The Church can be understood best at two points in its history: at the time reflected in the book of Acts and the Epistles, and at the time of the Reformation.
It is more difficult for us to project ourselves into the experience of the early Church because of our inability to duplicate certain advantages they had, namely, the immediate experience and authority of those who had known our Lord in the flesh and the unique outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We are closer to the experience of Luther and the other Reformers because their Christian experience was partially the result of the mediation of the Bible, the history and customs of the medieval church community, and the drag of all the accretions of the human upon the divine institution. An examination of Luther’s experience as a member of the church is helpful, therefore, as a starting place for our own understanding.
The Bible invoked against Rome
In the providence of God, Luther, a devoted and disciplined monk of the Augustinian Order, was called upon to lecture from the Bible. Also in the providence of God, he was led to lecture from three sources, all of which forced him to decision over against Rome. He lectured on the Psalms, Galatians, and Romans; and both in the study and in the classroom the logic of his material led him eventually to see that he was justified by faith alone, that Christ was the only Mediator between him and his God, and that neither he nor his salvation needed the trappings and ceremonies of the Romanist hierarchy. Luther’s experience was highly individualistic. He found himself in a saving relationship to God through Jesus Christ, and this experience of salvation with its accompanying assurance was not the result of nor had it been nurtured by any external organization”. It was over against such an organization that Luther had now to say, “Here I stand.”
The Church basically spiritual
But an individual standing alone is not a church, and Luther knew it. Who or what then was the Church? How could it be created? Where was it to be found? If a man could break away from the Church because what was then called the Church was not the Church, just where is the body of which Christ is the Head? Pioneering his way through such problems, Luther came to see at last that there must be others who were “in Christ” as he was. Therefore, those in Christ were in one another. Communion with God through Christ meant communion with one another. What later Bucer was first to term “the invisible Church” was the only church of which Luther could call himself a member. This “invisible Church” was henceforce inescapable in Luther’s understanding. In spite of the fact that Luther was forced by later circumstances to say something authoritative about the “visible church,” and in spite of the fact that Calvin also found it necessary to expand his description of the visible church to over one hundred pages in the Institutio, the Reformers could never define the Church in such a way as to eliminate this basic necessity in the believer’s experience of oneness with the living God through Christ. There was no church anywhere without a core of those who had experienced Christ, who were one with Him and therefore one in Him.
Primary task to win the lost
In the Reformed tradition, therefore, it is the primary task of the Church to bring men and women into this saving relationship with Jesus Christ. No part of our program, no emphasis on liturgy or philanthropy, and no delight in our rapid numerical growth have any meaning apart from this primary emphasis. The interesting and amazing complexity of our church life today has no meaning unless and until this is done. The primary task of the church is to make Christians out of people. And a man is a Christian when he has accepted Christ as his Saviour, when he is in a saving relationship to God through Christ; anything else and anything less is vain and futile “religious” exercise. Professor Paul Vieth of Yale, in his approach to Christian education, says that the task of Christian education “is to confront with and control by” the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is true. First, a man is confronted by Christ and His Gospel, he is forced to decision by this encounter, he becomes by this commitment a new man in Christ; he becomes thereby a living unit in the body, a building block in the construction, a part of the Body of Christ.
Ministry of Word and Spirit
Luther further discovered for us that this new relationship with God and with one another was mediated through the Scriptures which in turn were applied to us by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. For the Scriptures to be taught, therefore, the “invisible Church” had to become visible. It had to take form. It had to meet at a certain place and at a certain time; there had to be organization so that things would be done decently and in order. Certain notae of the church appeared— the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments—and then the “right” preaching of the Word and the “right” administration of the sacraments. Men were to be brought to Christ by the audible word and by the visible word. The emphasis on preaching in the Reformed tradition is firmly set in the necessity of the Word and the Spirit as the only means of bringing men to Christ. The Reformers believed in the power of the Word, in the ministry of the Spirit. The task of the preacher is to set the Word before the people. Fundamentally we are to let the Word speak, expound it, interpret it, bear witness regarding its power in our lives and the lives of others. What we have lost sight of most, I suppose, in our day, is that this Word itself has power. Sow the seed, get it out; in the providence of God that Word shall not return void.
The visible church, therefore, becomes a means, and only a means, of getting the Word out. It soon happened in Luther’s day, as in our own, that there were at least three kinds of people in any given congregation: those still unconverted by the Word, those ready only for milk, those ready for meat. The church had to be organized, and needs to be organized now, of course, to answer all these needs. Many evangelists, rightly concerned for conversion, fail to see that after certain people have been roundly and soundly converted, it is time to move on to something else. There must be the clear confrontation with the Gospel calling for life decision and commitment, but there must also be building up in the faith. We are to convert sinners and also edify saints. It is Vieth again saying “confront with” and then “control by” the Gospel.
World task of the Church
In obedience to the Great Commission the Church must also move out from its own center of operations to ever wider areas of operation. No group, however small or however pure they may think themselves to be, can be released from the pressing requirements of world mission. This again means organization and planning- some teachers, some evangelists.
If we analyze our situation, we can see what this means in the growth and complexity of the church.
It is vain to believe that all this organization has meaning apart from the primary task of evangelization; but it is naive to believe that the work of evangelization can be carried out without care in organization. Whatever the drag of organization and the temptation to lose the primary task of the Church in the wheels and gears of a great denominational enterprise, we do not understand the necessities of our task unless we see the unfortunate necessity of visible organization. The cry for the simple Gospel, or the cry for the simple program of the Great Teacher and His handful of followers, is easily understood as a yearning of the heart, but it is a misunderstanding of what our task will constantly require of us. The early Church was still very young when it had to have a Council at Jerusalem. Paul never mentions his expense account, but he had one. And there must have been some kind of certified accountancy for the collection for the saints in Jerusalem.
