Recently I came across the following statement in a prominent journal: "An article
in the January number of the ... Magazine affirms that the church has collapsed, that it
is gradually losing its hold upon the community and sinking into helplessness in the face
of the complex interests of modern life."
The statement was in an editorial in the February 18, 1915 issue of The Christian
Century. That this was written almost a hundred years ago is not to minimize the pain
and peril that the church is facing today. Nor is it to suggest that anything less than our
best is required to bear witness to the gospel today in thoughtful and creative ways.
However, it is to say what the editorial writer goes on to observe: "There has never been
a time since the apostolic age when an observant critic could not make the same
charge against the Christian society."
It's instructive to recall that when this editorial was written, the Presbyterian
Church (especially the northern branch, but actually both northern and southern
branches) was going through a tumultuous time in its life. As is true today, the main
issue was the interpretation of Scripture. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy
went back to the early 1890s when Charles Briggs, professor of Old Testament at Union
Seminary in New York, was brought up on charges of heresy for maintaining, among
other things, that Moses was not the sole author of the first five books of the Bible.
This controversy escalated throughout the 1910s and 1920s and the signs of the
times were encapsulated in the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee in July 1925. John
Scopes was charged with teaching the theory of evolution in the local high school.
The controversy in the (northern) Presbyterian Church was eventually resolved in
1927 with the modernists prevailing as they argued for the unity of the church and
allowing for more than one interpretation of various doctrines of the church. Some,
however, left the denomination to form their own seminary and denomination -- J.
Gresham Machen was one who did both.
As much as these issues continue to plague us, and as much as we may
disagree and argue with each other and regardless of how many factions there may be
in the church, it is always important to remember that God always has the final word.
As we make history today, may our claims be couched in humility and love with
the understanding that we are all children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ, and
that no one has a corner on the market of God’s grace and wisdom.