Modern society no longer respects the Church as its major interpreter and guide in the social crisis. There are many reasons for this development.

Christianity On The Defensive

For one thing, the Church herself appears inundated by the World; never has she been so unmercifully challenged to justify her very right to existence. To be sure, Christianity always has been a minority movement, and the World has always confronted the Church with some degree of deliberate indifference and hostility. In our day, however, the front of opposition reveals a swaggering re-enforcement quite unknown in ancient, medieval and early modern times. In strategic Western intellectual circles, self-assured and bold philosophical naturalism has triumphantly overrun the social sciences and therefore culture itself. Moreover, the lunge of communism betrays a veritable lightning thrust of social revolution. Its world penetration and power have made the Christian impact seem embarrassingly inefficient and ineffective. As never before, the ranks of atheism are trying to uproot and to discard Christian guidelines; their concerted drive to dominate and monopolize both intellectual and functional areas of society has anti-Christian goals. Naturalism is deaf to the Church’s verdict on the social order because it considers a supernatural faith devoid of authentic credentials to survive a scientific age. It believes the Church sooner or later must simply learn to speak the language of this World.

For this misunderstanding and abuse the Church itself must accept a measure of blame, although certainly not because of failure to convert the whole World. Actually, global conversion has never been her God-given responsibility, although this fact in no way excuses laxity and deficiency in her primary task of evangelism and mission. Her blameworthiness, rather, rises from other considerations.

At one time, when the Church was socially significant, the effects thereof were unforgettably bad. Students of the Middle Ages can recall especially the fifteenth century in this regard.

Today the Church’s ineffectiveness and disrepute stem not from her one but rather from her multiple and conflicting solutions for the social crisis. Too many answers dilute modern respect for the Church. While professing to embody and to channel the unique perspective of divine revelation, the Church has failed to convince the world of this orientation. Her many contradictions in teaching and in social action have not confirmed nor illustrated the demands of her declared frame of reference. She has therefore been pushed to “excuses” rather than to reasons for her exclusive independency. Were the Church therefore to openly identify herself as simply the vehicle of a lofty but changing ethic and not as the ordained bearer and defender of an absolute and once-for-all revelation of redemption, the secular world would embrace her as a powerful, useful, cultural dynamism. The Church’s inconsistency in regard to social issues, her incompatibility and vacillation of message while claiming to speak for the living God, surely place an intolerable and insulting strain on the World’s credulity and reason.

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Pessimism Over Social Change

Not only from without but even from within, the professing Church manifests signs of uncertainty and pessimism today about the nature of her social responsibility. Many vigorous proponents of supernaturalism and special revelation now argue that the Church’s role is simply to challenge rather than to re-create society. This logically means casting the whole ideal of Christian culture to the uncertainties and vagaries of our storm-swept social order. With no built-in controls to assure direction, the ideal of Christian culture will scarcely get into orbit, let alone chart a visible and measurable course in the world. The Christian believer is to compassionately picket the cultural order with a signboard: “Outrage to love and justice.” All the while, however, the social order remains permanently aligned with the world, the flesh and the devil. To take issue with this neo-orthodox thesis of challenge, rather than re-creation, as the task of the Church brings charges of perfectionist insensitivity to the depth of sin in human life and history.

Reaction Against Liberal Optimism

The present wave of pessimism must be understood as a reaction to the tide of optimism that had previously overflowed and soaked into the Christian social vision. It was this exuberance of the early twentieth century that produced the social gospel. Interestingly enough, the distinctive feature of the social gospel was neither its passion for social justice nor its conviction that Christianity has social relevance. What might by way of contrast be called social Christianity long antedated it. Both Christianity’s emphasis on justice and on the social relevance of redemptive religion throb through the pages of Scripture. Without this balanced approach, Christianity becomes anemic. The social gospel knowingly surrendered the personal gospel of Jesus Christ’s substitutionary death and his supernatural redemption and regeneration of sinful men. Instead, it sought to transform the social order by grafting assertedly Christian ideals upon unregenerate human nature. This optimistic approach assumed first, that the World will steadily and progressively improve until it finally culminates in an enduring kingdom of righteousness and peace. Second, such transformation of the social order can result (perhaps even within our lifetime) by inspiring unregenerate mankind to live by Christian ethical principles. Third, such achievement does not require nor depend upon personal redemption by divine grace and supernatural sanctification.

