Among the changes taking place in Christendom in recent decades, none is more radical, or more controversial, or fraught with more serious consequences, than the Church’s understanding of its role in society.

Traditionally the Christian Church has devoted its major resources to the evangelization of individuals. But recently a number of church leaders, both ministers and laymen, have embarked upon a campaign to persuade the churches to use their resources to bring about a social revolution. Sometimes this movement is described as the evangelizing of social institutions, in contrast to the old plan of evangelizing the people who operate these institutions. At other times its proponents say it is designed to change social structures rather than to change human hearts.

The movement seems to be gathering more force than its most zealous leaders could have dared to hope. At recent national and international gatherings, some churchmen have enthusiastically proposed that social revolution become the primary task of the Church in our times. In the National Council of Churches’ Conference on Church and Society last year, a main topic for discussion was, “The Role of Violence in Social Change.”

A leader of one large denomination has been pleading with his fellow churchmen to accept the new idea that power in the hands of the Church is a legitimate instrument of social change. He calls for a “willingness to use power in the secular sphere with varying degrees of sophistication to influence political, social and economic decisions in the community and the nation.” It is not uncommon these days to hear the phrase, “the power-wielding role of the Church.”

Those who speak of this are not hesitant to specify what kind of power they have in mind. For one thing, they mean “economic” or “money” power. They urge that the churches’ invested funds be deposited in banks that use the money in ways that promote the social changes they advocate, and withdrawn from those that do not. They also propose boycotting the products of large corporations whose labor policies do not agree with theirs. That is, these churchmen are openly using money as an external force to achieve what they consider to be the Church’s goals.

They are also thinking of political power. Some theological seminaries now teach their students how to analyze bills introduced in legislative bodies and how to lobby for the passage of particular bills. Nearly every mainline denomination now maintains lobbyists in the national capital and in some state capitals. Most denominations now issue numerous materials on a vast array of social problems; these materials, known as “policy priorities” or “guides to legislation,” instruct ministers and members in “the dynamics of planned social change.” This enterprise is fast becoming the primary work of the Church, consuming or threatening to consume the largest portion of its time, money, and other resources.

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Often it is suggested, not only that churches work to change the traditions and structures of the present systems of power, but that they develop a “theology” or “ethic” of revolution—or as one person calls it, “A Gospel of Revolution”—and teach church members how to proclaim and promote it. In some quarters this gospel has practically superseded the New Testament Gospel of redemption.

This new gospel strongly appeals to young theological students—at least, some of the most enthusiastic support of it may be found in the seminaries. In one seminary this new point of view has so interested the students that they are clamoring for courses on “politics and political crises in our country” and on “rudimentary economics and fundamental economic dynamics,” so they may be prepared for their role as leaders in radical social change. In a publication at this seminary a student recently wrote: “Everyone knows that power not ideologies run this world.… The church must learn to manipulate power or perish.”

An advocate of church union in Canada in the early 1920s was quoted as saying, “By the creation of this United Church we shall establish a religio-political body to which no other social institution, not even the national and state governments, will dare to say ‘No.’ ” That, or something like that, seems to be what the “revolutionists” are trying to do with the Church in our day. In other words, the churches are using power as a weapon.

There are signs that this new movement is causing a considerable amount of disruption in many local parishes. The religious press continually tells of disturbances that are seemingly due to the activities of the Christian revolutionists. We read of churches that are losing members, split into warring factions, unable to raise enough money to meet their operating budgets, unable to find ministers; of pastors forced to resign, or losing confidence and interest in preaching; of widespread complaints that the New Testament Gospel is no longer proclaimed from pulpits.

Some of the new leaders offer a quick, stock explanation for these disturbances: ultra-conservatives, they say, are still objecting to the old “social gospel,” or to any application of Christian ideals to social problems. But that explanation does not fit the facts. Practically all our leading colleges and universities were established by churches to combat ignorance and illiteracy. Most denominations have established hospitals to fight sickness and disease and neighborhood centers in cities to minister to the victims of social ills and injustice. The foreign-missionary enterprise has used not only evangelists but also teachers, doctors and nurses, agricultural experts, and a variety of other professionals to minister to the needs of the whole man and of the total community.

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No, these Christians are not opposed to the application of the Gospel to social problems. They are opposed to the manifest misinterpretation of the New Testament Gospel and its displacement with a totally different gospel.

A denominational official in charge of university work reported that when he had finished speaking to some students about applying the Gospel to social problems, one of them remarked, “I wish you would first tell us what the Gospel is we are supposed to apply.” That student raised one of the most important questions before the Christian Church today. Precisely what is the Gospel? Evangelical Christians have what they believe to be valid biblical answers. The simplest is that the Gospel is composed of what Jesus said and what he did as this is recorded in the New Testament. But that requires elaboration.

Jesus was a prophet, the last and greatest of his line of Jewish prophets. He proclaimed the principles of the ideal society, which he called the Kingdom of God. These principles have social implications, some of them radical. In fact, many of his followers were Jewish Zealots who to the very end expected him to declare himself their Messiah-King and help them gain political independence from Rome. But the records make it plain that he chose not to lead either a social or a political revolution and not to organize an institution for revolutionary purposes.

Furthermore, during his temptation in the wilderness, when he was trying to decide upon the nature of his messianic ministry, he rejected the use of force as an instrument. Later he warned the people about men of violence, some of whom he identified as followers of John the Baptist, who were trying to take the Kingdom of God by force (cf. Matt. 11:11 f.). In the light of all the information in the New Testament about his ministry, it is difficult to see how his followers could conclude that they should use coercion, threats, or violence to build the Kingdom of God.

