The Beginning of a new year is the time for New Year’s resolutions. Recently a friend moaned, “No more New Year’s resolutions for me! I just break them, and it’s too discouraging.”
Of course we will break resolutions if they are any good. Good New Year’s resolutions, like any goals, always set forth ideals beyond us. “Hitch your wagon to a star” is still good advice. The Bible commands us to be perfect—like God. The purpose of good resolutions is to set before us neither unreasonable goals that destroy hope nor attainable goals that can be met with less than our best, but rather to give us ideal, yet reasonable goals that stretch us to our limit and beyond. Each new year presents a challenge to set such goals.
We grow only by setting goals that at first seem impossible. Faced with such goals, the pessimist quits: he gives up the struggle, for he sees no hope. H. G. Wells, once known as the world’s greatest optimist, ended his life in despair. From the depths of his gloom he wrote: “The writer is convinced that there is no way out or round or through the impasse. It is the end. Mind may be near the end of its tether.
“Our world of self-delusion will admit none of that. It will perish amidst its evasions and fatuities.… Mind near exhaustion still makes its final futile movement towards that way out or round or through the impasse.…
“There is no way out or round or through. Our universe is not merely bankrupt; there remains no dividend at all; it is not simply liquidated; it is going clean out of existence leaving not a wrack behind. The attempt to trace a pattern of any sort is absolutely futile.
“The human story has already come to an end and Homo Sapiens, as he has been pleased to call himself, is in his present form played out. The stars in their courses have turned against him, and he has to give place to some other animal better adapted to face the fate that closes in more and more swiftly upon mankind.”
Many more are inclined to agree with Woodrow Wilson, who was fond of quoting this bit of ancient doggerel:
My granddad, viewing earth’s worn cogs
Said things were going to the dogs.
His granddad in the Flemish bogs
Said things were going to the dogs.
His granddad in his old skin togs
Said things were going to the dogs.
There’s one thing I have here to state,
The dogs have had a good long wait.
But the confirmed optimist is in no better position. He quits, too, for he sees no need for the struggle. Both attitudes are more reflections of personal temperament than conclusions demanded by the evidence. It is true that some evangelicals veer dangerously close to pessimism. “This world is not our home; we are just passing through,” they sigh. And with appropriate piety they denounce the world as utterly and irredeemably evil without possibility of hope. Every ounce of energy expended to heal its festering sores is misguided and wasted effort—if not downright sinful disobedience to God. According to this view, our duty is to wait in patience for the Rapture, which will deliver us from a world that is doomed.
Granted, such a scheme rests on isolated pieces of valid biblical teaching. This is a wicked world; it lacks moral power to save itself. We can never usher in our own millennium. The Lord of heaven and earth has promised to come again quickly, and he alone will introduce a perfect society. Only then will the kingdoms of this world “become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.”
Nevertheless, an unmitigated pessimism regarding the world of human society represents a perversion of biblical teaching. It fails to take into account the biblical commands to seek to change this world for the better. We are to love our neighbor and to seek his good. And our neighbor is the unbelieving Samaritan in need. We are to bind up the wounds of those who suffer; we are to provide food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless; we must become peacemakers in a world of violence. We must bend every effort to restrain wickedness and do battle for justice. By our voice, by our resources, by our very lives, if necessary, we must be willing to give ourselves to others for what is good and right and just. The biblical Christian is the man or woman who lives for others.
But he is also a realist, and therefore he avoids the extremes of both an impotent pessimism and an indolent optimism. He has no illusions of final perfection in this world achieved by man’s efforts—but he knows that one single life can make a difference. And he vows that he himself, by the help of God, will make that difference.
