Christianity and Functional Liberalism (or How Evangelicalism Denies the Faith)

By Bryan Laughlin, Doug Ponder    |    November 8, 2023


During the summer of 2023, a group of cardinals from every continent posed a series of dubia (a Latin word meaning “doubts” in the sense of questions born of concern or reservation) to the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church. The dubia addressed a range of pressing contemporary matters, from the possibility of women’s ordination to the blessing of same-sex unions. As one commentator put it, the cardinals ultimately wanted to know, “Is the Roman Catholic Church going to go the same direction as liberal Protestantism—adapting Scripture to suit contemporary culture, ordaining women, and accepting the legitimacy of same-sex unions?” The pope’s evasive reply provoked a follow-up from the cardinals, who reformulated the dubia to be easily answerable with a clear “yes” or “no.” As of the time of writing this article, there has been no further response.

Earlier that year, the Church of England voted to permit the blessing of same-sex “marriages” and civil partnerships.1 The move prompted a strong response from the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA), who condemned the development as a schismatic choice “to break communion with those provinces who remain faithful to the historic biblical faith.” Furthermore, the bishops of GSFA denounced the Archbishop of Canterbury, no longer recognizing him as primus inter pares (“first among equals”), while calling for his global “admonishment in love.”

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, in September of 2023—a year that will live in infamy?—the de facto bishop of the evangelical megachurch, Andy Stanley, hosted Embracing the Journey’s Unconditional Conference. The event was advertised as being “for parents of LGBTQ+ children and for ministry leaders looking to discover ways to support parents and LGBTQ+ children in their churches.” The conference featured speakers who either are in same-sex relationships themselves or are supportive of others in the same. While Stanley did tip his hat to the biblical teaching on homosexuality—saying, “It was a sin then, and it is a sin now”—he simultaneously undermined that position by affirming Justin Lee and Brian Nietzel, “two married gay men” whom Stanley called faithful followers of Christ. Apparently, Stanley thinks faithful followers of Christ can persist in flagrantly unrepentant abominations before the Lord (Lev. 18:22; 20:13), contrary to the solemn warnings of Scripture in many places (e.g., Rom. 1:26–27, 32; 1 Cor. 6:9–10).

What are we to make of this rapid, cross-denominational apostasy?2 The fact of this phenomenon is a clear example of culture reporter Megan Basham’s recent warning: “You may have wanted to avoid this subject, but you cannot avoid it any longer. [LGBT ideology] is coming to your church, no matter how solid you think it is.”3 Those who cannot see this are woefully ignorant of the times. Yet the cause of this phenomenon is anything but recent. Indeed, the “journey” that leads to this dead end (let the reader understand) is so well worn that one can see it from space.

We’ve Been Here Before: Christianity and Liberalism

J. Gresham Machen wrote his classic book, Christianity and Liberalism, 4 exactly a century before Catholics, Anglicans, and Evangellyfish failed to uphold biblical sexuality.5 The book’s title is none too subtle, though Machen’s point is sometimes missed in these days of decreasing reading comprehension levels. (To spell it out is no trouble for us and is a safeguard for you.) In his own words, “The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism.’ An examination of the teachings of liberalism in comparison with those of Christianity will show that at every point the two movements are in direct opposition.”6

Machen is not saying that liberal Christianity is a terrible perversion of the faith; he is saying that liberalism is another faith entirely. To give an analogy, liberal “Christianity” is more like a virus than a sick or wounded form of the body of Christ. For a body remains a body, even when it suffers from illness or (self-inflicted) injury. But a virus is an alien entity that merely uses the body for its own self-perpetuation. If a Christian church is a body, therefore, liberalism is a virus.

