Plea for a More Radical Gospel

By Don R. Locher

I am convinced that the power and influence of the Church is seriously underestimated — even by the clergy. Consider the fervent criticism aimed at the Church from both the champions of the status quo and advocates of change. Rightists have correctly recognized the church as an arch enemy, attacking it with vehemence, and, in some unfortunate cases, making it a vehicle of extremist thought and action.

On the other hand, humanists, utopians, and Marxists criticize the Church because it refuses to be “relevant” in their terms. While the Christian doctrine of Man will not permit the Church to become the ally of the builders of Babel, we do hold much in common with the humanistic philosophies. It is precisely for this reason that we are tempted to over-react to their criticism. It is good to listen to the world — if we listen also to the Word. But in the language of H. Richard Niebuhr, the danger is that we are returning to an era of immanentism, of “the Christ of culture.” Robert Fitch calls it the “Age of the Sellout.” We must hear our critics, but we dare not reduce the structure, message and mission of the Church to the purely personal, patriotic or narrow piousity of the right. Neither should we be squeezed into the molds of humanism.

It is not our enemies, but friends of the faith who pose the greatest danger. There is an ever-present invitation to tailor the Gospel to the world. If men reject or ignore the faith when it is adequately proclaimed, we cannot be fully accountable. But when the Church and the Gospel are first domesticated, then ignored or rejected, woe unto us who are the false prophets.

The first victim of accommodation is the Christian vocabulary. If the wishes and presumed needs of the world are given primary concern, the great words and symbols of the faith are sacrificed. The Gospel is easily humanized in the obsession for “relevance.” The question needs always to be asked: relevant to what? For whom? And to whom? A constant battle must be waged to preserve the accuracy and integrity of our symbols. They must communicate to the modern mind in language man can understand, but they must also transform and transcend contemporary thought forms.

New symbols drawn from the arts and our common life are always needed to illustrate and amplify Christian doctrine. But the classical words should not be abandoned. New words are generally taken from whatever science is the vogue of the period. Just as biological categories once altered the meaning of the faith, now psychology and sociology threaten to do the same.

Students in all fields are required to begin by mastering the new vocabulary. Yet many preachers have all but abandoned words like atonement, sin, salvation, justification, repentance, and holiness, in favor of words more common, but also more vague. Fundamentalism has kept the vocabulary but has so blunted and distorted it as to make the use of these historic words still more difficult. Un­ fortunately, our substitutes do not carry the freight. Expressions like maturity, shortcomings, close to God, meaningful life, and wholeness. These lack the dimensions of grace. Moreover, they generally imply self-help and are purely horizontal in meaning. Thus, we confront a world with an impoverished Gospel not radical enough to cope with the sin and lostness of modern Man. The resulting Biblical and doctrinal illiteracy in our churches is the source of easy accommodation.

A diluted proclamation is neither heard, nor does it give new life. Hungry for response and troubled by an apparent loss of the Church’s power and influence, some pastors are attracted to almost anything new — particularly if it gets attention or seems to promise dramatic results. History and tradition are ignored, if not held in contempt. Any novelty or innovation is believed to be superior to whatever is or has been. Old heresies, unrecognized, appear to be new cure-alls for our sickness. Experimentation, which is so very essential, is reduced to the level of convention. Only theological extremes get a hearing. Ministers enamored with the “latest” go from slogan to slogan, casting out one rope of sand after another to a confused and bewildered laity.

Consider some of the nonsense currently finding support and restitution in the name of renewal.

(1) The Ecumenical Institute of Chicago is advocating brain­washing and indoctrination as essential tools of education. The thought is so incredible, one may think it a semantic problem. Investigation proves otherwise; its proponents believe the end justifies the means. Thus the “thou’s” become “its” as skilled pedagogues attempt to manipulate and mold persons into their version of the Christian faith by hidden agendas, gimmicks, fatigue, or any other devices intended to reach the “gut level” (their words, not mine). If this is renewal, spare me!

(2) Another bit of nonsense is the old humanist assumption that devotion to the life-to-come diminishes responsibility to one’s neighbor now. Piety and affection for personal virtues are considered an obstacle to the Church in mission. Some examples can be cited to support their point. Just the opposite can be seen, however, in the Quakers and in our own Methodist tradition. Figures like Luther, Wesley, and in our own time, Martin Luther King, refute the thesis. A comparison of humanist John Dewey and Reinhold Niebuhr, a neo-orthodox reformer and activist, also blurs their theory. I do not believe that history will substantiate their position.

Furthermore, there is nothing new in knocking piety in favor of social action. Members of the Ecumenical Institute accredit no wrong nor error to those whom they believe to be the committed cadre shaping history. Concern for traditional Christian virtues and character is shunned, if not opposed. This rejection of piety and arrogant claim to perfection is the renewal of the very old but recurring antinomian heresy.

