Classical Signs of Creeping Liberalism

By Jimmy Thomas

Jimmy Thomas-a friend, brother, and gospel preacher-wrote two separate articles a few years ago entitled “Who to Fellowship?” and “The Threat of Modernism.” Both of his articles warn against some Classical Signs of Creeping Liberalism, therefore the two are here combined, adapted, and edited under that title. He and other brethren have recognized these signs over a period of several years and in the lives of many who were departing from the faith. We who are younger may gain valuable insights from “those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Prov. 11:14). Ron Halbrook

In 1950 Foy E. Wallace, Jr., warned of the threat of modernism in the church. “The movement,” he wrote, “toward modernism in our own ranks the past decade is cause for a note of alarm ….Twenty five years ago a fine toothed comb could not curry a modernist out of the church of Christ; but today we can take a hay rake and bale them up” (Torch, July, 1950; James P. Needham, 1600 Oneco Ave., Winter Park, FL 32789, plans to reprint this excellent volume in 1978, RH).

Now, after another quarter of a century, those bales are stacked to the rafters in the loft, crib, and stables of some churches. As Leroy Brownlow stated, “Brethren, there was a time when we could say we had no modernism in the Lord’s church, but we cannot say that today” (“Faith For A World In Doubt,” March, 1965, p. 239).

Modernism Defined

Modernism is not a particular doctrine like “faith only” or “the impossibility of apostasy.” It is more of a way of thinking, a liberal attitude toward the Bible. It is a compromise with “this present evil world” (Gal. 1:4).

Modernists seek to harmonize Biblical accounts with what is considered current popular thought. Science and individual experience replace the Bible as authority in religion. Since the theories of scientists and experiences of individuals vary with time and persons, modernism has no fixed standard of truth. As James Bales puts it, “all is in a state of flux and flow” (Modernism: Trojan Horse In the Church, p. 136). That which is stoutly affirmed today may be denied tomorrow.

Every modernist becomes a law unto himself. Right is what he thinks is right. He lays down the rule that there are no rules. Everything is relative. Nothing is firm, he affirms.

One modernist may disagree with another on numerous points, yet still hold common ground with respect to their general attitude toward divine revelation. Most reject, to varying degrees, the inspiration of the Scriptures, creation, Bible miracles, the virgin birth, the atonement, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and his second coming. Others may retain some semblance of belief in these fundamental facts, yet seek to reconcile the Bible to their own way of thinking and practice. Such an attitude is modernism regardless of where it is found.

Modernism is unbelief. It is only a way station on the road to atheism. Some travel the full route, while others just float about from station to station with no certain dwelling place. They know neither where they are nor where they are headed.

Causes of Modernism

Human wisdom has ever been a chief cause of infidelity. Men get so puffed up with their own learning that they do “not like to retain God in their knowledge” (Rom. 1:28). Paul warned of such worldly wisdom (1 Cor. 1:20-31; Col. 2:8-12).

In the last generation the increasing clamor for “an educated ministry” in the church has sent preachers scurrying to the big universities for higher degrees. There they were exposed daily to a relentless barrage of anti-scriptural philosophies from both teachers and fellow students. Most, if not all, have been affected to some degree by this influence. These “Doctors” of “NeoOrthodoxy” have insidiously peddled their sugar coated pills from pulpits, classrooms, and in their writings until many have become immune to the gospel antidote. They have been aided by elders, teachers, and others of similar background.

Another cause is the age old craving of man to be fashioned according to this world (Rom. 12:2). If he thinks that modernism is the accepted thing then he wants to appear as much like one as possible. Liberals either arrogantly assert or strongly imply that all true scholarship lies with them (cf. Job. 12:2). Those who have a desire to be acclaimed as scholarly are easily drawn to their side.

The attraction of the new appeals to some. They have been misled into thinking that the old is bad and the new is good. Like the Athenians they constantly strain their ear toward the novel (Acts 17:21). Such people are often duped into falling for an old error under a new label. Such is modernism.

A few have grown tired of fighting the good fight and have surrendered to unbelief. They are suffering from battle fatigue. Younger men, who have seen little action, often shrink back from the trenches with fear after viewing the scars of older warriors. Some decide to switch rather than fight (cf. Gal. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:58).

Early Symptoms of Modernism

Modernism is a spiritual disease, which if detected and treated early, can be cured; but, if allowed to run its course, will surely lead to infidelity and finally to the pits of hell. Yet, like some dreaded diseases of the body, it is hard to recognize in its beginning stages. The unwary may not discover its presence until it reaches the terminal point.

