The true Gospel—and purity—bring, not malady, but health and life

Psychic illness attacks so many clergymen and church workers these days that it seems almost an occupational hazard. To make matters worse, some psychiatrists point an accusing finger at the Christian community for attitudes that they say bring about mental sickness. One, Germany’s Eberhard Schaetzing, has even coined an adjective for supposedly church-induced neuroses: “ecclesiogenic.”

Ecclesiogenic (i.e., caused by the Church) would be a misnomer if it meant the illness were directly traceable to authentic Christian doctrine. But as used by Klaus Thomas, a Lutheran whose work on the problem is best known, it generally describes a state of mental conflict caused by “taboo-izing” education in which sexual areas of life are banned from open discussion and sexual desire is considered something immoral or forbidden, or even a cause for punishment.

“After twenty-five years of pastoral and psychiatric practice, I cannot have any doubt about the overwhelming harmonizing, health-restoring, and transforming power of the Bible’s message and of a genuine Christian faith,” Thomas says. But there is another side: “Whenever and wherever natural human feelings and wishes, especially in the field of sexuality and eroticism, are declared to be basically sinful, unendurable burdens are put upon the shoulders of man. Whenever healthy sexuality is repressed and denied instead of being recognized and either practiced or joyfully and voluntarily renounced, perversions and compulsions, anxiety and scrupulosity, even ultimate despair and suicide, are the frequent consequences.”

True, the problem of repression is far less obvious today than that of libertinism. In years gone by, many parents held close rein upon their children in regulating fraternizing between the sexes. Today, cars, TV, telephones, relative affluence, and widespread rebellion make strict parental supervision the exception.

Yet Thomas claims after studying 7,000 patients at his Suicide Prevention Center in Berlin that pagan views of hostility to the body—dating back to ancient Persian Manichaeism and Greek neo-Platonism—have corrupted the approach of many Christians. He says “ecclesiogenic” factors are important in many cases of neurosis, frigidity and resultant marital problems, promiscuity, use of obscene literature, homosexuality and other perversions, and suicidal tendencies. He describes the typical case:

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The parents were especially pious. The atmosphere at home showed characteristics of honest, and yet not genuine, Christian faith. The upbringing was strict, frequently cruel. All sexual questions were so “taboo-ized” that the children grew up in ignorance. The whole area of sex was covered with and even identified with the state of sin.… The result of such an upbringing is not a Christian character but a pseudo-Christian neurosis.

Thomas’s controversial work includes many statistics. He estimates that the danger of suicide in “ecclesiogenic” cases is double that in other mental illness, and that 38 per cent of 2,000 neurotics he studied were “ecclesiogenically ill.” In criticism of the German’s method, University of Illinois psychiatrist Orville Walters points out that the causes of neuroses are complex, and that Thomas’s use of the “ecclesiogenic” diagnosis departs from accepted psychiatric procedure, in which categories are based on symptoms, such as phobic or depressive. He says Thomas’s figure of 38 per cent for a diagnosis he is particularly interested in raises the question of bias. Walters also warns against the post hoc propter hoc fallacy: “The fact that religion and neurosis are found in association does not establish a causal relationship. Since neurosis and psychosis may distort all of one’s relationships, the presence of defective religious concepts may be consequence rather than cause.”

Perhaps Thomas’s high percentages indicate the particular group which sought out his church suicide clinic. Perhaps an analysis of Germany is not very applicable to other countries (though he bases his case on personal observation in many other nations also). Perhaps his methodology in a pioneering field is open to serious doubt. But despite the controversy, many psychiatrists and clergymen believe Thomas raises important questions for the Church.

Walters argues that “guilt and shame have become associated with sexuality, not because of repression by the Church, but because excessive sexuality has been a frequent resort to avoid the responsibility of freedom, just as drunkenness is. This misuse of freedom to alleviate anxiety leads man into guilt, which only intensifies his anxiety.”

Despite their disagreements, Thomas and Walters both believe the Bible teaches a positive, yet disciplined view of sexuality. The solution to an alleged “ecclesiogenic” illness is more Christianity, not less. Thomas believes “man must discover where and how the infallible Word of God has been twisted. The true Gospel does not bring neurosis, but health and life.” And he cautions that “knowledge about ‘ecclesiogenic’ neurosis should not lead to the error that a libertinistic education could be the aim or alternative,” since “superficial promiscuity and unhealthy lack of controls” are just as dangerous.

