CHRISTIANITY TODAYpublishes this letter from a denominational official because its assessment of contemporary trends comes from a distant missions outpost, where the cross-fire is heavy, and where the whole armor of God is not a metaphor but a requirement for survival.
Dear Elder Brethren in Christ:
Two young friends of mine—call them Mary and Robert—live and go to school in a suburban town back in the homeland. They are seniors in high school this year, working hard at the term papers and investigative reports which stand between them and their graduation.
Somehow, God alone knows how. These two wonderfully attractive young people found time in their four year-round of high school studies, games and parties, to continue their study of the Scriptures and cultivate habits of prayer. God blessed them, for they became good students, fine athletes, and they are leaving high school as heartwarm Christians.
This week I received from Mary a letter full of the “doing things” chatter of a young girl-woman looking forward to college. Among other things, she wrote the following:
“We’ve been talking about ghosts and the supernatural in English class. Bob and I had to do some research (for the class? on mysticism, so we went to interview the pastor of the Presbyterian Church, because he is taking courses at the University on mysticism.”
Mary and Robert did not have to go far for their interview. The Presbyterian Church in their town is a lovely white structure, placed serenely on its lawns, close by the school itself. Handholding students stroll in the churchyard, and there, in the shade of the maples, they have learned to know and value the cheerful pastor who is frequently asked to address the school assemblies. So, as I sit here 8,000 miles away, I find it easy to reconstruct the scene: The two youngsters, notebooks and pencils in hand, going in toward the manse by the back way, knocking at the door; a sunny room, with that hale fellow sitting there, eyes glowing warm with friendliness. Questions then, and a deep, resonant voice (it is a fine voice) holding forth for these easy-to-like young people.
Mary went on to tell about it:
“Boy, was I shocked! I had talked to people who did not believe in hell before, but never had I talked to a minister with views like this. He stated out and out and flatly that he thinks everyone who ever lived or will live is saved. He says the Gospel says one thing to him: man is a sinner and God is love, and because God is Love He would not see anyone perish. He says it is a hypocrite who can love those who love him, but God loves those who don’t love Him, and will not see them perish.”
So there they were, two people who are in themselves a miracle, snatched somehow out of the materialism and “I’ll get mine, Jack” atmosphere of mid-century America, and they were being counselled in the “deeper things” of Christ and his Kingdom along the lines I have just related, by a minister of my church!
If Mary and Robert were impatient, I am ready to forgive them, though she tells about it rather too archly:
“Well, we answered him from Scripture … but it was shocking to think that here was a minister of our Faith teaching people this doctrine, his own doctrine, and calling it Christianity. Why, what was the purpose of Christ then?”
As Mary’s letter closes with sundry comments on the standing of teams in the local high school league, plus an aside on the sentimental implications involved in wearing a cheerleader’s uniform for the last time this coming Thursday, it is comforting to believe that the local shepherd of the sheep did no permanent damage to the lambs thrown willy-nilly by an English assignment into his keeping. Still, I am moved to protest, and at length.
First, with respect to my two young friends: That gentle pastor will smile, perhaps, at the suggestion of real agony as being present in the spiritual experiences of teenagers. We like to cast our adolescents into the Henry Aldrich image, thinking of them as suffering over the choice of this Saturday’s necktie, or bumbling with one another in social relationships. Maybe there is something to the idea, though it is strange that in an age which measures everything else in terms of consequences we should belittle the emotional trials and spiritual ills which every year fill the wombs of many unmarried girls, and which lead our sons to violence, drunkenness, and immorality. Yet I suppose it is difficult to think of these things there in the churchyard, while the maples are in leaf and sturdy children walk past to their games.
But I was there and know the experiences and prayer which brought these two to the feet of Christ, and their troubles were no teapot tempest. And then, for Mary and Bob to be attacked at a conviction so near to the heart of their belief, the idea that Christ is to be met here and now while time remains, seems hellish. For one thing, if all are saved it would have been better for them to wait: What sense after all in encouraging differences in behavior, values, and belief among young persons if they go to a common meeting with a common Saviour, in his own good time? Better, it would seem to me, to leave the introduction of divisive ideologies for later, the gift of an ill adult society.
