How to Detect a Liberal in the Pulpit

Recently while processing the papers of Dr. Morton H. Smith, I came across one folder with several publications by an organization identified as The Presbyterian U.S. Laymen, Inc.  This was a renewal organization that I hadn’t heard of before, which appears to have operated between 1959-1964. This Laymen group was formed to oppose the modernist takeover of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., and their publications were in particular critical of Ernest Trice Thompson, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA and a key leader among the modernists in the PCUS.  The Presbyterian U.S. Laymen organization was short-lived and never large in number; they disbanded as other more significant groups such as Presbyterian Churchmen United and the Concerned Presbyterians came to the fore.
For its first four publications, The Presbyterian U.S. Laymen organization was based in Selma, Alabama. In what appears to be the fifth and final issue published, the group now showed a Jackson, Mississippi mailing address. Where the first four publications were eight and twelve page format, their final issue was a single-sheet legal-size broadside printed on both sides, bearing the single article reproduced below.  The article is an apt summary of the concerns of that day in the fight to maintain orthodoxy in the old Southern Presbyterian denomination.


This is a question that confronts Presbyterians today with an increasing urgency. A new liberalism, often called neo-orthodoxy, is making inroads into our pulpits to a degree which threatens the doctrinal integrity and spiritual strength of our church. The liberals who are entering our pulpits under various guises are fully aware of the fact that they are preaching another Gospel and that they are not true to the historic faith of the Westminster Confession and their ordination vows. But their departure from the historic Presbyterian position is concealed by frequent use of an evangelical terminology and a kind of fervor in the pulpit which almost deceives the very elect.

Their blatant dishonesty, when it is exposed and brought into the open, is promptly denied. These liberals claim that they are only making the Gospel relevant to a contemporary culture and are only using a vocabulary which is in keeping with the 20th Century. Nevertheless, even though they carefully conceal their tracks so that their liberalism is hidden from the man in the pew, there are tell-tale signs which make their liberalism very evident.

These signs have to do with what these ministers believe about the Bible and its message and the mission of the church. And most liberals will be found to follow a rather consistent pattern in their theology, ecclesiastical activities, and in their outlook on life in general.

First, let us look at the theology of a liberal. His liberalism in this area is probably the most difficult to detect because so frequently it will be cloaked in a language dear to the hearts of the evangelicals through the ages. He will speak of the sovereignty of God in glowing terms and he will even give the impression that he believes in the doctrine of election. He will even pay great respect to the Westminster Confession of Faith, but the similarity and agreement with historic Presbyterianism is more apparent than real. His apparent belief in the doctrine of Election is simply an excuse for a doctrine of universalism and the covenant theology which he holds is not that of the Scriptures.

Most of these liberals will hold Christ in high esteem and many of them will teach and even insist that He is the Savior of men. But here again, there is not any real dedication to the historic faith, as taught by Christ. They will avoid any theory of the atonement which looks to Calvin or the other reformers, and the liberal will usually depend on some kind of moral theory of interpretation of this doctrine. Yet at the same time he will make much of the necessity of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ or he will possibly even insist that men can only come to God the Father through Christ the Son. Some of these liberals will even seem to accept the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, although they will probably try to give it some symbolical significance and, if pressed, most of them will deny that this Virgin Birth was an actual event in human history.

For the most part these liberals deny the doctrine of predestination and election and they will seldom mention eternal condemnation for sin. And yet, many of them will use “sin” in their preaching and may even seem to mean what Scriptures mean when they speak of it.

But liberals do not have the Biblical doctrine of sin in view, not at all. They do not regard sin as an affront against a Holy God, nor as a violation of His righteous law. For they do not worship a God who cannot tolerate the presence of sin or an unregenerate sinner. Certainly for these liberals sin is nothing which makes the sinner worthy of death and they cannot accept the idea of a God who would deal with men in this manner. For these liberals, sin is not like this at all; it is simply an alienation of man from God brought upon him because he is a creature. Man is not a sinner because he fell from grace but because he is a creature.

Thus Christ did not die to save men from sin as such. He died in order to make it possible for alienated human beings to find salvation through a mystical encounter with God. Christ somehow removes the alienation and gives to human existence a new purpose. (This kind of preaching can easily elude the man in the pew simply because it is usually presented in language that is evangelical and it can easily pass for orthodoxy. The old evangelical language is used or misused in order to convey a message contrary to Scriptures).

Perhaps the most common characteristic of liberals is found in their view of Scriptures. At this point there is little deviation from the common pattern. However much they may differ in their view of sin, Christ, and Redemption, there is a remarkable meeting of minds in their emphatic rejection of Scriptures as an infallible rule of faith and practice. Yet even here a word of caution is in order. Very few will openly reject the Confession of Faith at this point. In fact they may even insist that the Bible is the Word of God while they deny its infallibility. Some may even go so far as to accept the idea that Scriptures are in some way infallible when they present the Christian Faith or Christian life, yet at the same time they deny the infallibility of the Scriptures. By this “dialectical” process they feel they can hold on to some semblance of orthodoxy and still cling to the benefits, or what they regard as benefits, of those who criticize the Bible. By such an ingenious interpretation of the Christian faith they feel they can retain the spiritual truths of the Scriptures and reject the historicity of Genesis, Daniel, and the prophetic elements of the Old and New Testaments. This position allows them, as they believe, to give due honor to the Word of God on one hand and pay tribute to those scholars who seek to undermine the doctrine of the infallibility of the Scriptures.