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Besides discussing psychiatric methods of treatment, Thomas offers suggestions on how the Church can help prevent such illness: prayer, emphasis on the healing ministry, counseling and therapy centers, re-examination of educational materials, and development of a “Christian doctrine of eroticism.” He points out that the Song of Solomon alone contains “nearly all the advice in erotic questions which we found relevant” in treating thousands of neurotics.

As Thomas suggests, the healthy solution is the proper understanding of the biblical concept of purity, which does not forbid sex but prescribes the right context for it. We need to be very sure that we are leading our children to develop this healthy, biblical view of sex. And we need also to become effective Good Samaritans with genuine compassion for our mentally ill neighbors. A truly Christian Church knows only one human personality—that created “very good” by God and ultimately redeemed by Christ for life and joy—and it proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of life and who says, “Because I live, you shall live also.”

The most inconspicuous bloc on the North American religious scene is that group best known as “The Evangelicals.” With a strength estimated at between 40,000,000 and 45,000,000, they constitute the overlooked majority in Protestantism in this part of the world.

Theologically, evangelicals are descendants of the New Testament, of the Protestant Reformation, and in many respects of the fundamentalists, who were so vociferous in the earlier part of the century. They are the people of “the Bible Belt,” which is ideological rather than geographical, though they have long been shedding the cultural accretions of the fundamentalist mentality. They are found in all major Protestant denominations and in most of the smaller ones. They carry the burden of evangelism and missions around the world, but their growing emphasis on higher education and scholarship should equally impress the outsider.

Evangel,n., the Christian Gospel; the good news of God’s redemption of men through the vicarious death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, according to the Bible.

Evangelical,adj., referring to the body of Christian teaching that defines the Gospel or centers in it; n., one who personally accepts the Gospel as authoritatively stated in the Bible.

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Evangelism,n., the proclamation of the Gospel.

Why, then, with all their numerical strength and traditional momentum, are evangelicals so weak collectively? Why are they, as a group, so seldom heard from?

A major reason for their lack of visibility is their fragmentation. They are united in faith but divided in action. They agree on the central message of the Bible, but they disagree over methods. They have been individualists in an age that demands coordination.

The year 1967 saw the beginning of an effort that might change the picture. After issuing an editorial appeal for a more tangible unity among evangelicals, CHRISTIANITY TODAY received an unusual amount of favorable response. Meanwhile, quite coincidentally, a move was afoot among Southern Baptists to widen evangelistic horizons in their convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and one that has traditionally been aloof from other churches.

These developments meshed in a meeting of forty churchmen from a broad spectrum of Protestantism at the Marriott Key Bridge Motor Hotel, Arlington, Virginia, September 28–30. They came together in response to a joint call from Editor Carl F. H. Henry of CHRISTIANITY TODAY and Evangelist Billy Graham, who gave impetus to the 1966 World Congress on Evangelism.

The Key Bridge decision was to name a committee to study the possibility of a nationwide, interdenominational evangelistic crusade cresting in 1973. The appointed committee assembled in a second Key Bridge conference December 2 and 3 and agreed that such a crusade was feasible, given favorable conditions. From these discussions came the idea of a non-organizational “evangelical Christian coalition” to advance cooperative efforts and to seek to understand what it means to be evangelical and relevant in the contemporary situation. A suggestion was made for the appointment of blue-ribbon Christian task forces to tackle some of the great spiritual, theological, and ethical issues of our day. A third Key Bridge meeting is planned for March of this year.

CHRISTIANITY TODAY takes sharp issue with the announced intent of avant-garde theologians to desacralize the Church. But mere dissent is not enough. The Church of the future will demand theological integrity, and its development must begin with believers’ working together today. The year 1968 should be one in which evangelicals try harder for the coordination that has so long eluded them and that they so desperately need.

