If you are a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) or are familiar with that denomination, you likely have heard of the Matthew 25 initiative being pushed by all the major councils of the church. Using cleverly devised language and a thin veneer of orthodoxy, this initiative is nothing more than Marxist propaganda.
I would say “on the surface things appear...,” but a quick glance at the agency website reveals they do not shy away from the Marxist politics. In brief, the Matthew 25 initiative is a call “to actively engage in the world around us, so our faith comes alive and we wake up to new possibilities.” I will grant it to them, a faith without works is indeed a dead faith. If, as Reformed Christians, we claim justification by faith alone in Christ alone through grace alone, then, yes, this lively faith quickens our good works. And, to be perfectly clear, I don’t disagree with the three focus areas: (1) congregational vitality, (2) dismantling racism, and (3) eradicating poverty. Just as the formers of this initiative highlight three focus areas, I’d like to highlight three focal errors.
A “Relevant Presence”
The introductory web page argues, “By accepting the Matthew 25 invitation, you can help our denomination become a more relevant presence in the world.” This is the pitfall of every mainline, dying denomination. A hundred years ago, Presbyterianism was “relevant.” How they define this relevance, I don’t know, but my guess is by “relevant” they mean “well-known.” A century ago, people would’ve known exactly what was meant by “Presbyterian,” “Methodist,” “Lutheran,” or “Episcopalian.” Today, however, many people, including many Christians, scoff at these ecclesiastical nomenclature as relics of the past or systems of rote traditions. As someone who came into the Presbyterian world by way of the Pentecostal Holiness Movement, I don’t blame them! And neither do many of my liberal colleagues who support the Matthew 25 initiative.
The PC(USA) has been struggling with an identity crisis. For how long, I can’t say; but I can guess it’s been a concern long before reunification in 1983. But it’s not limited to our era. The pitfall of relevance has afflicted the Church in ages past. Certainly the questions of Enlightenment criticism are the great-grandparents of our modern-day ecclesial strife. Groups within the church in Corinth wanted to be relevant, so they began building factions and adding rules. The Circumcision Party wanted the churches in Galatia to be relevant, so they began insisting on legalistic trends. The ancient Israelites wanted to be relevant, so they asked Samuel to appoint for them a king. Time and again, this pit has trapped many churches, and it is certainly an abyss for the PC(USA).
In order to make the “denomination become a more relevant presence in the world,” they argue we must jump on board with the hottest trend in politics: social justice. According to this initiative, by combating racism and poverty by employing Marxism, your church can become relevant again! Church vitality isn’t measured by our good works, but by our faithfulness to God’s Word! Jesus chastised the church in Laodicea: Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. (Rev. 3:17-18) The SJW will be quick to say, “Ah ha! See! Your own example proves that Jesus was a socialist!” Of course Jesus was not a socialist! Socialism didn’t even exist! Context of both this passage and of the seven letters proves Christ is referencing things the original audiences would’ve intimately and immediately known. The city of Laodicea was well known for its ancient wealth and for its research hospital that developed an eye creme to help with cataracts. The first readers of John’s letter would have recognized Jesus’ warnings. Yet, such misinterpretation is the hallmark of the false teacher, who twist Scripture to suit an agenda.
In that same Revelation 3, this time in a letter the church in Philadelphia, Jesus gives these words of comfort: “I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name.” (v. 8) How does Jesus measure church vitality? Keeping his word and not denying him. What does the Matthew 25 initiative do? Mishandle the word and denies Jesus.
In my opinion, church vitality was added to this initiative as a way to get moderate, lukewarm, wishy-washy churches to sign on. Indeed, it is the other two focus areas that is the real heart of the PC(USA)’s agenda. The exact goals are “dismantling structural racism” and “eradicating systemic poverty.” As I said before, I don’t disagree with the need to combat racism and help people in poverty. The problem is with the words in between.
“Structural” and “systemic” are keywords in cultural marxism. Historic Marxism, the political philosophy of Karl Marx, considered the ills of society found their fountainhead in the upper echelons. A few held all the power, wealth, and influence, while the masses suffered poverty and oppression. For Marx, the common man simply needed to take the power from the few and assert his own. This Marxism found a foothold in the Communism of the Soviet Union. But even that society wasn’t a Marxist utopia. Cultural marxism takes the same notion developed by Marx and applies it to the social ills of today. This does include power, wealth, and influence, but now prejudice is added to the mix. The distinction is no longer between the rich and powerful vs. poor, huddled masses. Now, cultural marxism draws a distinction between those who benefit from a particular race, gender, or ethnicity and those who don’t.