We can see this distinction clearly when Machen addresses “the division between the Church of Rome [in his day] and evangelical Protestantism.” Protestants and Catholics have substantial disagreements, viewing the other body of believers as significantly ill or impaired. Still, Machen writes, “Yet how great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today! We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church. The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.”7

Machen highlights many reasons why “liberalism is totally different from Christianity,”8 but the central reason is a matter of authority: “Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”9 By “shifting emotions,” Machen means the subjective assessments of men, which are tossed to and fro by the zeitgeist (Eph. 4:14). In this way, for liberals, “It is not Jesus who is the real authority, but the modern principle by which the selection within Jesus’ recorded teaching has been made. Certain isolated ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount are accepted, not at all because they are teachings of Jesus, but because they agree with modern ideas.”10

Machen concludes, “The real authority, for liberalism, can only be ‘the Christian consciousness’ or ‘Christian experience.’”11 This raises the question of how a Christian consensus could ever be established. Liberals are loath to appeal to church history, for that would bolster a decidedly non-modern verdict as well as trump their radical conception of the liberty of conscience. Thus, Machen writes, “The only authority, then, can be individual experience; truth can only be that which ‘helps’ the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all; for individual experience is endlessly diverse, and once truth is regarded only as that which works at any particular time, it ceases to be truth. The Christian man, on the other hand, finds in the Bible the very Word of God.”12

Christianity and Functional Liberalism

Whereas Machen wrote about Christianity and liberalism, we are writing something of an appendix on Christianity and functional liberalism.13 We call it “functional liberalism” (and not liberalism simpliciter) because, unlike the threat of Machen’s day, this strain of the virus does not share the same set of symptoms (even if it has a similar underlying cause). Machen’s liberals were modernists who openly denied the accuracy of the Scriptures, the reality of the supernatural, the necessity of the atonement, and the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. As E.J. Pace’s famous cartoon illustrated in 1922, liberal departure from the faith often happened in stages, with the truthfulness of the Bible being the first to go. A few such liberals are still around, but those who hold to the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) are—thanks in large part to Machen and his heirs—not tempted to regard them as part of the body of Christ (1 John 2:19).

The problem we face today is of a slightly different sort. If liberalism entailed an overt denial of core Christian doctrines, the essence of functional liberalism is consent to doctrinal confessions on paper while subverting them in practice—whether by downplaying their significance, reinterpreting their meaning, or rejecting the logical implications. We are not the first to make this observation. Somewhere in the annals of D.A. Carson’s prodigious output,14 he gave a lecture in which he issued a strong warning along these lines: ‘The future of liberalism in the American church will not look like it did a century ago. Conservative seminaries and churches will not see brazen denials of the core doctrines that were the battleground of yesteryear. Instead, they will see people who claim to affirm the doctrines while undermining them through subtle but substantial reinterpretation.’15

At least the old liberals had the courage to say, “The Bible is false, the Trinity is bunk, Jesus isn’t divine, the cross wasn’t substitutionary, and the resurrection didn’t happen.” The new liberals—that is, the functional liberals—are worse in this critical respect: they claim to agree with the faith once for all delivered to the saints while simultaneously reinterpreting its doctrines into meaningless statements or else ignoring the same as they press ahead with whatever they want to do.

A Case in (North) Point

Take the statement of faith for Stanley’s Northpoint Community Church as an example of what we have been describing. All the usual suspects are there, including a clear statement that the Bible is “inspired” and “without error.” But, as Sam Allberry points out in his write-up on Stanley and the Unconditional Conference:

Homosexuality is listed [in 1 Cor. 6:9–11] as one of the behaviors characteristic of a life that will not inherit the kingdom of God. And while it is entirely right to point out that homosexuality is not the only such form of sin, it is still—clearly and unavoidably—one of them. It is a behavior requiring repentance. Eternity is at stake. To say or even imply that it is possible to persist in this sin is nothing short of sending people to hell—and a profound failure of pastoral responsibility. One would be unable to say with Paul, “I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27, ESV). But there is a dimension to this that goes beyond pastoral failure. In his letter to the church in Thyatira, Jesus rebukes not only the person whose teaching leads his people into sexual sin; he rebukes the church that tolerates such teaching. “I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet,” he says. “By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality” (Rev. 2:20).16

In other words, how could someone meaningfully say they believe the Scriptures to be “true” and “without error” while simultaneously reinterpreting or outright ignoring what the Scriptures clearly teach in so many places (as the church has universally affirmed for nearly 2,000 years)?