Right and left and in every direction, evangelicals face a world in turmoil, a proud world beaten to its knees by overwhelming forces that push it to the edge of destruction, though it is a world still too proud to turn to God for help. Yet the evangelical is always facing the world. He is never able, therefore, to set his own agenda. It is always the world that sets its agenda for the evangelical. In part, no doubt, this cannot be helped because evangelicals are a small minority in society. But instead of facing the world’s agenda, we evangelicals need to face up to the theological trends and to the social, economic, and political problems of our day. We must stop resigning ourselves to the initiative of the world. Evangelicals must start coming up with constructive solutions based on solid biblical values applied faithfully and intelligently to the real world.
Failure Of The Quick Fix
Our difficulty as evangelicals, to put the matter bluntly, is that we have not done our homework. We favor the “quick fix.” We prefer it because it is simpler—forgetting that real life is terribly complex. We also prefer it because it is immediate, exciting, and it provides easily measurable and reportable results. This explains in part evangelicals’ support for missions (of course, there are also other and more praiseworthy explanations). It also explains their lack of concern for education and Christian scholarship. Too often it seems more important to bag a new convert than to disciple those already in the church—even on the mission field.
Recent events have disclosed the folly of this twisted sense of values. While evangelicals have nobly supported mission outreach in the far corners of the world, liberals have concentrated their resources strategically in overseas education and in scholarships for foreign nationals. Since World War II, they have brought to Western Europe and America thousands of the brightest young Third World converts to Christian faith, and have educated them in liberal theological institutions, weaned them from their evangelical mission faith, and returned them (sometimes) to their Third World mission churches. There they have become enthusiastic converts to liberal causes, to the liberal ecumenical movement, and, usually, to a liberal theology.
The Melbourne conference of 1980 proved the wisdom of this strategy. These bright products of the evangelical missionary movement, wooed to liberal positions by ecumenically supported study grants, provided brilliant leadership not only for the conference, but also for their own national churches. By their short-sightedness, evangelicals are now in extreme danger of losing the mission churches for which they have labored so sacrifically and so successfully since World War II. Evangelicals must learn that the simple solution of a quick fix may well prove destructive of their own biblical values, and they must be willing to do the necessary homework so as to master the complex problems needing solution. They must search them out in depth, lay open their weaknesses, engage them at their neural points, and provide positive solutions to real problems. Quick fixes are seldom good fixes.
The Art Of Strategic Compromise
Another evangelical roadblock to success on the political and social scene is an unreasonable fixation against compromise of any sort. Not all compromises are evil. If all problems had simple solutions on which every sincere person agreed, compromises would be neither necessary nor desirable. Unfortunately, many problems do not have easy answers. With the best will in the world, earnest evangelical Christians do not always agree even on major issues. Former Congressman John Dellenback (now president of the Christian College Coalition) tells this story:
“When I was in Congress we had a so-called prayer in the public school amendment which came before us. Four of us members of Congress met weekly to talk about our concern as Christians in dealing with public issues. We spent an hour one time at our regular weekly meeting, talking about the prayer amendment soon to come up for vote. A week later we hadn’t voted on it yet so we talked another hour. We explored in detail how we as Christians could use our responsibility as members of Congress in voting on that issue. Then the four of us went off to the floor; and two voted ‘aye’ and two ‘nay.’ ”
Earnest Christian congressmen, each motivated by a radical commitment to biblical values, could not agree on a simple yes or no vote. In the complex political, social, and economic questions troubling our society, many alternative solutions vie for acceptance. Even with a transparent desire to obey God and serve his fellow men, a Christian may well conclude several alternatives have their good points and none is without serious problems. Here is where the evangelical Christian must learn the fine art of political compromise if he would function effectively as a Christian in a pluralistic society.
But the evangelical draws back in fear that he may please man but disobey his God if he compromises. How can an evangelical Christian, committed to the Bible as the Word of God and the infallible rule for faith and practice, dare to compromise with right and wrong? Does not the Bible give us divinely revealed absolutes that must be obeyed in letter as well as in spirit regardless of the cost?
It is here that evangelicals must learn to distinguish personal convictions and obedience from corporate decisions and cooperative action. Certain kinds of compromise are always wrong. It is always wrong to disobey God in order to please men. But not all compromise is evil. Some compromise is required by obedience to God in love for our neighbor and in due regard for his person and his rights.
