Into this form my subject has at last evolved. When the “Church News” announced the subject the first time it read: “Should we use our Christian Influence in Civic Affairs?” This was too vague. Certainly, we must always use our Christian influence, in all affairs, also in civic affairs. Formulated thus, the subject does not demand an answer to the question: In how far, in which way, to what extent should we use our influence in civic affairs? Therefore the subject was altered to cover that phase also and then the wording became: “In How Far Should We Use Our Christian Influence in Civic Affairs?” This was the more specific idea of the board of our League, which fathered the topic now under discussion. For reasons of conciseness and positiveness I prefer the wording: “Our Christian Calling in Civic Affairs.” Notice our question deals with civic affairs, and our calling, our specifically Christian calling with respect to these. Hence, the question tonight is not: what may we do for our own satisfaction sake?, but: what must we do for God’s sake?
Even so I could wish two things. First, that the subject were still more definite. Only when one begins to work out a certain subject does one commence to realize what a multitude of implications may be involved in such a subject. Our subject as it stands is as broad as life itself. I could wish too, that I could furnish a more definite answer. At any rate, I most certainly do not present my answer as a final solution to the problem. I am grateful that the issue, though interesting enough, though touching matters that are of fundamental importance in themselves, is as such not a vital one. After it is reduced to what is actually intended, I have left a matter that leaves me quite unconcerned.
What does the term “Civic Affairs,” as we use it tonight, imply?
As such it is a very broad term. “Civic” means: that which relates to our duties as citizens in general; that which pertains to our specific community in particular. “Affairs” is defined by Webster as “that which is done, or is to be done; business.” “Civic Affairs” as such implies all the business of the community, all that is to be done as citizen. It includes all things that lie in the sphere of civics, whether good or bad.
Tonight, however, we use the term in a more restricted sense.
First, we are thinking of our own community; the village wherein we are living, the specific part of the city wherein we have our home, or at the best the city wherein we reside. We are speaking tonight of our calling with respect to things round about us.
Secondly, we are thinking particularly of community evils. Many other things implied by the expression “Civic Affairs” as such are eliminated from our discussion. It is certain evils we are thinking of, either actually existent or threatening.
And even with respect to these our subject is restricted. We are not discussing all kinds of social and economic problems. Precisely which evils we have in mind can best be illustrated by means of some concrete examples.
Not long ago a community dance was contemplated in the little town of Hull, Iowa, where one of our Prot. Ref. churches is located. Whether the dance was actually held I cannot say, neither is this question of material importance. Now modern dancing is inherently corrupt. It is shameful, sensual, sexual, carnal to the extreme. All that shuffling and shimmying and swaying of the bodies of men and women in most intimate contact with one another can be rooted in nothing but shameless sexuality and can lead to naught but forbidden acts. Modern dancing is admittedly adulterous in character; a modern, refined, subtle form of heathendom. When the church condemns without reservation the modern dance it is certainly taking the only possible stand. Such a dance was contemplated in Hull, apparently a generally churchy, even Reformed community; a community, too, where the combined efforts of all the churches might have prevented it altogether. Question: what should God’s people have done in this situation? What should our people have done? What, if any, was their Christian calling?
In Sioux Center I and my consistory were confronted with three similar cases. At one time there was a skating rink in town that remained open until the wee hours of every Sunday morning. Many of the young people of Sioux Center patronized this amusement place, failed to come home until early Sunday morning, and as a result began to neglect the morning services. In this, by the way, our congregation was not affected. This is, of course, a violation of the fourth commandment. At another time an oil station attendant began to do business on the Lord’s Day. In Sioux Center all places of business are closed on Sunday. This man, however, began to keep his place of business open Sundays and thereby undeniably violated God’s command with respect to the Sabbath. The third case was that of a proposed theatre in Sioux Center. Until then, and I might add, until now there has been no theatre or picture show in the town of Sioux Center. The council, however, received the request of a party who desired license to start one, well convinced, and correctly so, that even though the town had never been contaminated with a movie house, a fortune awaited one who could succeed in getting license from the city council to promote a theatre. The fact was and is, that the Reformed people of Sioux Center travelled in hordes to other towns to obtain that which could not be had in Sioux Center. This shows at once how essential it was to keep the movie out of Sioux Center! Or wasn’t it essential? Question: what should God’s people in Sioux Center have done? What was our calling? Our specifically Christian, reformed calling?
