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law of love. If it seeks to convert men, it is that they may be filled
with the spirit of Christ and may govern their conduct among men by
Christ's law. If it gathers them together for instruction or for
inspiration, it is that they may be taught Christ's way of life and sent
out into the world to live as he lived among their fellow men. Its
function is to fill the world with the knowledge of Christ, the love of
Christ, the life of Christ. That is what Christ meant by saving the
world. The world is saved when this is true of it, and it is never saved
till then. The work of the church is successful just to the extent to
which it succeeds in Christianizing the social order in the midst of
which it stands.

If by means of its ministrations, the community round about the church
is steadily becoming more Christian; if kindness, sympathy, purity,
justice, good-will, are increasing in their power over the lives of men;
if business methods are becoming less rapacious; if employers and
employed are more and more inclined to be friends rather than foes; if
politicians are growing conscientious and unselfish; if the enemies of
society are in retreat before the forces of decency and order; if
amusements are becoming purer and more rational; if polite society is
getting to be simpler in its tastes and less ostentatious in its manners
and less extravagant in its expenditures; if poverty and crime are
diminishing; if parents are becoming more wise and firm in the
administration of their sacred trust, and children more loyal and
affectionate to their parents, - if such fruits as these are visible on
every side, then there is reason to believe that the church knows its
business and is prosecuting it with efficiency. If none of these effects
are seen in the life of the community, the evidence is clear that the
church is neglecting its business, and that failure must be written
across its record.

Even though it be true that large numbers are added to its membership,
that its congregations are crowded, its revenues abundant, its
missionary contributions liberal, and its social prestige high; yet if
the standards of social morality in its neighborhood are sinking rather
than rising, and the general social drift and tendency is toward
animalism and greed and luxury and strife, the church must be pronounced
a failure: nay, even if it be believed that the church is succeeding in
getting a great many people safely to heaven when they die; yet if the
social tendencies in the world about it are all downward, its work, on
the whole, must be regarded as a failure. Its main business is not
saving people out of the world, it is saving the world. When it is
evident that the world, under its ministration, is growing no better but
rather worse, no matter what other good things it may have the credit of
doing, the verdict is against it.

This judgment rests, of course, against the collective church of the
community or the nation, rather than against any local congregation. It
may be that there are a hundred churches in a city, and that ten of them
are working efficiently to leaven society with Christian ideas and
principles, while the other ninety are content to fill up their
membership lists and furnish the consolations of religion to the people
who make up their congregations. The church of that city would probably
be a failure, but the ten congregations which had accepted Christ's idea
of the church and were striving to realize it could not be charged with
the failure. They would have done what they could to prevent it. If the
rest had been working in the same way, the results would have been
different.

The point on which attention must be fixed is simply this, that the test
of the efficiency of the church must be found in the social conditions
of the community to which it ministers. Its business is to Christianize
that community. There is no question but that the resources are placed
within its reach by which this business may be done. If it is done, the
church may hope to hear the commendation, "Well done, good and faithful
servant!" If it is not done, no matter how many other gains are made,
the church must expect the condemnation of its Master.

It must not be gathered from this argument that the church in modern
life is a failure. There may be discouraging signs, reasons for
solicitude; but it may appear, after all, that the signs are on the
whole encouraging. We are not maintaining that the social tendencies in
modern society are all downward; far from it. We are simply pointing out
that it is only by observing these tendencies that we can judge whether
or not the church is fulfilling its mission.

It is greatly to be feared, however, that many of the churches of the
present day fail to apply this test to themselves. Their social
responsibility is by no means so clear to them as it ought to be.
Indeed, there are not a few among them that spurn it altogether,
declaring that their business is to save souls; that the condition of
the social order is no concern of theirs.

There is some reason to believe that phrases of this kind are often used
without due consideration of their meaning. What is meant by the saving
of a soul? Is not the one sin from which souls need to be saved the sin
of selfishness? Is not the death that threatens the souls of men, from
which we seek to rescue them, simply the result of the violation of
Christ's law of love? What is salvation but bringing them back to
obedience of this law? And this law finds expression in the social
order - can find expression nowhere else. It is the law of our social
relations. What possible evidence can you have that a soul is saved
until you see it entering into social relations and behaving properly in
them?

It is to be feared that these very simple truths are not always so well
understood as they should be. There is a notion that salvation is
something metaphysical, or legal, or sentimental; that it consists in
the belief of certain propositions or the experience of certain
emotions. But all this is delusive and puerile. If it is with the heart
that man believeth, he "believeth _unto righteousness_;" that is the
destination of his faith; and unless his faith goes that way and reaches
that goal, there is no salvation in it. Righteousness is the result of
saving faith; and "he that _doeth_ righteousness is righteous" - none
else. Righteousness is right relations - first with God, and then with
men. And no man can have any evidence that he is in right relations with
God except as he finds himself in right relations with men.