But in spite of the apparent respect which the liberal seems to pay to the Scriptures, he really does not believe the Scriptures are the very Word of God. He will shy away from what he delights to call a rigid position on Scripture and is likely to insist that the Bible becomes the word of God to him as he reads it. Such phrases are not merely a change in wording but they represent a very decided weakness and a dangerous error in liberal thought. The liberal who says this is undoubtedly a follower of Barth or Tillich or Bultmann. The liberal may accuse conservatives of being guilty of an unbiblical worship of the Bible, but he will deny that Scriptures present historical truth and can be trusted.

In accord with the neo-orthodox conception of the Bible, the liberal will accept many and perhaps all of the findings and theories of higher criticism and he will quite likely insist that the book of Daniel was written after the events it foretells in order to deprive that book of its prophetic significance. In the same way he will quite likely insist that there are two and possibly three Isaiahs. Nearly all liberals deny the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and in general they will insist that the Bible is the product of an uncritical era and therefore shares the errors of the day in which it was written.

This loose view of Scripture has many ramifications, only a few of which we can consider. Perhaps the first fruit of such a position becomes visible to congregations in the dulling of the authoritative note in the preaching of the Word. Personal opinions, frequent quotations from other well-known liberals will occupy a place of great importance in the liberal pulpit, coupled with a growing uncertainty as to the great questions of life and their answers. The preaching of the liberal in the pulpit will be further marked by a definite avoidance of evangelistic themes and invitations to accept Christ as the Savior. Although a liberal may talk about sin and redemption, he does not mean them in the Biblical sense. If he does issue an invitation to come to Christ, he means little more than an invitation for men to forsake their creaturely alienation from God. He will definitely avoid beseeching them to be saved from their sins. The liberal regards an invitation to join the church as an invitation to join a fellowship, even a covenant fellowship, as a means of relieving the tensions of his alienation and of recovering his identity as a human being.

This brings us to another important means of detecting a liberal in the pulpit. It has to do with the attitude of the church as an organization.

Liberals will constantly emphasize the church as an organization, and they will almost always be “good Presbyters.” A liberal will work zealously on committees of the presbytery and synods. Yet at the same time, his highest ambition is to become an organization man and find his place in the hierarchy of the general assembly. He regards affirmations of the general assembly as the very voice of God speaking to the church today and ascribes to such deliverances an authority higher than that which he is willing to yield to the Scriptures or the Westminster Confession. Indeed the Confession of Faith is only what the general assembly says it is. Thus the next step in this type of liberal thinking is to insist that to be a good Presbyterian it is necessary to accept uncritically all the decisions of the general assembly and to use its literature in a slavish manner.

For the liberal, then, the church, or more particularly the general assembly, becomes his highest authority and although he does not seem to realize it, his position is very close to that of the Papacy and the Roman Catholic Church.

Why has the liberal come to such a position? Why, in the rejection of Scriptural authority, has he erected an earthly authority? The answer is not far to seek nor hard to find. In any religious society there can be only three possible sources of authority: the Scriptures, an ecclesiastical organization of some kind, or individual experience. In their denial of Scriptures as an infallible rule of faith and practice, the liberals are dimly aware of the fact that their distrust of the Scriptures would lead them into an anarchy of clashing individual religious experiences which would soon become an incoherent jungle of confusing voices.

To escape this dilemma they have embraced the only alternative — the ecclesiastical hierarchy with its ultimate absolutism. Thus in the end theological liberalism breeds a type of Protestant despotism.

But this is not the end of the story by any means. At the same time that the liberal exalts authority of individual denominations in a manner contrary to the Scriptures, he is also devoutly ecumenical in his outlook. He will praise all ecumenical gatherings with little regard for what purpose they may be called or the pronouncements they make, and he will heartily endorse the purposes and activities of the National and World Council of Churches. At the same time he will preach sermons on the necessity of the ecumenical outlook and the ultimate reunion of all the Protestant churches. Many will look with favor on efforts to reach a new understanding with Rome and even a possible reunion with that Church. He might even say that it is un-Protestant to be unwilling to surrender the Presbyterian heritage for a mess of ecumenical pottage. Thus the necessity for a higher ecclesiastical authority is driving liberals to that very place where the Roman Catholic Church was forced to retreat — the idea of one church on earth in which Doctrinal purity is surrendered for an outward show of strength in an imposing unity of minimal doctrinal standards imposed on its members by the hierarchy.

There is still another reason for the liberal’s passion for ecumenicity. This passion arises from doctrinal deterioration in liberalism. For the most part these liberals are more interested in what they feel the Church can and must do on earth than they are in preaching a message of eternal salvation. They have come to regard the church as largely a means of saving man from his own creaturely alienation and of bringing about social reformation and even revolution. The liberal delights to talk about making God relevant to our day and his idea of making the Gospel relevant is finding in it the proper social messages for the issues of the day. Thus the liberal minister will be frequently found leading racial demonstrations, supporting workers in a strike, applauding the appeasement of Soviet Russia, supporting the right of the Communist party to engage in its activity in this country, and in giving his approval to the decision of the Supreme Court removing the Bible and other Christian influences from the schools of the nation. In general, then, the liberal supports radical political, social, and economic progress, and he will join the chorus that conservatives are dangerous extremists.

This, then, is a picture of a liberal. It is quite possible that some true evangelicals will be found who might seem to be in the liberal camp on certain practical issues. The true conservative will be very appreciative if this is brought to his attention in a Christian manner. If the liberal is faced with the basic dishonesty of his position, he will likely adopt a belligerent position and call his critics un-Presbyterian.

Do not let this bother you, but stand your ground. Above all, pray for the liberal pastor.