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A Forfeited Opportunity

Perhaps at no time in modern history was American Protestantism so propitiously situated as at the early twentieth century for a world impact. The age of discovery and invention was thriving. Their interest in each other warmed by the revival flames of the previous generation, the scattered churches were already being united in a formal way by ecumenical efforts. Idealistic philosophy—a speculative supernaturalism of many shades—dominated the university centers while naturalism was still on the periphery. Furthermore, the Communist Party was merely an oddity. Consequently the masses (at least in America if not in Europe) still looked to the churches for constructive social guidance. Most intellectuals, too, were sufficiently versed in Western history to acknowledge Christianity as a vital force with which sociological thinkers must reckon.

Sad to say, Protestantism dissipated this great opportunity and certain dire consequences followed hard upon its growing deference to the social gospel:

The social gospel became an alternative to the Gospel of supernatural grace and redemption. This divergence became more and more obvious after 1910. Rauschenbush, who supplied A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917) at the point where the movement had lost spiritual moorings and direction, still propounded the importance of the supernatural regeneration of sinners. At the same time, he shared Washington Gladden’s explanation of evil mainly in terms of man’s environment rather than of the traditional doctrine of depravity. Protestant liberal spokesmen soon enlarged the revolt against traditional theology, and fashioned their optimistic view of history and man from evolutionary theory rather than from the biblical sources of revealed religion. Seminaries training the young clergy took pains to define the antithesis. Popular books like Sheldon’s In His Steps annulled the need of Christ’s vicarious death for sinners. Through the social gospel churches were given a task unstipulated by the Great Commission. The new preoccupation perhaps came through neglect and at the expense of the Church’s divinely appointed mission.

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From then on, many churches in the major denominations espoused a nonsupernaturalistic interpretation of the Christian religion, or even dissolved its unique elements in the solvents of idealistic speculation. At its historic moment of world opportunity, Protestant Christianity, since the Reformation happily freed it from man-made traditions and accretions, now surrendered many of its great pulpits to the theological and social fabrications of the modern mind.

As the ecclesiastical relationships of the regular churches tightened, many churches mirrored the policies of denominational leaders aggressively dedicated to the social gospel. The independent churches, which repudiated the social gospel and therefore carried the full burden of supernatural evangelism and missions, were often embroiled in fervent criticism of denominational churches and of ecumenical activities. Even to this day more than half the foreign missionaries remain deliberately unaffiliated with world ecumenical effort. Instead, they have aligned themselves with strictly evangelical agencies. Within Protestantism itself, therefore, tensions mounted because of controversy over the nature and content of the Christian imperative.

In its reaction against the social gospel, the fundamentalist movement became socially indifferent, and even made the inevitability of social decline a part of its credo. To some extent, pessimism resulted from dispensational views which taught that world-wide spiritual apostasy must precede the second coming of Jesus Christ. So intense was fundamentalist social pessimism, in fact, that even any sign of spiritual revival was often considered suspect. The drift of Protestantism in the twentieth century, particularly widespread apostasy within the professing church, contributed significantly to this fundamentalist negativism. With organized Christianity replacing the good tidings of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for sinners with promotion of the social gospel instead, world doom seemed inevitable. Christ’s return glowed as the only bright prospect at this time.

