In his best known work, Christianity and Liberalism, the late J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) imagined a delightful scenario where theological liberals - those who did not believe in the virgin birth or Christ's physical resurrection - would quietly leave their mainline churches allowing those churches to breath the unpolluted air of orthodoxy again and move forward without struggling against the extra weight of false brethren.

Machen never expected such an idyllic scenario would come to pass, but he sure did his part to encourage it:

"Certainly the withdrawal of liberal ministers from the creedal churches would be enormously in the interests of harmony and co-operation. Nothing engenders strife so much as a forced unity, within the same organization, of those who disagree fundamentally in aim. But is not advocacy of such separation a flagrant instance of intolerance?" (Christianity & Liberalism, p. 167)

Machen notes how his hope that liberals would self-exile often summons charges of intolerance. In his context the dilution of orthodox conviction was so substantial that churchmen thought intolerance toward theological liberals a greater crime than liberalism itself.

In answering the charge of intolerance Machen makes a very insightful comment. He shows that intolerance is a necessary virtue of certain institutions:

"The objection [of intolerance] is often raised. But it ignores altogether the difference between involuntary and voluntary organizations. 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 of 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."

Because the state is an involuntary organization, it must be tolerant of many views. Because the church is voluntary, it must be intolerant of many views.

There is much wisdom in this for our lives as citizens and Christians. The Christian will not ordinarily wish for more intolerance from the state toward religion. The Christian wants the state to even allow false houses of worship. Why? Because if the state has the political right to establish one religion to the exclusion of others, what happens when the state is no longer sympathetic to Christianity? It will use its privilege of intolerance and establish a false religion as the only acceptable one. This may be what Providence orders, but it would be an odd outcome for Christians to work for when they still have the political freedoms to work against it.

The Christian will even want the state to be tolerant toward public political speech. We should be cheered by a state that allows socialists and communists to speak openly and establish political legitimacy. We may disagree with them, but we should hope the state tolerates them. Why? Because if the state becomes intolerant toward erroneous economic and political theories the state will make one system ultimate. This brings about "political absolutism," which a Christian should see as a kind of idolatry.

When one political theory (even one that is arguably the best) becomes absolutized in a society, and all others are considered "blasphemous," we have created something akin to an imperial cult. Whenever the state makes politics and economics ultimate, it hides the antithesis between the things of this age and the age to come. In its intolerance it teaches that the antithesis is between this earthly temporal system and that earthly temporal system. The devil is pleased and the state has begun to demand a measure of worship.

So that is one lesson from Machen's comments above. The other lesson is that the church must be necessarily intolerant. This, of course, does not mean the church uses violent or malicious or hasty processes to deal with dissenters. The church does not imprison or confiscate. The church does not use the sword, the state does. But the intolerance of the church does mean the church will have a clear creed by which men and women voluntarily associate. The church will also have a very open and transparent procedure for discipline and, if necessary, removal of those who persist in false doctrine and false behavior - false as measured against the revealed Word of God and summarized in the aforementioned creed. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, this whole process is openly published in our Book of Discipline (see here).

I set these things before you not because I know of some case of discipline or some theological controversy that is about to publicly overwhelm us as a church. I know of none. I set these things down merely as a continuation of what 1 Timothy, chapter 1, demanded we consider last Lord's Day. The Word sets the agenda for what we are thinking about any given week and for how we shall think about it.