“Fellowship between faith and unbelief must, sooner or later, prove fatal to the former.”
That sentence, a quote from Horatius Bonar included by Iain H. Murray in his book Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000, rings out as a one-line warning about the fatal dangers of Christian compromise, in times both past and present.
If you aren’t familiar with him or his work, Iain Murray is one of the premier historians of evangelical Christianity. He’s written about preachers such as Charles Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones and on topics pertaining to issues in both American and English evangelicalism. But it is his work in Evangelicalism Divided that I want to turn our attention to now.
Even though it’s over 20 years old, the book remains a critical piece of history that helps us better understand our own evangelical divisions (and who could deny we live in a divided time?). Furthermore, it shows us how we, as Christians today, can withstand the pressure to compromise on biblical truths and remain faithful to the end.
In this article, I will argue that Evangelicalism Divided gives us four key lessons, ingredients, or virtues (whatever you want to call them) that are indispensable for a lengthy, faithful, and uncompromising gospel ministry and a Christian life that withstands the test of time. Those four virtues are clarity, charity, courage, and confidence.
Because I want to give you, my readers, a good sense of the book itself, I split this article into two parts. In this first part, I will look at the need for Christians to have clarity and charity on doctrinal issues, and in the second we will consider courage and confidence. But first, to set the scene, let me provide a brief overview of the book.
Written as a historical inquiry into the cause of the divisions that plagued evangelicals regarding the topic of “Christian unity” during the latter half of the 20th century (1950-2000), Evangelicalism Divided is less a description of division and more a chronicle of compromise. In it, Murray catalogs the quest of high-profile American and British evangelicals, such as Billy Graham, John Stott, and J.I. Packer, who, intentionally or not, compromised key evangelical convictions in the pursuit of ecumenical “unity.”
If you aren’t familiar with the term “ecumenical,” it refers to the idea of “ecumenism,” which is an effort to bring different Christian churches and denominations together on common ground despite their doctrinal differences. But the problem, as Murray shows, is that this almost inevitably leads to compromise on key orthodox theological commitments and biblical truths.
The global ecumenical movement of the post-war era was a broad and rushing river, sweeping many up into its seemingly laudable effort to bring people together after the horrors of war. Thus, in Evangelicalism Divided, Murray shows how these men, and others, sought to overcome what they viewed as unnecessary divisions and find common ground between the more fundamentalist evangelicals and their theologically liberal counterparts, as well as between general evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
And yet this unity came at a high cost — losing sight of the most basic theological question: “What makes a Christian a Christian?” Towards the end of the book, Murray writes, “More fundamental and abiding…has been the subject to which we have repeatedly turned in these pages: the question of who is a Christian lies at the very centre of the disagreement.”
This raises a serious question: How did such big names in the Christian world come to lead evangelicals down a public path that was unable to answer such a fundamental question — who is a Christian? — with simple but uncompromising biblical clarity? Murray argues that “whereas the vision of evangelicals in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries was determined chiefly by fundamental beliefs, the policy of both Billy Graham in the United States, and of the Keele and Nottingham Congress in England, was shaped too largely by other considerations.”
These other considerations varied, but in essence, it came down to 1) the quixotic pursuit of an ecumenical unity at the expense of doctrine (primarily the doctrine of salvation and the inspiration and inerrancy of God’s Word), and 2) a desire for Christians to be accepted and respected by secular academic institutions and the culture writ large.
In other words, even some of the most well-respected and “successful” Christian leaders of their time were so intent on being “united” that they lost sight of the Gospel itself. But such unity is always false unity, for it comes at the expense of the truth.
While we live in a different moment, the pressures to compromise on what the Bible teaches remain just as fierce. So how can we avoid making the same mistakes? I argue that Evangelicalism Divided shows us that we will need to hold fast to these four virtues: clarity, charity, courage, and confidence. Let’s consider them now.
Doctrine rightly divides, so Christians must prioritize — even demand — clarity. Because Christianity is a religion that hangs entirely on a revealed, particular, and objective message — it is either true or it is not. It is therefore irreducibly a doctrinal and dogmatic belief. Doctrine rightly divides, separating truth from error and Christian from non-Christian; as such, Christians need clarity.
Sadly, this is exactly what was lost by the ecumenical movement: Gospel clarity. But trading the eternal, revealed truths of God for a passing appearance of unity amongst men is a disastrous bargain. Murray notes that “the health of the church has always been in proportion to the extent to which, in her teaching, the difference between Christian and non-Christian has been kept sharp and clear.”