This is precisely what Stanley has done. At the Unconditional Conference, he said: “[Gay Christians] choose a same sex marriage, not because they’re convinced it’s biblical. They read the same Bible we do. They chose to marry for the same reason many of us do: love, companionship and family. And in the end, as was the case for all of us—and this is the important thing I want you to hear me say—it’s their decision.”17

In the same talk, Stanley acknowledges the differences between “his version” of Christianity and that of someone like Al Mohler (president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). Responding to an article that Mohler wrote about him, Stanley said, “He is actually accusing me of departing from his version of biblical Christianity. So I want to go on record and say, I have never subscribed to his version of biblical Christianity to begin with, so I’m not leaving anything.”

Stanley continues, “This is why Justin and Brian were invited, the two married gay men at the center of all the controversy. And I’m sure that you’ve read all about that. And here’s the thing about Brian and Justin: their stories and their journeys of growing up in church and maintaining their faith in Christ and their commitment to follow Christ all through their high school and college and singles and all up to the time that they were married, their story is so powerful for parents of gay especially kids, that it’s a story gay parents and gay kids need to hear.”18

The Problem Beneath the Problem

If Sam Allberry has written about the contradictory nature of Stanley’s comments, and Denny Burk has written about the subversive nature of the same, we wish to point out the epistemological rot at the bottom of this functional liberalism. Specifically, the particular problem in Western churches—especially in much of American Evangelicalism—is a problem related to the process of knowing and confirming the truth.

Traditional Christians—who admit that we know only in part (1 Cor. 13:9)—insist that truth is real and knowable (cf. John 8:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; 4:3; Titus 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:12; 1 John 2:4, 21). Moreover, we hold that the Scriptures are the ultimate standard for knowing what is true since they are inspired by the Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16), who superintended the human authors to keep them from error (2 Pet. 1:21; cf. Ps. 119:160; John 17:17). In short, the Scriptures are the foundation for knowledge and for knowing. They are the yardstick by which we measure all things, even our own thoughts and experiences (1 Thess. 5:21; cf. Acts 17:11).

Christianity and functional liberalism are ultimately two different faiths.”

—Bryan Laughlin and Doug Ponder

The problem with functional liberalism, therefore, is precisely this: it asserts the truth of the Bible in theory, even quoting it from time to time, yet the ultimate arbiter of truth is not God’s Word but the individual’s experience—including his desires, preferences, and opinions. In other words, if Christianity is a revelatory religion (and it is), then Christianity and functional liberalism are ultimately two different faiths. (Even Stanley acknowledges this.)

This can be difficult for some to see, because on paper it can seem like two people are quite close when, in reality, their trajectories are heading in opposite directions. Imagine a photo of two people walking along the road who happen to be in the same place at the same time. Given only a snapshot, it might seem that the individuals are quite similar. But this isn’t the full picture, so to speak, for walking—the Bible’s favorite metaphor for the life of faith—also involves direction and a destination. In this case of doctrine, therefore, even if two people happen to share the same stretch of road for a brief season in life, it is entirely possible that one of them is walking into the city of God while the other is walking out of it.

The great revealer of a person’s trajectory ultimately comes down to this: Who gets the final say? Does a gay person’s “story” or “journey” get to trump Leviticus 20:13 or 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 (and many other texts besides)? Does a woman’s deep sense of a call to pastoral ministry overturn 1 Timothy 2:11–15 or 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 (and many other texts besides)? That is, do individual experiences constitute an infallible source of authority . . . or does God get the final say?

We know the objections that come up at this point. Typically, they are framed in the following fashion: “Are you saying that those who affirm gay marriage and egalitarianism aren’t Christians?” We are saying far more than that: we are saying that such questions are part of the very problem we have been describing throughout. Who taught us to ask such questions? The Scriptures certainly do not teach us to settle for the lowest common denominator, the bare minimum of belief that a person must possess in order to make it into the kingdom by the skin of their teeth (1 Cor. 3:11–15; Jude 23). Instead, Christ calls us to build our lives on his Word (Matt. 7:24–27)—to believe and obey everything he commanded (Matt. 28:20)—and that cannot meaningfully be done while deliberately subverting or ignoring what the Lord says at every turn (Luke 6:46), regardless of what our doctrinal confessions say on paper.

