For the first time since the apostolic age the Christian fellowship is today a diminishing minority in the world.
No longer is Christianity riding the crest of a dynamic cultural movement, such as the expansion of the Roman empire, or the extension of capitalistic world trade in the colonial era. More appalling, no longer does the Church disclose the martyr spirit of a holy remnant prophetically addressing the multitude and preferring death to compromise. Instead, conformed to this world, professing Christendom seems self-assured of majority status, while the urgency that once gripped the churches is passing to the religious cults.
The explosive expansion of world population is one complicating factor. The brute hostility and aggression of totalitarian tyrants is another. The awakening of the slumbering non-Christian religions and expansion of the cults is a third. By 2000 A.D. the Christian population in proportion to all inhabitants of the globe is likely to be strikingly less than at the present time. (Dr. Ernest E. Smith reminded the American Baptist Convention recently that Al Azhar University in Cairo is reportedly sending out 5,000 Moslem missionaries yearly; that in 1957, commemorating the 2500th year of Buddhism, 2,500 young men were admitted into the Buddhist priesthood in Thailand; that Jehovah’s witnesses, “possessing no great scholars and certainly no preachers,” are nonetheless spreading over the world like a veritable plague.)
Small wonder Protestant leaders in denominational evangelism are stirring with new and grave concerns. For the organized Church is faced by distressing problems in evangelism. In some situations “church extension” has deteriorated to mechanical committee meetings of realtors and bankers interested in civic planning and lacking basic theological compulsions. Missionary giving has sagged, missionary candidates lag. Most denominations, therefore, are reviewing their evangelistic efforts, prodded by the WCC’s Bossey study document on “Theology for Evangelism,” in search of programs of action based on a new vision.
One facet of the problem of evangelism now widely faced is: Where are we to locate our sense of urgency today for going to the ends of the earth? What is the motivation of concern for the unconcerned?
Many ecumenical spokesmen are surer where—in their influential opinion—this concern is not to be located than where it is to be located. Says one: “Today we cannot go out and snatch souls from the burning as our forefathers did.” Says another: “It would be less than honest … to say that the central motivation for evangelism is the threat of hell.”
Did such expressions seek simply to avoid magnifying judgment and hell in evangelistic preaching, they would of course be justified. Fear is not the only, nor the best, route to redemption. Speaking of the eighteenth century missionary awakening, the Dutch author Flendrik Kraemer reminds us that the Christians’ over-powering joy and gratitude for God’s marvelous life-changing grace, which they wished to share with others, supplied a companion motive to the goal of saving people from divine wrath and the everlasting fires of hell.
Yet fear has its proper place. The evangelists of the past have too often been maligned as judgment-mongers by those whose sentimental notions of Deity deleted punishment and a final day of doom from the Christian message. And one gets the impression today also that the downgrading of doom as an evangelistic motif springs from questionable theological prejudices. The over-emphasis on hell is “corrected,” as someone has remarked, by eliminating it entirely.
Some influences contributory to this reorientation of evangelistic preaching are not hard to locate. Our democratic society, accustomed to consulting itself first on most issues, hesitates to admit that anybody must really perish. Sentimental forms of theology, moreover, still spread the notion that under no circumstances will God allow anyone to perish spiritually. Even the Barthian theology, which has renovated God’s wrath as a respectable doctrine, wraps it in agape and tends to give it universalistic lining.
So it is understandable that the professionals now speak of the dilemma facing evangelists who seal the gates of hell. Their burden is in part due to the fact that the ethical performance of churchgoers in many places no longer surpasses that of non-Christians. No student of history nor of philosophy should be surprised to discover that suppression of the question of eternal destiny sooner or later dissolves the seriousness of the moral quest. In fact, the modern attempts to justify “the good life” only as intrinsically good and not also as instrumentally good (in view, that is, of the penalties it escapes and the rewards to which it leads) are more akin to secular speculation than to biblical theology. Furthermore, having blurred the distinction between the saved and the perishing, these evangelists are also unsure how to perpetuate the urgency of evangelism and missions. If the implications beyond this life of redemption or non-redemption are softened, can non-eschatological activism really be counted upon to preserve the dynamism of the Christian religion?