However, with the rise of Billy Graham’s massive crusades, pressure was put on evangelicals on both sides of the pond to downplay any differences and, instead, use the momentum generated from the rallies to push for greater cooperation across denominational divisions. But men like Martyn Lloyd-Jones saw the dangers of this hasty joining-of-hands with theological liberals who largely denied key doctrines like the bodily resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, original sin, and salvation by faith alone. Murray writes that Lloyd-Jones “saw that for evangelicals to gain ecumenical and denominational acceptance they would have to pay a price which would imperil the very legitimacy of their distinctive beliefs.”
With a sharp assessment, Lloyd-Jones appropriately placed the cause for any division not on the evangelicals, but on those who never clearly held to the key biblical tenets of faithful Christian orthodoxy. At the 1966 conference, much to Stott’s chagrin, Lloyd-Jones argued that “people who do not believe the essentials of the faith, the things that are essential to salvation, cannot be guilty of schism. They are not in the church. If you do not believe a certain irreducible minimum, you cannot be a Christian and you are not in the church…Have evangelicals so changed that we no longer make an assertion like that?”
There is no doubt that the prophet Jeremiah, who denounced those preaching “‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace,” (Jeremiah 8:11); the Apostle Paul, who told the Galatians, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8); and our Lord Jesus Christ, who reminded His disciples that He came “not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34), would answer Lloyd-Jones in this way: May it never be.
Clarity in the Christian faith is demanded by the reality that our faith is founded on a propositional statement, not an emotional experience or personal subjective interpretation. Being a Christian is not a question of what you think about Jesus, but a question of what you believe about who Christ claimed to be — the Messiah — and what Christ did — He died on the cross in the place of those who repent and believe, rising again from the dead in demonstrable proof of His supreme authority.
What Murray’s book reveals is, in essence, the divide that occurs over the question of the ages: Is Christianity true or not? In sum, has God spoken to man, and if He has, what has God said? The need for clarity on this question is not a matter of preference, but of life and death. Murray writes,
“All the major differences which have been the subject of controversy lead back to two irreconcilable starting points: either Christianity is just another variation of human thought and imagination, with no right to teach certainties; or it is the one God-given means by which sinners are brought to Christ and heaven.”
Between such two extremes, there is no true unity to be had. Rather, there is the utmost need for clarity, for drawing a clear, bold line and calling those who stand on the side of trust in man to cross over to the side of submission to God. Before there can ever be liberty in non-essentials, any unity forged amongst Christians must be a unity of essentials, a unity built on the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. And for that, there must be clarity, no matter what the cost.
When drawing sharp but necessary doctrinal lines and warning against compromise with worldliness, Christians must be charitable. Even when policing doctrinal boundaries necessary to ensure biblical fidelity, we don’t need to be “gospel jerks” about it. Therefore, Christians need charity.
Contending for the faith need not be contentious nor cantankerous. The prized purity of the fundamentalists (for which they should be lauded) need not be joined with pugilistic spirit. Murray embodies this well in the gracious manner and style with which he writes Evangelicalism Divided. He displays his own spirit of charity, worth emulating, when he says “I have tried imperfectly in these pages to deal with principles and not to deal in personalities. I hope I can admire and love all fellow believers with whom I have disagreed.”
Such charity is called for even now, as we face different threats in our current day and age. The desire to defend the truths of Scripture, which are being trampled or ignored by woke Christians and other compromisers, is good. Social justice is serving as a Trojan horse to bring Marxism into Bible-believing churches all over America. But this real threat doesn’t give us a license to trample or ignore God’s words about our words — like the ones we find in 1 Corinthians 13 or Proverbs. The need for anchoring disagreement in charity is all the more important to remember when it comes to engaging those who one would think should know better and are therefore all the more disappointing by their apparently poor judgment, at best, or compromise, at worst.
Quoting Richard Baxter, Murray reminds us that even the best men are men at best:
“I now see more good and more evil in all men than heretofore I did. I see that good men are not so good as I once thought but have more imperfections, and that nearer approach and fuller trial doth make the best appear more weak and faulty than their admirers at a distance think.”
How can I extend charity even when defending clarity? By remembering that Baxter’s words also apply to me — and to you. We are men at best, which means we always have good and evil mixed in all we do.
Click here for part 2 of this series, in which I explain how faithful living in an age of Evangelicalism Divided also calls for courage and confidence.
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