Were one to study church statistics and talk with the administrative leaders of Protestant churches today, he might get the impression that everything is well with American Protestantism. Churches have steadily increased in membership and Sunday School enrollment; the percentage of professing Protestants in the total population of the United States has constantly and uninterruptedly risen during the last 180 years. With more than 60 million members, the Protestant churches form the largest religious body in our country, or about 36 per cent of America’s 170 million people. These figures seem to provide ample reason for gratification and gratitude. They are symptoms of a social and spiritual climate which is obviously favorable to religion in general and Protestantism in particular.
Nevertheless, in striking contrast to this development is the fact that our social and political life increasingly shows less traces of Protestant influence. Most remarkable is the trend in jurisdiction. The Constitution was written with the original intent of building up a country on a Protestant Christian foundation, though not granting a privileged position, let alone establishment, to any one denomination. Today the courts show a general tendency to interpret the relation of the United States government to religious bodies in terms of “separation of religion and state.”
Public life, including education, must now repudiate all Christian features, although antireligious thought is at least by implication granted a privileged position. De-Christianization has also made enormous progress in the fields of literature and entertainment. Life as portrayed in the modern novel, with few exceptions, knows no Christian values: the typical author actually presents crime and vice as a normal and inescapable condition of man.
How does one explain the apparent contradiction? It will hardly do to put all the blame on those who are outside the churches. Not a few writers and makers of film and television shows have gone through Sunday School and places of religious instruction. They are unaware of the inconsistency of their outlook because in their eyes what separates them from their parent generation is only a greater willingness to let the truth become articulate. We proceed, therefore, to seek out the cause of contemporary secularization.
THE VANISHING PROTEST
The outstanding characteristic of American Protestantism from the days of the Pilgrims and the first Quakers to the beginning of this century has been its protest against the world. While Protestants did not withdraw from public life and did enjoy the abundant bounties offered by this continent, they nevertheless were aware of the unbridgeable chasm that separates God’s will for man from man’s indulgence of his own desires. It was not a theoretical distinction for them. Although the contribution American Protestantism has made to ethical theory is hardly conspicuous, there was a clear awareness of the limits they had to set to their own wishes and desires, and the courage resolutely to say ‘No’ to rampant manifestations of sin. Of course, there was violence and fraud and drinking and gambling. But the American people would never have succeeded in transforming a semi-continent into the leading nation of the world in three centuries had it not been for their willingness to let the will of God triumph over inordinate desires.
Protestant life did adapt itself to changing historical conditions, and various ideals were espoused throughout the centuries. But its basic pattern always remained the same. The fight for Prohibition was probably the last occasion in which the protest of faith became articulate. Today, the predominant outlook of church people and non-Christians is amazingly similar, not because outsiders have been persuaded to adopt the Christian view but rather because the members of the churches, like their spiritual leaders, prefer conformity with the nonbelieving world to the protesting spirit of their ancestors. The very life of our churches and denominations bears witness to the state of similarity.
With the result of rapid technological growth based on theories of rationalism and positivism, modern life has become dominated by the idea of technological efficiency and high returns. We see congregations and also many ministers looking to outward success, expressed in exact figures, as the goal to be pursued; and thus the belief is implied that the most elaborate organization is the best guarantee of success. Symptomatic is the role assumed by boards of the various denominations in guiding church bodies. Forms of organization and their methods are being patterned after the executive offices of big business corporations; and whereas the policy of the church had formerly resulted from free organizational activities, today all the leagues, associations, and societies in the church are destined to carry out plans and programs which various board departments have prepared for them. The pastor is expected in this system to be primarily an able administrator and financier. Such new perspective will inevitably have its influence upon the sermon. The pastor will more and more be tempted to preach the sermon that will please the majority in his congregation and increase church attendance than proclaim the things men urgently need for their redemption. The vicious trend, however, should not be interpreted as deliberate apostasy. It has come about quietly but steadily through theology and the Protestant press, and often been intensified by the long periods in which pastors held doctrine in contempt because it was not “practical.” That outlook in itself was a sign of secularization.
But the effect which the trend had upon the congregation was fatal. It mattered not whether the pastor was a liberal or a conservative, an evangelical or a social gospeller; his appeal was not made to the hearer’s heart, nor to incite him to fellowship with Christ. Instead it was more a matter of accepting the preacher’s superiority and joining the group that followed him. I am fully aware of the fact that there has been partisan spirit in earlier days of church life. But it seems to me that there has never been the absence of an objective spiritual basis as there is now. Emphasis is on the social effect, the idea that by the pastor’s words the congregation is to be welded together into a homogeneous community.
