Prepared to Stand Alone

Ian Murray wrote a biography of J. C. Ryle which he titled, Prepared to Stand Alone. In the history of the Church, it has always been those men who were ‘prepared to stand alone’ that God used the most to effect reformation and revival. John Charles Ryle was certainly one of those men. He was the last evangelical bishop of the Church of England, having served as the Bishop of Liverpool for the last twenty years of his life. He is known to both ministers and laymen for his wonderful spiritual writings, such as Holiness,Old PathsPractical ReligionKnots Untied, etc. His writings breathe a spirituality which is attractive to Christians of all levels of maturity. I have often thought that any person who does not like Ryle’s writings is someone who needs to be watched carefully. It saddened me one time when a former mentor of mine spoke condescendingly about Ryle’s writings and I have observed since that time that he has departed far from an evangelical ministry. There were many circumstances that led to Ryle being someone who was ‘prepared to stand alone.’ His sudden conversion to Christ which gave him new eyes and a new heart; his observation of the sad effects of an unevangelical ministry; his experience of the powerful ministries of those who called themselves evangelicals; being an outcast in his own family and barely tolerated because of his religious opinions; and, especially, his reading of the Scripture for himself, combined with fervent prayer, were among the primary influences that formed his heart and mind on this issue. In his own autobiography, Ryle gives us his heart’s attitude towards having to stand alone when he began his ministry at St. Thomas’ Parish in Winchester, England:

However, the story of my life has been such, that I really cared nothing for anyone’s opinion, and resolved not to consider one jot who was offended and who was not offended by anything I did. I saw no one whose opinion I cared for in the place, and I resolved to ask nobody’s counsel, in the work of my Parish, or to the matter or manner of my preaching, but just to do what I thought the Lord Jesus Christ would like, and not to care one jot for the face of man. (Andrew Atherstone, ed., Bishop J. C. Ryle’s Autobiography, Banner of Truth Trust, 2016, p. 110).   

Having the conviction or resolve not to care one jot for the opinion of men is very difficult for many ministers and/or officers. The Lord had to counsel Jeremiah: “Now, gird up your loins and arise, and speak to them all which I command you. Do not be dismayed before them, or I will dismay you before them. . . They will fight against you, but they will not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah1:17, 19). And to Ezekiel, the Lord said, “And you, son of man, neither fear them nor fear their words, though thistles and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions; neither fear their words nor be dismayed at their presence, for they are a rebellious house” (Ezekiel 2:6). The divine call to preach the gospel is usually attended by this grace to not care one jot for the opinion of men about the gospel, but simply to preach the truth regardless of who likes it or who is offended by it. And God’s call can never be adequately answered unless we take the attitude of Ryle.  

On one occasion, the disciples of Jesus came to Him and said, “Do You not know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?” (Matthew 15:12). That statement was Jesus’ teaching against the Pharisaical rules for cleansing. Jesus’ reply to His disciples was this: “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind” (Matthew 15:14). Jesus did not care one jot that the Pharisees were offended. In fact, He surely anticipated that they would be offended. 

J. Gresham Machen was also a man who was prepared to stand alone. He was Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary during the period when that formerly great institution was undergoing great changes. Modernists were being received as professors through their election by the General Assembly. The President of Princeton at that time, Frank H. Stevenson, was carefully trying to be inclusive to all parts of the denomination in the nominations for professors that went before the Assembly. Yet, Machen was an outspoken opponent of Modernism in its various forms, having written Christianity and Liberalism. In 1925, the General Assembly formed a Committee of Fifteen to study the causes for the spiritual condition of the denomination at that time. Machen took it upon himself to write a paper for that Committee in which he opined that “the wide-spread and in many quarters dominant position in the ministry of the Church as well as among its lay members of a type of thought and experience, commonly called Modernism, which is diametrically opposed to the Constitution of our Church and to the Christian religion” (Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1978, p. 382) was the cause of the unrest in the Church. Machen’s assessment, though certainly correct, was neither appreciated by the President of Princeton nor by another professor of that institution, Charles R. Erdman (who was supposedly an evangelical), and they charged him with “temperamental idiosyncrasies” (Ibid., p. 389) without any proof. I suppose that being accused of  “temperamental idiosyncrasies” had just about the same effect as being called a “racist” in our day. And, Dr. Maitland Alexander, a close friend, referred to Machen as a man with “serious limitations” (Ibid.). I could only wish that we had such a man today with all his idiosyncrasies and limitations!    