The message of Christianity, we often hear it said, is to the
individual. Yes, it is; and what is the message of Christianity to the
individual? The first thing that it tells him is that he is not, in
strictness, an individual, any more than a hand or a foot or an eye or
an ear is an individual; that he is a member of a body; that he derives
all that is highest and most essential in his life from the life of
humanity, to which he is vitally and organically related; that no man
liveth to himself; that his good is not, and can never be, an exclusive
personal good, - that it is in what he shares with all the rest. The doom
from which Christianity seeks to save the individual is the doom of
moral individualism; the blessedness into which it seeks to lead him is
the blessedness of love.

Thus it appears that even these cant phrases by which the church
sometimes tries to fence itself off from the world into a pietistic
religiousness that has little or nothing to do with life, all point,
when you get their real significance, to a relation between the church
and the social order so close and vital that any attempt to sever the
bond must be fatal to the life of both. The church is in the world to
save the world; that is its business; and it can never know whether it
is succeeding in its business unless it keeps a vigilant eye on all that
is going on in the world, and shapes its activities to secure in the
world right social relations among men.

In what manner the church is to carry forward this work of
Christianizing society is a practical question calling for great wisdom.
It may not be needful that the church should undertake to organize the
industrial or political or domestic or philanthropic machinery of
society. Its business is not, ordinarily, to construct social machinery;
its business is to furnish social motive power. It is the dynamic of
society for which it is responsible. But the dynamic which it furnishes
must be a _dynamic which will create the machinery_. Life makes its own
forms. And the church must fill society with a kind of life which will
produce such forms of co√ґperation as shall secure the prevalence of
justice and friendship, of peace and good-will among men. It may not be
required to look after details, but it must make sure of the results. If
the results are secured, if society is Christianized, if the social
order is producing a better breed of men, if the business of the world
goes on more and more smoothly, and all things are working together to
increase the sum of human welfare, then the church may be sure that the
life which she is contributing to the vitalization of society is the
life that is life indeed. But if the social tendencies are all in the
other direction, then she should awaken to the fact that the light that
is in her must be darkness, and that the responsibility for this failure
lies at her doors.

It is the recognition and acceptance of this responsibility for which we
are pleading. That the church, in all the ages, has very imperfectly
comprehended this responsibility is a lamentable fact. What the social
aims of Jesus himself were, most of us can fairly understand. The Sermon
on the Mount indicates to us the kind of society which he expected to
see established on the earth. He never defined the kingdom of heaven,
which he bade us seek first, but he described it in so many ways that we
know very well what manner of society it would be. But the church which
has called itself by his name has but feebly grasped the truth he
taught. As a late writer has said: "As soon as the thoughts of a great
spiritual leader pass to others and form the animating principle of a
party, or school, or sect, there is an inevitable drop. The disciples
cannot keep pace with the sweep of the Master. They flutter where he
soared. They coarsen and materialize his dreams.... This is the tragedy
of all who lead. The farther they are in advance of their times, the
more they will be misunderstood and misrepresented by the very men who
swear by their name and strive to enforce their ideas and aims. If the
followers of Jesus had preserved his thought and spirit without leakage,
evaporation, or adulteration, it would be a fact unique in history."[17]

That his disciples held fast so many of the ideas and impulses he
imparted to them, and that they have been turned to so large account in
the reconstruction of the social order, is matter for profound
thankfulness. But much of this has been indirectly wrought; the
Christian elements which appear in the industrial order of to-day are
largely of the nature of by-products. It can hardly be said that the
church of Jesus Christ has ever, in any age, consciously and clearly set
before herself the business which he committed to her hands. She has
always been putting the emphasis somewhere else than where he put it;
she has always been doing something else instead of the great task which
he began and left her to finish. It is the great failure of history - the
turning aside of the Christian church from the work of Christianizing
the social order, and the expenditure of her energies, for nineteen
centuries, on other pursuits.