To the cautious and discerning there are certain telltale signs that indicate the presence of the “germ” in the soul. Every disciple should be aware of these early symptoms for his own protection and that he might be able to help others also.

1. Those with definite modernistic tendencies eventually trip themselves up by their speech. Modernism has its own vocabulary and such are quick to adopt it. They speak of, “testifying for the Lord,” “witnessing for Christ,” and “accepting Jesus as your personal Savior.” They chide others for “answering questions that no one is asking.” Emphasis is placed on “preaching the Man not the plan.” Their conversation is usually sprinkled with such phrases as, “the spirit not the letter,” “God’s imputed grace,” and “the Spirit working among us.” They seem to have a greater interest in restoring the “Restoration Movement” than in preaching the first century gospel.

2. Such. persons talk in vague generalities. They are seldom clear on any point. It is hard to “pin them down.” They are often given to double talk. Words are used with a different meaning from that generally accepted. They “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.”

3. The like to be recognized as learned scholars, always striving to speak on a high intellectual level. When questioned concerning their liberal teachings, they will cry about being misunderstood. Most of then are in a fog of uncertainty and do not understand themselves.

4. Those influenced by modernism talk about being broad-minded and advocate freedom of thought and expression. But they really want this only for themselves; for, where they can, those of opposing views are suppressed. Brethren who oppose error and insist on “a thus saith the Lord” are ridiculed as “legalists,” “keepers of orthodoxy,” and charged with “judgemental meddling.” At the same time such may go among those who practice error, yet never lift their voice against it.

5. These neophyte modernists never like to be questioned closely. They scoff at debates, but are willing to engage in dialogues, where points and issues are never pressed and everyone usually leaves more confused than when they came. Such doubters thrive where confusion reigns. They ask, “Do you know everything?” and then cast doubt on the possibility of being certain on anything.

6. Such always make a display of their professed piety and humility. They pretend to be so good and sweet; at least until someone steps on their rattlers, then they will show their fangs. To listen to them you would think that they had a corner on love. All who imbibe their loose attitude toward Divine authority are filled with love, while those who do not are guilty of hate.

Agitation Over Fellowship

7. Lack of certainty regarding truth leads to a desire for broader unity. As denominational error and other forms of sin seem less ominous, some form of fellowship with those who practice such things becomes more inviting. Consequently, the embryo modernist becomes greatly disturbed over the question of whom to fellowship.

This has never been a great problem for those who have spoken out plainly against every false way. For instance, salvation is by God’s grace; but through out faith-an obedient faith. When we do all that God requires, we do not annul His grace. We simply meet the conditions of grace which He has laid down. When we preach these truths plainly, those who teach salvation solely by grace or by faith only will not desire our fellowship.

Jesus built one church and all of the saved are added to it. This church is not a denomination nor is it made up of denominations. Those in denominations do not clamor for the fellowship of those who preach the truth on this matter.

We must continue to preach that instrumental music in worship, church donations to human institutions, sponsoring church arrangements, church related recreation, etc., are all without divine authority and, therefore, sinful. If we continue to teach Bible truth on such subjects, those who practice these things will not want our fellowship and will not press for it.

The truth repels as well as it draws. It is impossible to visualize one who strongly exposes the errors of the above doctrines and practices being welcomed with open arms into the assemblies of those who engage in such. We should preach to any group if given the opportunity, but we should not leave them both undisturbed and still in their error. Brethren who preach the truth and oppose all forms of error find that the matter of fellowship usually takes care of itself. On the other hand, brethren who find the line between truth and error increasingly blurred become greatly disturbed and highly agitated over the fellowship issue.

Concluding Exhortations

When you begin to see some of these traits cropping out in certain ones, it might be an indication of modernistic leanings and a signal to take warning. But let none go off half-cocked, shooting from the hip at anything that moves. Innocent persons will be hurt and the cause of Christ hampered. Make sure that what we call the truth is truth-not the opinions of the elders. Also, be certain that what is branded error is really error-not some truth of which we are ignorant.

Deal gently and patiently with those who are babes that have honest doubts. But those who are older and experienced that “privily bring in destructive heresies, denying even the Master that bought them,” and who lead many astray (2 Pet. 2:1-2), blast them out of the sky. Above all, let us be certain that our own feet are planted firmly upon the solid rock.

Truth Magazine XXII: 48, p. 780-782
December 7, 1978