Book Review: Evangelicalism Divided, by Iain Murray


 “I pray for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. . . .  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  Those were the words of our Lord Himself at the end of John 17.  It was His last prayer for the disciples before He was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and taken away to die.  Unity is a high ideal.  In every era of history, there is some loud, clear voice calling for the end of division in the church.  The fourth and fifth centuries had it in the councils that declared against Arius and Nestorius.  The eleventh century had it in both Popes and Patriarchs working, albeit unsuccessfully, for the reunion of the Greek and Latin churches.  The sixteenth century certainly heard that call, most loudly from the Roman Catholic church decrying the schism being perpetrated by Luther and Calvin.  And our own century has seen it, too, and continues to see it—a call for denominations to put aside “petty” theological differences and unite for the good of society and the world.  Iain Murray has written a book called Evangelicalism Divided.  The book is a historical record of the ecumenical movement in the United States and Great Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century.  In it, Murray traces the developments in the ministries of several key figures in the era, most notably Billy Graham, J.I. Packer, and John Stott.  His conclusion is that because of a desire to have a place at the table of ecumenical discussion, a long series of what seemed at the time to be relatively innocuous decisions eventually blurred the bright line that marks out what it means to be a Christian.

The twentieth century had already seen its share of this kind of ecumenism before Billy Graham and the other personalities in Murray’s book were even born.  It was in the 1920’s that the giants of Presbyterian orthodoxy—Machen, Bryan, Macartney—defended the church against the ecumenist, liberal notions of Harry Fosdick and Henry Sloane Coffin.  The argument then was largely as it would be forty and fifty years later.  If the church was to be able in to engage its culture, it would have to discard its archaic and exclusivist insistence on a correct confession of doctrine and throw open the doors of fellowship to people of a wide variety of sometimes contradictory beliefs, all of whom nevertheless called themselves “Christians.”  In the Presbyterian church, the debate was conducted by formal means—through democratic elections of moderators by delegate-packed convention halls, through affirmations and counter-affirmations.  It ended when the fundamentalists finally threw up their hands, debouched from the wasteland and formed their own denomination.  In Murray’s book, the movement is much less dramatic.  There were no conventions that decided the change would take place, no dramatic exodus.  It was more a slow burn than an explosion.

Murray’s charge is that Christian leaders in the latter half of the 1900’sforgot that the most important question the church must ask is “What is a Christian?”  Not finally, “Who is a Christian?” for that is beyond any mortal’s knowledge this side of heaven.  But “What is a Christian?  What does it mean to be a Christian? What does a Christian life look like?  What does a Christian believe?”  Murray weaves a fascinating story of how several Christian leaders blurred that line.  Murray has been criticized by some for seeming to ignore the good that some evangelical leaders have done in favor of focusing on their mistakes. Perhaps, but then again, Murray is not writing a comprehensive history; he is not writing biographies of these men.  He is making an argument that men like these made categorical mistakes that affected evangelicalism in a negative way.  I have not seen a review of the book that aruges that what Murray actually says is untrue.  Probably that is because what he does say is backed by solid evidence, taken from the mouths and pens of the men themselves. Anybody can point out salutary aspects of almost anyone’s life and make the argument that those things offset in some way the bad that was done.  That does not, however, change the fact that the mistakes were made and that they had harmful effects in the evangelical world.  Murray, I think, cannot be accused of bad history for pointing out those mistakes.

One of the most astonishing anecdotes in the book involves an appearance of Billy Graham on the Hour of Power with Robert Schuller.  The whole exchange is sadly fascinating, but the most important statement was Graham’s:

I think that everybody that loves or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are members of the body of Christ. . . .  God is calling people out of the world for his name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God.  They may not know the name of Jesus but . . . I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven. (pp. 73-74)

Here, the line between Christian and non-Christian is blurred to the point of non-existence.  It wasn’t in one cataclysmic movement that Graham moved to making such statements; Murray is quick to point that out.  For years, Graham’s organization had been progressively cooperating with non-evangelical groups.  In the end, though, cooperation with non-evangelicals led to an embrace of non-evangelicals as brothers and sisters in Christ, and therefore, a confusion of what it means to be a Christian.  “The fact is,” Murray writes, “the policy was seen as a necessary expedient designed sincerely for the best end, namely, to gain a wider hearing for the gospel,” (p.58).  The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association didn’t blur the gospel out of malice, or even deliberately.  It was the sad result of a good intention to preach the gospel to as many as possible, even if that meant compromising on what Graham thought were some “non-essentials” of the faith.

The same could be said of J.I. Packer, who, Murray writes, underwent a “shift in thinking” toward ecumenism in the Church of England.  The reason for the shift was akin to the one that motivated Graham’s departure from a strong orthodoxy.  In 1962, Packer became the head of a think tank at Oxford, Latimer House.  Murray characterizes the reason for Packer’s shift toward ecumenism:  “Given that evangelical Anglican opinion on the subject [ecumenism] was being largely ignored by the leaders of the denomination, an involvement in the current debate seemed essential if evangelicals were not to be wholly isolated.”  Gaining that involvement meant remaining within the accepted structures of the church.  “The new policy was now in the making.  Evangelicals would enter into the wider relationships which ecumenism had made so popular,” (p.89).  His move was not maliciously motivated.  It was brought on by a desire to remain in the conversation.  The problem was that remaining in the conversation meant compromising the gospel just enough so that liberals in the church could still be defined as Christians.  That, argues Murray, was just enough too far.

This book is an extremely important and well-aimed call for the church to recapture its principles, to define clearly what it means to be a Christian and to fortify itself against intruders. “The health of the church,” Murray writes, “has always been in proportion to the extent to which, in her teaching, the difference between Christian and non-Christian has been kept sharp and clear,” (p.296).  He is right. The pressure is incredibly strong in our world to blur distinctions and allow the name of “Christian” to be applied to anyone who will take it.  In reality, though, there are many in the world who gladly take the name “Christian” and yet deny the very things that define Christianity.  The result is that the gospel is confused.  And this is not just a call to national leaders; it is also a warning to you as a pastor to make sure that the line between what is a Christian and what isn’t is not blurred even in your own church.  What a tragedy when people who neither believe nor act like Christians continue to call themselves members of our churches, and not only that but “members in good standing” of our churches, while the congregation and its leaders sit idly by and allow it to happen!

Perhaps the most penetrating of Murray’s arguments is that the evangelicalism of the last fifty years has pursued success and influence in ways that smack more of the Kingdom of this world than of the Kingdom of God, “in ways,” Murray writes, “which the New Testament identifies as ‘worldliness,’”(p.255)

Worldliness is departing from God.  It is a man-centered way of thinking; it proposes objectives which demand no radical breach with man’s fallen nature; it judges the importance of things by the present and material results; it weighs success by numbers; it covets human esteem and wants no unpopularity; it knows no truth for which it is worth suffering; it declines to be a ‘fool for Christ’s sake’. (p.255)

Every pastor and church leader should read this book and take heed that he does not fall into those temptations.  He should take care that he does not, in the interest of his own influence or acceptance in the community, open the gates of God’s church to the enemy.  If the integrity of the church is compromised, then its mission, too, is lost.  The world will not be affected by a church that is no different from it—that has no stronger beliefs, no higher standards.  God calls His church to be set apart.  Iain Murray has given a sharp and needed rebuke to those in the latter half of the twentieth century who forgot that call, and a strong encouragement to the church today vigilantly to guard its identity.

Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.

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