Hendrik Kraemer, now dead, spent almost two decades as a missionary and translator in Indonesia and later was professor of the history of religions at the University of Leiden in Holland. His book entitled The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, from which this essay is taken, was published for the International Missionary Council by Harper & Brothers in 1938. In that same year it formed the basis for discussions at the Madras meeting of the International Missionary Council, which has since then become a department of the World Council of Churches. Kraemer’s view of the Church’s mission needs to be heard again for two reasons: first, this conception of mission has been abandoned by the ecumenical movement in its quest for secularization and its desire to let the world determine the Church’s agenda; second, it is essentially a biblical viewpoint, one that, though it is denied by many contemporary churchmen, is faithful to revealed truth. If the Church were to heed what Kraemer has said, it would find itself pointed in the right direction.—ED.

The Church is, as F. R. Barry says in The Relevance of the Church, not a voluntary society but God’s act through Jesus Christ, called into being by His redemptive purpose. Thus, just as Christianity is a theocentric religion, the Church is a theocentric community. Our modern habit of viewing the Church as being essentially an association of religiously like-minded people is by its anthropocentric tendency a disavowal of this theocentric nature of the Church. This, it must again be stressed, is not a theoretical distinction that does not matter very much in practice, but it is a matter of life or death for the Christian Church.…

… The Church is, according to the New Testament, the ecclesia, the community and fellowship of those who are united in common faith, common love and common worship of Him who is their Life and Head, bound in loyalty towards Him, permeated, inspired and chastened by His Spirit. They are “called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1:2), “the royal priesthood, the consecrated nation, the People who belong to Him that you may proclaim the wondrous deeds of Him who has called you from darkness to His wonderful light, you who once were ‘no people’ and now are God’s people, you who once were unpitied and now are pitied” (1 Peter 2:9, 10).

… The sui generis character of the Church … consists in the fact that Jesus Christ is its primal and ultimate King and Lord, whose authority transcends and conditions all other authority and loyalty. The fact of being governed by such a Head and of being obliged to obey Him above all other authorities, determines the unique character of the Church. From this fact is derived its priestly and prophetic character as being at the same time the servant and the critic of the world and all its spheres of life.

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The Church is in the world, its members belong to the different spheres of life (family, nation, society, state) and have their obligations towards and relations with these spheres. The Church, however, as the fellowship of those who believe in Christ and love and worship Him, ought never to forget that this fellowship transcends all mundane relations by its loyalty to its Head and Lord. Another very vital aspect is that Christ inaugurated the Kingdom of God, and therefore the fellowship that centres around Him transcends the world by the peculiar nature of the expectation and hope that bind it together, namely, the expectation of the realization of God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ notwithstanding all human frustrations. This is what is called the eschatological character of the Church. The Church is not an ideal institution, but a fellowship that finds its origin and ends in God’s redemptive Will for the world, and therefore enters fully into the need and peril of the world. If, however, it is true to its nature, it can never feel “at home” in the world because of its eschatological character, for it looks forward to a consummation which transcends our human strivings and achievements, the realization of the Kingdom of God by God Himself. By its expectation of the “Eternal City” it is essentially an interim-institution, living and working in this world between the time when it began its career through the effusion of the Holy Spirit and the time “which the Father has put in His own power” (Acts 1:7), or, in other words, between the time when God revealed in Christ His plan of re-creating this often so hopeless world and the time when this re-creation will become triumphantly evident. If the Church is unconscious of its eschatological nature, it loses one of its most essential characteristics.…

In the faith that the peculiar nature of the Church is to be the divinely-willed fellowship of believers in and lovers of Christ, their Lord, lie the Church’s inspiration and obligation. The empirical Church has to confront itself constantly with this mystery of its divinely-willed fellowship, and be cleansed and inspired by it in order to realize a kind of fellowship in the world that has its roots in eternity and thereby manifests a deeper quality than any other form of fellowship can. Another characteristic of this fellowship is that it does not exist for its own sake but for the sake of the world. To quote again Barry’s book, “The Church is in the world to redeem it. A Church true to its character and mission will be looking outwards upon the world, not inwards upon its own system. An introverted Church has no future. The question is not, Which is the true Church? It is rather, How can the Church come true?”

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In this dispensation the problem of the Church consists in the fact that it cannot be defined only by its essential nature. It does not exist in a vacuum but is also a part of this world, operating through our limited human instrumentality and tormented by our sins. It lives and functions in definite times and places, and is composed of human beings with their peculiar temperament and cultural predispositions. The New Testament, which portrays in such clear and forceful language the essential nature of the Church, leaves no doubt whatever on this point by the glimpses it affords as to the actual life of the first Christian communities. The Church, if aware of these two sides, must therefore always remain in tension between the triumphant recognition of its essential nature and the urge to penitence and constant renewal of its life. It is different from all other communities in the world because it is rooted in and governed and permeated by a personal transcendent Authority, subordination to whom is the only real freedom. To awaken this kind of Church-consciousness is to lay the right foundation for a vital Christian Church.