In Grand Rapids, but a very short time ago, the matter of closing all grocery stores and meat markets on Sunday was put to a general vote. Question: what was our Christian calling, notice, our positively Christian calling, in this issue.
These examples may serve better than a flood of words to illustrate which civic evils we are discussing tonight. To these I might add a few other possibilities. There is the evil of swearing and cursing in the community. A proposed theatre in the immediate vicinity of our home or church might come to a vote at some time or other. Think of all the lewd, obscene literature sold in your neighborhood drug stores and other places. Certainly, in all these cases there are grievous sins committed against God Almighty. Question: what is our Christian calling over against all these evils?
One more limitation of the subject. We are thinking now of such and similar evils that have actually become civic affairs. We are not at this time discussing the question: in how far must we personally commence action against these evils? although I do not understand how we can escape this element if there is any calling at all. Must we wait for others to bring these matters to our doors? Must we not go out and meet the issues ourselves? If we have the calling of keeping the community outwardly clean from outstanding evils, we must go out to battle ourselves. Nevertheless, we limit ourselves tonight to evils that actually confront us as civic affairs. This is possible, e.g., in two ways. It may be that Christian churches or groups come to us and ask our cooperation in rooting out certain community evils. It may also be that the polls present the opportunity to aid in purging the community of certain existing abominations or in keeping others from getting a foothold. Thus the dance issue was put before our people in Hull. Their cooperation was requested to keep the dance from taking place at all. Thus the theatre issue was brought to our door in Sioux Center. A mass meeting was called to prepare the people for the vote. Later an actual vote was taken. Thus the matter of the oil station attendant who desired to do business on Sunday was placed before us. The ministers of the churches formulated a protest and petition to the council. I was asked to sign the document. Here in Grand Rapids the matter of Sunday closing was made an issue for all the citizens of our city to decide. In all these cases the question was put to us to decide. We had to act for or against; or actually not act at all. Whatever we did we had to do deliberately. A definite answer had to be given.
Over against these and similar issues we stood and stand as Christians. As Christians, elected from all eternity to be a peculiar people unto God; regenerated unto a lively hope and thus granted the new life of the risen Lord; converted by the grace of God and thus called out of darkness into God’s light to show forth the praises of our covenant God. Separated we are, from eternity and spiritually, from the world unto God’s covenant. Christians we are, however, in the midst of the world, also of these evils round about us. God does not at once take His own out of the world unto Himself. He leaves us in the world to fight the battle of light in the midst of the darkness of this present world.
Question: In respect to such evils as mentioned and illustrated above, what is the specifically Christian calling of these Christians. What was Hull’s calling with respect to that dance; Sioux Center’s calling with respect to the questions that confronted them; our calling in the case of Sunday closing?
There is an essential difference with respect to this question between the magistrate and the ordinary Christian citizen. The magistrate has a specific calling in his own domain. He bears the sword, the sword of earthy power and authority. With that sword he must enforce the law. In his own domain he has also the calling of enforcing the law of God, not only the second table but also the first. Standing in God’s place, with God’s sword in the hand, the magistrate may not tolerate the adulterous modern dance in the sphere over which he is set to rule. He may not suffer the Sabbath to be desecrated in a thousand ways. Public swearing is a thing that may not be permitted by those in authority, nor may they allow obscene literature to be sold on every corner to the destruction of those over whom they have the rule. The magistrate must maintain law and order in his own domain and in harmony with his calling as magistrate. Nor may he transfer that responsibility to another, whether that other be a mere individual or the entire citizenry. Referendums are in order, but not referendums on matters that are inherently sinful. Such things may not be put to the vote, but should be acted upon directly by the magistracy in harmony with its God imposed responsibility and calling. However, we are not speaking primarily of those in places of authority, but of the ordinary Christian citizen, of the church, of you and me.
