Francis Schaeffer’s Warning to Evangelical Ministers

            A good friend of mine called me a few weeks ago to ask if I had ever read Francis Schaeffer’s The Great Evangelical Disaster. That is one of the few books by Schaeffer that I did not have and had not read, but I purchased it that day. It came later that week on Saturday afternoon and I read it before 8 o’clock that evening. My friend told me that Schaeffer wrote in 1984 about the same themes I have been addressing over the past year in my weekly emails. There are few books that are timelier for the issues facing the church today than The Great Evangelical Disaster. Schaeffer was prescient and sounded a warning to evangelicals, but I think the real warning needs to be sounded in the ears of evangelical ministers.

            Schaeffer finished his book after suffering a terrible sickness for seven weeks following Thanksgiving Day in 1983. During that period, he lingered close to death and his family was told three times that he would soon die. His last book reads like a message from someone who passed into the eternal world and came back to earth to sound a final warning. Yet, his words have either been neglected or forgotten. Most evangelical ministers today are definitely not heeding his message.

            Schaeffer uses the illustration of the watershed high in the Swiss Alps where there are valleys on both sides of the ridge. All the waters on one side of the ridge flow into a small river that feeds into the Rhine and then northward to the North Sea. All the waters on the other side of the ridge fall into the Rhone Valley, then to Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), the Rhone River, and finally the Mediterranean Sea. Snowflakes that once fell on that mountain ridge close to one another ended up in great bodies of water far from one another. Marking precisely the watershed on that ridge would take great precision.

            The watershed for evangelicals always is the Scripture. Just like marking the watershed spot where waters fall either to the north or south on the Swiss mountain ridge, positions on the Scripture that seem so close to one another in the beginning will prove to be thousands of miles apart in the end. There are few ministers today in most of the so-called evangelical denominations who will denounce the Scripture as the Word of God. The problem today is not the rejection of the Scripture, but it is adding to the Scripture. Revelation 22:18, 19 makes it clear that we are neither to add to the Scripture nor take away from it.

            In this book by Schaeffer, he unmasks the essential problem with evangelicals today—accommodation. They accommodate, accommodate, and accommodate some more. That is especially true in my former denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. But it is true in other denominations also, such as the Southern Baptist Church. There are parachurch organizations formed, such as The Gospel Coalition, that are really not about the gospel as much as they are about hedging in the gospel to permit aberrant theological positions—same-sex attraction, Critical Race Theory, Cultural Marxism, the social justice gospel, and other errors/heresies. How many more errors will the sinking ship of the PCA have to take in before you have had your fill of their heterodoxy/heresy? How much accommodation are you willing to undertake in order to live in peace within the PCA?

            Here is what Schaeffer wrote about the social justice version of the gospel in 1984:

The socialist mentality is promoted by Evangelicals for Social Action and others, and endorsed by much of the evangelical world, is based on a double error. First and foremost it is wrong theologically, fundamentally distorting the gospel. But it is equally wrong in its naïve assessment of the redistribution of wealth and its consequences. The answer is not some kind of socialistic and egalitarian redistribution. This would be much more unjust and oppressive than our own system, imperfect though it is.[1]

            Thirty-six years after those words were written, the PCA, the Southern Baptist Church, and other supposedly evangelical denominations have bought into the social justice gospel lock, stock, and barrel. How and why? Well, look no further than accommodation by evangelicals.

            Concerning homosexuality, Schaeffer took issue with the following quote by Letha Dawson Scanzoni in an article, “Can Homosexuals Change?” that was published in The Other Side in January 1984:

It’s true that some Christians insist that homosexuals can change how they feel—indeed that they should change. But other Christians have begun questioning that notion—and not just capriciously but after careful Scriptural, theological, historical, and scientific study.[2]

            No one in the PCA or the SBC can legitimately deny that there are many so-called evangelicals that are now questioning that homosexuals can change their sexual temptations. Read the statements, or watch the videos, that have been put out by Scott Sauls and Tim Keller. Read the Missouri Presbytery reports on these issues. That presbytery is still trying to determine what Scripture teaches about homosexuality and Side-B Christianity, according to them. Consider the fact that a study committee was erected by the PCA concerning human sexuality, homosexuality and Side-B Christianity. Why was such a study committee even needed unless many in the PCA are like “other Christians (who) have begun questioning that notion” that homosexuals can change their feelings? Schaeffer responded to the above quote by Scanzoni:

