reformata” (always reforming) it seems it is time, in fact past time, that we look at how those watchtowers need to be reconfigured to be on guard from the right as well as from the left. While we have firmly had our eyes attuned to the dangers from spiritual and cultural liberalism, we have left our flank exposed to dangers, just as grave to our faith, our witness and our souls from the right, from moralism, nationalism and a nascent facism. While we have so carefully guarded the front gates against spiritual Babylon, we have backed into a political camp and spiritual mindset that has aligned us with allies who are just as far from the biblical and historic faith. 

In Jeremiah’s time, we read in Jeremiah 42 that the leaders in Jerusalem were fearful after Babylon had caused such devastation to the country and carried it’s leaders into exile. So they approached Jeremiah to ask Yahweh what they should do to be safe. Jeremiah received a message from God and faithfully informed them that they were to stay in the land, to trust Him and He would be strong on their behalf and He would be their security. Jeremiah specifically warned them against seeking safety under the protection of the Egyptians who were just as evil as their enemies, the Babylonians. Though they had pledged to hear and obey whatever God asked of them, they rebuffed Jeremiah and his message. Out of fear they went down to Egypt and as Jeremiah had warned, they were enslaved or killed. It is said that if history doesn’t always repeat itself, it at least rhymes. It seems that a large number of God’s people, in particular evangelicals, have done something very much like this again in our times. Driven by our fear of our “Babylon” and its culture impact  (secularism, pro-abortion, LGTB+, fill in the blank) we have run to our version of Egypt (nationalism, moralism, fill in the blank) with disastrous results.  For any who would doubt it, consider the Christian flags and music, prayer and shouts woven all throughout the events of January 6th at the capital. As one writer put it, if any of those elements had been Islamic instead of Christian, we would be considering the events of the day an act of Holy war, an event to rival 9/11. The sad reality is it was that sort of an event, only this time the soldiers (rioters) in this act of holy war marched under a Jesus Saves flag, listened to christian music and prayed to Jesus for victory. 

While there is much to think about, it seems we have ended up here at least in part because we don’t have the filters for seeking out theological heresy and doctrinal pollutants from the right as vigorously as we do from the left.  We have to come to the point (and for many pastors I am talking to we are there) where we have to go back to Scripture and seek a biblical way forward, realizing that the dangers to the historic faith not only come from the Left (theological liberalism), but from the Right (nationalism and moralism) as well. In this rediscovery of biblical discernment, we will have to learn how to better ignore the siren calls from both Babylon and Egypt as they promise protection from the other.  The truth is when we seek our safety with Egypt (or Babylon), they will be more than happy to give it provided we reciprocate by giving them our allegiance. In exchange for protection, we will be expected to give our political power and our resources, our mailing lists, our finances and ultimately our fidelity and loyalty. We’re seeing now as both the political left and right are asking us to lay aside our understanding of truth and morality, demanding a moral relevancy that will be defined by them. The truth is while they want us as a voting block, neither of them want Jesus and His call for justice and righteousness, for repentance and forgiveness, for loving our neighbors even those who we consider enemies and on and on. And they certainly want no part of His call to bend our knees and acknowledge Him as King. 

If we are going to continue to be the faithful witnesses of what Jesus passed on to his disciples, to carry on the historic faith into future generations, the evangelical church in America must do some soul searching. So what is that? 

Well, first, we need to acknowledge that we have sought refuge in political solutions and power instead of following Jesus and taking up our cross. We have all been Peter picking up our swords to fight our battle and like Peter, we need to lay it down and lead by serving, to gain our lives by laying them down, to be obedient to the two great commands to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  

We need to go back to Scripture, our final authority and re-read it with a heart that seeks to first examine our motives, our anger, our fears instead of going to them to gather ammunition against our enemies, real or imagined. We need to stop reading it to reaffirm the biases and narratives we have adopted from the ally of our choice, whether that be Babylon or Egypt.  This will be difficult because we have dug deep pathways for how to  think. It will be impossible without the Spirit’s work to read the Scriptures with a fresh set of eyes to see the beams in our own eyes before we see the speck in others. Our times demand that we join our spiritual forebears in seeking to be willing to repent, reform and renew with the goal to grow in true Christlikeness. The hard truth is that for all our talk about the Bible, we will need to pray that we have the courage to be truly biblical. 

Those of us in predominantly white churches would benefit greatly in this exercise if we were to do this in relationship with brothers and sisters from minority churches.  The sad reality is that our spiritual and racial segregation has impoverished us and as a result, left us vulnerable. If we had real and meaningful relationships with people who look different than us, if we were in fact, actively part of and engaged with the Church at large, we could have had the benefit of their experience and hard learned lessons. These relationships have to be more than just virtue signaling or tokenism. To truly be faithful to Jesus’ call to be one as he and the Father are one will require soul searching of how we arrived here, to humbly then reach out, to listen and to learn from all parts of God’s Bride. Another step we could take would be to read faithful brothers and sisters from contexts outside of our own. Reading church leaders, theologians and writers from other countries would expose us to the broader Church which Christ is building.  

We can take comfort and courage in the reality is Christ is building His Church and His will will be done. We can all count on that. His faithfulness is not in question. The question is the one Jesus asked in Luke 18:8, when the Lord comes, will He find us faithful? Will he find his people facing their neighbors with a fist and a sword or with a basin and towel. Will He find His Bride resting in His promises or seeking safety in the arms of another. We have long been aware of the idols from one direction, Are we willing to examine the idols from the other that have so easily ensnared us? We are in the process of finding that out.

Steve Gregg is Lead Pastor at Creekside Community Church in Gainesville, Florida, a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida and ordained with the EFCA (Evangelical Free Church of America). 

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