Let me be clear. Racism is a real thing and it is a real sin. Christians should not be racist. Paul combated this in the churches in Corinth and Ephesus. To the Ephesians he even said, “For [Christ] Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall.” (2:14) The “two groups” there are the Jewish-Christians and the Gentile-Christians. Two ethno-religious groups diametrically opposed to one another are reconciled together. The key there is this reconciliation is brought about by Christ Himself. It is Christ who does “reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.” (2:16) Paul hated to see the Church ripped apart by racial and ethnic lines. But notice how that reconciliation occurs. It is through the cross of Christ.
The only way for Christians to truly combat racism and poverty and injustice and every other social ill is through submission to the Christ of the Bible. Not a Christ of one’s own devising. Not a Christ that suits an agenda. I recently learned the term “universal Christ,” which is the notion that Jesus loves everyone and comes to unite everyone. Christ’s own words should put an end to that: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.” (Matthew 10:34-36) The Gospel, when rightly preached and rightly understood, draws a line in the sand and divides. “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar.” (I John 5:10)
If we want to see an end to racism and poverty, we must see a rise in Bible teaching and Bible living. There is no way to have true peace other than through Jesus Christ as he presents himself in Scripture and him alone. Until that day comes, it doesn’t matter how many “cultural attachés” or “racial reconciliation offices” an institution creates, because people without Christ will continue to live in sin, and this includes the sin of racism. But you’ll never see a “Matthew 25 Church” preach the exclusivity of Christ.
Which leads me to my third and final point. The Matthew 25 initiative of the PC(USA) is blatant misinterpretation and miscarriage of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25. To show this, we’ll need to briefly exegete that passage.
The context of Matthew 25 is the Olivet Discourse. It’s important to note, the Olivet Discourse is delivered to the Disciples alone. This is private teaching for the Church, meaning the content of the Olivet Discourse is for the benefit of believers and means nothing to the unbeliever. For a more detailed exposition on the “Little Apocalypse,” I encourage you to check out my sermon series on the parallel passage in Mark 13. Jesus drives home the prophecies of his return with a series of three parables in Matthew 25.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Mt. 25:1-13)
The Parable of the Ten Virgins teaches the Church to be prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom. Not every detail in this passage needs a corollary -- the oil is just oil, the lamps are just lamps, the market is just the market, etc. The impact of the teaching is in the events of the story. In this parable there is a bridegroom, who represents Jesus. This groom was delaying, at least from the perspective of the virgins, which is the perspective of the parable. The virgins represent two classes of believers. And note that they are believers, at least all ten have an outward profession. These ten virgins are waiting for the bridegroom. That this follows the Olivet Discourse makes clear Jesus is talking about the Church waiting for his return.
Five of the virgins were prudent, having brought along extra oil. They did this because they did not know at what time the groom was to arrive. The other five were foolish, having brought only the oil presently in their lamps. They did this because they did not know at what time the groom was to arrive. Both groups knew no details, other than the groom was coming. The foolish group made some assumptions and did not exhibit alertness and sober-mindedness. The prudent group did. In light of the Olivet Discourse, it's clear that this parable tells us that even within the Church, there are those who truly have an eye for heaven, who are really and faithfully awaiting Christ's return; and there are those who are not. And Jesus makes very clear, that those who are not prepared will get the response, "Truly I say to you, I do not know you."
The Parable of the Talents (Mt. 25:14-30)
While the Parable of the Virgins speaks to the necessity of preparedness for Christ's return, the Parable of the Talents speaks to something different. In this parable, Jesus makes mention of a "man about to go on a journey" who "entrusted his possessions" to three of his slaves. This man is clearly Christ, who is leaving and returns at a later, unknown date. The slaves represent the people in Churches. Here again we are talking about professing Christians. Each of them have differing abilities and, therefore, the master entrusts to each slave accordingly. "To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one." Spending too much time in the details can bog us down and muddy the interpretation. The talents are just talents (money), the amounts are just amounts (though that they differ is helpful). That this parable also follows the Olivet Discourse gives us insight into its purpose.