But no, Mary and Robert came to Christ because they believed that today was their appointment with eternal life, and having received at the hands of their Ford that treasure, they are active in these days among their classmates, trying in their not-too-skillful way to exalt Jesus, and to bring their fellows into acquaintanceship with him. In a way they are astonishing, having become fitted somehow, in the age of Coca-Cola and beer-on-the-sly, as repositories of divine Grace, sent to testify to their generation of Living Water, springing up into eternal life. Because this is true, it is reassuring to think of that pastor as speaking in ignorance, for it would be a foolishly brave man, hell bent, who would otherwise dissuade the likes of these from their holy task.
THE EVASION OF THE CROSS
Brethren, the offense to Christ would be serious enough were there only one pastor in a not-very-posh northeastern suburb holding forth the doctrine of universalism in a confessional church; but you well know, all of you, that this belief is more widespread than that. Make up a little tote sheet of your presbyter, district, or conference, and ask yourself how many times in the meetings and social discussions of these bodies you have heard the position presented. Explicitly? Implicitly? Is there any connection between that lethargy in your missions program and the currency of these ideas? Remember, the universalist has plenty of time.
Speeches and actions of our leaders before the world and in their contacts with other faiths indicate, I believe, that they also hold views similar to those of the pastor in Mary’s letter, though more highly intellectualized. Imagine the dismay, for instance, felt by the group of missionaries in this area when they read in their denominational magazine, a little more than a year ago, a report by an executive of the National Council of Churches in which the gentleman spoke at length concerning the high sense of spiritual exhilaration he had experienced in a joint prayer meeting of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, somewhere here in the East. We were deeply disturbed at the time, for it seemed to us then as now that the very presence of a Christian elder as participant in such a meeting indicated his recognition of validity in the approach to God of persons in that meeting who would not own the Son. We wondered how this particular leader found opportunity in such a situation to proclaim the “way,” the only valid path to reconciliation with the Father, expressed with such rending simplicity by Christ as “No man cometh unto the Father except by Me.”
Similarly, there is in my files a letter from a man who is, in terms of the making of policy, one of the more influential missionary figures of the decade. This saintly and compassionate individual speaks of his conviction that the sole purpose of Near and Middle Eastern missions in this century is not and cannot be the snatching of a few souls from among the mass of Muslims, and from which point he goes on to call for deepening encounter with Islam, across the bridges of common belief which stretch between the two faiths. When I first read his suggestion I was struck with the tenderness and love out of which it was made. Now, however, thinking about it and watching the outworking of his initiative in various conferences these days, I find that it too seems wanting and failing to call for the haste which our times demand, and is haunted also by the ghost of this thing which is troubling me—a feeling that implicit in such an approach is a concession that Truth lies in this path which Islam has chosen, the path which leads around the cross of our Saviour.
One could go on and on. Not long ago, from the pages of a secular journal, a Christian scholar told us no longer to go in mission to the Jews; or there is today a growing practice of inviting non-Christian speakers to address our people from pulpits made for proclamation; and we might mention the proposals latterly made for a joint conference of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders to be held one day soon in the Holy Land. But to continue to particularize is to detract from the point which must be made: not only among our leaders, but among many of you in the rank and file of the clergy there is a growing disbelief in Jesus Christ as an unique, that is, an only Saviour. And, lest dimly perceiving the fact evangelicals grow restive, we are pushed forward into dialectic, a hushed room in which the only loud words are directed to us: “Be careful what you say. Do you want to make them angry?”
What is or Who is the Church proclaiming today? Does she say, “What think ye of Christ?” Or in less assured tones, is she saying, “Let’s swap insights.” Mark you well, if she is not asking the first, the historic question, she is only whimpering in the atomic rain of her century.