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Protestant social ethics has sunk to a low point of responsible ecumenical involvement. The 1966 Geneva and 1967 Detroit conferences on church and society tainted the conciliar movement’s call for social activity with a stigma of incompetence and irresponsibility by abandoning both a biblical basis and an intelligible rationale for Christian duty in the public realm. Controlling principles of Christian engagement were pushed aside as irrelevant to an activistic age, and as needlessly time-consuming in an era of crisis.

Social-activist spokesmen within the World Council and National Council of Churches promoted a theology of social revolution in Geneva and in Detroit. But whereas Geneva majored in political particularities, Detroit concentrated on strategies for revolutionary social change.

After three generations in which American neo-Protestantism has advertised itself as “Christianity with a social conscience,” liberal social critics are deplorably confused and give contradictory readings of the contemporary crisis. No consensus on social concerns any longer exists in ecumenical Protestantism. Denominational spokesmen simply bluff the public when, in endorsing legislative specifics and advocating military tactics, they append the names of their churches and claim to represent their constituencies. And few follow any consistent course. Some activists urged a multilateral U. N. solution for Viet Nam, then espoused unilateral solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

When religious spokesmen profess to extrapolate from theological principles such as “God would have us one” a Christian necessity for U. N. support or for U. S. withdrawal from Viet Nam, they simply mislead the churches and add to the world’s confusion. To relate endorsement of legislative specifics and of supportive strategies to the Incarnation or to the Cross without showing how such conclusions are logically derived from Christian affirmations is to reduce theological formulas to pious mumbo-jumbo that merely gives a sacred aura to partisan goals.

Neo-Protestantism now has neither a stable theology nor a predictable social ethic. Impatient with self-criticism of basic presuppositions, liberal activism is in flight from a scripturally controlled social ethic. To gain its goals it merely escalates its commitment to legislative specifics and to strategic thrust, even to the point of violence.

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How Christians are to engage responsibly in social concerns has become one of the burning questions of our day. Evangelical Christians are increasingly aware that simply to react against sub-Christian and non-Christian social planners is not enough; desperately needed is a social vision grounded in the biblical revelation of God’s commandments and Christ’s Gospel.

More and more churchgoers are asking, What does it really mean to speak and act in the social arena in a theologically responsible way? What virtue, what value, have immense ecclesiastical conferences that promote on a giant scale a role that many local churches think is illegitimate? What ecclesiastical worth is there in a comprehensive commitment to specifics and strategies that many churchgoers regard as not inherent in a conscientious commitment to Christ, and as outside the jurisdictional competence of the Church?

The institutional church’s direct involvement in politico-economic matters has given the whole problem an odious overcast. The ecumenical drift toward political Christianity has altered much of the Protestant witness at the international, national, and local levels. Historically, the vocational distinctive of the Christian clergy was located in the proclamation of an authentic Word of God; today it is more and more associated with some supposed professional capacity for political decisionmaking. But when ministers forfeit leadership in their traditional realm of competence—the exposition of the revelation of God—and transfer a religious fervor to political relativities instead, they breed wide doubts that the Church has any absolute sureties—in distinction from personal opinions—at all.

Many social activists among the clergy now insist that the Church has no spiritual and moral absolutes, and therefore the question of a specifically Christian warrant for the organized church’s political engagement seems to them artificial. They contend that persons are first of all human beings, not Christians (which nobody will deny), and that humility requires forsaking absolutist pretensions for experimental approaches. They ought not, they say, to be charged with leasing a special political pipeline to heaven because of their Christian advocacy of specifics, since they disown an unqualified and unconditional Word of God. All theological and political statements are said to be alike ambiguous; no clear-cut, self-evident moral issues are conceded. Authority, it is said, therefore rests in “love” and requires “action in love.”

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But such professed ignorance of divine truth, personal uncertainty about the will of God, and lack of a rationale of grace supplies no basis whatever for revolutionary fervor in promoting politico-economic-military specifics in the name either of Christ or of sound reason. As private citizens Christians are continually called upon to act courageously on their uncertainties, seeking in good conscience to translate the will of God into particular political options. But the Church has no reason or right to dignify specifics as a divine demand. Sensitive Christians do not want their personal decisions and conscientious conclusions in the political realm to be either endorsed or determined by any corporate body acting in Christ’s name.