The writer from whom I quoted devotes a very interesting chapter to the
reasons why the church has never attempted the work of social
reconstruction. He shows that it would have been almost impossible in
the early Christian centuries for the Christians to have undertaken any
work of social reform; if, under the rigors of the Roman despotism, they
had meddled with politics, they would have lost their heads. Then they
began to look for a miraculous return of Jesus to set up his kingdom in
the world, and they waited for him to reconstruct the social order. That
expectation held them for a thousand years. When it failed, they turned
their thoughts to heaven, and "as the eternal life came to the front in
Christian hope the kingdom of God receded to the background, and with it
went much of the social potency of Christianity. The kingdom of God was
a social and collective hope, and it was for this earth. The eternal
life was an individualistic hope, and it was not for this earth. The
kingdom of God involved the social transformation of humanity. The hope
of eternal life, as it was then held, was the desire to escape from this
world and be done with it." And this led to the ascetic tendency, which
made men think this world not worth mending. Then came in the paganizing
influences of the Middle Ages, which made ritual the supreme thing and
paralyzed the ethical motive; and then followed the controversies about
dogma, which deadened the life of the church, until finally the great
ecclesiasticism was developed, and the church, instead of being the
instrument for the Christianization of the world, became an empire in
itself, separate from the world, arrogating to itself all the honors and
powers of the kingdom of God. "By that substitution," says Professor
Rauschenbusch, "the church could claim all service and absorb all
social energies. It has often been said that the church interposed
between man and God. It also interposed between man and humanity. It
magnified what he did for the church and belittled what he did for
humanity. It made its own organization the chief object of social
service[18]."

This is only a hint of the process by which the church has been
deflected from its course, and hindered from undertaking, with conscious
purpose and consecrated power, her own proper work. She has done many
other things, some beautiful and excellent things, but the one thing she
was sent to do she has not done.

It is only in our own time that she has begun to get hold of the true
conception of her business in the world. That the church is here to seek
first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, to concentrate her
energies upon realizing the kingdom of God in the world, now begins to
be evident to men of insight; and there is a loud call upon her to
bestir herself and take up this work so long neglected, and give to it
all her energies. That is the meaning of the cry, "Back to Christ,"
which we are hearing in this generation. It means that the church needs
to get into sympathy with its Leader and Lord, to try to understand his
social aims, and to understand what he meant when he bade us seek first
the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Two or three practical suggestions may be ventured here to those who
have followed this argument.

We have seen that, since religion is a permanent need of human nature,
and since the church is indispensable to the maintenance of religion, it
becomes the duty of good men and women to ally themselves with the
church and help to make it efficient. But there are churches and
churches. We cannot help noting, as we look over the community, some
churches which at least dimly understand their business, and some which
obviously do not.

Some of us may be connected by birth or confession with churches that do
comprehend their true function. If so, let us rejoice in that fact, and
give our strength to the support of such churches in their work. It is,
far and away, the most important work that is being done in the world at
the present day. If we can have part in it, we ought to rejoice in that
privilege.

We may be connected with churches which do not understand their
business. Possibly we may think that the best thing for us to do is to
come out of them, and seek fellowship with churches more enlightened.
Let us think two or three times before we decide upon this. Perhaps the
best thing we can do is to stay where we are and use our best endeavors,
modestly and patiently, to bring our own church to a realization of its
responsibilities.

We may not be identified with any church. If we are not, then it is
clearly the part of wisdom for each one to find the church which seems
to him to understand its business best, and to give the strength of his
life to making its life vigorous and its work efficient.




V

Is the Church Decadent?



The assertion is often made that the church is an effete institution;
that its usefulness is past; that it is sinking into innocuous
desuetude. That assertion has been current for a thousand years - perhaps
longer; there have been many periods in which it was urged much more
confidently than it is to-day. This fact would suggest caution in
pressing such a judgment. Wise physicians do not hastily pronounce the
word of doom. They have seen too many patients return from the gates of
death. Men and women who, in their younger days, appear to have a
slender hold on life, often reach a vigorous old age. The same thing is
true of institutions. It is not prudent to assume that because they are
ailing they are moribund.

The Christian church, as we have seen, is far from being in perfect
spiritual condition. Some of her symptoms are disquieting. But even as
we often have good hope for our friends when their health is impaired,
and find that there are good reasons for our hope, so we need not
despair of the recovery of the church from the morbid conditions which
we acknowledge and deplore. That the patient has a good constitution and
surprising vitality is indicated by the experience of nineteen
centuries. More than once, through this long lifetime, she has been in a
worse way than she is to-day, but she has rallied, and returned to her
work with new vigor.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century her case seemed to be
desperate; but heroic remedies were used, and while the cure was far
from complete, and did not reach the root of the malady, there was at
least a partial recovery. In England at the beginning of the eighteenth
century, and in America at the end of the same century, the symptoms
were alarming; but she lived through those critical periods, and has
done better work since than ever before.

That the work of the church has been sadly misdirected; that she has
often put the emphasis in the wrong place; that while she has been doing
many things that were worth doing she has largely left undone the main
thing she was sent to do, was made plain by our study in the last
chapter. And there can be no doubt that this misdirection of her
energies, and this failure to exercise her strength in normal ways, have
resulted in many morbid conditions, some of which she has partly
overcome, but from some of which she is still suffering.