The question, “What of those who have never heard of Christ?” arises out of love in the abstract for millions of voiceless, distant people who are not even faces to us, and on whose behalf we, lacking faith in the wisdom and justice of the Creator, seek to ease aside the keystone of the confession of Christ so as to leave a crack above the gate of heaven through which they may enter. How good are our motives!
One will be pardoned for pointing out the peril involved in shifting keystones. As a half-retreaded layman, I enter upon perilous ground in suggesting that Christians of the conservative, Bible believing variety have consciences too. But more than mere conscience, they are also possessed of a humility in their approach to the Scriptures which has saved them from much uncertainty, and which has enabled them to get on with the job. Faced with the same problem, “What of those who have not heard?,” they have attempted no exegetical tour de force so as to dodge it, but rather have translated the abstraction of love from which the question arises into a more concrete expression of the same emotion, by going themselves to those who have no preacher, or by sending their sons, their daughters, their friends. Perhaps their impatience with those who would make of Christ something less than the one Sinbearer is an understandable, human thing, for which you will forgive them.
MEMOIRS OF THE RECENT PAST
It has been my kismet to be nurtured in so-called “regular” churches—the Methodist, the United Presbyterian, and latterly, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Of the variety of ministers before whom I sat in those long sabbath mornings of childhood I remember clearly only three—the three who taught me in my adolescence. One was a tortured man, crushed by marital tragedy in the early years of his ministry, who had come along the road to a point where he doubted that Jesus had any relationship with the Father other than that of a great teacher, the greatest no doubt, but “a teacher” all the same. To our young ears this pastor expressed that doubt. He was a kind man, and we believed and loved him, but we did not learn to love God under his ministry.
My second pastor was an intellectual. There was nothing cheap about that intellect, developed as it was through nights of study in a mountain shack and then far trips away and down the mountain to school. His compassion was genuine too, for he knew what poverty was and how exacting was its toll upon the human soul. It was from him that I learned about the Judd family, and what was the failure of the Spartacists, and of Jane Addams. But never did I nor my classmates learn about Jesus Christ, except “in the light of” this or that topical fashion of the day. Thus our Sunday worship was a proper extension of the civics class which met for five other days of the week.
Our third counsellor was a very corpulent individual, with asthma. My clearest recollections of him, doubtless overdrawn in the merciless observations of youth, concern his asthma (statement, wheeze, statement, wheeze) plus the memory of frequent exchanges between his equally fleshy wife and us youngsters who had added to her other attributes as delightfully picric a tongue as you can imagine. If sincerity is a redeeming virtue in the ministry, let it be said that they were sincere, and once in a while we would hear a good sermon. I remember learning to Be Good To Mother, and to Pray For Czechoslovakia. Sabbath worship, however, was mainly spent in wishing the blamed thing would be over so we could rush across the street to meet our friends as they came pouring out of Saint Somebodys, where the happy people went.
My father, anxious for me to be proud of my church and to know the Lord who is her Captain, hoped that there remained somewhere therein the vitality and sense of mission which had characterized the church in his youth. And so, with visions of rousing preaching and fine singing, he prevailed upon me in my seventeenth year to attend a city-wide youth meeting. I went, somewhat reluctantly. It developed into an interesting time, chiefly because the chairman turned out to be an individual of whom I had heard through a leftist cousin of mine. He, the chairman, was doubling in brass as an officer of the county youth group, and of the local campus socialist club. At an interval of 17 years I do not remember what was the subject of that meeting, though I retain an impression that it concerned “Building For Peace,” for we were deep in the war then, and the Judds were no longer of evangelical appeal. Anyway, I went back to my Catholic friends, the happy people.
