There is tension in the topic, “The Pilgrim’s Involvement in Earthly Affairs.” There are two elements in the topic that appear to hang together and harmonize only with difficulty, if they harmonize at all. That a pilgrim should involve himself in the societal affairs of the country in which he is a pilgrim and a stranger seems incongruous at best and wrong at worst.
The tension, or difficulty, inherent in the topic finely expresses a real tension, or difficulty, in life, that is, the life of the Reformed believer. The Reformed believer recognizes that, on the one hand, he is a pilgrim on the earth. Without reservation, he sings Psalm 39:
“I am a stranger here,
Dependent on Thy grace,
A pilgrim, as my fathers were,
With no abiding place.”
On the other hand, he is equally well aware of a calling to involve himself with “earthly affairs,” the matters of politics (the rule and order of the polis, or city), of labor, of education and more. Not only does the question of the harmony of these two truths become a problem in the heart and mind of the Reformed believer, but it also becomes a problem in his life, his daily existence.
In the history of the Church, men have resolved this tension and removed the difficulty by denying one or the other of the two elements that make up the tension, that is, men have denied either that the child of God is a pilgrim or that the child of God ought to involve himself in earthly affairs. They regarded the proposition as a contradiction and denied the element they considered false. The incredibly grim condition of the nominal Church of Christ at present is due, in no small measure, to the denial that the believer is a pilgrim. And that denial of the pilgrim-character of the believer is made in the name of social concern, is made so that the believer may plunge himself into society’s maelstrom, from doing which he is prevented if he regards himself as a pilgrim. The believer is no pilgrim here below but citizen, and a citizen with deep roots. Naturally, unsurprisingly, he involves himself in social affairs. Several weeks ago, I heard Bishop James Pike speak in Longmont, Colorado. Excoriating the Church of the past for preaching to its members contentment on earth with a view to bliss in the world to come, and asserting that the Church must teach men to get all they can out of this life, he cried out, “I like it here! I am at home here! Don’t come, Lord Jesus; stay away!” He is no pilgrim here, but himself confesses that the alternative is being a stranger to the coming Kingdom and its King.
There have, however, also been those that denied the calling of involvement in earthly affairs, in the name of their pilgrim status. The group known as the Anabaptists, who sprang up soon after the Reformation, and those known as Pietists carefully cultivated the piety of their souls but banned all activity in society. There is a reference to this “solution” to the problem in Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, which sets forth the truth about civil government: “we detest the Anabaptists . . . who reject the higher powers . . .” This charge has, in the past, been leveled against our Protestant Reformed Churches. We have been accused of resolving the tension by denying that a believer may and should be involved in earthly affairs of politics, “culture” and the like. Our accusers have alleged that we make this denial, not only in actual, practical life but also in principle and theory. The ground of the accusation is our denial of the theory of common grace. The origin of the theory of common grace was, especially, the philosophy of Dr. Abraham Kuyper, who set forth common grace as the basis on which the believer could stand, in co-operation with the unbeliever, to engage in the affairs of earthly life and present society. Denying common grace, we were reproached for an anabaptistic denial of the calling to involvement in human society. This of course does not follow. To deny a certain ground (common grace) for the activity (involvement in earthly affairs) is not to deny the activity.
Now, I take it that the topic was deliberately framed to express this tension and that it indicates the desire that I wrestle with that difficulty. The topic is not, “TheBeliever’s Involvement,” but “The Pilgrim’sInvolvement.” We address ourselves specifically to this tension, tonight.
I. THE CHURCH IS NOT TO INVOLVE HERSELF IN EARTHLY AFFAIRS
In order clearly and definitely to make our position known regarding the pilgrim’s involvement in earthly affairs, we must deny that the Church has a mandate to involve herself in earthly affairs, that is, in matters of politics, labor and education. To affirm that the pilgrim has such a calling does not imply that the Church has this calling. I mean the visible, instituted Church that functions through the offices of elder and deacon and that also works in alliance with other churches. The opposite is the case. The Church has no such calling; she becomes disobedient when nevertheless she meddles in such affairs and, in reality, hinders the pilgrim’s involvement in earthly affairs. It is necessary for us to take up this issue, in connection with our topic, because confusion reigns on this issue. The impression is left that, because the believer has such a calling, the Church must have such a calling also, or the believer and the Church are assumed to be the same as far as involvement in earthly affairs is concerned.
We are all aware, I suppose, that apostate Protestantism asserts with might and main, and to a great extent successfully, that the central, if not exclusive, calling of the Church is involvement in society, the change and betterment of political structures, the alleviation of poverty, the removal of social evils as segregation, and the like. The Church and her servants have one reason for existence and that is the study of, labor in, and improvement of society. The insistence of these churchmen that the Church has the calling to involve herself in society does not concern us, tonight.
