Christians throughout America are feeling the shock waves from a Conference on Church and Society held in Detroit a few months ago. The Detroit conference turned out to be one of the most radical religious conferences ever held in the United States.
Underlying most of the discussions was the theme of violence and revolution. This new breed of churchmen proposed, among other things, a general twenty-four hour strike as a means of protesting American escalation of the war in Viet Nam. And they went much further. Some of their leaders called for open violence in the United States to change the social and political structure.
Even the liberal Christian Century expressed shock that these people were opposed to violence in Viet Nam but at the same time called for violence in America.
There is no doubt that secularism, materialism, and even Marxism not only have invaded the Church but deeply penetrated it.
All the way through the Bible we are warned against false prophets and false teachers. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.… Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:15, 20).
Imitating the Saints
Sometimes it is very difficult—even for a Christian—to discern a false prophet. There is a close resemblance between the true and the false prophet. Jesus spoke of false prophets who “show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Matt. 24:24). Paul tells of the coming anti-Christ, whose activity in the last days will be marked by “signs and lying wonders” (2 Thess. 2:9).
Satan’s greatest disguise has always been to appear before men as “an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). The underlying principle of all his tactics is deception. He is a crafty and clever camouflager. For Satan’s deceptions to be successful, they must be so cunningly devised that his real purpose is concealed. Therefore, he works subtly.
His deception began in the Garden of Eden. The woman said: “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat” (Gen. 3:13). From that time to this, Satan has been seducing and beguiling.
Paul warned Timothy: “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). He also cautioned the church at Ephesus: “Let no man deceive you with vain words” (Eph. 5:6a). And he exhorted them to “be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Eph. 4:14).
The Bible teaches that there will be more and more false teachers, preachers, and conferences as the age draws toward its end. As the Apostle Peter said: “There shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not (2 Pet. 2:1–3).
Satan does not want to build a church and call it “The First Church of Satan.” He is far too clever for that. He invades the Sunday school, the youth department, the Christian education program, and even the pulpit.
The Apostle Paul warned that many will follow false teachers, not knowing that in feeding upon what they say they are taking the devil’s poison into their own lives. Thousands of uninstructed Christians are being deceived today. False teachers use high-sounding words that seem like the height of logic, scholarship, and culture. They are intellectually clever and crafty in their sophistry. They are adept at beguiling thoughtless, untaught men and women. Of them the Apostle Paul wrote: “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy” (1 Tim. 4:1, 2a).
These false teachers have departed from the faith of God revealed in the Scripture. The Bible states plainly that the reason for their turning away is that they gave heed to Satan’s lies and deliberately chose to accept the doctrine of the devil rather than the truth of God. So they themselves became the mouthpiece of Satan, speaking lies.
The Loyal Laity
Because the Church, in turning to naturalistic religion, increasingly proclaims a humanistic gospel, thousands of laymen and clergymen alike are asking penetrating questions about the purpose and mission of the Church. Thousands of loyal church members are beginning to meet in prayer groups and Bible study groups. Many of them are becoming disillusioned with the institutional church. They are hungry for a personal and vital experience with Jesus Christ. They want a heartwarming, personal faith.
In order to compete with God for the dominion of the world, Satan, whom Christ called the “prince of this world,” was forced to go into the religion business. Although man was expelled from the Garden of Eden, he still carried a God-consciousness within his heart. Satan’s strategy has always been to divert this innate hunger for the Lord God. Thus centuries ago came false, counterfeit, or naturalistic religion.
The two altar fires outside Eden illustrate the difference between true faith and false faith. One belonged to Abel, who brought of the first of his flock as an offering to the Lord God. He offered it in love, in adoration, in humility, and in reverence, and the Bible says that the Lord had respect for Abel and his offering. The other belonged to Abel’s oldest brother, Cain, who had brought a bloodless, cheap offering to the altar. The Bible says that “unto Cain and to his offering [God] had not respect” (Gen. 4:5).
This story teaches that there is a right way and a wrong way to worship God. Abel made his sacrifice humbly and reverently, and he came the way God told him to come. Cain made his sacrifice grudgingly, selfishly, and superficially; and he disobeyed God in the way he came, because he came without true faith. When God did not sanction and bless his sacrifice, Cain became angry and used violence—he killed his brother.
This is the position some of our church leaders would have us take today. They have become angry with the world and are determined to use violence to change the social structures of society. They have rejected God’s method of redemption, which is in the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Because of Cain’s disobedience, God judged him. Leaving his family, Cain walked the earth embittered, crying unto the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear” (Gen. 4:13). Here we see the emergence of a stream of false faith. From that time to this, man has been continuously torn between the true and the false, the worship of idols and the worship of the Lord God, the lure of humanism and materialism and the plain biblical teaching of the way of salvation.
This tension exists in the Church today. The great question asked by church leaders at almost every conference is: What is the Church’s primary mission—is it redemptive or social, or both?
There are those who hold that even evangelism should be reinterpreted along the lines of social engineering, political pressure, and even violent revolution. We are witnessing today the greatest emphasis on ecclesiastical organizations, resolutions, pronouncements, lobbying, picketing, demonstrating—and now even a call for violence—to bring into being and enforce the social changes envisioned by church leaders as a part of the world where the Church shall be the dominating influence. They feel that society must be compelled to submit to their ideas of social change. They say that this is the major part of the Christian mission.