Perhaps unwittingly this author has given a concise description of how accommodation works. First one starts questioning, based upon what the world about is saying, then one looks at Scripture, then theology, then scientific study—until finally what the Scriptures teach is completely subjected to whatever view is currently accepted by the world. The above author’s conclusions reflect this in a remarkably creative way: homosexuality is like “handedness.” That is, some people are right- handed and some people are left-handed; some people are heterosexual and some people are homosexual. And one is just as good as the other.

            It is hard to imagine how far these things have gone. Evangelicalism is deeply infiltrated with the world spirit of our age when it comes to marriage and sexual morality[3]

Schaeffer also warned evangelicals about feminism, Marxism, theological liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, and the spirit of the world. He warned evangelicals not to compromise on creation and not to take comfort in false victories (perhaps, a somewhat okay Study Committee report). He warned evangelicals about the dangers of a bureaucracy in which the key positions would be filled with progressives and liberals. He encouraged evangelicals to draw clear lines in the sand on issues over which there would be no accommodation. The one issue in the modern church which is not mentioned in Schaeffer’s book is the heresy of the Federal Vision (which is really just a vision to repackage legalism and make it seem palatable to reformed pastors)—but it was just beginning in the last year of his life. Otherwise, Schaeffer’s work seems prescient about the pitfalls awaiting twenty-first century evangelicalism. His book won’t give a spinal transplant to those who are temperamentally inclined to accommodate, but it might give someone the courage to act on their convictions if they are sickened by what they see in the modern church. Schaeffer says the problem with evangelical accommodation is that it is always in the direction of the spirit of the world. My college professor, Walter Elwell, always told us that liberals are only open-minded with those more liberal than themselves. Isn’t that the problem with evangelical accommodation? It is in one direction—to the left.  

 Many evangelicals within the PCA think they are already fighting the good fight and that they are not accommodating. The problem is those evangelicals are not practicing the principle of the purity of the church, which Schaeffer writes is so important. They have so accommodated sin and liberalism into the church that they are willing to live with a pluralistic church which sounds an uncertain sound. Does the denomination stand for the purity of the marriage bed (Hebrews 13:4) or does it stand for the acceptance and support of same-sex attraction? It depends on which pastor, which church, and which presbytery you ask, doesn’t it? That is not a pure church. That is not even a church seeking to be pure. That is a church in which many so-called evangelicals are compromised and the more faithful among them are willing to accommodate the problems of the denomination as long as their congregation remains faithful. Such evangelicals tell us to stay in the denomination and fight to recover it. Yet, here is what Schaeffer said we should do when discipline is no longer possible:

The church is not the world. When a denomination comes to a place where such discipline cannot operate, then before the Lord her members must consider a second step: that step, with regard to the practice of the principle of the purity of the visible church, is with tears to step out. Not with flags flying, not with shouts of hurrah or thoughts that in this fallen world we can build a perfect church, but that step is taken with tears.[4]

No denomination has ever been turned around by study committee reports or overtures. Those were tried in the PCUSA in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but produced nothing. Those were tried in the PCUS in the 1950’s and 1960’s and produced nothing. Go back and read the history of those denominations and you will see that what I am writing is true. Study committee reports and overtures will not turn back the PCA—a denomination that has lost the will to discipline sin and heresy.

A ruling elder friend told me the other day, “It might be a fool’s errand, but our church is going to try to turn the PCA around.” I would agree with the first part of that statement, but would make it even stronger. It is a fool’s errand. The PCA is not going to be turned around. My message to evangelical pastors in the PCA is very simple. Stop accommodating sin, heresy, and a pluralistic denomination. “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable.” Practice the purity of the church. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor at Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

[1] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1984), 113.

[2] Ibid., 137.

[3] Ibid., 137-8.

[4] Ibid., 87.

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