The National Council should clarify its position on evangelism

The National Council of Churches with its thirty denominations and 41 million members is a formidable force in American life. What it says and does is significant. The direction it takes in the future will affect American religious life. Its 1966 General Assembly will convene in Florida in December with the theme “That the World May Know,” taken from John 17:23. A study book written by Colin Williams has been distributed widely as background material for the assembly. In a preface to the book, the president and the general secretary of the National Council indicate that the views expressed are the author’s and are not necessarily those of either the NCC as a whole or its member churches.

Colin Williams says some good things in this booklet. But certain basic presuppositions underlying much of what he says should concern every delegate to the assembly. Despite the disclaimer that his views do not necessarily represent the National Council, the world at large has the right to ask the assembly whether this is also its position. If not, the assembly should say so, vigorously and plainly.

An incipient universalism underlies Williams’s whole evangelistic outlook. He claims that the letter to the Ephesians has shown us that it is God’s “purpose to gather the whole creation—people, and things as well—into unity in Christ.” This is faulty exegesis. The Interpreter’s Bible rightly comments that everything will be summed up in Christ, for there will be an end to history; but this is far different from supposing that all men are to be saved. If Williams’s opinion were correct and if all men were ultimately to be redeemed, then evangelism would be different from what it has traditionally been. Traditional evangelism starts with the biblical truth that God freely offers salvation to men universally, and that all who accept Christ are redeemed. Those who continue in rebellion are by their choice separated from God forever. If the NCC assembly accepts this New Testament concept of the redemption only of those who repent and have faith, it would do well to say so. Evangelicals everywhere would be encouraged by such a clarification.

Williams presents his own theory of evangelism. Its central thrust is the redemption of society and the transformation of the social structures, not the salvation of individuals from the guilt and penalty of sin:

When we speak of Christ’s work in the institutions of the world, we soon find we are using the same words non-Christians use—“love,” “justice,” “freedom,” “human rights”.… When we join the non-Christians at these points—in the struggle for true family life, for racial justice, for political freedom, for economic rights—we often find that we are required to give a different content to the words we use in common. This is because we know that within these struggles Christ is at work … and that our task is to point forward to the final vision Christ has given, showing how that vision can be translated into these particular struggles now. That is evangelism.
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Whatever else it may be, this is not New Testament evangelism. To call it evangelism is to cut off the mission of the Church from its New Testament mooring. Social action that is not based on personal regeneration not only is a distortion of the evangel and a betrayal of Christ: it works to the eternal destruction of the very people it is supposed to help. Often the extent to which it successfully meets the human needs of men is the extent to which it drives them further from the Gospel itself.

Williams’s eschatology is defective also. It is a form of post-millennialism looking to the establishment of the “city of man” on earth apart from the second coming of Jesus Christ. Thus the booklet says, “God is working in history toward the goal of an open city in which the old middle walls are dismantled.… We are to sec these events … as God’s call to join him in the task of translating the final goals into the structures of contemporary society.” The Bible does indicate that believers ought to influence and affect society; yet it also clearly teaches that the end of the age before the consummation will be marked by grave departures from the faith. No bright golden age will dawn before the return of Christ. The “open city” that men yearn for is “a better country,” indeed a heavenly one. It is a divinely prepared city with foundations whose builder and maker is God. It comes down from God out of heaven. It is not the “open city of man” but the “closed city of God.” Outside are unbelievers, and inside are the saints of God.

Williams’s approach to the Scriptures leaves much to be desired. Speaking of the Church in international affairs, he says that “we wrestle not against ‘flesh and blood’ (economics and politics) but against ‘principalities and powers’ (tribal demons).” Biblical moral absolutes are diluted: the “ ‘new morality’ does point to new conditions which are forcing upon us a radical reconsideration of time-honored attitudes.” Williams also presses for a reinterpretation of what the Bible says about the family. The Christian is not “to retain the biblical picture of a patriarchal, family-centered world, as one which God established for all time.” “The split between ‘matriarchal’ and ‘patriarchal’ worlds needs to be overcome, for we are required to move toward the vision of the life in Christ which will finally be neither.” What Colin Williams has written forms the backdrop for the NCC 1966 General Assembly. It purposes to throw light on the assembly theme, “That the World May Know.” Surely everyone must ask, What did Jesus have in mind when he spoke these words? Is it not stated clearly enough in the opening portion of this same prayer: “This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” While believers are to be a leaven in society, the mission of the Church is certainly a spiritual one. Does not Jesus say, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world”? Yet he sends them into the world as the Father sent him. But for what purpose? To make known God’s great redemption in Jesus Christ that is available to all men, and to offer the forgiveness of sins. Thus the primary business of the Church is to preach the Gospel.