What does concern us is a similar contention now being made by men within the Reformed community, men who head a movement to propagate Christian and Reformed principles in every sphere of society. Their contention that the Church has a calling in this regard comes out mostly through sharp, even bitter, criticism of the Church for failing to work at this calling. Perhaps, the sharpest of the critics of the Church is Dr. H. Evan Runner. In his pamphlet, “Can Canada Tolerate the C.L.A.,” the keynote address delivered at the Christian Labor Association of Canada’s 15th Anniversary Convention held in Toronto, Ontario on April 29, 1967, he delivers a biting attack upon the Church. His basic concern is with the failure of the “orthodox ecclesiastical assemblies . . . to speak out about the humanistic, anti-Christian spirit which is the driving cultural force in the modem labor movement,” that is, the failure of the Church to condemn the AFL-CIO and similar godless, but so-called “neutral,” unions. This concern and anger are legitimate. Not only is such failure “irresponsible”, it is dereliction of the duty of the Church to warn the saints against sin and to discipline those that walk in sin. Membership in such unions makes one guilty of the anti-Christian principles of the organization, of the intrinsic rebellion of the union against the God-ordained authority of the employer, and of all the deeds of violence and murder that they commit. Indeed, the members in a church that tolerates members of these unions must seriously face the question whether they do not also become responsible before God for the evils of the unions, by connivance with those who belong. But Dr. Runner means to say more. He means to criticize the Church for not involving herself in the affairs of society, in trying to establish Christian organizations in politics and labor. In his speech, he declared, “It is not strange that men have been busy leaving the organized churches in droves for the last hundred years: it has had literally nothing to say to them, nothing existential, that is, nothing having to do with man’s flesh and blood existence on this planet . . . I tell you, it is high time that we speak, or our children will all be lost to a church which has nothing significant to say to them.” So wretched on this count does he find the church that he warns of being spewed out of God’s mouth.
We have questions and a reason for questions. Is this a criticism of a church that does preach the gospel, that does exercise discipline, and that does administer the sacraments properly, because it does not become a holy “pressure-group,” a “sanctified lobby,” in the world of politics, labor and education? Does he mean to assign to the church, in addition to the spiritual task Christ gave her, the task of becoming really a political party? Does he mean to criticize the consistory that says to the individual who complains of civil wrong, “Man, who made me a judge and divider over you?” or that advises the defrauded laboring man, “Do violence to no man and be content with your wages?”
What Dr. Runner has in mind becomes clearer: “the organized church has consistently and steadily withdrawn into its bourgeois comfortability or introverted prayer chamber, allowing the affairs of our public life to be progressively organized or ordered by the spirit of modem humanism. . .” Again, “the most fundamental battle of our time is not to be thought of in the first place as one for preservation of a familiar and so-called orthodox church organization, or of an abstract system of theological propositions.” “A church organization or a world of Christian theological activity, standing alone within a culture all the other activities of which are directed in an anti-Christian spirit must remain impotent and has become irrelevant, and it will in the long run fade away.” “Even to preserve the organized church therefore we must fight for an integral Christian society.”
One’s instinctive reaction to this is to ask incredulously) “Can he mean this? Can he mean that the Church of Christ depends for its existence upon a Christian society? Can he mean that, without a Christian state, a Christian labor union, and a Christian educational system, the Church cannot live? How, to speak only from history, has the Church survived throughout all the ages? Does not then the Church depend upon Christ? Is it not the plain testimony of Scripture that the Church is and always will be in the world, as light in the midst of darkness, as a little flock among the wolves?”
Dr. Runner is not alone. Others in the same movement make the same charges against the Church. Bernard Zylstra, in his pamphlet, “Challenge and Response,” another address to the C.L.A.C. (in 1960), criticizes the church in terms of pietism and tellingly commends the Roman Catholic Church which, he says, is least guilty of neglect with respect to the calling of the Church to engage in social affairs. Rome indeed openly works, as Church, in all spheres of societal life. But to hear one commend them for this causes me to ask in amazement: Have we so soon forgotten Luther? In his commentary on Galatians 2:14, Luther indicated the Pope, “He hath also confounded and mixed political and ecclesiastical matters together; which is a devilish and hellish confusion.”
This searing criticism of the Church by Reformed men—it is no light matter to threaten the Church with being spewed out of Christ’s mouth!—for failure to plunge into the affairs of society curiously parallels the attack made on the Church by apostate Protestantism. Oddly enough, it seems that both look away from the Church to other, man-made organizations. As apostate Protestantism delights in the “underground church,” these Reformed men pin their hopes on various Christian organizations.
Implied in this condemnation of the Church is the contention that the Church has a calling to involve herself in social affairs, a calling she has failed to undertake. This contention is a crucial issue. Those that make it cannot mean merely that the Church should faithfully express and apply to the members the principles of government, labor and education, as they are set forth in Scripture. If this is all they intend, their criticism of the Church is much too severe, even from their viewpoint. They mean that the Church, the instituted Church, must become a force that deliberately works in the sphere of government and the like to change and structure these ordinances of God.