The Bossey study document on “theology for evangelism” will come before the WCC Assembly in Ceylon in 1960, when ecumenical leaders hope to integrate International Missionary Council into WCC. As this giant merger nears, ecumenical emphasis more and more focuses on the mission of the Church—a theme more promotive of ecumenical unity, many leaders trust, than theology or order. Indeed, the Oberlin Faith and Order Conference (see CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Sept. 30, 1957) already hopefully suggested that mission may supply the cohesive cement hitherto lacking in ecumenical programs. Some spokesmen see the Church’s corporate ecumenical unity as one of the major objectives of evangelism (“the whole movement toward the new unity of the Church and the overcoming of our divisiveness is one of the most essential developments of evangelism in the modern world”). Indeed, the Bossey document declares that “the Christian is continually aware of the fact of disunion as our basic failure” (Section 135). Against this priority for unity, evangelical Protestants, although granting that disunity often hinders evangelistic fulfillment, emphasize that the real frontier of the Church is unbelief and disobedience. The Protestant Reformation sensed that “organized ecclesiasticism” may pose a threat both to genuine evangelism and to the true solidarity of the Christian Church.
American study of the Bossey document brought together for the first time both denominational theologians and directors of evangelism. They were not asked to formulate any fixed statement of agreements and disagreements with the document shaped by WCC’s Commission on Evangelism. Although American reactions will penetrate into the world document, Canon Theodor Wedel stressed that “the American view will not have unilateral power” and that “a huge packet of criticisms from all over the world” will also weigh in the final revision.
The Bossey document does not presume to be a coherent, systematic theology of evangelism. It deals with five or six burning questions facing evangelism today, so that similar documents dealing with new issues may be expected periodically. By the title “Theology for Evangelism,” it shied away from the American preoccupation with techniques, and also raised doctrinal expectations highly distressing to some American churchmen. The document’s assumption that the crucial questions in evangelism today are theological leads naturally to a demand (in place of the simple correlation of many undefined views) for at least minimal theological definitions of basic terms, such as “the Gospel.” But the ecumenical perils of such definition—the risk of disunity when seeking inclusive agreement on theological concepts—called forth hasty American alternatives. The “modern Church,” some participants stress, “hesitates to take any doctrine as final” (except, we are tempted to add, this profoundly antibiblical premise that God reveals no truths at all, and hence that all theological formulations are fallible human constructions). Theology is described as “distilled experience.” Theology in conceptual formulas is deplored while theology in “dynamic” terms is applauded (“The greatest harm you can do to the biblical theology is to turn it into a system.… Theology is not a theoretical business but a practical task”). So it is insisted that WCC offers no “official superchurch theology” as a criterion, but simply an inductive statement of representative convictions of relevance in the fast-changing world of the twentieth century.
American ecumenists therefore prefer a revision of the title “Theology for Evangelism” to “Some Theological Issues in Evangelism Today,” or perhaps “A Biblical Basis for Evangelistic Consideration and Action,” or something of the sort. Or, should the original title be retained, they would settle for the simple addition, by way of interpretative preface, of the theological consensus previously reached in the Amsterdam and Evanston assemblies. The practical difficulty, however, is that the Bossey document implies that the existing theological consensus has not in fact provided the needed motivation for ecumenical mission.
Not everybody in ecumenical circles is agreed today that evangelism is a proper mission of the Church. Among social scientists one will discover spirited debate over whether evangelism is “a valid change-agent for invading the personality.” But most ecumenical spokesmen do not want the twentieth century simply to trim the Christian view to “what the scientist allows.” Yet mission, for some strategically placed ecumenical leaders, means reformation of the social order more than the regeneration of individuals. What passed for “the Gospel of reconciliation” at the NCC World Order Study Conference in Cleveland seems to many observers to differ radically from the apostolic task given to the Church.
