A powerful plea from J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) for a return to meaningful pre-membership instruction to recall the “paper currency” back to a “gold standard.” This extract comes from his work, What is Faith?
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At this point, a question may perhaps be asked. We have said that saving faith is acceptance of Christ, not merely in general, but as He is offered to us in the gospel. How much, then, of the gospel, it may be asked, does a man need to accept in order that he may be saved; what, to put it baldly, are the minimum doctrinal requirements in order that a man may be a Christian? That is a question which, in one form or another, I am often asked; but it is also a question which I have never answered, and which I have not the slightest intention of answering now. Indeed it is a question which I think no human being can answer. Who can presume to say for certain what is the condition of another man’s soul; who can presume to say whether the other man’s attitude toward Christ, which he can express but badly in words, is an attitude of saving faith or not? This is one of the things which must surely be left to God.
There is indeed a certain reason why it is natural to ask the question to which we have just referred; it is natural because of the existence of a visible Church. The visible Church should strive to receive, into a communion for prayer and fellowship and labor, as many as possible of those who are united to Christ in saving faith, and it should strive to exclude as many as possible of those who are not so united to Him. If it does not practise exclusion as well as inclusion, it will soon come to stand for nothing at all, but will be merged in the life of the world; it will soon become like salt that has lost its savour, fit only to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.
In order, therefore, that the purity of the Church may be preserved, a confession of faith in Christ must be required of all those who would become Church members. But what kind of confession must it be? I for my part think that it ought to be not merely a verbal confession, but a credible confession. One of the very greatest evils of present-day religious life, it seems to me, is the reception into the Church of persons who merely repeat a form of words such as “I accept Christ as my personal Saviour,” without giving the slightest evidence to show that they know what such words mean. As a consequence of this practice, hosts of persons are being received into the Church on the basis, as has been well said, of nothing more than a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus, or else on the basis of a vague purpose of engaging in humanitarian work. One such person within the Church does more harm to the cause of Christ, I for my part believe, than ten such persons outside; and the whole practice ought to be radically changed. The truth is that the ecclesiastical currency in our day has been sadly debased; Church membership, as well as Church office, no longer means what it ought to mean. In view of such a situation, we ought, I think, to have reality at least; instead of comforting ourselves with columns of church statistics, we ought to face the facts; we ought to recall this paper currency and get back to a standard of gold.
To that end, it should, I think, be made much harder than it now is to enter the Church: the confession of faith that is required should be a credible confession; and if it becomes evident upon examination that a candidate has no notion of what he is doing, he should be advised to enter upon a course of instruction before he becomes a member of the Church. Such a course of instruction, moreover, should be conducted not by comparatively untrained laymen, but ordinarily by the ministers; the excellent institution of the catechetical class should be generally revived. Those churches, like the Lutheran bodies in America, which have maintained that institution, have profited enormously by its employment; and their example deserves to be generally followed.
After all, however, such inquiries into the state of the souls of men and women and children who desire to enter into the Church must be regarded as at the best very rough and altogether provisional. Certainly requirements for Church membership should be distinguished in the sharpest possible way from requirements for the ministry. The confusion of these two things in the ecclesiastical discussions of the past few years has resulted in great injustice to us who are called conservatives in the Church. We have been represented sometimes as though we were requiring an acceptance of the infallibility of Scripture or of the confession of faith of our Church from those who desire to become Church members, whereas in point of fact we have been requiring these things only from candidates for ordination. Surely there is a very important distinction here. Many persons — to take a secular example — can be admitted to an educational institution as students who yet are not qualified for a position in the faculty. Similarly many persons can be admitted to Church membership who yet ought not to be admitted to the ministry; they are qualified to learn, but not qualified to teach; they should not be allowed to stand forth as accredited teachers with the official endorsement of the Church. This analogy, it is true, does not by any means altogether hold: the Church is not, we think, merely an educational institution, but the visible representative in the world of the body of Christ; and its members are not merely seekers after God, but those who have already found; they are not merely interested in Christ, but are united to Christ by the regenerating act of the Spirit of God. Nevertheless, although the analogy does not fully hold, it does hold far enough to illustrate what we mean. There is a wide margin of difference between qualifications for Church membership and qualifications for office — especially the teaching office that we call the ministry. Many a man, with feeble, struggling belief, torn by many doubts, may be admitted into the fellowship of the Church and of the sacraments; it would be heartless to deprive him of the comfort which such fellowship affords; to such persons the Church freely extends its nurture to the end that they may be led into ever fuller knowledge and ever firmer faith. But to admit such persons to the ministry would be a crime against Christ’s little ones, who look to the ministry for an assured word as to the way by which they shall be saved. It is not, however, even such persons to whom chiefly we have reference when we advocate today a greater care in admitting men to the ministry. It is not men who are struggling with doubts and difficulties about the gospel to whose admission we chiefly object, but men who are perfectly satisfied with another gospel; it is not men of ill-assured faith, but men of assured unbelief.
Even with regard to Church membership, as distinguished from the ministry, there is, as we have seen, a limit beyond which exclusion must certainly be practised; not only a desire to enter the Church should be required but also some knowledge of what entering the Church means, not only a confession of faith but a reasonably credible confession. But the point that we are now making is that such requirements ought clearly to be recognized as provisional; they do not determine a man’s standing before God, but they only determine, with the best judgment that God has given to feeble and ignorant men, a man’s standing in the visible Church. That is one reason why we must refuse to answer, in any definite and formal way, the question as to the minimum doctrinal requirements that are necessary in order that a man may be a Christian.
There is, however, also another reason. The other reason is that the very asking of the question often betokens an unfortunate attitude with regard to Christian truth. For our part we have not much sympathy with the present widespread desire of finding some greatest common denominator which shall unite men of different Christian bodies; for such a greatest common denominator is often found to be very small indeed. Some men seem to devote most of their energies to the task of seeing just how little of Christian truth they can get along with. For our part, we regard it as a perilous business; we prefer, instead of seeing how little of Christian truth we can get along with, to see just how much of Christian truth we can obtain. We ought to search the Scriptures reverently and thoughtfully and pray God that he may lead us into an ever fuller understanding of the truth that can make us wise unto salvation. There is no virtue whatever in ignorance, but much virtue in a knowledge of what God has revealed.