That we have a calling in all things is certain enough. In the most general sense of the word our calling is to reveal ourselves as children of the light. We have been called to be God’s peculiar people in the midst of the world. That calling brings with it the task of manifesting ourselves at every occasion and opportunity as such. We must live the life of our Lord Jesus Christ and at all times be governed by the law of the Spirit of life. We must be God’s friends in all stations and sphere of life, in home and office and factory, as parents and children, as husbands and wives, as teachers and pupils, as employers and employees, as members of the church and as citizens. We must reveal the glory of God, confess His Name and practice His will and law in the midst of the world. To maintain and guard and defend and propagate the truth, in theory and life, is certainly the inexhorable calling of the child of God in the world.
More specifically our calling as Christians is a spiritual one.
The battle which we must fight is a spiritual battle. The struggle to which the Christian is called of God is not an outward, earthy one. It is not to banish dancing by outward force, neither to prevent oil stations and grocery stores from doing business on Sunday, nor to keep theatres from appearing in our communities, or even to sweep all obscene literature from magazine stands and drug store counters. The battle of the Christian is a battle against sin and for righteousness. As such our battle is against the sin that manifests itself in dancing, the sin of desecrating the Sabbath, the sin of running and attending theatres, the sin of selling and desiring for enjoyment lewd literature. That does not mean that our battle is not against all these manifestations (theatres, open gas stations, etc.) of sin, but it does mean that we seek to destroy these by seeking to root out the sins that cause the manifestation. Certainly, the mere outward restraining of the manifestation does not yet give the victory over sin. This latter is the Christian’s desire and purpose, and this battle is not an earthy, outward one, but very definitely a spiritual one. Our calling is not to eliminate the symptoms of the disease only; we must fight against the disease itself. If the latter is conquered the symptoms will also disappear. If only the outward symptoms are forcibly suppressed we have nothing but a sham victory. In reality we have gained nothing at all. Would you be surprised if a physician expressed himself as being rather indifferent toward removing certain symptoms without getting at the disease itself? Would you criticize a doctor for saying: it is not my business to be concerned by mere symptoms; my task is to conquer the cause of the evil? For example, we are not concerned about a dance, we are concerned about sinful dancing and the lust for it. Conquer the latter, and the former will take care of itself. Suppress the former and you have not touched the latter. We are not concerned about an open gas station on Sunday, but rather about desecration of the Lord’s Day. Root out the latter, and the gas station will automatically close. And do not deceive yourself into thinking that outward suppression of Sunday labor in any way promotes Sabbath observance. I do fear that questions such as we have tonight too often arise with those that do think that outward restraint can work genuine righteousness more or less. Our battle is against sin, and only in this way against the manifestations of sin, and this battle is a strictly spiritual one.
To wage this spiritual battle one must fight with spiritual weapons. Merely outward means cannot avail against sin itself. External constraint may prevent a dance from being held; the ballot may succeed in keeping a theatre out of a certain community; but neither outward force nor the ballot can root out sin and promote righteousness. We must fight with the spiritual weapon of the Word of God. Only that Word cuts through to the source of evil. It is the two-edged sword that actually penetrates to the heart, whether it be unto condemnation of those that love the darkness rather than the light, or unto the salvation of those whom God by His Spirit and Word will draw out of darkness into His marvelous light. The means of the Word does not affect the symptoms merely, but it touches the evil itself. That Word, therefore, is the weapon with which God’s church and people should fight in the midst of the world.
In this way, and in this way only, we will gain the victory, the spiritual victory, which is after all the only victory. An outward battle with outward weapons can at the best gain for us an outward victory. And such a victory is for the Christian who is not too superficial no victory at all. The mere prevention of a dance, the mere closing of oil stations or stores on the day of the Lord does not yet indicate a victory, nor even a partial one. Mere suppression of the sinner may rather increase than decrease sin. No child of God can regard such outward attainments as a real triumph. Faith is the victory, and only in the way of a spiritual battle with spiritual weapons can we expect spiritual victory. Neither do I consider it my God-given calling to strive for any other kind of victory than this triumph of the Word of God. If the transgressor will hear, he is saved, not merely from a certain outward form of sin, but from the latter itself. If he refuses to hear, he stands doubly convicted and condemned. But we have fought our battle.
What then is my Christian calling, also in the case of these civic evils before which I am placed?