On the other hand, the Church is subject to the same laws and tendencies as all other forms of community in the world, just because it does not exist in a vacuum but in different concrete realities. It becomes entangled consequently in the same turmoil of right and wrong, better and worse, as other institutions. This is the ever-present problem of the Church in this world, under whatever circumstances it may exist. It is heavenly from the heavens and earthly from the earth. Here lie its dangers and temptations, as the whole course of Church history shows abundantly, and also its opportunities and duties. To be exclusively aware of its heavenly nature without evincing any consciousness of its prophetic and apostolic relation to the world ends in sterile dogmatism and in the denial of its dynamic religious nature. To lose the vision of this essential nature results in the Church’s becoming a more or less good or bad segment of human society. The more conscious the Church is of its essential nature and of its obligation to realize this in the relative conditions of this complicated and confused world, the more alive and humble it will be. The more it loses this consciousness, the more it becomes concentrated on self-maintenance and self-interest, and the more dechristianized and secularized it becomes.…

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… The Kingdom of God is an operative but transcendental reality, and therefore Christianity will not and cannot pretend to realize ideal cultural, social or political conditions. It has no revealed social or political or cultural programmes nor has it a ready-made set of eternal principles. There are mainly three reasons why this is so. The fundamental reason is that to identify the transcendental Kingdom of God and the realization of God’s Will with some form of human society and culture, which by the nature of the case is relative, imperfect and transient, is a disastrous confusion of human “values” with divine standards. Ultimately this goes back to an idealist and not a Biblical conception of God and man. Second, the Church is called, on the ground of its theocentric ethic, to transform the world by witness and action, but it knows that the forces of evil are as real in the world as the working of the divine Will. It can never, therefore, make its obligation of transforming witness and action dependent on whether this witness and action are successful or not.

In the third place a sober estimate of reality teaches that the Church, however determined its will towards transforming witness and action may be, never can promise the solution of economic, social and political problems. It can put its influence in the scale and ought to do so, but it cannot guarantee a solution, for the simple reason that the Church cannot pretend to govern the economic and political factors that determine the outward course of the world at large. No earthly institution or organization can pretend to that, as the present time abundantly teaches. As A. W. Wasson has demonstrated in Church Growth in Korea, the unwarranted promise of solution necessarily breeds disillusionment. The Church therefore never can compete with communism or fascism or modern idealism, which offer and guarantee in their programmes ideal solutions of economic, social and political problems. It is very pertinent to the present situation of the Christian Church and of missions in the non-Christian world to state this solid fact, because it is natural that in the midst of terrible economic, social and political conditions many ardent young minds should raise the cry of the need for a socially-effective religion. The impatience that rings in this cry is of noble quality. Yet, it seems that the criticism which it contains of the Christian Church is laid at the wrong door. If the criticism means that in the Church the will to be socially effective is far too weak, it is more than justified. If it means, however (and it certainly does in many cases), that the Church ought to promise and guarantee the realization of an ideal social and political order, it derives from an entire misconception of the nature of the Church, and from a wrong view of the dual character of the world which is the battleground of divine and demonic forces. The promises and guarantees of communism and other social idealisms that they will realize an ideal social order are utterly unwarranted. At their best, they are well-meaning but deceitful illusions. To say this connotes no pessimism and quietism, for whoever really believes in the living God and the validity of His Will for all spheres of life is no pessimist and quietist. It is faithful realism.

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It was necessary to make these general remarks in order to get the right perspective for the social and cultural activities of the Church and of missions. There is much discussion at present going on as to what is central in missions. H. Vernon White in his A Theology for Christian Missions devotes a whole chapter to it. “The service of man” is accepted there as the regulative aim of Christian missions. It is repeatedly defined as “man-centered.” Much of what Dr. White says is so full of prophetic and genuinely Christian moral fervour that one can heartily agree with it. His ardent plea, however, is blurred by some great defects, which tend to bring the discussion on this important problem to a deadlock, while it should be lifted to a new plane. The standpoint he recommends is too much conceived in an antithetical spirit. He contrasts with each other the programme of proselytizing with that of Christian service and nurture. By proselytism in this connection is meant “the desire to increase the geographical extent and the numerical strength” of the Church or of Christianity, and to have one’s “religious beliefs accepted by ever larger numbers of people,” “the passion for gaining more and more adherents to a creed for the honour of that creed and the cumulative proof of its truth and power”.… Dr. White’s characterization of proselytism not only contains an element of justified criticism, but in no less degree an entire disregard of the religious roots of true proselytism. As truly as Christianity is the prophetic and apostolic religion par excellence and as truly as missions can only endure on that basis, so also an essential element of Christianity and Christian missions is true proselytism. The bad repute in which this word stands must not make us hesitant in using it with all frankness. Dr. White is entirely right in stressing with great fervour that Jesus has emphasized the “doing of God’s Will” as a criterion, and that He likens a man who does so “to a sensible man who built his house on a rock.” The spirit of mercy and helpfulness is as essential an element of the Christian faith as is faith in the forgiveness of sins. The New Testament does not know of distinctions, of higher and lower grades, in this respect. Yet, when Dr. White in his eagerness to press his case declares that the spirit of service and ministry (which are, when rightly conceived, the spontaneous and indispensable expressions of the new mind in Christ) is the supreme meaning of the Christian revelation and of Christ, he remains, whether he likes it or not, eternally imprisoned in a pragmatist and humanist conception of religion and of Christianity, which unintentionally has lost touch with the religion of revelation which we find in the New Testament. It is no mistaken form of proselytism, but it belongs to the very essence of obedience to God, that a Christian and a missionary should live by the ardent desire that all men will surrender to Christ as the Lord of their lives. Whosoever does not stress that, does not sufficiently consider the passionately prophetic and apostolic spirit of the Gospel. The core of the Christian revelation is that Jesus Christ is the sole legitimate Lord of all human lives and that the failure to recognize this is the deepest religious error of mankind. Surrender to Christ does not mean to accept the only right religious tenets, but to accept the Lord, the only One who has a right to be the Lord. Seen in this light, not to recognize Him as the sole legitimate Lord is to serve false gods. To present Christ in this radically religious way is the deepest mode of expressing the well-known first commandment: “Thou shalt have none other gods before me.”

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The glorious melodies

of creation

seemed incomplete

without a Word

and so God spoke


of His utterance

keeps all His handiwork

in concert, according

to His multiversal score;

In it I may be no more

than a counter-melodic

grace-note, optional,

but ready for my cue,

should He nod.


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