The first two slaves "immediately" begin trading and eventually double what the master entrusted to them. The third and final slave "dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money." When the master returns, the first two slaves come to settle their accounts, and both of them are able to show how they wisely used and effectively multiplied their master's wealth. The slave who hid his master's money confesses his assumption about the master and returns the sole talent he was originally entrusted. To that slave the master answers, "You wicked, lazy slave... Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
So far in Matthew 25, we've learned that preparedness for Christ's return is necessary to be counted as a true believer. Added to that is the importance of active and useful engagement in the ministry and mission of the Church: the furthering of God's truth and glory. True saving faith produces neither laziness nor fear. If those are present in a professing Christian, that person is a wicked servant and has a one-way trip to Hell when he or she stands to give account to God. It is this giving account or time of judgment that is the subject of the final parable in Matthew 25.
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Mt. 25:31-46)
In the previous two parables, Jesus makes allusion to his return. In this final parable, he discusses plainly and clearly what will happen "when the Son of Man comes in his glory." At his coming, the Son of Man separate between the sheep and the goats. The sheep are placed at his right hand and the goats at his left. To those on his right, that is to the sheep, the King will call them blessed and they will inherit the kingdom of God. To those on his left, that is to the goats, the King will call them cursed and they will be cast into the previously prepared eternal fire.
For all intents and purposes, the sheep and the goats appear to one another as the same. They share the same pastor, they fellowship in the same pasture, they even seem to do the same things. The sheep and the goats don't appear to distinguish between themselves. It is the Good Shepherd who comes and divides the fold. That is important to remember. The distinguishing marks between sheep and goats are truly visible to the Shepherd. Nevertheless, Jesus gives us a peek at his rubric. "Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’" The answer the King gives is this: "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me." And the opposite is true for the unrighteous.
The Miscarriage of Interpretation
The PC(USA) takes three major erroneous steps when interpreting this passage to fit their agenda.
First, they assume the social dimension of Christian living is the only identifier of true saving faith. They err here because it is not the sheep who weed out the goats by being more socially conscious. Yet, that is exactly what their initiative aims to do, weed out the conservative, gospel-minded Christians from their fellowship. But that's not even the worst of it! The doctrine they espouse in this initiative is essentially works righteousness. The Church, they argues, must be able to prove her righteousness by her stance against systems of racism and poverty. No where in all of Scripture is justification based on Marxist ideals.
Second, they ignore a key word in Jesus' response to the righteous: "these brothers of mine." The righteous ones go above and beyond the call of duty for those who share the faith, because we not only share a common headship, but we also share in common suffering. Jesus makes clear that the Gospel he brings is not to unify every human under a banner of commonality or in a big tent of watered down similarities. His teaching divides. His words draw a line in the sand. His judgment distinguishes between sheep and goats. There is no third class. What Jesus is judging is whether or not true believers used the life he purchased for his glory and on behalf of his church. Both the sheep and the goats are judged. The righteous are judged, and they are not condemned. The unrighteous are judged, and they are found wanting. Believers will show themselves to be truly righteous by grace through their works. Unbelievers will show themselves to be truly unrighteous by their fruitlessness to the furthering of Gospel unity and purity.
Third, they gloss over many other teachings of Christ to focus in on this constructed social gospel. The PC(USA) touts this teaching as of high importance; and I would agree that our fruitfulness is important. Yet, with the same voice, many of them will ignore other of Jesus' key doctrines. His teaching on marriage as between one many and one woman is blatantly ignored by this denomination. His teaching on hell, mentioned in this very passage and in many others, is shamelessly disregarded. A position I've personally come across in the presbytery under which I currently serve. His teaching on justification by faith alone is openly twisted and malformed into the monstrosity of universalism.
True, saving faith does make itself know, it does produce the fruit of caring for the least and the lost. True, saving faith does make a concerted effort to combat the sin of racism and to alleviate the stress of poverty. But true, saving faith does not begin nor end there. True, saving faith accepts and submits to the Jesus of the Bible and all of his teaching. Not just his doctrines on social justice, but every doctrine espoused by Christ.