The dominant agreement among ecumenical spokesmen, however, is that evangelism must be done. Some leaders, moveover, sense increasing danger that religious syncretism may cut the nerve of evangelism. Dr. Roswell P. Barnes, American delegate to the WCC, names Reinhold Niebuhr and Arnold Toynbee as scholars who, along with W. Ernest Hocking, provide our generation with an “excuse” for relaxing the Christian witness. Influential spokesmen with an “urge for religious gregariousness” still promote the motion that the twentieth century moves toward one world through the best elements in all religions. Even neo-orthodoxy needlessly tapers the proclamation of the uniqueness of biblical religion: while it champions “unique redemptive religion” against the nonredemptive world religions, its anti-intellectualist bias suppresses the historic emphasis on Christianity as “the one true religion.”
As a matter of fact, quite a surge of evangelistic steam can be generated for redemptive religion—à la ecumenical mission—when the fact of revealed doctrine is waived aside, when the widest tolerance of doctrinal differences and dissent is accepted at the level of “fallible witness,” and when theological emphasis is shifted only to an existential acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as God and Saviour.
In recent years Protestant ecumenism has been flirting with the so-called “third force” in Christendom—the “fringe sects” as distinguished from Catholicism (Greek and Roman) and classic Protestantism. American Protestantism now has three main segments.
1. The National Council of Churches’ constituency, much of its leadership theologically inclusive in temperament (NCC-affiliated denominations include more than 35 million persons, many of whom disapprove some NCC pronouncements.)
2. Non-NCC-related denominations represent more than 22 million persons. National Association of Evangelicals has a service constituency of 10 million persons, while American Council of Christian Churches, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Southern Baptists are other unaffiliated theologically conservative groups.
3. The so-called “fringe groups”—independent and sometimes hostile groups which, although themselves preferring designation as “evangelical,” have often been labelled by traditional Catholic and Protestant forces as “sects.” While incorporating many features of fundamentalist theology, and passionately dedicated to evangelism, the “sects” nonetheless are widely shunned for inadequate or erroneous and heretical doctrinal views. (Not all so-called “fringe groups” are regarded as evangelically inadequate, however. National Association of Evangelicals includes pentecostal bodies such as Assemblies of God, Church of God [Cleveland, Tenn.], Open Bible Standard Churches, and International Church of the Four Square Gospel, and holiness bodies such as Wesleyan Methodist and Free Methodist churches, all of which accept its statement of faith. On the other hand, NAE shuns Seventh-Day Adventists and other groups. Wesleyan Methodists, Free Methodists and Assemblies of God, moreover, maintain an associate membership in NCC alongside their NAE affiliation, and the Assemblies are renting office space in the new ecumenical building in New York.)
With the ecumenical emphasis on mission, and the downgrading of theological considerations as a basis of ecclesiastical unity and cooperation, the “third force” is being cultivated by ecumenical leaders hopeful of the widest possible Protestant thrust. Ecumenical recognition would provide “fringe groups” with an ecclesiastical status denied them by classic Protestantism. The effort to attract such movements to open ecumenical identification is expectantly directed at present toward Pentecostalism.
Since IMC and WCC will likely be integrated in 1960, and since the “fringe groups” have militant missions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, their incorporation would considerably affect the conspicuous cleavage in foreign missions personnel (15,000 in IMC, 12,000 in Evangelical Foreign Missions Association and International Missions Association).
Perhaps, after all, Bossey’s participants saw deeper than they knew. The Church not only needs a well-defined theology for her mission. But the neglected mission of ecumenism is, in fact, a firm commitment to the divinely revealed truths. Eliminate sound doctrine as a basis for Christian unity and evangelism, and ecumenical conversation has many venturesome possibilities. For “tolerance” of this kind either makes heretics of us all or destroys the possibility of heresy. This is no framework within which to face discussions with the “fringe groups,” with Rome, and with a world stirred by the Communist ideology. Our propaganda age has too many contrary winds for the Church to think that any ecumenical dignifying of diversity of doctrine will enhance the Christian witness.
Beyond all doubt, the Christian witness in the generation to come will require all the virility it can muster, and divisions in the body of Christendom will appear to the world as ugly wounds and scars. But the impact registered by the early Christian movement upon a pagan world was not made from the standpoint of ecclesiastical giantism. The martyr-witness of the apostles sprang from their conviction that they were under personal command of the crucified, risen, and exalted Christ, to whom all power and authority had been given; that they were members of a body of regenerate believers united in faith and sound doctrine. That is what the Church needs to recover today, and her best prospect for doing so is a Bible in her hands and a prayer cushion under her knees.
