Elements of the World

Francis Schaeffer decried the Church's captivity to the naturalism of the age.

The Church Captive (9)

Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world…But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? Galatians 4.3, 9

“As I travel about and speak in many countries, I am impressed with the number of times I am asked by Christians about the loss of reality in their Christian lives. Surely this is one of the greatest, and perhaps the greatest reason for a loss of reality: that while we way we believe one thing, we allow the spirit of the naturalism of the age to creep into our thinking, unrecognized.”

  - Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality[1]

Liberalism and the Bride of Christ
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Francis A. Schaeffer, picking-up where J. Gresham Machen left off, exposed and warned against the continuing effects of liberal theology on the culture of America and the West, as well as on the evangelical Church.

Especially in four books[2]– The Church at the End of the Twentieth CenturyThe Church before the Watching WorldThe Mark of the Christian, and The Great Evangelical Disaster – Dr. Schaeffer demonstrated how creeping liberalism had distracted the Church from its true calling, and left it helpless against the winds of secular doctrine. By a gradual loss of focus, evangelical Christians forfeited their true identity, failed in their primary calling, abandoned their historic mission, and thus put themselves and the watching world in danger of the judgment of God.

By the end of the twentieth century, Dr. Schaeffer argued, evangelical church leaders had so accommodated themselves to the world spirit of the age, that they no longer were a convincing presence or a convicting voice in the Western world. Elements of worldly thinking, which should have been renounced at conversion, crept unrecognized into our view of the Bible, the Church, the nature of Christian faith, and the role of Christianity in culture and society. The result was a Church content to tally its numbers and entertain its members, but with no real evidence of Gospel salt, light, and leaven for the watching world.

The problem began when Christians lost their focus on our heavenly Bridegroom, and instead of nurturing love for God above all else, set about making churches tidy, affable, and efficient elements of modernist culture. Because intimacy with Christ, and deep spiritual intercourse with Him, began to be of less importance than running programs and tallying up results, the Church’s love for God grew cold, and they had no love to show fellow believers or the dying world. Christians were unfaithful in their marriage to the Lord, showing off wedding bands while flirting (and worse) with the allurements of the secular age. From loving God supremely, Christians turned to basking in God’s love for them, whatever their condition, and in seeking from Him whatever they felt they needed for their happiness and wellbeing. From loving God as God, believers turned to loving themselves by God. Schaeffer concluded: “When those who claim to be God’s people turn aside from the Word of God and from the Christ of history, this is far more heinous in the sight of God than the worst case of infidelity in marriage, for it destroys the reality, the great central Bridegroom-bride relationship.”

This drifting from the Word and Bridegroom was the result of liberalism’s undercutting of Scripture and focus on this-world gains, rather than what Shaeffer referred to as “true spirituality”. Evangelical leaders, seeking to retain a measure of respectability in the eyes of the world, went along with and abetted this drift, by failing to resist and sail against it. Many denounced the failing liberalism of established denominations, only to adopt a liberalism of their own, shaped by elements of marketing, business, and entertainment, more than by the priorities of God’s Word.

No love, no unity
Their deep and spiritual relationship with Christ thus compromised, Christians had little love for – or indeed, little sense of needing to love – their fellow believers. A Church which was already terribly divided – 35,000 Protestant denominations– thus became even more so, taking no interest in working hard to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace with believers from other denominations and traditions (Eph. 4.3). The unity of the faith – which Jesus insisted was the sine qua non of a believable witness (Jn. 17.21) – fragmented, and in its place, a spirit of denominationalism, such as Paul decried in 1 Corinthians 1, became the new normal – accepted as inevitable and not necessarily wrong – in the evangelical Church.

But this was only a mirroring of the institutional competitiveness which existed in the modern world. Jesus, Schaeffer insisted, had given the world the right to judge the reality and value of our faith by the degree of unity and love we share with one another. In the absence of that, the watching world simply blew off the faith and its moral and cultural heritage, and struck out on its own, wearing the blinders of materialism, sensualism, and narcissism. 

What Schaeffer referred to as “the final apologetic” – the mutual love and unity between believers – was abandoned completely, giving the world the right to consider either that we are not truly Christian, or that Christianity itself is not true.

The evangelical disaster
As the rift between evangelicalism and the world widened, church leaders sought to recover influence and numbers by bringing the faith to the world on its terms. Adopting practices and views consistent with social, cultural, political, and moral trends, church leaders created a disaster for the Christian movement, and led their churches into a tiger-by-the-tail approach to doing Church and being Christian. The Church lost sight of what Luther described as the true freedom of a Christian – the freedom to know, love, obey, and follow Jesus Christ in faith – and embraced the spirit of individual freedom, rampant at the end of the century. “And we have seen,” Schaeffer wrote, “that over the last sixty years the pursuit of autonomous freedom has undercut the Christian ethos that once had a profound influence in shaping our culture.”

Evangelicals had sailed into the winds of the secular and humanistic superstorm, accommodating the faith in two primary ways, and rendering evangelicalism a feckless and fruitless endeavor. First, evangelicals accommodated to the world with respect to their view of Scripture: “Here is the great evangelical disaster – the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth…there has been accommodation on Scripture, so that many who call themselves evangelicals hold a weakened view of the Bible and no longer affirm the truth of all the Bible teaches…” Second, “there has been accommodation on the issues, with no clear stand begin taken even on matters of life and death.” Or, we might add, justice, sexuality, and culture in general.

Schaeffer summarized, “Thus we must say with tears that it is the evangelical accommodation to the world spirit around us, to the wisdom of this age, which removes the evangelical church from standing against the further breakdown of our culture.”

We may disagree with Dr. Schaeffer, but before we do, we should look to see what we are actually committed to – the vision, ideas, practices, objectives, and goals that define who we are as leaders and as a church. For unless we are bound to Jesus Christ as Head and Bridegroom, to His Word as ultimate truth and supreme standard, and to His mission as a comprehensive Kingdom collaboration, we should not be surprised that the reality of that faith – reality that turns the world upside-down for Christ – continues to elude us and the people we serve.

It does seem to me that evangelical leaders, and every evangelical Christian, have a very special responsibility not to just go along with the “blue-jean syndrome” of not noticing that their attempts to be “with it” so often take the same forms as those who deny the existence or holiness of the living God. Accommodation leads to accommodation – which leads to accommodation… 

  
- Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster

T. M. Moore

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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).


[1]Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality(Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1973), p. 60.

[2]All quotes are from Francis A. Schaeffer,The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, Volume 4: A Christian View of the Church (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1992)

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT. 

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