Abraham Lincoln, I understand, once asked his debate opponent, “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs has he got?”
The opponent thought a bit and then said, “Well, if you count the tail as a leg, I guess you would say he had five legs.”
“That is precisely where you are wrong,” responded Lincoln. “Even if you call a dog’s tail a leg, it isn’t one. It’s still a tail.”
He was right, of course. Calling a tail a leg simply does not make it one. And that fact is worth remembering in a society where public opinion is so often equated with truth. There is no substitute for constant reference to the facts of the matter.
Even—or perhaps especially—in the Church of Jesus Christ this is so. We might be inclined to think that the spiritual nature of the Church somehow exempts it from the temptation to call a tail a leg. After all, isn’t Christianity “the word of truth”?
The Apostle Paul once prayed that discernment might be added to the love of the Philippian believers (Phil. 1:9). This suggests that Christians are not naturally endowed with wisdom. God must supply it. Discernment is precisely our great need today, because tails are too often taken for legs. Several ideas presently circulating about the Church and its ministry reveal this need.
Take, for example, that concern closest to evangelical hearts, the importance of spiritual conversion. The warm air of ecumenism and brotherhood in our time is tending to melt the firm conviction that men must repent and believe the Gospel.
In the midst of brotherhood weeks, union Thanksgiving services, and inter-faith seminars, an idea has taken root and is now bearing fruit. It is this: Since God loves all men and our baptism attests to our essential oneness in Christ, it is improper for one Christian to seek to convert another baptized Christian.
Consequently, evangelism, as most evangelicals know it, has come in for some scorching criticism in recent days. Some churchmen have compared counting decision cards with collecting brownie points for heaven. One Canadian minister wrote not long ago: “The desire to evangelize is unchristian.” Conversion-seeking, he said, is an application of Madison Avenue tactics to religion.
Since ecumenism is reaching out to embrace Jews as well as Christians, fundamentalist missionaries to the Jews may expect to be out of business shortly. Jewish evangelism is no longer in style. An associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches asked the Convention of Conservative Rabbis last year, “How can any Christian have the unutterable gall to invite a Jew to accept what had been the cruelest kind of hell to him and his forebears throughout all these years? When we add to this the fact that conversion itself has brought to the Jew far more misery than joy, how can we possibly be so callous and unthinking?”
This crusade against conversion knows no bounds. Even those outside the Judeo-Christian tradition can relax. They too are no longer targets of evangelism. Many sections of the Christian community now feel that the missionary’s primary task is not “the preaching of the Gospel to those in darkness.” It is the seeking of common ground with members of the other great religions of the world and the building of a better social order. Many now feel that he is most Christian who says the least about it.
How is an evangelical Christian supposed to respond to this rejection of traditional evangelism? Is it unchristian to seek converts?
It may help to resort to that old distinction between method and message. Evangelicals may unhesitatingly join those who object to the use of emotional gimmicks, personality cults, high-powered propaganda, and imbalanced criticisms of other religions, all in the name of “evangelism.” There is, however, good reason to suspect that current attacks on the winning of converts go deeper than the matter of evangelistic methods. At times, Jesus Christ’s claims to uniqueness—such as “I am the way, the truth, and the life”—are diluted to mean little more than “Let’s be friends.” But if what Jesus said about his mission in this world is true, then it is not the part of courtesy to withhold from men the only means to personal forgiveness from God. To offer kindness as a substitute for truth is to call a dog’s tail a leg.
Another current kick in religious circles is the appeal for church renewal. On every hand we hear of the need to update the Church. The Church, we are told, has failed. It must learn to speak meaningfully to modern man, and this necessitates new forms.
Seldom does a message catch on unless there is some truth in it. It is so here. If the Church is to minister to people, it is fairly well limited to people living today. That means, of course, that those who communicate the Gospel will have to get close enough to those who are without a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ to be heard. And “closeness,” we all know, is not a matter of mere physical position.
That truth, however, is hardly new. It was underscored by Jesus a long time ago when he talked about physicians’ going to the diseased (Matt. 9:11–13). Evangelicals have no reason to reject appeals for renewal on this account. The fact of the matter is, many churches do have vested interests in some segments of society. Many churches have turned their backs on the poor or the rich, on the youths or the aged. Money and buildings, organizations and status do have a way of making us defensive when someone begins to talk about change—even though we know that people and institutions begin to die when they no longer listen to critics. That is what is right about the current call for renewal.