THE ROOT OF THE EVIL
A purely sociological explanation for the situation will not suffice. The change was caused by two movements in American Protestantism which seemingly were at loggerheads but which in fact stemmed from the same theological failure. Pietism and rationalistic humanitarianism, opposed as they were to each other in respects, had this in common: for all practical purposes they disregarded the Lordship of the risen Christ. The various revival movements of the last 200 years placed strong emphasis on Christ’s atoning work on the Cross, and minimized his ascent to heaven, and his reign in glory as biblical doctrines lacking practical consequences. What resulted was a piety that concentrated all enthusiasm upon the wonderful Gospel of the remission of sins while the gift of new life in the power of the Holy Spirit was either neglected or interpreted egotistically in terms of personal holiness, peace of mind, and the joy of salvation. Consequently, the Christian had no specific task to perform in this world and thus would act like everybody else.
In the rationalist and humanitarian interpretation of the Christian faith, Christ had been demoted from the role of divine Ruler to that of Teacher or Example. Although the ethical impulse had always been strong in that camp of Christianity, people were content with accomplishing something in their own goodness rather than by the power of Christ. Similarly, in accord with the purely this-worldly outlook brand of Protestantism was the objective of one’s religious activities, namely, the improvement of social conditions rather than transformation in the world. The effects of these two developments, which represented the main currents in modern Protestantism, were not immediately noticeable because the old idea of “calling” (that is, of a life in the service of the risen Lord) still lingered on. But the orthodox renaissance in nineteenth and early twentieth century Calvinism and Lutheranism was itself too much indebted to the spirit of the age to counteract the dominant trend. For the theologians at the time, the Holy Spirit was first of all a teacher who guaranteed the infallible truth of the Bible, but who was not considered the giver of new life. In retrospect, one is amazed to discover the reluctance with which these theologians approached the biblical witness to the power of the Holy Spirit, and their strange contention that His work had come to a close at the end of the Apostolic Age.
THE POWER OF THE SPIRIT
According to the New Testament, believers are in dire need of the Spirit’s powerful gifts, because they have to live in a world under the sway of the devil. Man would be hopelessly defeated by the powers of evil if the risen Lord did not come to his rescue by imparting to him the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. It is pathetic to see how, except for the Pentecostal movements, so many believers failed to realize this fact in modern Protestantism. By assuming that the work of our Lord had reached its goal in the remission of our sins, people overlooked the danger they were in in this world and also the opportunity offered to them in their calling. The result was a fatal sense of security and complacency. Over against these attitudes, the rationalistic or “liberal” Christians saw rightly that the believer is confronted with a task in this world. They were mistaken, however, in assuming that this world provides the neutral raw materials out of which they can build their own brave new world.
No wonder people of that persuasion have held that John had gone to unnecessary extremes when he stated that the whole world “lies in the power of the Evil One” or “is established upon evil” (1 John 5:19). They prefer to interpret his statement as though it applies only to that portion of mankind with which they disagree, or to non-Christians, or as though the apostle had rather said that you cannot expect perfect goodness in this world. It is no wonder that once the clear meaning of the apostolic urging has been diluted, nothing prevents such Christians from reaching a compromise with this world. Inevitably their ethics fall in line with the goals of their government or with the economic practices of the society in which they live, and they derive their standards of action from what people consider the supreme needs in such spheres of human life. The practical result becomes the same in the two principal groups of modern Protestantism. Christians act in conformity with the standards and goals of their environment.
What then do we find to be the will of the risen Lord? In the power which he enjoys since his Resurrection, he continues on a world-wide basis to perform his messianic work which during his earthly ministry he could do only on an individual basis—namely, the making of all things new. For that work he endows his followers with his Spirit; and having overcome the world, he curbs through his power the forces of evil that assail us from all sides. Thus our ethical task appears in a new light. As redeemed ones we are called not to live for our own sake in this world but rather to contribute our share to the renewing of this world. What we are able to do individually and collectively is but little in comparison to the greatness of the goal; and apart from the fact that in the Parousia the risen Lord would himself take things into his hands, our Christian activity might seem futile.