I am reminded of the famous passage in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan Karamazov relates to his brother his “poem” of the Grand Inquisitor. The story is this. In the late 16th century, after the Reformation, Jesus returns to earth in Spain, while the Inquisition is going on. He is immediately met by an old Roman Catholic cardinal, a haunting figure, who imprisons Jesus, although he knows Who Jesus is. In a direct confrontation with Jesus, he informs Jesus that he intends to burn Jesus at the stake the next day, because the Church had decided to side with the Devil against Jesus. The issue over which the Church has broken with Jesus is that contained in the first temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The Inquisitor analyzes the Devil’s’ first temptation this way: “seest thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread and mankind will run after thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though forever trembling lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread.” But Jesus refused. This refusal the Inquisitor (and the Church) bitterly assail: “Thou didst promise them the bread of heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, even sinful and ignoble race of man?” He informs Jesus that the Church now is “not working with Thee, but with him(the Devil).” Because, the Church has made it her mission to provide earthly bread and because it has taken upon herself to establish an earthly government for men, she has “corrected Thy work.”
This passage brings out the basic issues in the matter of the Church’s calling, as given by Christ.
The Church has one task, one mandate. Her task is the gathering and upbuilding of Jesus’ Church (Matt. 28:19, 20; Eph. 4:12). Or, the Church labors at the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ, which is not of this world, which is not meat and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost (Rom. 14:17); the Church has been given the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church carries out this task by preaching, both publicly and from house to house. To the preaching has been joined discipline and the sacraments.
It is Christ Who has authorized the Church to perform this task. Those who would add another task or replace this task or redefine the Church’s task have no warrant for doing so. Here, obedience to Christ is of the essence. The Church may not take one step out of the bounds Christ has set for her. His will for the Church is the Church’s calling. For the Church on the crucial matter of her calling to follow her will is fatal. It is for her to side with the Devil. It is a striking fact that proponents of a social mission of the Church seldom, if ever, appeal to Scripture to prove their contention in the will of Christ Jesus. It is easy enough to brush aside this demand for proof by claiming that the social mandate is the general tenor of the Bible, or by characterizing the one who demands evidence as a fundamentalist proof-text seeker. Let it be an established fact that on the basic issue of her calling, the Church needs definite, clear proof from Scripture.
There is in our day, within and without the Reformed Churches, a minimizing, if not a despising, of the preaching. Preaching is regarded as just talk. What we must have, it is said, is action. That the preaching is a means of grace, the means of grace, that through the preaching Christ Jesus Himself speaks to His people is not understood. Thus, the Church’s engagement in the task of preaching, with its concomitant of theology, can be disparaged as a mere activity of formulating abstract theological propositions and as the idle, meaningless activity of an ivory-tower Church in isolation from men’s real needs.
What are men’s needs? Their real needs? Does it have to be established again, by struggle, that the need of man is his sin, his misery over sin, and the deliverance from sin by the gospel? Must we hear that in concerning ourselves with this, we ignore men’s needs, their flesh and blood needs? This was the charge of the Grand Inquisitor against Jesus Himself. What we should have is more preaching and believing, also as regards the relationships of men in society. What is the root of the problem of capital and labor? The absence of love. And whence love, if at all? Through faith in Christ, which faith is worked by the Word preached. The trouble in the realm of labor is the hatred of man for his neighbor. The employer hates and bleeds the employee; the employee hates and smashes the employer. Are we to plump down on one side or the other? We are neither for capital or labor, but for Christ. And the “cure” is love, the love of God and the love of the neighbor for God’s sake, whether that neighbor be Henry Ford II or Joe Smith, breadwinner. A Christian labor organization has to have this at its center, or it will not be Christian. We know enough of old capitalism, the murderous capitalism of the financial barons, who did not atone for their sins by their philanthropy, to know that it invited the insurgence of the working man. But the answer to the violence of the employer is not the greater violence of the employee. Again, a Christian labor organization must stand here or fall. The “answer” is the love of God shed abroad in man’s heart. Apart from Christ and faith in Christ, there is no answer.
Ministering to the spiritual needs of men is certainly worthy work, also in comparison with instituting a Christian government and a Christian labor organization.
And preaching is full-time work! The Church has no time for involvement in social affairs. Experience teaches that when she engages in social affairs the true calling of the Church suffers. And when the true calling suffers, the pilgrim-believer is hindered in the exercise of his calling to be busy glorifying God in every sphere of life.
For the Church certainly sustains a relationship to all earthly affairs. It is the believer, not the Church, that has the calling to labor in the spheres of earthly life. But it is the Church, that is, Christ through the Church’s preaching, discipline and sacraments, that calls, equips, strengthens and assists the believer to be busy in earthly affairs. The Church does this by faithfulness to her spiritual task; the more she gives herself to the preaching, the more the pilgrim can be expected to involve himself in earthly affairs rightly.
At this point, however, the Church does well to examine herself in the light of Scripture. Does she, as part of the gospel she preaches, confront her sons and daughters with this calling; Does she take pains to explain the reason? Does she unfold the principles that govern the spheres of earthly life, such as government, labor, marriage and home, education and the like?Does she comfort them also with regard to the struggle in these spheres?