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The Reformation Heritage

By such evangelical Protestant evasion of the larger problems of social justice, except as social betterment indirectly followed the regeneration of individuals, contemporary evangelicals contrast sharply with their Reformation heritage. Despite its closely guarded and cherished reliance upon biblical authority for the Church’s message, the Protestant Reformation concerned itself no less with Christianity as a world-life view than did medieval Catholicism. The social perspective of fundamentalism may be described as a reaction. Its revolt against the social gospel deflected evangelical Protestantism from the spiritual vision of a Christian culture to an attitude of social isolationism.

Evangelical Social Passion

Admittedly not all evangelical traditions have been interested in a Christian social thrust. Social withdrawal had been the attitude of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement. Such withdrawal, however, was not historically the normal temper of evangelical Protestants, neither in the age of the Reformation nor in the revival eras of eighteenth century England and nineteenth century America. Indeed, in his Brewer prize essay Revivalism and Social Reform (1957), Timothy L. Smith observes that the social passion of evangelicals in the post-Civil War period “merged without a break into what came to be called the social gospel” (p. 235). Twentieth century Protestant humanitarianism is therefore inestimably indebted to bygone evangelicals who made and maintained Protestantism as a mighty social force in America. In this sense the evangelical revival movements furrowed the ground from which the social gospel sprang. As Dr. Smith comments in another connection (CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Sept. 29, 1958), the seizure by liberalism of the proprietorship of the Good Samaritan is “one of the great ironies—and falsehoods—of our time.”

Fundamentalist Disinterest

The fundamentalist lack of social vision must therefore be seen primarily as a reaction against Protestant liberalism. The twentieth century “gospel” of social betterment and the first century “good news” for the individual seemed two irreconcilable statements of the Christian task and hope. Fundamentalism came to regard this antithesis of man and society not simply as accidental in view of liberalism’s unfortunate defection from biblical theology, but as necessary in view of the nature of the Gospel and its course in the World. The movement of fallen history is downward; entrance to the kingdom of God comes only through individual rebirth. The primary task of the Church is evangelism and missions. Alongside these sound convictions, fundamentalism, unfortunately, neglected the Christian criticism of the social order and the task of sheltering the whole range of human freedoms and duties under the self-revealing God.

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Recovering Lost Ground

During the past 20 years evangelical Protestantism has steadily sought to recover lost ground in the realm of social concern. The tiny book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) reflected the private conviction of a growing bloc of evangelical leaders that Christianity makes imperative the declaration of the social relevance of biblical religion and ethics in all spheres of life. The six brief chapters of that book were first prepared upon request as essays for Religious Digest, but the magazine’s editors were fearful that the series, scheduled over a period of months, would arouse misunderstanding unless published as a unit. Hence they appeared from the first in book form. Since mid-century, evangelical social concern has steadily mounted. More and more it became obvious that the evangelical failure to proclaim Christ as Lord of the whole life allowed secular and sub-biblical agencies to pre-empt the spheres of culture for alien points of view. At the present time the influence of extreme dispensational views is on the wane in interdenominational colleges and even in some Bible institutes.

New Juncture Of Forces

The appearance of the fortnightly magazine, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, marked a new contemporary juncture of evangelical forces with the Reformation emphasis on Christianity as a world-life view and with the insistence of nineteenth century American revivalism on the social significance of the Gospel. Other agencies contributed in a somewhat preliminary way to this confluence of conviction. For more than 15 years Reformed and fundamentalist clergy had served together on various commissions within the National Association of Evangelicals. Today the evangelical movement recognizes in a new way not only the propriety but the necessity of a social application of the Gospel. Those rejecting the concern for social justice as an illegitimate facet of evangelical interest, vocal though they may be, more and more represent a retreating minority.

Dr. Carl F. H. Henry’s address on “Perspective for Christian Social Action” was delivered recently at a Christian Freedom Foundation retreat in Buck Hill Falls, Pennsylvania. Part II, which will appear in the February 2 issue, deals with the controlling principles of an evangelical strategy for social ethics.

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