Now, I’m wrong to have been carried away into levity, though it is a relief after these many years to be able to speak in a light vein of what was a shame and a sin. But I am most serious when I tell you that I am a Christian today, not because of any “regular” denominational program, but because young people from the despised “fundamental” “fringe” “splinter” groups—by whatever name you are calling them these days—spoke the words of eternal life to me in situations where they were caused to sink deep, to come later into meaning. There was an Inter-Varsity group at my college, operating with the reluctant consent of the authorities. At a time when Student Volunteers, the “regular” organization, was concerned with the relative innocence of Alger Hiss and the state of Ghandi’s eternal soul, this tiny group met weekly in a small, upstairs room. Somebody (bless her!) used to take me there regularly, so that in that room from my contemporaries I began really to hear that Name which is above every name, and to sense the reciprocal conversation between Christians, individual Christians I insist, and their God.
These lonely few had their own titans, names which I had never heard before. Since then I have heard of their leaders again, this time to be described as “wretched independents,” leading the young out of the church. I do not know whether that was true, but this I do know: independents though they were, they had done faithful preaching which had touched the hearts of college men and women. And on the few occasions when God lifts this not-very-able missionary above his limitations, they speak through me as well.
My “decision” at Inter-Varsity proved to be a decision without grace. But that is not to belittle what was the holy witness of my friends, and a profitable one. When in later years evangelicals spoke to me of Christ, the frame of reference had been set and I knew by courtesy of those young believers at college that I was indeed a sinner and that, waiting for me in Christ, was the new life of which my father had been speaking since my childhood. Thus, when my life touched its low ebb, all things had been made ready. On the Friday which was indeed “Good” Friday for me I heard a friend and pastor, this time a “regular” one, speak the words which stirred my heart to life.
What does this have to do with my two friends’ experience in the manse beside the school? Or with talk of deepening encounter? Or with universalism? In the heart and mind of this auditor of your preaching it very much fits together:
For one thing, my ministerial brethren of the “regular” churches, I have an old quarrel with you. I remember how you chose your prophets from among the crowd standing outside the assembly of the sons of God, and validated from your pulpit those theories made with never so much as an upward glance to heaven and bidding us use them as tools in witness for Christ. When you were blind with that almost total blindness of the thirties you pretended to be able to see. Now, if you say again that you know the way, how shall we believe you?
Remembering the shepherd function which ought to be much at the heart of the ministry, I cannot forbear to mention the broken, now rotted bodies of three of my friends, one in Italy and two in France, who might have died “in grace” had some of you not been so very busy reinterpreting the Gospel “in the light of” this or that. They are symbols of a fallen army, and their silent accusation reveals all our talk of theological trends and cycles for the hollow rot it is.
Some of you are the true, the original “status seekers,” trading in my childhood your holy calling of proclamation to repentance for the niggardly, low social crumb involved in being thought up to date. Others engage in continual apology for the Bible, abandoning the great weapon of the Christian soldier to scavenge on the ideological battlefield for broken lances, rusted swords.
If you are a member of a confessional church, as my own, I accuse you of having held and continuing to hold ministers above the ministry in value. You have degraded your confession by permitting the teaching of almost any doctrine short of the morally scandalous, so long as it be done sotto voce. In fact, when erring ministers of your number have been charged with teaching doctrines contrary to the Scriptures and their confession, you have resorted to a spirit of low professionalism in sheltering them, and have accepted from them model interpretations to keep the peace among the credulous faithful.
Some of you are guilty of common dishonesty in maintaining your membership as pastors in churches characterized by doctrines you no longer accept, and you do not even trouble to utilize the mechanisms which exist for the amendment of confessional statements.
Can’t you see what all this means? How we continue to be embarrassed by the claims of Christ! In my day social issues afforded us an excuse to forego presenting the Person of the Master. Today it is our preoccupation with the Church, His creature. But whatever be the subject of the moment, we in our weakness of faith continue to obscure His face in the whirlwind of our activities, and His words in the noise of our own.
Thus we became a reproach, and the world shook its finger at us. We thought those jeers concerned our lack of unity. We were wrong, brethren: That loud laughter offstage celebrates our lack of integrity.
