Christians, Be Like Athanasius and Machen. Stand Against the World

By Rob Schwarzwalder Published on January 28, 2019

He did not buckle. Even when he had to stand against the Roman emperor himself. From 328 until his death in 373, Athanasius of Alexandria was exiled no less than five times for a total of 17 years. He was threatened with death more than once. When a friend said to him, “Athanasius, the whole world is against you,” he responded, “Then it is Athanasius against the world.”

Athanasius understood what some Christians seem to forget: One of the great paradoxes of the Christian life is that for followers of Jesus to be for the world, they have first to be against it.

Athanasius Against the World

The Church of Athanasius’s era was experiencing one of its greatest crises: Who was Jesus? Was he God in a human body, or just a created being? An angelic-like creature sent by God to earth on a special mission?

This was the teaching of Arius, another Alexandria churchman, who denied the deity of Jesus. Athanasius understood the stakes. If Arius were allowed to spread his false teaching, the whole Christian message of redemption through Jesus of Nazareth, at once fully man and eternal God, would be lost.

For more on the subject of Christian resistance, see David Mills’ Speak Now, or Forever Shut Up and Tom Gilson’s The Cultural Winds, and Why Sailing Against Them Is So Much Better.

Only an infinite being could have taken in the infinite, righteous anger of the Father against our sins. Only one who was both man and God could bear the indescribable pain of punishment for our defiance of our Creator. We can give thanks to God that Athanasius stood against the world, when the world was in danger of becoming Arian.

In being against the world, he showed great love for it. If he had gone along with Arius and denied Christ’s divinity, he would have helped the Church give up the core of the Gospel.

Called Names

In our time, Christians who refuse to compromise are called all kinds of names. Hateful. Bigoted. Intolerant.

To the last of those labels — intolerant — we should plead guilty. As the great theologian J. Gresham Machen wrote in 1933, “A true Christian Church will be radically intolerant. The church must maintain the high exclusivity and universality of its message. It presents the gospel of Jesus Christ not merely as one way of salvation, but the only way.”

Many professing Christians today are willing to compromise on key issues of human sexuality. Not to affirm the goodness of same-sex relationships is merely hate, according to those willing to give in to the course of the culture. Witness the recent attacks on our Second Lady, Karen Pence.

We are told we are anti-women because we seek to defend them and their unborn children from a predatory and deceptive abortion industry. Christianity’s critics tell us that we want to impose a theocracy because we believe people should have the freedom to live out their faith. We are told we are out-of-date because we believe children deserve not just two adult parents but a female mother and a male father.

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Christians are often assailed for asserting the uniqueness of our message, the same one expressed by Machen. Jesus is the way — the only way — to God. This makes Christianity exclusive. And that makes people mad. For those who believe, though, it makes them new.

We can be gracious and respectful in standing for truth. We must be. But being gracious does not mean being weak. Kindness and cowering are two different things. Machen gives us an example.

Machen’s Lesson

Machen fought a decade-long battle against the Presbyterian Church. By the mid-1920s, it was ordaining men who would not affirm the virgin birth of Jesus and sending out missionaries who had given up the central tenets of the faith. He called his denomination to account.

He was vilified for it. But he was willing to bear all kinds of attacks, including some from those who had been close friends. He was accused of a lack of love and of being too strident. All because he loved God and loved people enough to refuse to undermine the greatest news ever offered.

Machen eventually was forced out of the Presbyterian Church. He founded a new Presbyterian denomination and what has become one of America’s great theological institutions, Westminster Seminary near Philadelphia. Today’s Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Presbyterian Church in America stand faithfully because one man stood against the world — for the sake of the world.

Remember What Jesus Said

No one likes to be scorned, misrepresented, or showered with hate. But there are worse things. Jesus said, “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me” (John 15:20-21).

If you see someone about to fall off a cliff, you don’t say, “Oh, that looks so exciting! Have a wonderful fall!” You grab the guy and pull him back from destruction. That’s not hate. That’s not denying someone his freedom. It’s courage. Compassion. Even duty.

Let’s all be more like Athanasius and Machen: Be for the world, a world lost in spiritual darkness, by being against it.

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