Political compromise is of this desirable sort, and evangelicals must learn the fine art of political compromise. Such compromise will not violate personal convictions, but it will enable evangelicals to work effectively for worthwhile goals in our pluralistic society.
Failure to recognize a legitimate role for compromise has cost evangelicals dearly in their recent struggles in support of laws to safeguard the right to life. For example, evangelicals have been unable to agree on whether laws should prohibit all abortions at any stage or be permitted only for certain extraordinary reasons. Nor can they agree, if exceptions are made, on how far along in pregnancy and on exactly what grounds—to save the life of the mother, in cases of rape and incest, or for additional reasons—abortions might be permitted. Because evangelicals were unwilling to compromise and agree upon a law that was less than they thought right, no law was passed. By default, the winners were those who place no restrictions upon abortions. And under the banner of “no unwanted pregnancies,” the mass killing of human life continues.
Evangelicals now confront a similar crisis with regard to nuclear armament. Unless they learn to compromise, we shall face a continuation of the arms race, immense stockpiles of nuclear weapons threatening the life and well-being of hundreds of millions of humans, and the proliferation of nuclear bombs in every part of the world with unthinkable catastrophe as the inevitable result. Certainly most evangelicals are unalterably opposed to such wild abandonment to nuclear armament. Some are pacifists; some are nuclear pacifists; others favor unilateral disarmament; many support arms limitation; others favor a nuclear deterent force but support mutual disarmament. Unless some of us learn to compromise, however, we shall drift inevitably toward nuclear proliferation in our efforts to build a nuclear force that is stronger than the Soviet Union’s. Something must give. Evangelical Christians must lead the way to creative compromise that will reverse the mad drift toward assured mutual destruction.
A great Christian statesman of a former day set us a beautiful example of the right kind of compromise. William Wilberforce was elected to the House of Commons in 1785. As an evangelical, he was unutterably opposed to slavery of any kind. For over 20 years he remained the parliamentary leader of the antislavery movement. He became convinced that the first step for which he could get some support was the elimination of the slave trade. Many of his evangelical friends repudiated him because he settled for this half-way measure: he compromised. But in 1807, enough legislators agreed to join forces with him so as to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire. Though slavery continued, Wilberforce continued to work, bit by bit and with persistence and patience, to lead his nation to the abolition of slavery in any form.
He never lived to see the victory. One month after his death in 1833, Parliament finally abolished slavery throughout the entire British Empire. Had Wilberforce set his mind on the “quick fix,” or had he not been willing to compromise in his battle against slavery, he would never have accomplished his goal or brought the blessings of human freedom to society. Evangelicals in the twentieth century could learn from his example.
Any Future for the Church?
The church is, at any season, an easy target for criticism. There always and inevitably is a wide gap between the performance of human beings who comprise congregations and the Christian ideal of selfless love which the church espouses.
But to acknowledge that the church has many shortcomings is not the same as saying that it is an evil or expendable institution, as some of its harsher critics seem to be suggesting these days.
The most savage attacks on the church seem to come from people who profess to stand within the Christian tradition and to judge the church by Christian standards.
To such persons, if not to outsiders, it should be germane to note that the church is not a human invention which men may feel free to dismantle at will. It is a fellowship called into being by Jesus Christ himself, and the New Testament clearly indicates it is an integral part of God’s continuing effort to achieve reconciliation with an alienated world.
Obviously the church is now going through a period in which it is being confronted with its failures and called back to its true mission. It is not the first such period of course correction, and it probably won’t be the last. It will be a traumatic experience for members of the body—it always is.
But those who predict its demise are ignoring the testimony of 2,000 years of history as well as the Bible’s firm promise that the church will endure, because it belongs not to men but to God.
Mr. Cassels, who was religion editor for United Press International for many years, wrote the above shortly before his death.
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