Simple Gospel, complex organization
The primary task of the church is to bring men and women into a saving relationship to God through Jesus Christ. Now see what happens. A man in communion with Christ finds himself in a communion; those in Christ are in one another. Out of this communion, because men are physical as well as spiritual, there arises a community, a visible group of people gathered around one center of commitment and loyalty. It is a part of the requirements of this visible group that they evangelize others and in time bring them into this same fellowship. The community grows, it breaks up into congregations, there are synods and assemblies, there are programs of mission and philanthropy; there are building programs, financial drives, magazines and editorial policies, theological seminaries and boards of trustees.
It is deadly for a church to grow from the outside in; but when it grows spiritually and dynamically from the inside out, all these externals are necessities, not unfortunate excrescences on the living organism. The simple Gospel makes a complex organization; it is a part of the task of the Church to keep all these physical expressions under the power of the Spirit.
The Gospel and social activity
When the communion becomes a community, necessities laid on the Church become almost endless. At the time of my theological training there was much talk about the personal gospel as against the social gospel. Now we know what we should have immediately recognized then, that there is only one Gospel, but that it includes both sides.
There is no salvation by way of the social gospel, but only in the individual’s call to Christ. But there is no such thing as an asocial Christian. His commitment to Christ immediately and by necessity has social implications. The salvation of the man is the salvation of the whole man, and the whole man is a man engaged in business or trade; he is an employer or an employee; he is an economic man, a political man.
What can be said of individuals must also be said of congregations of individuals. Commitment to Christ means that a man is changed in all his relationships; a church made up of committed members has something to say also to the total life of men. Only men saved by grace can work to save society, but men saved by grace cannot escape the necessity of working redemptively upon society.
It is surprising how easily we can see the place of the church community in terms of social reform in some directions but not in others. The Church stands usually against liquor and the liquor “interests,” that is, the business of liquor. The church community is always against organized vice, against narcotics. In the past the Church as such took a stand against slavery and felt called upon to speak out against child labor even when such speaking hurt profits. We accept these victories over injustice in former days as assumptions of the position of the Church in our own day; it is harder to see in our contemporary scene just what it is that the Church is called upon to do.
Sins of contemporary society
Nevertheless we have tasks in relation to the sins of contemporary society. We must not confuse our difficulty in knowing just what to do with the necessity to do something, to take a position, to bear our witness. Evangelicals commonly draw back from such responsibilities because the primary task for them is the preaching of the Gospel of salvation. Very well. Now what are these saved people to do in the society in which they live? If the church community can support their efforts by speaking out on organized vice, why cannot the organized church community speak out for the moral obligations of capital on the one hand and labor on the other? Although it is not within the province of the Church to determine what may constitute “just wages,” it should expect them to be paid. The Church may be unqualified to determine what comprises “feather bedding,” but it should expect labor as well as capital to deal honestly and justly.
It helps to think of it this way: If through the instrumentality of my preaching on a Sunday morning a man is led to conversion, what shall I tell him that his new Christianity involves when he calls upon me in my study on Monday morning? I can’t tell him everything, I am sure. But I can challenge him with the position of the Church on his marital relationships, his use of liquor, what he does with his leisure time. I cannot advise him on political parties, but I can discuss good citizenship. I can talk to him about his “calling” in his daily task, but can I tell him anything about whether he is right or wrong to continue to pay dues in his labor union? These are touchy questions because they are contemporary ones. But questions of right and wrong are of the stuff of life in any day, and the Church bears its witness today. There is no such thing as a social gospel; conversely, there is no such thing as an asocial Christian. A man is to be confronted with and then controlled by the Gospel in every relationship. The Church should be ready to help the members of the Christian community in all such relationships. Calvin’s church in Geneva, for example, set up controls in the markets and established a weaving industry for the unemployed.
Christian impact on culture
Saved men should also have an impact on culture. Great periods in the history of the church have meant great art and architecture, great music, new laws, educational institutions, in short, a new way of life. Whether we will or not, a dominant religion will create a way of life; the question is, which religion? Will it be Secularism? or Materialism? or the dialectic of Communism? The Christianity of the Puritans poured into American life what Van Wyck Brooks was led to call The Flowering of New England. The iron core of Calvinism is still felt by way of the children of Convenanters, Beggars, and Hugenots, and the end is not yet. How we dress, our manner of speech, the pictures we like, the television programs we allow, the places we spend our leisure and how we spend it there; all these are expressions of the reality of what is supposed to happen first and happen truly: a man’s commitment to Christ. He is a “new creature,” and “Behold, all things are become new.” A different culture has always been the necessary corollary of essential Christianity. We should expect Christianity to make a difference in all life around us; the leaven leavens the whole loaf. We see this taking place on the foreign mission field; can we understand our total mission here at home?
The primary task of the Church, therefore, is to bring men into a saving relationship to God through Christ. This is done by Word and Spirit. Men thus saved must be given the nourishment to grow in Christ; this is Christian education. Such men in communion form the communities which make constant redemptive impact on the world around them. Thus the things of heaven are brought to bear upon the things of earth and the day is hastened when “every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess” Christ’s Lordship.
Addison H. Leitch, Ph.D., Litt.D., is president of Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary.
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