On the other hand, many of the criticisms of the old ways are made under the apparent assumption that there is something sacred about the new per se. Avant-gardism can easily become a new creed. The newest becomes the truest and the latest becomes the best, in the minds of those devotees of change who have been “born again” by confessing the sins of the past and surrendering themselves to a wide-open future.
This a-historical mood that fires the evangelists of change is more American than Christian. Dreams of a new tomorrow and visions of a second Eden here in America are not new among descendants of the Puritans, who long ago insisted that the Kingdom of God must come to the United States—and now!
The dangers such a mood presents to a historic faith like Christianity are obvious. It is not enough to demand change and to insist on new forms. We must ask how are the changes going to be improvements. The new is not necessarily better.
And what about the once-for-allness of the faith? Are we to update the cross? Do we have a modern form of the resurrection? Has God somehow evolved into a more efficient manager of the universe? To pursue this sort of questioning reveals how much of our search for renewal is calling a dog’s tail a leg.
One instance of this practice shows how great the need really is for Christian discernment. Consider the almost universal fascination with social action today. The Rev. Robert Raines, a Methodist pastor who wrote The Secular Congregation, said not long ago that the controversy between “secularists and pietists” is splitting churches all across the country.
By a “pietist,” Raines referred to the church-centered believer. He looks for God primarily in the sanctuary and is more concerned that the true faith be preserved than that it be relevant. He thinks of sin as private immorality; stealing, lying, and adultery are examples. Consequently, salvation too is considered in individualistic terms.
A “secularist,” on the other hand, is world-centered. He looks for God in the party precincts and in the shopping centers. He is more concerned about the relevance of the Gospel to the world than about its preservation. He thinks of sin in terms of public immorality—injustice and inhumanity—and of salvation in corporate terms.
We may question Raines’s particular labels, but we cannot deny the problem he raises. How does the Church serve in the world without being fashioned by the world?
The current view of the Church as a serving community seeking to lay down its life in the world of poor and deprived men is a welcomed corrective to the recent preoccupation with the faith as an antidote to anxieties, fears, and neuroses. God is more than the Great Personal Problem-Solver. He is the Lord of History.
Evangelicals in America, under the pressure of an individualistic pietism, have often tended to ignore the wider dimensions of God’s work in the world. Revivalism, which evangelicalism employed so successfully in the nineteenth century, is inclined to turn a personal Gospel into an individualistic Christianity. They are not the same thing. The Bible makes it clear that God has purposes beyond the individual. Christ, Paul reminds us, is “the firstborn of every creature” and “the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:15–18).
At the same time, however, far too many advocates of the secularization of the Gospel and the humanization of social structures fail to keep man’s fundamental need central. In the light of the biblical indictment of “this present evil age,” we dare not fall under the spell of illusory kingdoms. Sin in the individual and in society is still rebellion against God. And God has offered only one remedy for that.
This is not to suggest that Christians are in the least exempt from the quest for social justice. It is simply to recall how easy it is to drift from a biblical course for social progress, especially when a storm rages all about us. In fact, one could argue that our crises have reached such depths that only a Gospel as radical as that preached in the New Testament is sufficient for our times. Take, for example, the universality of sin. All, both black and white, both young and old, have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). One may not have sinned as often as the other, but admission of fault, it seems to me, is the starting point for the reconciliation of two estranged parties.
The proper balance between changing society and converting sinners is a delicate one, and there is little doubt that evangelicals in the twentieth century have leaned awkwardly toward an unbiblical individualism. But to confuse earthly service with eternal security is simply another instance of calling a dog’s tail a leg. As Harvey Cox, no less, one of the founding fathers of the Secular City, said recently, “Once you transform everything into a mission for social action and lose the intrinsic joy of the spirit of worship, you are in danger of losing both.” Like most exhortations, that one must be aimed in the right direction; but it ought not to be dismissed.
Discernment! That is our need—as well as our conclusion. Evangelism, renewal, and social justice are difficult assignments in themselves. We only add to our confusion if we fail to distinguish legs from tails.
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