The Church must be the spokesman for the least, the lost, the poor and the oppressed. The realization of justice, education, and decent living standards for every child of God must be a part of our mission and ministry. But what will be gained if we accomplish this and go down in a convulsion of immorality and dissipation? In a world of affluence and leisure, hearts may still be broken and lonely. Souls will be shackled with greed and pride and all the other deadly sins. We need both mission and piety (not piousity). Justice and righteousness are inseparable. Discipline and morality are the mortar of society. No matter how rich the social order, communities of persons without Christian character offer little to strive for. We are called not to be the servants of the world, but the servants of Christ. The two will often appear to be synonymous, but the distinction is a significant one.

(3) A corollary of the anti­piety bias is the employment of shock, supposedly to free the students from piestistic faith and create concern for the “real issues.” The goal is worthy, even though some of the proponents strain a bit to swear, smoke, kick shins and use illustrations of poor taste. Thus, a world already filled with vulgarity is to be robbed of the dignity of speech and manner it has a right to expect from the Church. Some respond, but many are polarized for the wrong reasons. They reject the teacher or react to the method without deciding upon the issue or content. Emerson said he could be lifted only by one who stood on higher ground. I believe he is still correct.

(4) Renewal for some means freedom from the structures of the Church. Granted, institutionism is as bad as any other “ism.” Outmoded forms need to yield to new and more appropriate ones. But it is quite another matter to oppose the need for structure.

Several observations can be made. First, there is a strong correlation between the men of this bias and those who are the loners, the spectators, never really working or participating in the responsible corporate work of the Church. Secondly, the anti-structure bias toward the Church seems not to dim the enthusiasm of some of its exponents for the most intimate confessional groupings. Yet in the small confessional group, structure becomes so strong the very individuality cherished in the ministry may be overridden. For this malady, see Paul Tournier’s book entitled Secrets.

More often, anti-structure bias is generally not aimed at all structures, but simply at structures created by someone else. In the case of the Ecumenical Institute, the aim is to infiltrate and take over the very structure they hold in contempt. Even if successful in a few places, I doubt if ideas unable to stand on their own merit will command enduring loyalty when brought into open debate.

Finally, without structure, the Church becomes the minister’s personality cult, or a skeleton­ less body — that is a jelly-like blob of protoplasm. Local churches victimized by anti-structure bias bear this out.

(5) The impact of humanism, like fundamentalism, seriously truncates the doctrine of salvation. The new cliche is that we should become fully human…. whatever that means. It includes salvation by good works, especially in the secular city. Tillich provides the means which is to “accept that we are accepted.” L. Harold DeWolf in his recent book, A Hard Rain and a Cross. calls this “a religious solipsism, in this instance a phrase symbolic of self-acceptance. Instead of repentance and faith in the Father who forgives us, Tillich is really exhorting us to accept ourselves.”

More often salvation is to “get with” and “live in” the world-as if we could do other. One must discover God not in the order’ and beauty of nature, or liturgy of worship, but in the disorder of human nature and involvement. The secular city is the wonderful place where we are to live fully. Ironically, contemporary literature and art is proclaiming the lostness and estrangement of 20th century Man, while humanism is causing some pulpits to praise Man’s arrival and ability to stand alone.

(6) One of the most serious features of this new mind-set is the neglect of parish duties. Pastoral visitation of the sick, prayer, preaching and even the family life of the minister are subordinated to the new image of an activist building the new tomorrows.

The real problem with all this is that it is not radical enough. It’s old stuff. It is the new domestication of the Church. Armed with a situation ethic, a gospel without transcendent power or hope, and a nebulous uncared-for church of uncertain form and structure, these men intend to renew the church. Robert Fitch, writing in the Christian Century, Feb. 16, 1966, put it this way: “If we … are to pass judgment on this well acculturated Christian — as he presumes to judge all others — what would be our most pertinent single objection? Let go such trifles as that he deletes the deity, debases the Christ, disintegrates the Church, explodes a Christian ethic: about such things how could he care less? There is yet an objection to be lodged against his performance, and it can be expressed only by a plain American term: the whole act is a phony.”

I believe that one day soon we will again realize the power and relevance of good pastoral care … of worship with dignity in form and language, and of a Christian vocabulary illustrated and amplified, but not replaced. Preaching, social witness and action will draw power and authority from the grace of Jesus Christ, the Bible, the tradition and personal example.

We will neither condemn the world nor be conformed to it. We will regard the world not as our agenda, but our patient to be healed and loved. We will encounter God where He is at work in civil rights … but also in the holiness of beauty and beauty of holiness. We will deal with the realities of change, but also with awe, wonder and eternity. We will not hesitate to shake and disturb, but we will also comfort our people. (Reprinted from NEWS PULSE)

Don R. Locher is Superintendent, Phoenix (Arizona) District of The Methodist Church.

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