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Fortunately there seems to be a new awareness that the Church is failing in its mission when it neglects its spiritual priorities. We have been reminded of this recently, not by a Protestant voice, but by a Jewish one. Rabbi Elmer Berger in Education in Judaism expresses his deep concern over involvement in social action that is divorced from personal faith commitment. “Social action,” he says, must be “motivated by deep, imperative, personal commitment to the universal verities of history’s great faiths. And if it is not motivated by this personal commitment, then it becomes only another aspect of the political warfare revolving about the admitted ills of our society.” Surely his words apply to Protestants.

We read with satisfaction what the Right Reverend John E. Hines, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, said in a recent radio address over the “Protestant Hour”:

We must be honest in admitting that Jesus did not do many things that men wanted him to do, and still want him to do.… He did not solve the problem of supplying men with the elemental necessities of a decent earthly existence.… He did not deliver men from all the destructive powers of bodily disease.… He did not iron out the political agonies of his fellow patriots, even though his claim to be a king was voiced.… No, Jesus did not solve the political problems which plagued men in his day, and still do.… The fact with which the cross grapples is the root fact of human experience, namely, that we are powerless to rid ourselves of the cancerous, fatal malady of sin.… It is only when we understand the break-through of the Cross and of the suffering God upon it; his body pierced by our rebellion; his heart broken by our treachery; yet his love unimpaired by our folly, that we are able to know the forgiveness of God that passes understanding, and the incomprehensible healing of his pure, unmerited grace.
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This does not mean the Church should not be interested in the problems of men, nor seek to help them. It does mean that the rock-bottom mission of the Church is to meet the spiritual needs of men who, before all else, must experience the redeeming grace of God in Christ.

Dr. John S. Bonnell, the newly installed president of New York Theological Seminary and pastor emeritus of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, in his induction address criticized “action theologies” that “emphasize the changing of social structures at the expense of personal evangelism”: “The situation today presents a parallel to that of the years between 1930 and 1940.… In that period evangelism had become almost a nasty word, and the preacher who could not come up with a draft of a new social order on any given Sunday morning was a back number.” His denomination lost 24,000 members during that period, he said, and thus it learned that “indifference to personal religious growth and experience” leads to “spiritual barrenness and sterility.”

The heartening notes sounded by leaders like Bishop Hines and President Bonnell should also be sounded by the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches. Millions of evangelicals inside and outside the NCC will be delighted beyond measure if this is done in December, for they know there is a great and unending conflict between the humanism of our day and biblical Christianity. Evangelicals continue to insist that the true mission of the Church is to preach the Gospel, that men may know the forgiveness of sins, the new life in Christ, and the assurance of a heaven gained and a hell shunned. This we hope the National Council will say also, so “that the world may know.”

Three Years Later

The place where Elm Street crosses Houston Street looks like a lot of downtown areas in a lot of American cities. It isn’t a rough neighborhood, though you’re likely to see an empty gin bottle on the sidewalk Sunday morning. On a distant viaduct, trains trundle by bearing gleaming 1967 cars; a Hertz billboard atop the nondescript brick warehouse at the corner of Elm and Houston flashes time and temperature.

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Nearby, small parks, colonnades, and a preserved log cabin glorify the history of Dallas, and a statue lauds journalist George Dealey’s “great, good, and useful life.” But the shirt-sleeved amateur photographers pass up these shrines and head for the warehouse at Elm and Houston. The most historic spot in Dallas today is the Texas School Book Depository.

A man passed through this intersection three years ago. How swiftly and easily an assassin murdered him—a father, a husband, a nation’s leader. We pause to remember the numbness of that day, to pay tribute to the memory of John F. Kennedy, and to pray that nothing like this will ever again scar our nation.

After Berlin, What?

The World Congress on Evangelism has spoken clearly about the nature, message, and methods of evangelism. These biblically based statements combine deep spiritual perception with a passionate sense of urgency.