Identifying the Virus in Our Midst

As pastors who teach in a seminary for evangelical pastors, we wish to conclude with a practical word to help our readers identify what functional liberalism most often looks like “in the flesh.” (For what good is a theoretical diagnosis if you cannot spot the symptoms?)

Because functional liberalism is based on experience instead of divine revelation, it cloaks all its doctrinal affirmations and moral judgments in subjective terminology, such as: “For me . . .” or “I feel like . . .” or “Well, I just . . .” but never “God says . . .” or “The Scriptures teach . . .” or “The Lord commands . . .” You can hear the same sort of problem in the pietistic mysticism that is rampant in some circles, where many routinely say, “The Lord told me . . .” just before uttering something that contradicts what the Lord actually says in the Scriptures. Such people haven’t built their lives on the rock of God’s Word but rather on the conveyor belt of the modern world. As such, it hardly matters what beliefs they hold on paper for the moment, for they are heading down a path that will lead them to change or outright deny their beliefs in a decade. Probably less.

Functional liberalism shows up in a person’s disposition long before it shows up in their denial of doctrine. In other words, before a person is openly committed to something like gay marriage or egalitarianism, they are first embarrassed about the teachings of the Bible to the contrary. This embarrassment shows up in folks who can never say something positive about a biblical doctrine that is currently controversial without feeling the need to qualify it to death or soften the feel or tone in every way possible. The same embarrassment leads such people to stop talking about the biblical truths they don’t like (and thus wish would go away). Soon, they stumble upon a blog or book that helps them feel better about their disagreement with the Lord. All of sudden, an issue the church believed was obvious for thousands of years is suddenly “quite complex.” Often, the Scriptures are pitted against each other (“Paul isn’t Jesus,” we are repeatedly told), but this is just a waypoint, a layover before their final destination. For finally comes the litany of “stories” and “personal journeys” of people who privilege their individual experience over the Bible. And just like that—from silence to complexification to capitulation—the functional liberal finds himself at odds with Jesus, his apostles, and all the prophets.

Functional liberalism, because of its allergy to objectivity, also despises anything that smacks of finality. As the late J. C. Ryle observed,

I consider the most dangerous champion of the Sadducee school, is not the man who tells you openly that he wants you to lay aside any part of the truth. . . . It is the man who begins with quietly insinuating doubts, whether he ought to be so certain in saying, “This is the truth, and that is falsehood,” doubts whether we ought to think men wrong who differ from us on religious opinions, since they may after all be much right as we are. It is the man who tells us we ought not condemn anybody’s views, lest we err on the side of the lack of love. It is the man who begins talking in a vague way about God being a God love, and hints that we ought to believe perhaps that all men, whatever doctrine they profess, will be saved. . . . It is the man who crowns this kind of talk by a few calm sneers against what he is pleased to call “old-fashioned views” and “narrow-minded theology” and “bigotry” and “the lack of liberality and love’ in the present day.”19

Likewise, because functional liberalism detests claims to authority that do not leave the ultimacy of the individual intact, they turn gospel-centered theology into “gospel-only theology.” The technical term for this is antinomianism. And in one sense, some form antinomianism has been around since the beginning (cf. Rom 6:1 ff). But these days, we encounter many Christians who think mere calls to obedience as legalism or moralism. They forget that sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4) and that Christ came to save us from lawlessness (Titus 2:14) and for the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5; cf. Gal. 6:2). Hence Christ says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The attractiveness of antinomianism to functional liberals is obvious: if Christianity is only the gospel, without also including the moral law that is “in accordance with the gospel” (cf. 1 Tim. 1:8–11), then a functional liberal can dismiss those pesky texts that govern our conduct. In other words, the commands regarding gender and sexuality would be gone, and in their place, we’d find only the good news that God loves us and doesn’t care a lick about what we do.