The task assigned to us, however, is not to try and do what the Saviour alone is capable of doing (namely, to redeem this world from the sway of the devil), but to be witnesses of his ascent to heavenly glory and to his transforming purpose through our own renewed lives. Ever since Pentecost, the Church has not lacked men and women who have clearly manifested his redemptive determination and thus the strength of his power in frail human lives. In view of the conditions prevailing in the world, our witness would lack credibility if it failed to present tangible evidence of the activity of the risen Lord who brings about the eschatological consummation. What a pity that Protestants, by repudiating the Catholic view that the lives of the saints have a meritorious effect, have overlooked the evidential role of the true saints, that is, believers, who are manifestations of the fullness of spiritual life!
Jesus reminded his followers that more important than their actions are their lives, that the remission of sins or justification has to be followed by regeneration, and that the tree had to become good before it was able to bear good fruit.
OUR TASK IN THE WORLD
The new life never starts in one as an explosion of good needs but as a vision of what can be accomplished by a man in Christ. The vision is always implemented by the example of the lives of those who have allowed the Spirit to take full possession of them. Even if we should never be able to imitate their example because we are afraid of the revolution that would incur in our practical life, the light of the vision would nonetheless make a great difference in us. Looking at those who have lived the life of faith, we could be certain that conditions as they prevail in this world are not what they are destined to be, but Jesus has come to transform them. By realizing his purpose and power, we adopt the perspective in which the commandments of Jesus are to be interpreted. With references to economic life, sex, and international relations, what is the Christian perspective in our secularized world?
THE TEST WE FACE
In economic life, Christendom is presently divided between those who advocate modern capitalism as its true Christian form, and a minority which holds that socialism or communism is the method of economic life that Jesus would embrace. But we must examine the situation. It is obvious that Jesus’ voluntary poverty, even if universally accepted, would not be the solution of the economic problems of mankind but rather the end of all economic life. Nevertheless, we cannot simply bypass the fact of our Lord’s lack of earthly possessions and the poverty of so many of his followers. Although it is true that money is not evil by itself, his example makes us realize that living in a money economy tends to make men slaves of money. In outage money has become the supreme goal and is held to provide the solution to most of life’s problems. While Jesus does not object to the exercise of foresight and hard work in economic activities, he reminds us constantly of the danger of covetousness, of depending on our possessions, and worrying about them. We learn from him a detachment from economic goods and a generous, compassionate, and joyful sharing with others that is free from miserliness, calculations of success, and bias toward persons.
In the area of sex, Protestantism has repudiated Roman Catholic belief that voluntary celibacy is the shortest way to heaven; yet unfortunately we have lost sight of the ideal of virginity which is represented in monastic vows. The positive attitude which the Reformers took toward sex has in our day succumbed to a naturalistic view.
It is no exaggeration to say that in American life the satisfaction of sexual desire has become an obsession. Catering to it, publishers, writers, and the makers of movies have filled their own pockets, and the subject is presently dominating the minds of our youth down to the junior high school level. Little will be accomplished by censorship. What we need to foster is a new attitude. If for instance the more than 60 million Protestants would express their indignation of the commercialization and profanation of sex by staying away from movies which exploit it, and if in the home children were brought up with the understanding that sex is a sacred personal relationship which demands maturity and a sense of responsibility, then perhaps we might influence for good the unwholesome climate in which we live.
The third area we would mention is international politics. For many persons, war still seems the most natural means of attaining goals in international life when neither persuasion nor economic pressures have succeeded. But Jesus and many of his followers showed by their lives that men’s killing of each other is contrary to the will of God, no matter what material gains may be derived from it. The question is not whether war can be abolished or outlawed but whether Christians are to accept as natural or normal the fact that followers of the same Lord are killing each other. The waging of war and the praise of war makes manifest more than anything else the sway which the devil has over the world. What disturbs us is not the desire of the statesmen to use the threat of war as their main weapon in international politics but that we as Christians should acquiesce in such mentality. Rather, we ought to ask the Lord so to illumine our hearts that we might discern the occasions which make for the development of the war-like spirit, and to make us willing to practice co-operation and reconciliation.
The problem which confronts Christianity today is not whether we should substitute utopian dreams for common sense. We learn from the apostle Paul that it is with fear and trembling that a Christian’s life is to be lived. We are God’s children in a world which is the devil’s, and we have to make this fact articulate.
Christians are living as sheep among wolves. They may prefer to howl with the wolves and let their voices become undiscernible in the general noise. Or they may speak with the still small voice of a faith that believes in the power of the risen Christ. The Christian’s voice may be a lone voice, but like the majestic silence of the Cross it will sound across the centuries and proclaim the victory of the Lamb.
Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.
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