First of all, to be sure, I must abstain from participation in these sins myself. Already herein there is a mighty witness against the workers of iniquity. Neither are the children of the world slow in hearing this preaching, silent though it be. We must keep ourselves from these godless dances, from theatre and movie, from the desecration of the Sabbath, from profane speech and lewd literature. I must do this myself. In the way of Christian discipline I must also guard others from these same contaminations of the world. Thus we must watch over one another and thus condemn the world and its workers of darkness.
Secondly, we must certainly preach and speak against all these evils of the world, the more as we are given opportunity to let our light shine and testify against the workers of iniquity. We must do so as church and in our own circles. Our own stand must be a definite one. And the world will hear about it,—and be condemned, or, by the grace of God be drawn by our testimony to the light. Also, our testimony should be directed against the world itself. Regardless what outward action we may choose to take, if any at all, the world must understand that we condemn her every wicked way, her dancing and theatres and desecration of the Lord’s day and swearing and lewdness too. She must understand perfectly that we stand diametrically opposed to her and our testimony to her must be that the Word of God condemns her to deepest hell in the way wherein she is going. The workers of iniquity must know, that if we do not choose to oppose her by outward means and attempt to check the external manifestation of her corruptions, this is not due to any sympathy on our part or sinful indifference with respect to the ways of others, but merely to the fact that we see no positive value in striving to remove symptoms while the dreadful cancer itself continues to ravage and destroy. With the Word of our God in our hand we must wage a battle against the forces of evil, also in concrete cases, that leaves no doubt as to our position. The world may not think that I favor them in any way or tolerate their works of darkness. You will find too that in this way you will cut far deeper than most of those who are so concerned about promoting that so-called civic righteousness. In too many instances these same enthusiasts for civic righteousness, pious though they seem to be when they look askance at those who will not cooperate in all their ways and methods, will not stand with you when you expose and condemn the sin itself to its very root.
Thirdly, we may protest to and against the authorities who bear the sword of God in order to maintain the law of God in their own domain. Even this calling, however, weighs less heavily upon me in the measure the authorities show more plainly that they deliberately and maliciously evade their duty and know full well which is the way of righteousness. Things may reach the stage, may they not, where the responsibility of the magistrates may be considered fixed. At any rate, they are called upon to exercise the sword. That obligation they may not shift to the citizenry in general by making every case, however plain, a matter of referendum. We certainly have the right to protest against them. This may be done individually. This may be done as congregation. This may be done as a group of churches in a given community, if such cooperation can be effected without sacrifice of principles that are dear to us. My experience has been that our Reformed and Chr. Reformed brethren too often protest and act and speak in such a way that cooperation from our side can only mean the sacrifice of our specific Prot. Ref. Principles. When the ministers of Sioux Center came to me with a protest to the council against the man keeping his oil station open on Sunday, and began their protest with a statement of the principle that God gave the Sabbath “as a boon to mankind in general” I refused to sign. They forced me to refuse. Nevertheless, we may protest, not with the idea that thereby we are promoting worthwhile civic righteousness, but to point our authorities to their God-given obligation.
Beyond the above I have no deep sense of any other specific Christian calling in civic affairs. That it should be a matter of Christian obligation to check Sabbath labor, dances and theatres in any other way than the way of God’s Word I will have to be shown.
That does not mean that I will not vote on civic affairs. I voted against the theatre in Sioux Center. This was not, however, because I was so deeply convinced that I might not do otherwise. I wanted to stop the mouths of those who were constantly looking for something against our churches. I did not care for the commotion and business such a theatre would bring to our town. Knowing that a theatre in town would scarcely make more theatre-goers than Sioux Center already had, I nevertheless preferred to see them get their pleasure elsewhere. These motives, however, are not specifically Christian.
I do not consider it the calling of the church of God to keep the community outwardly clean. I really do not care; about this in the least as far as Christianity and spiritual life are concerned. There is no virtue in whitewashing the sepulchers as long as within all is still rot and decay.
To my mind there is no victory to be had in this way. Certainly, this is no Christian victory over the godless themselves. All we do is make impossible in our own community what the children of darkness desire and will obtain in other places. Neither is there a triumph here for the Christian himself. Not even from the point of view of removing temptations from the children of God’s church. Making certain things impossible from without rather deprives of triumph. There is no victory in removing the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Neither was that the victory Adam should have gained. The victory lies always in standing before the tree and saying: “No, I will not eat of you. I must serve God.” In order that we may in the way of God’s grace come to that victory God has willed the antithesis and placed us in the midst of the world; that we might be in the world, yet not of it.