There is a proper role for the Church in public life and an urgent task for Christians in the political arena. But a principiai distinction must be made between what the Church as an organized body may seek in the world through political mechanisms and what it is free to seek through persuasion and evangelism; between what the institutional church should say and what it should not say in addressing the state; and between what is proper and necessary for Christians as individuals and what is proper and necessary for the organized church.

What the Church says to the world ought not, of course, to be as open-ended as a David Susskind dialogue. But one need not on that account concede that the teaching function of Christian ministers includes, let alone centers in, the advocacy of politico-economic particulars. Many vocal churchmen who lack an articulate rationale for social involvement nonetheless assert vehemently that the urgency of the present crisis demands that “something drastic” be said and done. But for the very reason that the culture-crisis is so fierce there are some things responsible churchmen ought not to say and do.

What the Church is called upon to do is to proclaim and articulate the scriptural criteria of justice, and thus to shape a political ethos and cultural milieu that seeks structures of justice compatible with the will of God. In this way the Church can motivate both Christians and non-Christians, through persuasion and example, in their support of just structures, and stimulate criticism and indignation over whatever contravenes the revealed standards by which God will judge men and nations. The Church is not to wield the sword by imposing and enforcing political structures, nor is it to seek sectarian objectives by political means.

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The critical question is, What is the Church’s warrant for what it is to do in the public order? This question of divine authority and mandate runs deeper than the question of technical competency; in fact, even if all vocal ecclesiastical leaders wholly agreed on political specifics (which they do not) and had common convictions and theological unanimity (which they do not), the basic concern would remain:

What is the Word of God to which the corporate church is bound?

For the modern world and for the twentieth-century Church it would be great gain if the keepers of the keys would once again focus the concerns of Church and society upon the revelation of God, the scripturally revealed commands, and the Gospel of Christ.


From the southern tip of Africa came news that broke on front pages around the world: a team of surgeons had given a new heart, and an extension of life, to a dying patient. It was another brilliant achievement of modern medicine, even though the patient later died.

How remarkable it is that while the hope of new life proferred by modern medicine makes front-page news everywhere, God’s standing offer of a new heart and new life in Christ is usually banished to Billy Graham’s column on page nineteen or to the religion page.

Somehow evangelical Christianity must capture for the good news of God’s redemptive grace the world-wide interest routinely commanded by the wonders of medical science.

Not long after the first human heart transplant occurred in Cape Town, Associated Press carried a bulletin from London that said the hearts of chimpanzees may soon be transplanted into humans. Dr. William Cleland, one of Britain’s leading heart surgeons, reported that some animal parts, such as the valves of pigs and calves, are already used in surgery, and that soon whole organs may be transplanted.

It would be ironical indeed if twentieth-century man, offered a new heart by the Lord of Glory, should find the means to extend his years with the heart of a chimpanzee while rejecting the life of the world to come.


Tragic events at the year’s end shocked and saddened the nation and underlined the transitoriness of earthly existence.

An angry sea claimed the life of Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, a staunch leader of the free world and friend of the United States. Approximately eighty people died when a suspension bridge between Ohio and West Virginia collapsed under the strain of rush-hour traffic. At least eight perished when an Air Force jet fighter-bomber plunged into a residential area of Tucson, Arizona. Alabama tornadoes and Arizona blizzards brought death to an as yet undetermined number. In rural Virginia two little boys, four and five, were killed by a pack of German shepherd dogs.

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The Viet Nam war fatality list continued to rise as intense fighting and bombing raged along jungle trails and in urban centers. But there was little evidence that the world’s most powerful nation, unable to wrest a victory over North Vietnamese expansiveness, was any nearer a recognition that peace is a gift of God and not a product of military might alone.

To grief-stricken survivors, we offer our profound sympathy. These tragedies dramatize how slender is the thread on which life hangs, and how precious God’s grace. The uncertainty and brevity of earthly life should lead all men to grasp firmly the eternal life offered in Jesus Christ. And it should motivate all Christians to invest their days wisely. Death stalks every man, but those who trust the living Christ need not cower before it. Because of his resurrection they can with John Donne say triumphantly, “Death, thou shalt die!”

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