Dr. bulkley’s letter, found on page 22 of this issue, calls for an attempt to clarify certain issues.
The question of “individual conversion and the changing of social structures as appropriate ways by which the Church is called upon to function in her task of serving Christ in the world” is not one of “alternatives” but one of priorities. The social structures of society can never be adequately changed until the hearts of men are changed. It is not the clothes people wear, or the food they eat, or the houses they live in that is of primary concern for the Church. Rather, it is the inner man and his relationship to God.
The Church has a high and holy calling, to proclaim the message of redemption in Christ. If she does not fulfill it, no one will. If she gives priority to social action, she might possibly succeed in eliminating every social, economic, and political injustice; but she would then find that men were still lost sinners without knowledge of the Saviour.
At issue is the nature and mission of the Church. Is she called, as Dr. Bulkley implies, to be God’s instrument “in the development of a world in which freedom and justice, peace and brotherhood, are to be genuinely characteristic of human relationships”? Such a shift in social values and behavior is indeed desirable. Yet the fact remains that the Church is called to witness to redemption of sinners through faith in Christ. The Church is a spiritual organism in the midst of a secular society, and the desired changes can take place only as the Spirit of God changes the hearts of men.
The risen Lord, commissioning the newly converted Paul to service, said: “I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18, RSV). There were desperate social needs in the day of the Apostle Paul, but there were more desperate needs of the heart.
That the redeemed should show evidence of the transforming power of Jesus Christ in social and interpersonal relationships is indisputable; “faith without works is dead.” But Christianity must not be equated with any particular demand for social action. Of late, civil rights has been the main social concern. A few years ago it was pacifism. And there now is emerging a new social concept, the eradication of poverty. These are not the Gospel, nor are they doctrines of the Christian faith.
As for Dr. Bulkley’s rather cavalier description of a conversion experience: unquestionably there are those who equate their own salvation experience with things they “give up.” This kind of negative Christianity is only too common. But it is also a fact that a man may be engaged in numerous activities for making the world a better place in which to live and also “be the same old sinner.” “Giving up drinking or smoking or playing golf on Sunday” no more makes a man a Christian than does the participation in social activities, such as the Selma-Montgomery march. (I have heard participation in such activities described as “redemptive acts.”)
Unless social action shows clearly that it is motivated by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and done in his name, it is secular and not Christian. But compassion for man’s welfare and a Christian witness can and should be combined if the Church is involved. I know, for I was engaged in social work as a medical missionary in China for twenty-five years, and the Gospel had top priority.
The willingness, even urgent desire of some social planners to make use of the power of government to force change in attitudes is not, I believe, the Christian approach to a difficult problem. Caesar cannot make Christians or change hearts.
The Church is in the world to proclaim the Gospel to others who need to be redeemed. There is grave danger that the pressure of some to make the Church “relevant” by engaging in social engineering, economics, and politics can make her irrelevant in the very area where she is most needed. Her competence and calling are, or should be, in the things of the Spirit.
In our Lord’s story of the prodigal son, it would seem that the wayward boy’s primary need was to “come to himself” and return to his father with a confession of his unworthiness and need. This can well be termed a “conversion experience,” and it was the key to his rehabilitation.
The primary emphasis now evident in some areas of the Church indicates that there are those who do not regard mankind’s—the “prodigal’s,” if you will—spiritual state as of vital importance to the Church. Apparently these persons will be content if they can make the erring son happy, comfortable, and prosperous in the “far country”; they do not feel that they must bring him back to his Father through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.
I shall be accused of lacking social concern. I do not; no Christian should. But if the Church’s primary concern is not spiritual, she fails in her mission. This is not a matter of “alternatives” but of priorities, and unless the sequence is kept clear we shall fail all along the line.
In most of the major denominations, there is taking place a thorough reappraisal of the function of the Church. Even more important, we believe, would be an appraisal of the message of the Church. Too many hungry sinners rise from their church pews still feeling unfed; they have heard about various secular issues and social programs, but the needs of their souls have been neglected.
Slowly but surely the concept of the Christian minister is being changed. Instead of a man who concentrates on spiritual matters, he is becoming one whose primary focus is on secular affairs—to the great loss of the Church and the confusion of an already confused world.
At the same time, many Christians feel that the spiritual nature of the Church is being subverted to secondary ends. They rightly feel that it is their duty to wield their individual influence for righteousness, but they see ecclesiastical leaders assuming secular leadership and using the name of the Church to further their own concepts for the social order.
With all my heart I agree with Dr. Bulkley’s affirmation in the second paragraph of his letter, that it is the grace of God which must lay hold on a man’s heart to remake and renew his heart.
But we are confronted on every hand by the Church’s becoming a pressure organization for social changes, all of which are blueprinted to follow a particular concept of righteousness. And churchmen do not hesitate to solicit the forces of secular government to accomplish these ends.
A good physician will not be content with treating symptoms. He looks for the cause of the disease. The Church should do no less.
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