In the final analysis, perhaps the label “functional liberalism” is not clear enough. We have used it to connect the modern error with an old problem.20 In truth, however, functional liberalism is simply an evangelical progressivism that hasn’t yet realized what it is or where it’s headed. For every attempt to “develop the doctrine”—in all the ways the pope and the archbishop and the many Andy Stanleys of the world are currently doing—is really an attempt to “move ahead” or “go beyond” what the Scriptures say into (it is hoped) some ephemeral land of sovereign individuals who live together in nonjudgmental bliss. Whether evangelicals do this subconsciously, out of embarrassment for ideas that are now out of fashion, or whether they do self-consciously in the hopes of being more “winsome” to the world, the result is eventually the same: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death  (Prov. 14:12), for, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God” (2 John 9).

  1. To be precise, the Church of England does not permit her priests to perform same-sex unions. However, it now permits them to bless same-sex unions and/or civil partnerships. This is the sort of compromising move that leaves both progressives and conservatives frustrated (albeit for radically divergent reasons).
  2. If you were looking for a qualification on this point, you won’t find it. This is, indeed, apostasy.
  3. See Megan Basham, “LGBT Infiltration of Evangelical Churches,” October 30, 2023, in Great Awokening, produced by Josh Daws, podcast, YouTube video, 56:01,
  4. Unfortunately, it has become popular in some circles to criticize this book for not discussing segregation or Jim Crow laws, which were still enforced at the time of publication (1923). This criticism misunderstands an important point: not every book is (or can be) about everything. A longstanding bit of wisdom exhorts us not to critique a man for the book he didn’t set out to write. In other words, had Machen written a book on the gospel and race and then omitted discussions about segregation, he would indeed be ripe for criticism. But his book was not about ethnicity any more than it was about eschatology; it was about the central differences that distinguish traditional Christianity from liberal “Christianity” (which, as Machen argues, is really only Christianity falsely so called). We agree with those who regard it as a success on this particular front.
  5. To say nothing of the prior collapse of most Anglican communions, which have been egalitarian for quite some time. The same goes for evangelical megachurches, virtually all of whom are egalitarian or functionally egalitarian.
  6. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1923), 53.
  7. Ibid., 52. Emphasis added.
  8. Ibid., 79.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 78. Emphasis added.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid. Emphasis added.
  13. We fully admit that, in many respects, this ecclesial virus is perhaps only a new version of the old pathogen. Nevertheless, it is helpful to isolate this particular strain so that pastors and lay leaders can more easily identify it (and properly counteract it).
  14. We plead Hebrews 2:6a on this one.
  15. We are breaking grammatical conventions here, using single quotation marks not to indicate dialogue within a quotation but to indicate that these words are not our own (being a paraphrase of D. A. Carson’s central point).
  16. Sam Allberry, “Andy Stanley’s ‘Uncondtional’ Contradiction,” Christianity Today, October 4, 2023.
  17. This quote is borrowed from a transcript of Stanley’s talk, portions of which can be accessed at Denny Burk, “Andy Stanley’s Version of Christianity,” CBMW, October 1, 2023. Emphasis added.
  18. Emphasis added.
  19. J. C. Ryle, “Pharisees and Sadducees” in Knots Untied: Being Plain Statements on Disputed Points in Religion from the Standpoint of an Evangelical Churchman” (1874). Accessed October 26, 2023.
  20. The problem is much older than Machen’s day, of course. We have Friedrich Schleiermacher to thank for elevating man’s experience to the central place of theology and epistemology. It is not for nothing that he is called “the father of modern liberalism.” And yet, isn’t this error—the privileging of man’s subjective assessments over the Lord’s objective revelation—nearly as old as the world itself? For “Did God actually say?” was the serpent’s question in the beginning, and that same line of questioning is with us still.
Bryan Laughlin, Doug Ponder

Bryan Laughlin is CEO and professor of theology and missiology at Grimké Seminary. He is also lead pastor of Remnant Church in Richmond, Va.

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