Will Tax Benefit Temptations Smudge The Church’S Witness?
In times of social upheaval men are prone to resurvey all the main roadways, and even the familiar paths become muddy with doubt. In our day the issues of property and taxes remain central to politico-economic discussion, and it should surprise nobody to see the question of tax exemption for the churches raised for multi-sided discussion.
The Marxian collectivistic philosophy of state ownership of property has always found a formidable foe of confiscation of private property in the established churches with large property holdings. On the other hand, wherever free to do so, some churches seem to accumulate vast properties, often beyond their immediate needs. Their generous tax exemptions are then necessarily counterbalanced by tax increases borne by other property owners. Equally significant, recent American tax laws enable church organizations to sponsor business activities while enjoying tax exemptions that virtually destroy the capacity of nonreligious corporations to compete in the free market.
In this issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY Dr. Eugene Carson Blake warns that increasing wealth will secularize the churches. He does not stop there. A continuance of the present trend, he predicts, will eventually invite expropriation of church properties.
In view of the fact that tax exemptions for religious and charitable purposes have always been taken for granted under the American interpretation of Church-State separation, Dr. Blake’s observations, and the proposals he offers, call for careful study and discussion. Ought not churches for their own good to renounce their advantages in holding real property not actually used for church purposes? Is advantaged church competition in business socially just?
There can be little doubt that tax exemption issues have become specially acute through Roman Catholic expansion. It is clear that a different presupposition governs Protestant and Roman Catholic church extension, since Protestants look to voluntarism more than to the support and prestige of the state to enhance the Christian witness. Rome’s definition of the nature and the purpose of the church, moreover, frequently gains exemptions on the ground of church ownership for uses which, to other bodies, scarcely seem religious. The production of two wines—Monastery and Christian Brothers—enjoys special tax benefits because of their ownership by monastic orders of the Roman church.
On the other hand, most Protestants tend to view any taxing of churches as reflective of a secular state. In a secular age, some may ask, will gradual imposition of taxes on church properties—even if by encouragement of the churches—lead finally to the elimination of all religious exemptions, including those for church-related welfare agencies and schools? Does such a process carry a risk of secularizing the social order greater in scope than the threat of secularizing the churches inherent in the present scheme of things? Or will it open the door for ultimate state tax support of church institutions, as in many countries of Europe with their state churches?
Beyond all doubt the issues call for full study. Whether a department of the National Council of Churches ought to be asked “to implement” answers is another matter. Every religious group, once it moves into the sphere of legislative pressures, tends to seek advantage for its own agencies and to penalize those unaligned with it. At any rate, the widest possible consultation of religious leaders should be gathered for discussions. The time has come for sharing of convictions on the matter of religious exemptions.
Christ, Lenin And A Christmas Tree
Conflict between Christianity and communism is conspicuous even in the Soviet exhibition at New York Coliseum, where the nearest thing to a religious appeal is a Christmas tree which is almost lost amidst the dominant motif of might and physical achievement.
A picture of Lenin towers over the exhibit. The caption reads: “All power in the Soviet Union belongs to the working people of town and country.” Were this the case, the effect would still be to contradict the words of Jesus Christ who said: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.”
The Earth Is The Lord’S, And The Fullness Thereof
From Tranquility, N. J., appropriately enough, comes word that a citizen named Robert Rusby wants to put an end to fighting for land on this earth. So he has deeded his 24 acres to God. But complications have arisen. To be legal, the deed must be delivered in person—and so far, says Busby, this has been a problem.
Indeed, the difficulty is perhaps heightened for the legal profession, living in the wake of the liberal theology of the past generation which managed to obscure for its society the idea of a personal God. Incongruous as the Tranquility deed is, it will be worthwhile if it reminds some people that all of the earth is the Lord’s, deeded or not—and that apart from this acknowledgment men are trespassers and even thieves.
And may there be a reminder here to the Christian community that if deeding is out, dedicating is still in order. For a worse incongruity is manifest in the Christian who champions God’s personal accessibility through prayer but is careless about consecrating his possessions to God and his work.
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