A Controversy Re-visited – Martyn Lloyd-Jones

(I’ve noticed that this is a post people frequently look at; I’d just like to draw attention to the fact that it’s one of a pair of connected posts, the other dealing with the position of the Anglican theologian J I Packer in that controversy.  You will get a broader and more  balanced view of the controversy, and of my estimate of it, if you consult the other post as well “A controversy revisited – J I Packer”.)

Those of my age (I have a bus-pass) will likely remember the controversy which followed a meeting of the Evangelical Alliance in 1966 when Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones issued a call to Evangelicals to secede from ‘doctrinally impure’ denominations infected by liberal theological ideas, and form a purer church to defend the gospel.  Some did respond, and among other results the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches was founded.  However many, particularly among Anglicans, thought it was inappropriate to leave denominations which still held to evangelical creeds, and better to work within them and try to recall them to biblical belief.

At the time, as a student, I wasn’t very clear about the issues.  Since then my own ideas in various matters have expanded considerably, and I now feel able to comment; and much as I respect Lloyd-Jones as among the ‘giants on whose shoulders I stand’, in this case I believe he was very wrong, and that the heated controversy was unfortunately an argument about the wrong question.

Lloyd-Jones’ mistake I believe was to put the matter in terms of ‘doctrinally lax mainstream denominations’ and to seek a solution in terms of a doctrinally ‘pure-body’ church.

The obvious criticisms are

First, that it was to be expected that churches made up of sinful humans would have ups and downs in faithfulness and doctrinal purity,

and secondly, that the concept of a ‘pure body’ church was, shall we say, inadequately bounded and opened up the spectre of endless secessions over minor matters leading to total disunity and to proudly and bitterly exclusive groups like the ‘Exclusive Brethren’.

As regards the first of those points, I think it is significant that Christopher Catherwood reports, “Dr Lloyd-Jones knew that his grouping would not stay pure for ever, but he felt that each man had to do what was right in his own generation”.  Exactly… as generations change, you cannot guarantee the ongoing faith and doctrinal purity of any church, and so it would appear that seeking a pure grouping will indeed lead to just an endless process of separation and abandonment.   In addition at any time a church may contain people of many different degrees of Christian experience many of whom have far from worked everything out and may have all kinds of not-entirely orthodox views just through inexperience – and of course do not deserve to be excluded for that!    The alternative view of John Stott, Jim Packer and their Anglican colleagues, to not abandon a denomination unless it formally and credally abandoned the gospel, and to seek instead to work within it for revival, was basically correct[i], and had precedent in actual revival of which perhaps the 1740 ‘Great Awakening’ was the great example.  Reformers in the 1500s and Methodists in the 1700s did not abandon their original church, but had been thrown out, or at any rate squeezed out, after serious constructive efforts to improve that original church.  Of course, least of all can you secure the faith of future generations by secular legislation for a state church or privileged state religion – but that raises issues I’ve dealt with elsewhere.

As regards the second, separation over claimed doctrinal purity is potentially endless and gives all too much scope for human pride and exclusiveness, and for abusive leaderships to establish cult-like groups separated nominally for greater purity but in fact to serve the leader’s ego.  Of course Dr Lloyd-Jones didn’t intend any such limitless separation, nor do I think he was that kind of egotist; but the issue of doctrinal purity or of a ‘pure body’ church doesn’t have a clear objective limit to prevent it.  How do you decide when you are ‘pure enough’?  How do you make sure of separating only from the determinedly unorthodox and not casting aside the sincere but understandably ignorant or similar?

I think Lloyd-Jones made a further mistake – he didn’t properly realise that there was one issue which both really required separation and was actually significantly responsible for much of the doctrinal laxity that worried him; namely, the issue of establishment of churches in the state – not only in the strict legal way that Anglicanism is established, but also various other ways that people expect that a state should be ‘Christian’ and that our churches  and their beliefs and morality should be specially privileged in the state.  For example, Ian Paisley didn’t want to be the established church – but he still expected Ulster (and mainland Britain) to be a ‘Protestant country’ in which Protestant beliefs generally are favoured/protected/etc.

