I’ve read only some of Gary North’s huge tome on the fall of the old Presbyterian Church. Of all the books that have been written about denominational rot, “Crossed Fingers” surely must be the largest. Even after getting 1/4 of the way through, though, it’s clear what North’s main point is because it’s the last line of every chapter: “The crucial issue was sanctions.” That is, the church fell to unbelievers because it failed to effectively use church discipline against those who denied the authority of Scripture and disregarded the church’s confessions.

What became clear only in retrospect is that members of the Old School [the orthodox Princetonians led by the Hodges’, Warfield, etc.] did not understand the institutional limits under which they operated, especially the time constraints. They did not understand that they had approximately two years to make a formal complaint against an idea. If they limited their complaints to intellectual disputation, they would lose the war. Academic disputation apart from a formal protest in a Church court would doom the Old School’s defense. An intellectual attack apart from formal negative sanctions was, judicially speaking, the implicit acceptance of the denominational legitimacy of the substance of the modernists’ case: one opinion among many. But the Old School’s leadership was almost entirely academic. The ecclesiastical dominance of theologians is a fundamental tradition of Presbyterianism. The Old School leaders had no strategy. Their ad hoc tactic, case by case, was to challenge their modernist enemies within the denomination, but only in academic journals. This tactic not only failed, it legitimized the modernist position as a privately held opinion, judicially immune: one opinion among many. (p. 189)

As for the liberals:

Presbyterian modernists [aka. liberals] had to deal with sanctions. This required a theory of sanctions. This theory was applied ad hoc, and it seems to have been developed ad hoc. It was a three-stage position after the McCune trial (1878): (1) evade negative institutional sanctions (1878-1900); (2) seek positive institutional sanctions (1901-1933); (3) deploy negative institutional sanctions (1934-1936). The first stage required a public theology that invoked democratic pluralism: the illegitimacy of negative institutional sanctions against those holding the five points of modernism. The second stage involved the steady infiltration and capture of the highest offices of the denomination, especially academic positions in the seminaries. This required a public theology based on excellence in personal performance: above all, institutional teamwork. … Any theology that did not foster teamwork was said to be suspect. The final stage required a public theology that invoked bureaucratic authority: negative sanctions against those who would disrupt the team. “Disrupting the team” was defined operationally (though never publicly) as any attempt to impose negative sanctions against modernists. (p.190)

In stage one, liberals push the envelope, but call for “unity” and “moderation” when the conservatives get roiled (let’s not start talking about handing anyone over to Satan or invoking WCF Ch. 30). Open debates may start showing up in church periodicals. These provide airtime and legitimacy to the heterodox. All the while, the seminaries quietly hire more people based on worldly criteria and train more young, mushy minds. After attaining sufficient power, the final stage sees the iron fist removed from the velvet glove. Some conservatives leave and start a new denomination (liberalism is one reason why there are so many). Other believers remain for all sorts of reasons — pension, institutional loyalty, etc. — and slowly die out or leave as the denom puts the screws to them. All in the name of team play and tolerance, of course.

Sound familiar? More thoughts as my reading progresses.