Machen on tolerance and liberty

I am ashamed to admit that until this weekend I had not read Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. This book would have proven very helpful during my college experience. I found the Reformed confessions in my flight from social gospel fundamentalism. Machen was in my bones.

While I love Machen’s theology, there is also much to like about Machen’s political thought.

Machen deeply understood and valued freedom of association. Voluntary associations, such as confessional churches, must be free to set their own boundaries and definitions. This basic point is widely misunderstood.

For example, the “I Love German Shepherds Club” of Grand Rapids, Michigan must be allowed to accept or reject potential members based on the person’s pet preferences. Frankly, many people believe that freedom of association means that the cat lover should have the right to join the I Love German Shepherds Club. This is just flat wrong. If you love cats and not German Shepherds, the club must have the right to exclude you. Otherwise, the club is meaningless.

Machen outlines this argument in his chapter on “The Church.”

Involuntary organizations ought to be tolerant, but voluntary organizations, so far as the fundamental purpose of their existence is concerned, must be intolerant or else cease to exist. The state is an involuntary organization; a man is forced to be a member if it whether he will or no. It is therefore an interference with liberty for the state to prescribe any one type of opinion or any one type of education for its citizens. But within the state, individual citizens who desire to unite for some special purpose should be permitted to do so. Especially in the sphere of religion, such permission of individuals to unite is one of the rights which lie at the very foundation of our civil and religious liberty. The state does not scrutinize the rightness or wrongness of the religious purpose for which such voluntary religious associations are formed—if it did undertake such scrutiny all religious liberty would be gone—but it merely protects the right of individuals to unite for any religious purpose which they may choose.

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism 142 (2009).

To put it simply: the state must be tolerant; the church must be intolerant. The alternative is that there is no liberty and no church worthy of the name.

One thought on “Machen on tolerance and liberty

  1. Pingback: Review: The Benedict Option | Tyler Gaastra

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