Do modern pulpit politicians and money-raisers really resemble Amos or Jeremiah, John the Baptist or the apostle Paul?
The Church of today urgently needs to be more prophetic. As Robert B. McNeill declares in his book, Prophet, Speak Now, the contemporary Church is “an institution bent on saving itself—complacent, seeking to keep everything quiet and comfortable and denying the prophetic mission.”
The Church denies its prophetic mission in many ways, but particularly in its obsession with material things and visible success. Someone has aptly remarked that much of contemporary preaching is geared to the mortgage on the building. The “coming of the Kingdom” seems to be considered a matter of successful church building programs, membership increases, and larger budgets. Most church people are so caught up in this success spiral that they dare not face up to the fact that authentic Christianity too often runs in inverse ratio to successful churchianity. Today the prophet seems to be an encumbrance to the Church. We find the same incrustations of organized religion that Jesus encountered in his time, and there is no room for the prophet in his own country or in any other.
Lacking the prophetic voice, many a church has become dormant, or, to use the term popular today, “irrelevant.” Its influence in the affairs of men is negligible. It is out of touch with reality; it is shrinking back, narrowing its sympathy. No wonder that someone has suggested this epitaph: “The living faith of the dead has become the dead faith of the living.”
But in saying that the Church is denying the prophetic mission, we are pointing an accusing finger at ourselves—its ministers. If the Church is not prophetic, the reason is that those who stand in its pulpits are not prophets. The state of the Church today is the result of the leadership it has or has not had. Only a prophetic ministry can call the Church back to her true mission.
Too often we find in the pulpit the skilled politician rather than the prophet of the Lord. The ideal minister is thought to be the one adept in administration and effective in money-raising, the one who construes the scriptural word about being all things to all men apart from the offense of the Cross. How little this pulpit politician resembles Amos or Jeremiah, John the Baptist or the Apostle Paul, or any other man of God whom we would call a prophet.
A young man being interviewed as a possible candidate for the ministry registered his disinterest by saying, “But the ministry is a job for tea-drinkers and hand-shakers. I want something that will challenge a man.” The ministry is no longer a challenge because the Church today is not challenging men, as did the prophets, with the great questions of sin (not in general but specifically), of righteousness, and of judgment.
This loss of the prophetic note from the pulpit was deplored in an article that appeared in one of our national publications: “Today in our churches we find in the pulpit men whose sole talent is knowing how to put a wet finger into the wind to see how the zephyrs of public attitude are blowing so that they can appeal to as many people as possible” (David Susskind, “The Millennium of the Mental Midgets,” Saturday Evening Post, March 24, 1962). Needless to say, this wet-finger-in-the-wind preaching is worlds apart from the “Thus saith the Lord” of the true prophet. Too often considerations of his own security hinder the preacher from proclaiming the Word of the Lord. Thus he is leading his people back to the flesh pots of Egypt rather than forward to the Promised Land. He has become the priest of the comfort cult, which has as its slogan, “Give me security or give me death.” What a contrast to the battle cry of the prophet of another generation: “Move forward, and the Lord will go before you!” It is much easier to seek the security of some Egypt rather than hazard life on the frontier.
Instead of fulfilling a prophetic ministry, the minister is winning reputation as the upholder of the status quo. He is not about to risk his privileged position by declaring some unpopular truth. His slogan is “Let’s play it cool,” let’s not get too excited about anything, even doing the will of God. A church led by such a placater has little resemblance to the first-century Church that went out and “turned the world upside down” in less than a generation. But as ministers today, we want “to play it safe”; our own security does not allow us to risk life on the frontier, or witness to the will of God in some “Crete.” It is much easier to protect the status quo than to challenge it. If Christ had accepted things as they were, he would not have had to bear the cross; but neither would there be any salvation. What his accusers said of him is true of us if we are faithful ministers, “He saved others; himself he cannot save.” But we are trying to save ourselves, and if we follow Christ, it is always at a safe distance. We are quite content in being the “bland leading the bland.”
Too often today’s minister is an ecclesiastical version of Whyte’s “organization man.” He is thoroughly culturized and in tune with the popular winds of doctrine or denial of doctrine. He is the echo of the crowd rather than “the voice crying in the wilderness.” He is a puppet of the denomination—a “yes-man” to the denominational bosses—concentrating less on the coming of the Kingdom than on the coming of a more lucrative parish at the next annual conference. Little wonder that the Church has become, as Robert Raines has said in New Life in the Church, “the mouthpiece of the people instead of the voice of God. The Church, which is meant to be at tension with the customs and traditions of every culture, changes her protective coloring like a chameleon to suit the environment she is in.”
If we are to lead the Church in the fulfillment of a ministry that is prophetic, we must realize that Christianity is a creative risk rather than a security system. A ministry that seeks the safety of the rear echelons rather than risking the firing line is less than the ministry of Jesus Christ. The prophet is one who is willing to hazard everything in order that the kingdoms of this world may become “the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” In the kind of world we live in today, the preacher should be proclaiming a word from the Lord that might even get him fired. The true prophet does not preach to live but lives to preach. As Ralph Waldo Emerson has put it in his poem “Sacrifice,”
Though love repine, and reason chafe,
There came a voice without reply—
’Tis man’s perdition to be safe,
When for the truth he ought to die.
Not “Safety First” but “God First” is the watchword of the prophet.
In a world full of promises Christianity should be preeminent because it outpromises every ideology, religion, and philosophy. Certainly the promises of communism are pale, shabby, and ungenerous in comparison.… Among the promises of the Christian faith, the following are certain to get a hearing: life, liberty, happiness, community, and forgiveness.…
The Christian concept of the sacredness of life has had a growing impact on the world.… The Christian concept of liberty has also become externalized over the ages. The Christian church was born in a world in which human slavery was an accepted thing and in which immediate emancipation was impossible. But the Christian church abolished it first as a spiritual fact within the confines of its own community. The apostle Paul asserted that the church knows only freemen in Christ and demonstrated in the case of Onesimus how Christian brotherhood makes legal emancipation flow from inner liberation.… Christian ferment eventually led to the legal abolition of slavery throughout the civilized world. It also led to the emancipation of women from many restrictions and disabilities once imposed by law and custom to the present full recognition of their civil and political rights as persons.… Protestantism promoted education everywhere and founded all the oldest institutions of learning in the United States. Civil liberty and the bill of rights and constitutional procedures which sustain it all grew out of the Reformation. Freedom of worship was the source from which political, economic, social, and intellectual freedoms sprang and spread. Freedom under God historically preceded freedom under law.…
The historical record does show that Christianity has fulfilled its promises where the Christian faith was tried, and has failed where that faith was not tried or was too diluted with extraneous elements. What modern man needs, therefore, is a Christian faith that is deeper and purer in a “post-Christian” world and much more widely shared in a religiously pluralistic world.…
Most of our contemporaries … are obsessed with the minority status of Christianity in a religiously pluralistic world and with the magnitude of the forces of evil all around us. They point to the very nominal nature of much Christian affiliation and the shallowness of much church life, to the pervasive secularization of the West, to the renewed vitality of the non-Christian faiths in the East, to the aggressive dedication and ominous spread of the communist faith. The result is that they dismiss the claims of the Christian faith as futile and look for some form of escapism. The most fashionable form of escapism nowadays is existentialism.…
Where two or more rival faiths are defended with equal dedication, it is the truth and not the intensity of the faith which will provide the margin of victory. There is and always will be strength in being right.
—RENE DE VISME WILLIAMSON, Independence and Involvement: A Christian Reorientation in Political Science (Louisiana State University Press, 1964), pp. 32 ff., 254 f.
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