With the disorders from which the church has suffered in past
generations we need not now concern ourselves. But the weaknesses and
ailments of the present time demand our attention. We must know what
they are that we may help to cure them. That responsibility rests upon
us all. If the church is to be made whole, it must be by the intelligent
and normal action of the men and women who are members of the church. We
must know, to begin with, what health is, and what is disease; we must
have some clear idea of what would be the normal condition of Christian
society.

Men sometimes mistake conditions of disease for conditions of health. In
cases of nervous breakdown, patients are often spurred on, by the malady
itself, to work when they ought to rest. The less able to work they are,
the harder they work. They do not know that this restless activity is a
sign of disease, they think it is proof of abounding vitality. And there
are many ways in which morbid conditions tend to propagate themselves.
The instinctive impulses of an invalid are not safe guides. Yet there
are many cases in which, even if the man is not his own medical adviser,
he must have an intelligent idea of what ails him, in order that he may
be able to follow medical advice, and adopt the regimen which leads to
health. His reason must be summoned to discern and resist his morbid
impulses, and keep himself in the ways of life.

Equally true is it that if the church, which is the body of Christ, is
out of health, the men and women who are the members of that body must
know what ails them, and how to supply the remedy. And when they summon
their reason and seek to have it divinely enlightened, they are likely
to discover that many of their worst disorders are conditions which they
have been cherishing; that some of the things they have been most proud
of are ills that they must pray and work to be rid of.


1. The first and the worst of the church's infirmities is unbelief. In
one of the moments of vision, when the long obscuration of his light in
the future centuries was revealed to him, Jesus sadly wondered whether,
when the Son of Man came, he would find faith on the earth. The pathetic
query has always been pertinent. Faith is the vital force of
Christianity, and the weakening of that vital force is the prime cause
of all its disorders.

The unbelief which brings enfeeblement and decay to the church of Christ
is not, however, the kind of unbelief which the church is most apt to
reprove.

There is, doubtless, in the church of to-day some weakening of faith in
the historical facts of the Christian religion, and in the central
doctrines of the Christian creed. Science and criticism have rendered
incredible some statements which once were universally accepted.
Considerable revision of theological belief has been found necessary,
and it is probable that in this process the hold of some upon the
central verities has been relaxed.

It may even be that the theories of some Christian confessors respecting
the person of Christ have been modified, so that his humanity is more
strongly affirmed than once it was. To some persons this change of
emphasis may seem to be a serious form of unbelief.

Admitting all this, however, these intellectual changes are not the
principal cause of the enfeeblement of the church. These changes,
however we may regard them, have affected but a small minority of the
members of our churches; the great majority of them continue to hold
substantially the same theological opinions that they have always held.
The trouble with the church is not chiefly a lack of faith in the
creeds, it is a lack of faith in Christ. And it is not a lack of faith
in the metaphysical theories of Christ's person, but a lack of faith in
the truth of his teaching. It is an unbelief in which the most orthodox
people are quite as much involved as those who are considered heretics.

The central question is not, after all, what we think about the nature
of Christ. There is good reason to believe that none of the twelve
apostles held, during the life of our Lord, opinions which would be
regarded as orthodox concerning his person. They believed that he was a
great Prophet, a revealer of God; nay, they believed that he was the
Messiah, the long promised King, who was to set up his kingdom in this
world. Of this they had no doubt. This was the belief that Jesus himself
sought to fasten in their minds; and when he had drawn from Simon Peter
a confession of this faith he cried out, "Blessed art thou, Simon son of
John; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father
which is in heaven." It was this faith in him as Lord and Ruler of men,
as the Founder in this world of a kingdom of righteousness and peace, on
which, as he declared, his church should be builded. Such faith as this
these twelve men had. They would have found it difficult, probably, to
assent to the Nicene Creed or the Athanasian Creed; but they believed in
Jesus as Lord and King, and they believed every word of his Magna Charta
found in the Sermon on the Mount; and they were ready to do what they
could to establish that kingdom in this world. It is just here that the
faith of the church is lacking. It believes the Nicene Creed, but it
does not believe the Sermon on the Mount. It believes what men have said
about Christ; it does not believe what Christ himself said. It does not
accept the practical rule of life which he has laid down. It does not
believe that the Golden Rule is workable in modern life. It does not
believe that it is feasible to love our neighbors as ourselves. It does
not believe in the kingdom of heaven as a present possibility. It


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Online LibraryWashington GladdenThe Church and Modern Life → online text (page 5 of 11)