But inspiration and high resolve are not enough. Church history is full of instances of mountain-top spiritual experiences that Christians failed to follow up in their own lives and in the corporate life of the Church. After Berlin there must come a heightened sense of the Church’s dependence on the Holy Spirit. And there must come a new understanding of how the Spirit uses the Scriptures to convict men of sin and convince them of the truth of the Gospel.

Thousands sought God’s blessing on the World Congress. Thousands should now pray that a new day will dawn for the Church in which it will fulfill its task—“the evangelization of the world in this generation.”

Sex And The Single-Minded Church

Should the Church unequivocally oppose sex relations outside marriage? A British Council of Churches working committee on sex, marriage, and the family does not think so. In their 27,000-word report, Sex and Morality, the committee members refused to condemn extra-marital sexual relations and thereby provoked a hurricane of controversy throughout Britain. Newspapers greeted the report with front-page coverage and editorial cartoons. “Shocking” was their word for it. Heated debate on the document in the British Council of Churches stretched into two days and finally resulted in a vapid compromise on October 26 that called for acceptance of the report as a valuable contribution to contemporary discussion of morality and at the same time reaffirmed the “rule that sexual intercourse should be confined within the married state.”

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The working committee was appointed “to prepare a statement of the Christian case for abstinence from sexual intercourse before marriage and faithfulness within marriage,” but the members chose to ignore their instructions, reject authoritative rules from the Bible, and follow the route of contextual ethics. Although they admitted that “underlying much of our modern confusion there is a real uncertainty about what is the proper basis for Christian moral judgment,” they were willing to endorse only two bedrock principles: “Thou shalt not exploit another person’s feelings and wantonly expose them to an experience of rejection,” and “Thou shalt not under any circumstances negligently risk producing an unwanted child.” Their rejection of the Bible’s categorical imperatives on sex was based on the notion that to follow such rules constituted “codemorality” that violated creative and responsible individual decision.

Although the report rightly opposes the Playboy version of deified eros and recommends increased instruction on sexual matters by schools and churches, it shares the shortcomings of the theological pap dispensed by purveyors of the new theology. It assumes that man in his existential situation is able to determine truth and wisdom better than the Bible and may jettison biblical teaching when the occasion calls for it.

Christian morality is obviously not based on mechanical rule-keeping, and the Bible certainly does not prescribe the proper course of action for every ethical situation. Yet on the subject of fornication the Bible’s teaching is forthright and irrevocably binding on all who would follow Christ. In First Corinthians, Paul commands, “Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.” In Ephesians: “Fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints.” In First Thessalonians: “For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God even your sanctification that ye should abstain from fornication: that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor.” Is Paul here failing to understand Christian liberty and making Christian morality a mechanical procedure? Of course not. He is rather enunciating unalterable principles that all men must follow if they are to carry out God’s intention for sex and marriage. Only as sexual relations are a part of the total relationship of husband and wife in marriage can individuals gain greatest satisfaction and society thereby be benefitted.

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The Church must not be reluctant to assert unequivocally that the only right place for sexual relations is within marriage. A stance such as that of this committee report, which leaves unsaid what the Bible boldly declares, will do little to stem the tide of sexual problems sweeping through Western society. Nor should the Church attempt to ride two horses that eventually go in different directions—that is, to affirm both orthodox teaching and contextual variations. Let the Church speak with a single tongue on matters of sex as well as salvation, and let its message be based on the Word of God.

Spotlight On Alcoholism

The Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, John W. Gardner, recently announced the establishment of a National Center for the Prevention and Control of Alcoholism. The need for it is clear enough: there are now, he said, four or five million alcoholics in the United States, plus twenty million more citizens who as family members are directly involved in their plight.

Not mentioned by Secretary Gardner but undoubtedly prominent in his research files is California’s two-year Highway Patrol study of single fatalities, which revealed that of 871 dead drivers, 74 per cent had been drinking.

In 1964 the government collected about $3.5 billion in taxes from the manufacture of 103 million barrels of beer and 804 million gallons of distilled spirits. It now proposes to spend somewhat more than $7.5 million for the first year’s budget of the new National Center.

The epidemic of alcoholism is a national scandal. The real solution is not to try to avoid excessive drinking. It is not to drink at all.

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