However, the vast majority of pastors and Christians throughout America believe that the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ is redemptive. Certainly there is a sense in which the Church is to advise, warn, and challenge society by proclaiming the absolute criteria—such as the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount—by which God will judge mankind; by proclaiming God’s divine purpose through government in a fallen society; and by preaching the whole counsel of God, which involves man’s environment and physical being as well as his soul. But the Church today is in danger of moving off the main track and getting lost on a siding. We have been trying to solve every ill of society as though society were made up of regenerate, born-again men to whom we had an obligation to speak with Christian advice.
Law and Behavior
We should realize that though the law must guarantee human rights and restrain those who violate those rights, whenever men lack sympathy for the law they will not long respect it, even if they cannot repeal it.
The government may try to legislate Christian behavior, but it soon finds that man remains unchanged. The changing of men’s hearts is the primary mission of the Church. The only way to change men is to get them converted to Jesus Christ. Then they will have the capacity to live up to the Christian command to “love thy neighbor.”
Because of the Church’s involvement in almost every social, political, and economic problem in the country, thousands of its members are restive and dissatisfied.
One of the great labor leaders of this country recently said to a friend of mine, “I go to church on Sunday and all I hear is social advice. My heart is hungry for spiritual nourishment.”
A President of the United States once said that he was sick and tired of hearing preachers give advice on international affairs when they did not have the facts straight.
I am convinced that if the Church went back to its main task of preaching the Gospel and getting people converted to Christ, it would have far more impact on the social structure of the nation than it can possibly have in any other way.
A Scriptural Precedent
The Gospel of Luke records an interesting incident in the ministry of Christ: “One of the company said unto him, Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me. And he said unto him, Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you? And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:13–15).
Here was a test case. A man brought an economic problem to Jesus. In those days, if a man had two sons, the father’s property went to them in the proportion of two-thirds to the elder and one-third to the younger. In this case, perhaps the younger son was claiming more than his third, or perhaps the older brother had seized more than his allotted two-thirds. It is not likely that this man would have faced Jesus with an unjust or an unreasonable demand. We therefore give him the benefit of the doubt. His demand was just.
What did Jesus say? “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” What a disappointing answer! Here is a man with a reasonable economic problem and he is turned away by Christ. He probably went home to tell his friends that Jesus was not interested in social affairs. He probably said Jesus was cold and indifferent to his material needs.
This was a genuine economic problem—one on which the Church often speaks and passes many resolutions today. Did Christ look into the case and then pass a resolution? Did he study this economic question? No. He replied: “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” In other words, Jesus said he had not been appointed to this office of arbitrator in economic matters. The claims of the questioner may have been perfectly fair, or they may not have been. Jesus felt that this was a matter for the authorities to decide.
Turning to the Profound
Then Jesus turned to the main theme of his ministry: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” Here Jesus, refusing to become enmeshed in an economic problem, pointed to something far deeper. There was a more subtle complaint, a more deep-seated problem.
There is no question that we see social inequality everywhere today. Looking over our American scene, however, Jesus would see something even deeper. He would say, “Beware of covetousness. Beware of the spirit of perpetual discontent with what life offers—forever wanting more, forever looking at other people’s conditions in life and never being content.” The apostle Paul said, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, there with to be content.” We have lost that part of the teaching of the New Testament.
If only we in the Church would begin at the cause of our problems—the disease of sin in human nature. However, we have become blundering social physicians. We give medicine here and put ointment there on the sores of the world; but the sores break out again somewhere else. The great need is for the Church to call in the Great Physician, who alone can properly diagnose the case. He alone has the cure. He will look beneath the mere skin eruptions and pronounce on the cause of it all: sin.
If we in the Church want a cause to fight, let’s fight sin. Let’s show that Jeremiah was correct when he said: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9a). When the center of man’s trouble is dealt with—when this disease is eradicated—then, and only then, will man live with man as brother with brother.
What Believers Should Do
We as Christians have two responsibilities: first, to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the only answer to man’s deepest needs; and second, to apply as best we can the principles of Christianity to the social conditions around us.
Jesus taught that the Christian is the salt of the earth. He used salt as an example because salt adds zest to food and is a preservative. Some food would spoil without it. Our national society would become corrupt—greed, lust, and hate would lead it into a veritable hell—if it were not for the Christian salt. Take all the Christians out of America and see what chaos would be created overnight! It is partially because the Church has lost its saltiness that we have such appalling moral and social needs now.
Jesus also said: “Ye are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14a). The darkness of our world is getting even darker. There is only one true light shining: the light of Jesus Christ, which is reflected by those who trust and believe in him. He said: “Let your light … shine before men …” (Matt. 5:16).
Present problems in our national life are serious, and every Christian has a definite responsibility. The Christian is a citizen of two worlds. In view of this dual citizenship, he is told in the Scriptures not only to pray for those in political authority but also to participate in and serve his government.
The Christian is the only real bearer of light in the world. Just as there is danger that salt will lose its saltiness, so there is danger that light may be lost in darkness if it is tended and given a chance to shine. The lives of the early Christians were marked by their invincible witness.
The world may argue against a creed, but it cannot argue against changed lives. That is what the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ does when it is preached and proclaimed in the power and authority of the Holy Spirit.
I would call the Church back today to its main task of proclaiming Christ and him crucified as the only panacea for the problems that face the world.
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
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