In almost every major denomination today laymen are showing more and more concern over the lessening of emphasis on the spiritual nature and message of the Church.
Church leaders have always solicited the interest and support of laymen. Some are now finding that many laymen have become restive about some programs they are being asked to support. Many feel their leaders are promoting activities outside the province of the Church, placing primary emphasis on secondary things, and seeking to reform society without the redemption of individuals.
Recently members of a Southern Presbyterian lay organization known as Concerned Presbyterians (address: 234 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, Florida) met with members of another group within the denomination that represents a more liberal approach to the mission of the Church, particularly in the area of social action. The meeting was called by the moderator of the church.
Some ministers present expressed deep apprehension because Concerned Presbyterians is made up entirely of laymen. In reply the president of that group said frankly that this was necessary because ministers who joined might be subject to “ecclesiastical reprisals.” But a number of ministers are quietly helping the organization.
For about two years there has existed in the United Presbyterian Church a group called the Presbyterian Lay Committee, whose board is composed of some of America’s most distinguished Christian laymen and churchmen. In January this group (offices at 200 Fifth Avenue, New York City) began publishing a monthly magazine called The Presbyterian Layman, “edited for the entire membership of the United Presbyterian Church.” It is a “voice of the laity, expected to stimulate greater discussion in Church matters, foster constructive ideas for strengthening the United Presbyterian Church, encourage more dedicated involvement of laymen and women in the activities of their own churches, and also to encourage laymen to take public positions as Christian citizens on secular matters.”
This group, when questioned about its position (“Is it conservative or liberal? Is it fundamental, traditional or modern? Reactionary or progressive? Right or left? Capitalistic or socialistic? Existentialistic or antidisestablishment-arianistic?”), replied that it “rejects all labels” and “intends to conduct its affairs guided by the Scriptures, as clearly defined in the Westminster Confession of Faith.”
Groups of laymen in other denominations have formed, or are now forming, organizations that they hope will help to return their churches to their original calling. Because of the mushrooming of these movements and because of their potential effect on the Church as a whole, they call for careful evaluation.
Here are some of the reasons for concern cited by many laymen:
• The preaching they too often hear, stressing some form of social action or activity without a corresponding emphasis on the redemptive work of Christ at the personal level;
• The institutional church’s participation in pronouncements on almost any subject, its taking of positions on controversial matters without either the mandate or the competence to do so;
• A growing tendency to enlist the political and economic power of the federal government on behalf of schemes dear to church leaders that, almost without exception, point straight to the concepts of a socialistic state—despite the ever-increasing evidence of the failure of socialism wherever practiced;
• A shift in emphasis from the individual to society as a whole, though the primary aim of the Gospel is to reach individual persons, and through them the social structure.
• A shift in emphasis from distinctively Christian programs to basically humanistic ones (“there seems more concern that the surroundings of the Prodigal, and his personal comfort, shall be improved rather than that he shall be called back to his Father in penitence and restitution”);
• A new and false interpretation of “evangelism” in terms of social engineering and revolution rather than proclamation of the redeeming love and grace of God in the person and work of his Son;
• A preoccupation with this world and its ills without a corresponding concern for the souls of sinners who desperately need the Saviour;
• A failure of many church leaders to take the Bible seriously, with the result that they are tossed to and fro on the seas of human speculation without the anchor of a clear “Thus saith the Lord”;
• The implicit redefining of the good and proper word “ecumenical” to mean “organizational.” Little of the true spirit of ecumenicity is offered to evangelicals and distinctly evangelical organizations such as Campus Crusade and Inter-Varsity.
These lay movements are not schismatic. By and large members recognize that an effective witness can be borne only within the denominations; splitting only adds to the problems. These laymen are true loyalists—loyal to their churches and to the standards that are part of their heritage.
This is not nostalgia for the past. Those who are concerned know well that neither the Church nor the world can be turned back. They are nostalgic for a renewed realization that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is relevant for the needs of every age and that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it can bring about a marvelous change in men and nations today, just as it did in the first Christian century. (One detractor said about some of these laymen in the South, “They would like to go back a hundred years and wave the Confederate flag.” One wonders what flag their Northern counterparts would presumably like to wave. The Union Jack?)
These movements are not a call for maintaining the status quo; some of these laymen seem far more aware of the world and its basic needs than the social activists.
Nor are they an attempt to drive a wedge between the pulpit and the pew. While there are undoubtedly laymen who resist all change and who also have their social consciousness blurred by bigotry, prejudice, and pride, the laymen who are furthering these movements are concerned with personal obedience to their Lord and loyalty to their church. Their goal is to see that the Church continues as a spiritual power and does not degenerate into an organization with social action as its primary concern. If this concern is divisive, it is others who must assume the blame.
The world is in a desperate plight. One social activist recently said, “The world is going to hell while we nit-pick.” But these laymen are not “nitpicking.” Tens of thousands of persons believe that the plight of men and nations is not beyond the redeeming and transforming power of the Lord Jesus Christ. They do not want him crowded out by a program of social engineering. They believe the task is a personal one, winning individual men to Christ. Then and only then can “society be redeemed.”
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