I see fully as much danger for the church and people of God where the world does not reveal herself openly as where she does. Some people are so mortally afraid of the world’s manifestations. Now I hate the world from the new principle of life in Christ Jesus. I hate the world the more in the measure I see more of her. That, too, does not plead against the antithesis. Therefore, where the world is I just as soon see her. A wolf is bad enough, but a wolf in sheep’s clothing is a great deal more dangerous. Then I’m tempted to drop my guard and start petting him, whereas it would be more to my welfare to run. One of the first requirements in a war must certainly be that I see the foe clearly and become thoroughly acquainted with his position. As long as the foe is there, doing his work of destruction, it can and will not harm us to see him in his full and outward manifestation. Then God’s child will watch and remain alert. This is also true with respect to the bringing up of children. I lived six and one half years in a community where no pool was played, no dances were tolerated, no theatre could find a place. There was nothing more wicked than a skating rink and a few cafes. In such a community people are horrified by the very thought of raising children in a city like Chicago. That is like consigning them directly to hell. I was born and raised in Chicago, in the midst of saloons and theatres and other forms of worldly evils. My stand today? I would from the viewpoint of maintaining the faith also for my children just as soon live in Chicago as anywhere. It is no more impossible to walk in the way of the Lord there than anywhere else. Neither have parents who really bring up their children in the fear of the Lord any more to fear there than in more isolated communities. There you see the enemy as he is. There you learn to abhor him from infancy on. There you are warned from the beginning because of the very manifestation of the world. There you are taught with many tangible proofs who and what the world really is. And these very things have their decided advantages. One who has been born and raised in a large community can in later life travel to any part of the globe and never find things that he has not seen before and been warned against from earliest childhood. I have learned to pity those who have never really seen the world until they were mature,—and then were let loose.
So easily we fall into that Anabaptistic tendency: victory and security lie more or less in outward isolation. This is not true. If anything, all Anabaptism promotes a false sense of security and deprives of the great victory of faith.
I do not consider it my definite calling to fight for mere external Sabbath observance. I could not get enthusiastic about forcing a skating rink to close at midnight Saturday instead of early Sunday morning. Neither was my enthusiasm enhanced by the fact that God’s people spoke as though that skating rink were actually destroying the kingdom of God. Let the church preach the pure Word of God and condemn the world as it should, let her exercise church discipline over those who refuse to walk in God’s way, and I’m sure there will be less cause for fear. I am not vitally interested in closing of oil stations and stores on Sunday. The more because the issue here in Grand Rapids was not a truly religious one at all. It was rather a matter of keeping a holiday and preventing others from spoiling it. Now notice, it is positively wicked to desecrate the day of the Lord. My heart rejoices at seeing men serve the Lord. But, if men will not keep the Sabbath for God’s sake, will not serve God in His sanctuary on His day, I care not in what form of sin he chooses to indulge. If it is a matter of either working on Sunday or going to the beach, he may as well work as far as I am concerned. If men refuse to heed the Word of God, care not to walk the way to eternal joy, insist that they want to go to hell, it makes little difference after all what read he takes to hell. The latter is not my concern. I must point him to the way of life, and that is done, not by the ballot or by outward force, but by the pure Word of God.
I do not feel it my calling to keep theatres out of a given community. Certainly, they are desperately wicked. Our people do not belong there. We must warn against them and if need be discipline those that frequent them. But, if people will not stay out for God’s sake, let them go. God wants righteousness! Whatever is not that is out of sin. All these things must also serve to purify the church and reveal the chaff in the kingdom of God.
With these observations I close. Our battle is a spiritual battle; our weapons spiritual weapons; thus our victory will be a spiritual victory. Not in outward isolation, nor in external constraint, but Faith is the victory.
“On every hand the foe we find
“Drawn up in dread array;
“Let tents of ease be left behind
“And onward to the fray;
“Salvation’s helmet on each head,
“With truth all girt about,
“The earth shall tremble ’neath our tread
“And echo with our shout.
“Faith is the victory! Faith is the victory!
Oh, glorious victory, That overcomes the world.”