A more prominent evangelical voice in the Northern Presbyterian Church at that time was Clarence Macartney, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Machen considered Macartney as one of the chief men of the Church and had supported his nomination as Moderator of the 1924 General Assembly. For his part, Macartney wrote to Machen during his troubles the following words: “Be of good courage. The happenings of this day will greatly increase your influence and will serve to awaken a sleeping church. The reproach of Christ is your honor and reward” (Ibid., p. 390). Recently retired professor of Apologetics, William B. Greene, was dismayed at the treatment of Machen by Princeton and wrote: “A split in our church will perhaps be averted—how wisely I do not know; but a split in our Seminary cannot be avoided, nor do I think that it should be” (Ibid., 391). Greene was more in touch with reality than was Macartney. Greene did not know whether averting a spilt of the denomination was wise, whereas Macartney was living a dream world in which he though the treatment of Machen ‘would awaken a sleeping church.’ 97 years later, we can conclude that the sleeping church was not awakened by the mistreatment of Machen. If anything, he continued to suffer malignant slanders and false reports to the day of his death and beyond. He was wrongly accused of being a drunkard, whereas he was essentially a total abstainer (while allowing Christian freedom to others) and his parents were accused of profiting off the sale of alcohol (which was also false). And there were many other accusations. 

When push came to shove, Macartney decided to remain in the Northern Presbyterian Church and Machen was left almost alone to start a new denomination. His mock trial for disobedience to the General Assembly—in which he was not even allowed to defend himself—began with the formation of an Investigative Committee and ended with his removal from office by censure. It was certainly one of the most impolitic actions ever committed by that denomination. There are some who still contend that if Macartney had come out boldly with Machen after his censure that a large number of other churches would have followed and the history of Presbyterianism over the past century would have been more glorious. 

So, where did Macartney err? Stonehouse sums up the matter very well in analyzing Machen’s thoughts at that time: “To him the issue was much simpler and clear cut: there was only the path of consistent, militant witness and action regardless of consequences—or that of compromise” (Ibid., p. 497). Machen stood for a consistent witness to the truth regardless of the consequences. Macartney chose the path that was inevitably bound to lead to compromise—if not for himself, certainly for many others who followed him and for those who came after them. And that compromise resulted over time in the downfall of a once great denomination.  

Out of Machen’s militant witness and action, without compromise, arose the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Theological Seminary. Today, Machen—not Macartney—is the Christian leader who is most remembered. Why? Because, like J. C. Ryle, and Christ before him, Machen did not care one jot what any man thought of him when it came to his path of duty. There are many reports and uncharitable statements that come to me about Vanguard—and sometimes about me, personally. Recently, a young man who hopes to become a ministerial candidate in Vanguard told me of a minister who had told him—“Vanguard is just a denomination made of people who are malcontents and that is the type of people they will attract.” This young man had the good sense to investigate things more fully and decided that Vanguard is the type of denomination where he wants to serve. For myself, when I receive such reports, I take the attitude that I do not care one jot what such people say about us. And I encourage others to do the same. Just do what Jesus Christ wants you to do and, as Jesus told His disciples, leave the others alone. As John Calvin wrote in his commentary about Ezekiel 2 and Ezekiel’s call by the Lord:

We see, therefore, that the domestic enemies of God not only use threats against the servants, but at the same time bring many false pretenses by which they load the true and faithful Prophets with envy and hatred. But, however such calumnies have some appearances of truth when its enemies unjustly press us, God orders us to proceed with unconquering fortitude (Thomas Myers, trans., John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume XI, Baker Book House, 2009, p. 121).   

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL  Please mail any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32541            

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