Francis Schaeffer’s Double-Edged Ethic
by Peggy J. Haslar
Though we may desire with all our hearts to “speak the truth in love,” a look at any two Christian groups in conflict will prove how difficult this commandment is to practice. It is the orthodox Christian’s dilemma: how is an uncompromising defense of the Christian faith maintained, without appearing to belittle those outside it? Why is conviction so often equated with lack of love, while the “peacemakers” among us hesitate to confront heresy at all? Francis August Schaeffer (1912–1984) was one who spoke unequivocally for both the practice of purity within the church, and the simultaneous practice of love. The man who summed up his message in the phrase, “the Lordship of Christ in the totality of life,” provided helpful instruction in, and a practical example of a loving, yet uncompromising, Christian life.
At L’Abri Fellowship, which Francis and Edith Schaeffer founded in Switzerland in 1955, modern men and women found an intellectually-grounded Christian faith which could stand against the tide of twentieth-century relativism. Schaeffer’s analysis of history and culture showed Christianity to be the only philosophy which could adequately address both intellectual questions and real, human problems. He was particularly adept at exposing the fallacies of existentialism, Eastern mysticism, and religious liberalism.
Schaeffer was an aggressive thinker; he was not reticent to draw conclusions, and he did not withdraw from controversy. He spoke against the liberalism of the mainline Protestant denominations and neoorthodoxy of Karl Barth (its logical conclusion is liberalism, he said, since neoorthodoxy removes Christ from “space, time and history”). He explained clearly why he was not a pacifist. He defended and was active in the pro-life movement, speaking out against both secular and religious leaders who would make abortion and infanticide matters of “choice.” In his final book, The Great Evangelical Disaster, Schaeffer protested the “forms of world spirit” which had recently subverted the Evangelical movement (i.e., the Evangelical flirtation with Marxist/socialist causes as well as its accommodation to the secular spirit in academia in such areas as the feminist agenda and homosexual “rights”).
Clearly, if a Christian is to be true to his convictions in the modern world, it is impossible to avoid controversy, and Schaeffer never did. “If we use the word love as an excuse for avoiding confrontation when it is necessary,” he said, “then we have denied the holiness of God and failed to be truthful to him and his true character. In reality we have denied God himself.”1 Schaeffer would never accept “unity” if the price for it was accommodation to the liberal or secular agenda.
But though Schaeffer’s confrontations were uncompromising, they were also characterized by love, and he urged his audience to carefully consider their own attitudes when involved in confrontation. He was so concerned that his readers remember this, that his booklet, The Mark of the Christian, was reprinted as an appendix to The Great Evangelical Disaster. In the very book in which he explodes Evangelical accommodation and calls for “Christian radicals to stand up in loving confrontation, but confrontation,” Schaeffer couples this hard contention with his earlier message that “the mark of the Christian” is brotherly love. Recalling the words of our Lord in John 13:33–35, he notes that the presence or absence of this love is the mark by which the world will judge whether or not we belong to Christ. And although the world’s judgment is not definitive (for “the church is to judge whether a man is a Christian on the basis of his doctrine, the propositional content of his faith, and then his credible profession of faith”2), our witness to the world will be nothing without love for each other. Love is a difficult but vital element of Christian confrontation.
And Schaeffer practiced what he preached. Though obviously he was not perfect, Francis Schaeffer made an honest attempt to live the things he wrote; he maintained the balance of practicing both the holiness and the love of God to a remarkable degree. His personal experience of a denominational split strongly affected him to formulate a position which spoke both for truth and love.
In 1935, when the Presbyterian church defrocked Dr. J. Gresham Machen, Schaeffer resigned from the Northern Presbyterian Church and became a seminary student with the Presbyterian Church of America. The bitterness among those involved in the split, particularly between conservatives who stayed and those who left the denomination, had a lasting impact on Schaeffer’s thinking and writing. Louis Gifford Parkhurst, Jr., notes that Schaeffer and his wife were grateful that the objective truth in the Bible enabled them to take a stand against the Northern Presbyterian Church. “As early as 1935, however, Fran also recognized the need in his life for the sweetness, gentleness, and kindness that comes from love as one stands at the same time for truth. He had to battle his temper all of his life, but he did develop that kindness that he sought.”3
A letter written to a friend in 1951 shows the effect the struggles of “the separated movement” were beginning to have on Schaeffer’s thinking:
One instance of the fruit this desire produced is seen in the way Schaeffer handled his opposition to the neoorthodoxy of Karl Barth. Prior to publicly speaking on “The New Modernism (Neoorthodoxy) and the Bible,” he met with Barth to make sure he was interpreting Barth’s position correctly. His public stance against Barth’s position did not prevent him from respecting him as a person.
Another instance, several years later, is recorded in both The Church Before the Watching World and The Great Evangelical Disaster. Schaeffer recalls his dialog in Roosevelt University auditorium in Chicago with Bishop James Pike:
The ethic demonstrated in these situations is articulated in several of Schaeffer’s books, particularly in The Church Before the Watching World, True Spirituality, and The Great Evangelical Disaster. “How careful I must be,” he writes, “every time I see a situation where I am right and another man is wrong, not to use it as an excuse to scramble into a superior position over that man, rather than remembering the proper relationship of fellow creatures before God.”6 Equally, “truth demands confrontation. It must be loving confrontation, but there must be confrontation nonetheless.”7
It has been only a few years since his death, but Francis Schaeffer’s message, so desperately needed in these times, seems to have been largely lost or ignored. Meanwhile, the problem of accommodation, which Schaeffer so accurately exposed in The Great Evangelical Disaster, seems to have only multiplied since his death. Evangelicals suffer from a lack of nerve which prevents them from identifying and proclaiming objective truth. Surely this signals the failure of Evangelical ears to hear a true prophet, preferring the self-styled Jeremiahs who do not object to the accolade, “prophet,” printed on the jacket of their books.
Francis Schaeffer articulated a double-edged ethic which the Body of Christ sorely needs: the practice of purity within the visible church, with the simultaneous practice of love, especially toward Christian brothers, but also to non-Christian neighbors. “It will not come automatically,” he wrote. “It takes prayer. We must write about it in our denominational papers. We must talk about it to our congregations; we must preach sermons pointing out the necessity of standing for the holiness of God and the love of God simultaneously, and by our attitudes we must exhibit it to our congregations and to our own children.”8
“The God who is there” is honored by nothing less.
1. Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1984), p. 69.
2. Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian, appendix to The Great Evangelical Disaster, p. 163.
3. Louis Gifford Parkhurst, Jr., Francis Schaeffer: The Man and His Message (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985) p. 46.
4. Schaeffer, Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer, Lane T. Dennis, ed. (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), p. 39.
5. Schaeffer, The Church Before the Watching World, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), Volume Four, Book Two, p. 156.
6. Schaeffer, True Spirituality, in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Volume Three, Book Two, p. 346.
7. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster, p. 37.
8. Schaeffer, The Church Before the Watching World, p. 157.
Peggy J. Haslar is a freelance writer and instructor in English at Adams State College, Colorado. She attends the United Church of La Jara, Colorado, an ecumenical fellowship, along with her husband and two sons.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“Francis Schaeffer’s Double-Edged Ethic” first appeared in the Fall 1989 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.