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It was in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the purpose of his messianic mission was fully seen. When on the cross he cried “It is finished” and gave up his life, his redemptive purpose was accomplished. His death as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world completed his perfect life. He had tried several times unsuccessfully to warn his followers that his death was inevitable and had divine significance. But only after his resurrection, when they saw their risen Lord, were the disciples able to understand the meaning of Jesus’ life.

Two important questions for the Church are provoked by the somewhat casual remark of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians. The Church is the Body of Christ, he says (1:24). This means that the Church is the instrument through which Christ carries on the work he began during his brief earthly ministry. Immediately the question arises: What is the Church supposed to do to carry out this divine role in the world? The answer as commonly given by the great majority of Christians may be stated briefly as follows:

1. Christ established the Church to preach and teach the Gospel to the people of the whole world. His last word to the disciples just before he vanished from their sight was, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19, 20). The purpose of their preaching and teaching was to persuade people to believe in Christ, to accept him personally as their Master, Lord, and Redeemer, and to be his faithful follower for life. This basic work of the Church, called evangelism or evangelizing, is carried on continuously, or should be, by the ministers, officers, teachers, and all other members of the church in the hope that all who listen will decide to become Christians.

Some church leaders today seem to like to turn words upside down, or to give them new meanings. For example, take the expression “evangelizing the structures of society.” “Evangelize,” according to the dictionary, means “to preach the Gospel to.” Can we preach the Gospel to “the structures of society”? To the people who create and operate social structures, yes; but not to the impersonal structures themselves.

2. Christ established the Church to persuade people to use all their abilities to put the Gospel to work in theareas where they live and labor. He said to the multitudes who followed him, “Seek first his [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness …” (Matt. 6:33). One of the most disheartening things in the Church today is that so many Christians seem to have no feeling of obligation to serve God in their daily occupations. Somehow they do not see any connection between their religion and their work. I once heard the editor of a large newspaper say to a group of Boy Scout executives, “I make my living as the editor of the paper, and I serve God by working in the Boy Scout movement”—as if he couldn’t or shouldn’t be expected to do both at the same time.

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The laymen’s movement is often said to be one of the most significant religious movements in our century. Its main purpose is to enlist laymen to involve themselves in the affairs and welfare of the Church. One important thing emphasized by this movement is that all Christians are ministers of Christ. But some laymen apparently have taken that too literally. They are trying to become ministers in the technical sense, doing things that ordinarily are regarded as the responsibility or professional ministers, such as conducting public worship and preaching. The most important contribution a layman can make to the work of the Church takes place not within the walls of the church building but out in society, where he engages in his daily work. That is primarily where he should put his special talents to work for God. There he becomes the Church extended into the world. There he proves himself to be “the salt of the earth,” “the light of the world,” the “leaven” for Christ that permeates the social structure.

Dr. John A. Mackay once reported that the minister of finance in the French government, who was a noted Protestant leader, said to him, “It is not the function of the Church to create a new civilization but to create the creators of a new civilization.” The major role of the Church is to infuse the Spirit of Christ into all organizations of society through the Christians who have influence in those organizations. The Church must not only teach these things continuously but also provide ways for Christians to study the social implications of the Gospel and how they can put these to work in their various callings.

3. Christ established the Church to help Christians discover the spiritual resources for living. These are found primarily in what we call experiential religion, or the mystical communion for God and man. The New Testament is filled with this mysticism. Our Lord prayed. Apparently he set aside regular periods for communion with God. He regularly attended public worship in the synagogues. He taught his disciples to pray, to go into private “closets” for prayer and meditation, and he took it for granted that they would attend public worship as he did.

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While he was still active in his ministry he promised to be spiritually present with his disciples wherever they gathered together: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). After his resurrection, as his last statement before he vanished from their sight, he said, “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

Those promises came to be the most precious possession of the early Christians. They believed not only that the Master was with them when they met together but also that this spiritual fellowship was the source of their inner strength. The Apostle Paul even went so far as to say that he himself lived only because Christ lived in him.

One of the central beliefs held by the early Christians was that because of Christ’s redemptive work they had experienced a second birth, had died to sin and risen as new men in Christ (cf. Rom. 6 and Col. 3). They asserted positively and pointedly that “if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul exhorted the new Christians to put off the old nature and “put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God …” (Eph. 4:24).

This emphasis in the New Testament on experiential religion, or mystical communion between God and man, is missing in far too many churches. And in some seminaries it is openly rejected, regarded as outmoded. Recently a professor in an Eastern seminary not only urged divinity schools to remedy this situation but even went so far as to recommend that students not be allowed to graduate without showing competence in this area of religion.

In a recent appraisal of our American civilization (Life, Dec. 8, 1967), the English historian Arnold Toynbee said that one of our American weaknesses is that we have lost the “art of contemplation,” or “the inward spiritual form of religion.” Partly because of our churches’ neglect of this aspect of Christianity, American young people have turned to drugs to find what they call a significant religious experience. But now many seem to be forsaking drugs and turning back to some of the contemplative ancient religions of the Far East. Let us hope that before long they will discover the authentic mysticism at the heart of the Christian faith.

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Many persons are predicting radical changes that will turn our social order even more topsy-turvy. I claim no ability to tell what is sure to come. But I am willing to offer some predictions of things that are sure not to come.

Modern social engineers are not going to devise a better social order without making better, more responsible men. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and educators are not going to make better men without the spiritual motivations, disciplines, and resources of religion. Religion of the right quality, of the socially effective kind, is not going to be generated without the unique work of the Church.

Earlier in this century Lord Eustace Percy made a statement that ought to be broadcast throughout our land: “To think of changing the world by changing the people in it may be an act of great faith: to talk of changing the world without changing the people in it is an act of lunacy.”

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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