Deepening encounter? Universalism? Plenty of time? Just now, as I close this letter, the mullah from our local mosque has lifted his voice in the fifth call to prayer. It is nine o’clock odd, and that lovely sound goes swirling up and across the blue smoke of this evening’s cooking fires toward that God of the Muslims who neither begets nor is begotten, but only is. It is a sad sound, for there is a closed vault to that heaven and no answer to the cry. As the sound fades I am thinking of the millions here who raise that cry each day, and of silent legions at home and elsewhere who offer no prayer at all. Suddenly I am crushed by my own unfaithfulness in witness to the Opener of heaven. The things which have caused me to keep silent when I should have spoken, or to speak unthinkingly, are of course the same illnesses which afflict the teaching elders of the Church: they are pride and self-love, passion, a defensive spirit and above all the very human desire to be liked and to have relaxed, unstilted fellowship with other human beings. These sins peep out, I’m sure, through the lines of this letter. I hope you will pounce upon them, for there is a hitter dose which you and I must drink, my brethren: It is the gall of abasement.
Will there be time to drink? It is a nasty dream I have sometimes: there is an ugly, gray cloud sweeping over the countryside, scorching and choking all things. At the last only a little plot of grass remains in sunlight, the last sunlight of earth, and in that sunlight a man is standing, speaking to two who are seated, the last two: then the cloud engulfs them. Just a few lonely words are heard, Greek words, “Oiko, and …” That will be all the time there is.
J. A. GITTINGS
American (United Presbyterian) Mission
Gujranwala, West Pakistan
A Prayer For The Nation
“Almighty and Everlasting God, our heavenly Father, Ruler of the Universe, Judge of the Nations, we, Thy humble servants, do give thee grateful thanks for this great land of liberty founded upon justice, exalted by righteousness and blessed from its beginning by Thy wisdom and power.
“We thank Thee for our great national heritage and we thank thee for the founders of this land, who knew that in the fullness of time Thou didst send Thine Only Begotten Son Jesus, to become the Saviour and Lord of all mankind.
“We pray tonight that Thou wilt strengthen and bless the President of these United States and all who labor with him, in whatever capacity, to the end that righteousness may prevail; that the strain of these days may not break our spirits; and that no denials of human freedom now loose in the world may intimidate our souls.
“We thank Thee for the occasion that brings us together tonight on the eve of this great evangelistic campaign. Lead us all in one common devotion and loyalty as we unite our efforts to bring men into a saving knowledge of Thy Son, Jesus. Prepare the hearts and minds of all of us, to hear once again the Gospel message of our Lord and our Christ. We are indeed grateful, Heavenly Father, for this opportunity of having Dr. Billy Graham in our Nation’s Capital. We thank Thee for him. For he is indeed an apostle of light, of life and love. Direct his preaching so that as men listen they may truly ‘see Jesus’ whom to know is life eternal.
“In this day when the raucous voices that cry out in opposition to righteousness so that millions hear only faintly the revolutionary teachings of the visionary Jesus, speak so clearly through him, O Lord, that men cannot refuse to listen. In this day when multitudes turn their back upon Thee, or shake their puny fists in Thy face, be patient O Lord, and reveal Thyself through this Thy servant so vividly that men cannot resist Thy love and leadership.
“In these days of uncertainty, increase our faith in Thee, for Thou art indeed the Father of us all. And when the problems that confront us seem overwhelming, when the principles for which brave men have died are betrayed, when the seamless robe of world brotherhood is rent in twain, may we still labor on, serene and confident, knowing that as we preach Jesus and Him crucified the joy of God’s sure victory will be ours and men will come to know that “in Him” is life eternal. Through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. Amen.”—Invocation by Major General FRANK A. TOBEY, Chief of Chaplains, U. S. Army, at a “banquet” for military leaders preceding Billy Graham’s National Capital Crusade.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.