Few essays appearing in this column have elicited the interest and comments from readers that came after publication of the following in July, 1959. The emphasis is even more timely now than six years ago. In substance, this is what we said:
One of the gravest dangers to contemporary Protestantism is its obsession with the periphery of Christianity, to the neglect of the vital center of the Christian faith itself.
To the observer of modern church life, it becomes depressingly obvious after a while that much of the activity takes place around the rim of a wheel whose spokes are made up of innumerable councils, commissions, committees, conferences, assemblies, and organizations.
We would hardly imply that the rim is an unimportant part of the wheel, for it is at the rim that contact is made with the road and the wheel becomes effective. In like manner, the Church must make effective contact with the world if it is to be useful.
However, just as a wheel collapses unless its spokes are firmly centered in the hub, so too church activity cannot be effective unless it is firmly centered in the doctrinal content of Christian truth.
By some strange conspiracy of silence, “doctrine” is almost an ugly word in Protestant circles today. There seems to be a distaste for any reference to the revealed truths basic to the Christian faith. The facts of the person and work of our Lord are shunned. So long as an individual, a congregation, or a denomination is engaged in social engineering, the reason for the activity seems, to many, to be of little importance.
We hear a great deal about the “prophetic role of the Church.” This is good in so far as that role is concerned with individual and corporate sin and the message of the cleansing blood of Calvary is proclaimed as God’s way of redemption. But too often those who emphasize this prophetic role become exclusively concerned with the symptoms of personal and social disorder, while ignoring the cause of man’s distress—his separation from God through sin.
Some time ago a discerning Christian went to hear one of America’s most publicized young ministers. He came away with this remark: “He can say nothing the most beautifully I have ever heard it said.” Little wonder that this man’s ministry fizzled and sputtered out in the ashes of lost convictions. The periphery collapsed because the hub of vital faith was not there.
The Church is in great danger of saying nothing beautifully. Unless there is a positive message of redemption from sin—in God’s way and on God’s terms—what is there to preach? Unless the Christ of the Scriptures is preached, of whom shall we preach? And unless the correct diagnosis of sin is made and God’s remedy in the sacrifice of his Son on the Cross is stressed, why preach at all?
In our obsession with the peripheral things of Christianity, we cater to the pride and restless energies of the flesh while suppressing that which could keep our activity from becoming so much beating of the air. Concern for man’s predicament is no more than humanism unless it centers on the divinely ordained way out of that predicament.
Again we stress that Christianity does have a periphery. It is possible to say something and do nothing—and without an outward demonstration of the Christian faith, the inward becomes a mockery. No amount of emphasis on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit can be effective unless the fruits of the Spirit are evident in the lives of those who profess his name. A wheel consisting of only a hub is a caricature. A hub with projecting spokes alone would wobble and fall apart. A true wheel is a perfect combination of hub, spokes, and rim.
When we consider the great emphasis in Protestantism on the spokes of organization and the rim of activity, and when we note how much the hub of Christian doctrine, which holds together the wheel of Christianity, is ignored, we are struck by the difference of those who went out to establish the early Church. These men had a burning faith in the crucified and risen Christ—a Christ about whom certain things were true, a Christ who had performed certain acts for man’s redemption, the central one of which was dying on the Cross.
Small wonder that so many church-sponsored activities do little more than consume the time of those engaged in them. Small wonder that the average church member, lacking indoctrination, finds himself at a loss to give a reason for the faith he professes. Is it strange that the Church makes such a limited impact on the world?
How different it is with the Communists, who, thoroughly indoctrinated in their evil philosophy, go out to win the world to their beliefs.
The analogy between a wheel and the Church is valid. Just as a wheel must have a sturdy hub to be strong and effective, so a church must have an intelligent doctrinal faith as the basis for effective Christian living, both personal and corporate.
But by and large Protestantism eschews the strong meat of Christian doctrine, which it regards as “divisive.” It seeks a unity of organization and activity based on a willingness to play down those doctrines upon which the Christian faith must be firmly based if it is to be translated into Christian living.
“Saying nothing beautifully” may soothe our consciences and keep us busy. But that “Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures: and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” is the message of the Church to a lost world.
Do we preach that message? If not, we are leaving out the hub—the Gospel.
Let us suppose that from every pulpit in America there should come a new emphasis, a return to simple preaching of the basics of the Christian faith. Suppose that study books, programs, and activities out on the perimeter of Christianity were dropped for the time being and church members were taught the facts and meaning of the Christian faith.
Should all of this happen, the problems of the individual and of society would remain, but people would begin to look at them in a new light—in the light of Holy Scripture and by the Spirit of the living God. And people whose lives had been transformed would do more to right the ills of the world than all the hosts of unregenerate people whose efforts are directed toward a reformed rather than a transformed society.
For a change, let us start with the hub of Christian doctrine and begin building the wheel of Christian conviction, organization, and program soundly on it.
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