TWO CONCEPTS OF THE CHURCH
When we think of Church divisions we usually think in terms of ecclesiastical organizations (Roman Catholic and Protestant), or of the theological division usually labeled “conservative” or “liberal.”
Such divisions exist, but the differences are not always constant, nor are they confined to particular denominations.
There is a determining influence, not often recognized, which lies at the heart of many of the divisions of the Church.
I am speaking primarily of American Protestantism and of the effect which two different concepts of the nature and mission of the Church are having on the work and witness of the Church in our day.
Many people who hold divergent viewpoints are unaware of having them, and they are not always consistent in acting upon them.
The situation may be defined briefly. To some people, the Church is in the world primarily to witness to God’s redemptive act in Jesus Christ; to others, the Church is an ecclesiastical organization which will eventually conquer the world.
Some will affirm their belief in both concepts and insist that they are not mutually exclusive. But undue consideration for one or the other side inevitably affects a person’s whole attitude and reactions to a number of matters.
Where it is believed that the Church’s primary task is witnessing to the redeeming and sanctifying power of Jesus Christ as embodied in the Gospel message, we find that particular emphasis is placed upon the nature and content of the message itself.
But where it is thought that participation in the work of organization will ultimately conquer the world for social righteousness, we find people naturally promoting and taking advantage of every movement, authority, and power that will advance humanitarian and social revolution within or outside of the organized Church.
In the first concept the emphasis is on the witness of the message itself. Men trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives and produce righteous fruit.
In the second, the emphasis is placed on ecclesiastical organizations, resolutions, pronouncements, lobbying, and even the arm of the law itself to affect the social changes envisioned for a world where the Church shall be the dominating influence.
One might illustrate the nature of the problem with the story of the Prodigal Son. As to the ultimate welfare of the Prodigal, was it vital that he be made comfortable in the “Far Country,” or that he be brought to realize his miserable condition and return to his father?
From the pronouncements of some in the Church (viewed in the light of their silence on matters having to do with the Gospel itself), one would think that the Church’s major task is making the Prodigal comfortable and happy where he is.
It is a matter of record that the machinery of most major Protestant denominations is in the hands of those who apparently look at the influence and mission of the Church in terms of social reformation. Annual pronouncements of conferences and General Assemblies on matters having to do with disarmament, Federal aid to education, birth control, the United Nations, federal housing, minimum wage laws, and any number of socio-political issues come as a result of the social reformation concept and its leadership.
Those of us who believe that the witness of the Church is of primary importance do not minimize the need for the implementation of Christian principles in the social order. May God forgive any Christian who ignores his responsibility to live and act as a Christian in his dealings with his fellow men!
But we do not believe that the social order can be changed in depth without the presence and influence of redeemed men and women, and we do not believe that redemption comes apart from conversion to Jesus Christ. Thus we insist that first things must be kept first. What good does it do to tell non-Christians to act like Christians? How much more important it is that the Church concentrate on winning men to Christ and leading them to live for him in the environment in which God has placed them!
Here we are confronted with the insidious temptation to substitute for the presence, power, and work of the Holy Spirit the more obvious and often compelling program of “social engineering.”
There is also the temptation to confuse Christianity with personal attitudes that embody social awareness. According to many, one is or is not a “Christian” depending upon his particular slant on a burning issue. Ghandi was considered by some to be a “great Christian” because he was a pacifist. According to others, a man noted for his humanitarian work is “Christian.” A “social consciousness” about race, money, or politics may be utterly divorced from Christianity and yet still be labeled so. In the confusion the distinctive nature of Christianity becomes blurred by biases and preoccupations of all sorts.
Some Christians have been accused of being “so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use.” The accusation may be true, but it is also possible to be so earth-centered that we ignore the eternal values that constituted the primary reason for our Lord’s coming into the world.
Looking at the matter purely from the standpoint of a task to be performed, we are forced to ask where, if the Church does not espouse and further the preaching of the Gospel, shall men turn for salvation?
Again, if the larger denominations become involved in social reformation, while neglecting their primary task, are they not in danger of finding themselves laid aside in favor of obscure groups who recognize and perform this vital work?
What shall it profit us if every social change now ardently advocated by some people should become a reality without the transforming work of the living Christ in the hearts of those receiving the benefits?
It is a disservice to all to deny or pervert the content of the Christian message. Those concerned with this message believe that out of Christ all men are lost for eternity, and they believe it to be a perversion of truth to espouse a universalism not supported by Scripture.
Those within the Church who hold allegiance to the biblical content of the Christian message and trust the Holy Spirit to make it alive and relevant at the personal level are realistic for the present and wise for the future.
The changes we all desire can come only from the work of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men. Laws may coerce and change the conditions under which men live, but God alone can change hearts and make them conformable to the likeness of his Son. It is this gospel which the world so desperately needs.
To us that is the primary task and message of the Church.
L. NELSON BELL
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