Separation from the state, whether from a formal establishment or a looser ‘Christian country’ kind of relationship, indirectly sorts out much of the doctrinal purity issue anyway.  It relieves the church of all kinds of pressures and temptations that might tend towards doctrinal impurity in various ways, both obvious and subtle.  Once separated from the state, for example,

  • You won’t get governments confusing the gospel of new birth by trying to define every citizen as belonging to the state Christian faith;
  • You won’t get citizens thinking they are Christian just by birth in a ‘Christian country’.
  • A large problem of people seeking membership or leadership in the churches for reasons of political power and influence is pretty much removed, leaving a church of voluntary members whose primary concerns are at least somewhat more likely to be spiritual rather than worldly
  • Likewise you will get fewer people seeking membership for mere social respectability, usually ending up playing a Pharisaic hypocritical role while sinners in real need may be made to feel unwanted by the very body that is supposed to save them;
  • If the church doesn’t offer a special privilege in the world and state, people are likely to join only if they are serious about salvation; and therefore the church is less encumbered with merely nominal believers who are likely to be doctrinally lax.
  • Without the state involvement, there is a good deal less temptation to tinker with doctrine to try to keep it acceptable to all in the state; a church which is non-conformist anyway will be more concerned to maintain pure doctrine.

Of course the church, being composed of sinful human beings, who are imperfect even when converted to Christ, will always in a way be a mixed body; but without the state link it will be so in a biblically expected way which can be coped with on biblical principles, not additionally confused by an dubious relationship with worldly power and the very different concerns of that power.

 

Ecumenically, most of the issues on which evangelicals differ are related to state churches – or their leftovers, as it were, in churches which aren’t established.  The state church issue itself obviously, but also many styles of church government and worship which, in free churches, would lose much of their importance.  For example, while I suspect the baptist/paedobaptist controversy will run a bit yet, one major aspect would be removed if baptism ceased to be a national rite of passage, carried on in a ‘national church’ for social and cultural reasons rather than simply as a Christian rite.  It might seem drastic to split from ‘Christian country’ denominations (and it must be done as charitably as possible!) but in the modern climate of declining attendance will it in fact make a great deal of difference? A separation on the state and church issue is also, of course, more easily limited than a separation over doctrinal laxity; there is a reasonably obvious stopping point which then if anything discourages further separation unless for major cause.

 

I repeat, I have huge respect for Dr Lloyd-Jones, own many of his books both in physical and Kindle form, and have benefited massively from his teaching.  I understand why he was concerned for doctrinal purity, especially when the late 1960s were seeing the outworking of the ‘Honest to God’ controversy started by Bishop John Robinson of Woolwich, and ideas like ‘God is Dead’ theology.  As a Welshman he didn’t believe in the Anglican style of established Church, but his Puritan and Welsh-Presbyterian/Calvinistic-Methodist background meant, I think, that he was unclear on the wider idea of a ‘Christian country’; he thought that in some sense a country could be ‘Christian’ and broadly support Christianity in general – for example with features like ‘RE in schools’.  Lloyd-Jones’ Independency/Congregationalism was more like Cromwell than the Anabaptist principle of separation of Church and State, and in Britain even our Baptists were ambiguous over this issue.  Anabaptism was at the time very much a minority matter; our native Anabaptist movement, the Open Brethren, was increasingly becoming just a group of independent churches.  I think he just didn’t realise the link between being, or trying to be, a Christian country and the temptations to worldliness including doctrinal laxity that result.

 

Thus sadly he raised the controversy over the wrong issue, and harmed evangelical witness at a time when we didn’t need that kind of division.  In the many issues of the 1960s a clear call to separation from the state would have been more useful, but nobody was thinking in such terms.

 


[i] The idea may have been correct – but applying it to the Anglican Church was problematic – see the second part of this discussion, “A Controversy Revisited – J I Packer “.

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