Statism and Parachurchism

"Personality," Machen writes early in his work, "can only be developed in the realm of individual choice. And that realm, in the modern state, is being slowly but steadily contracted.

Even the briefest perusal of recent activities by the most prevalent evangelical and Reformed(ish) para-church organizations of our day seems to support this claim. No longer content with a straightforward task of providing resources (books, media, conferences) which (arguably) improve theological literacy and piety, we see, for instance, para-church organizations attempting to define the Church’s doctrine, or even write her liturgy, by drafting (and, of course, heavily marketing) theological statements in creedal form. Or again, we see para-church organizations exonerating individuals, placing them on the conference-stage and touting them as “trusted,” who have been disciplined and/or defrocked by entirely legitimate congregations/denominations, a task (restoration) that rather obviously belongs to the courts of those congregations/denominations.


Several weeks ago I re-read J. Gresham Machen’s pivotal, early twentieth-century work Christianity and Liberalism in preparation for giving the final lectures of a seminary course on modern church history. Having originally read the work more than a decade ago, I had forgotten how much political commentary lies scattered throughout the book — commentary which, it seems to me, remains just as relevant as Machen’s stinging critique of Protestant Liberalism for our time. At several junctures in the work Machen highlights the danger of an ever-increasing statism in his day, particularly as such manifests itself in the state’s encroachment upon the rights and responsibilities of parents in matters and decisions related to their children’s education.

“Personality,” Machen writes early in his work, “can only be developed in the realm of individual choice. And that realm, in the modern state, is being slowly but steadily contracted. The tendency is making itself felt especially in the sphere of education. The object of education, it is now assumed, is the production of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is assumed further, can be defined only by the will of the majority. Idiosyncrasies in education, therefore, it is said, must be avoided, and the choice of schools must be taken away from the individual parent and placed in the hands of the state.”

However alarmist Machen’s words on this score might have sounded in 1923, they seem prophetic now, as both traditional approaches to education (think classical) and more and more fundamental truths about human beings and the world we inhabit — truths preserved in Christian doctrine — assume the character of “idiosyncrasies” in western cultural perspective. Machen returns to this point later in the work in an aside about the “family” as “the most important of … institutions” which “are not specifically Christian” (as opposed to, say, the Church). “The family,” he observes, “is being pushed more and more into the background. It is being pushed into the background by undue encroachments of the community and of the state. Modern life is tending more and more towards the contraction of the sphere of parental control and parental influence. The choice of schools is being placed under the power of the state; the ‘community’ is seizing hold of recreation and of social activities. It may be a question how far these community activities are responsible for the modern breakdown of the home; very possibly they are only trying to fill a void which even apart from them had already appeared. But the result at any rate is plain — the lives of children are no longer surrounded by the loving atmosphere of the Christian home, but by the utilitarianism of the state.”

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