Tendencies Towards Horizontalism

Not infrequently in recent years voices, both official and unofficial, have been raised against the promotion of horizontalism and the social gospel in the Gereformeerde Kerken of the Netherlands. Some of these voices of criticism came from sister churches of the GKN. The fear was even expressed by some that other churches—for example, the Christian Reformed Church in this country—might become infected with a similar ecclesiastical disease through association. As far as the GKN are concerned, no words of protest and warning and admonition seem to have had any significant effect. The GKN have simply gone their own way. However, whether the source of infection was in the Netherlands or elsewhere, there are definite signs today that the Christian Reformed Church has been infected with the same virus. This is sad news, and I certainly do not write it for reasons of rejoicing and gloating, but rather for the purpose of sounding a note of warning. This warning is directed to Reformed believers in the denomination just mentioned, some of whom read our magazine. It is also directed to members of the Reformed community at large who are among our readers. And it is directed, finally, to members of our Protestant Reformed Churches. We are living in times when our Reformed faith and our Reformed world-and-life view are being seriously corrupted and eroded. And it is well to be on the alert, lest we be deceived, and lest we become similarly infected, especially when the source of the infection is so near at hand.

What may be the occasion for this warning?

These tendencies toward horizontalism have become evident in the Christian Reformed weekly, The Banner in recent months.

One evidence of such a tendency toward horizontalism appeared in The Banner of November 29, 1974 in an article entitled “ALFALIT, CRWRC, and You.” This article describes a literacy program which operates in twelve Latin American countries and is supported by the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. After a rather lengthy description of some of the activities of this project, the article concludes as follows:

ALFALIT—alphabet and literature—but also much, much more. ALFALIT teaches an awareness of one’s own and one’s social reality, an awareness aimed at the betterment of the individual and his environment.

ALFALIT is basic education, not merely to create individuals with diplomas, but to create citizens concerned with improving their communities.

ALFALIT is community development, not only to improve the economy and education of the community, but to create a consciousness that God is calling people to raise themselves.

ALFALIT is sharing, which enriches both giver and receiver.

ALFALIT is helping people develop their capacities so that they may find in Jesus Christ the realization of their complete humanity and thus discover their destiny: to be children of God and mature people in Christ.

Now when one cuts his way through the high-sounding jargon of these few paragraphs and through the window-dressing of Christianity which this project is given, then he is left with some hard questions. What does all this have to do with Christianity in the Reformed and Scriptural sense of the word? And what does all this have to do with Christian relief which is truly Christian—which involves the mercies of Jesus Christ? To begin with the window-dressing, to me these paragraphs speak a language which I do not understand, which I fear no one can understand, and which, still worse, does not have a Reformed and Scriptural note, though it mentions God and Jesus Christ. To create a consciousness that God is calling people to raise themselves? What is that? Where does one find such a call of God in the Scriptures? And how does a literacy project which is “community development” create a consciousness? Or again: helping people develop their capacities so that they may find in Jesus Christ the realization of their complete humanity? I confess that I do not know what such gobbledygook means. Helping people to discover their destiny, namely, to be children of God and mature people in Christ? Again, I fail to see any similarity between this and the gospel of grace; I fail to understand even what this language means. But I do recognize in this language, especially in the context of the mention of social and educational improvement and betterment of the environment, the typical jargon of the social gospel and of horizontalism.

In that same issue of The Banner Editor De Koster editorializes about the so-called poverty problem, making reference to the example of a James Marlow family, who were evidently featured on a CBS telecast. Apparently the Marlows were featured on this program as an example of a poverty-stricken family in Tennessee. Mr. De Koster takes the occasion to write: “The Bible invariably teaches that God’s ear is more attuned to the cries of the Marlows than to the words of the mighty who hardly know, and do not care, that the Marlows exist.

“Judgment stalks the world.

“Has the Lord had about enough of our indifference to Marlows? Has the voice of the voiceless been heard on high?

“And has it echoed in your conscience and mine, in our churches and on the lips of those ordained to speak for God around, and to, the world?”

Editor De Koster has more to say in the same issue about poverty. But even as in the above quotation, so in all that he writes there is no distinction made between church and world, between righteous and wicked. The claim that “the Bible invariably teaches that God’s ear is more attuned to the cries of the Marlows (the poor, HCH) than to the words of the mighty who hardly know, and do not care, that the Marlows exist” is an altogether unproved statement. And, moreover, it cannot be proved. The Lord’s ear, according to Scripture, is no more attuned to the cries of the ungodly poor than to the words of the ungodly rich and mighty. “The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry. The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. The righteous cry, and the Lord heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles. The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.” Psalm 34:15-18. The trouble is that Mr. De Koster has no eye for the Scriptural teaching of the antithesis and for the lines of sin and grace.

All of this fits in with another instance of the social gospel philosophy which is recorded in The Banner of Feb. 21, 1975. I refer now to the article entitled “Sharing A Dream,” by Father David L. Hawley, of St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church, Baldwin, Michigan. This pest article comes highly recommended by Editor De Koster “both as inspiration to us, and in recognition of Christian charity at work.” Although the account is long, let me quote the main part of it, so that you may judge for yourself:

All my life I had wanted to be a priest. All my priestly life I have wanted to be a pastor in a small town parish that would be situated in the midst of poverty, where it would be clear that the parish and I would have, right there in our midst, the golden opportunity of putting the Gospels to work and seeing them come alive through our Christian efforts and involvement. It’s one thing to get into a pulpit each weekend and preach concern for the poor. It’s quite another thing to be able to be doing it day after day, working hand in hand with your people, those in your parish and those in your town.

And so it is that I feel my dream is developing into reality. For St. Anne’s Church is nestled right in the heart of the poorest community in the State of Michigan—Lake County. And we have countless numbers of people ranging from infancy to age 100 who are suffering, simply because they are without: without sufficient money, without sufficient clothing or food or shelter or medicine or companionship.

So it is that I was pleased indeed that the Human Relations Commission of our Grand Rapids Diocese came to me at the time I was assigned to Baldwin and asked if I would be willing to let them set up a Meals Program in our parish, one that would work with Federal Government funds to feed the senior citizens in our county on a daily, Monday through Friday, basis. I was all for it.

Through the Commission’s tireless efforts and determination (and continued help, I might add), we now are serving daily hot meals to 160 of our senior citizens. The success of the program has not only been in the numbers but in the elated reactions of the participants. Many of them, definitely the majority, are poor, very poor, and the food is a great help to them as they receive at least this one nutritious meal a day. But maybe even more important, at least in their eyes, they are given a chance every day to get out of their shanty homes, which for many of them have become almost like a prison of loneliness. Now they can come together, socialize, have a good meal, play games, see travelogues and other such movies, have birthday parties, and so on. Their life has taken on new meaning and new purpose.

Beyond this, our parish has a fund on hand that we call our ‘Community Apostolate Fund.’ It started out with $250 raised by the parishioners a few years previous. That money was sitting stagnant in a checking account almost forgotten. I asked the people if we could put it in a fund for the poor. The response was unanimously affirmative. The fund simply means that the Social Services, and all the other service agencies in the community, including the Courts, the Sheriffs Department, the Mental Health Clinic, and so on, can make appeal to our fund in emergency situations, when they know of a family or of persons who are down-and-out and in definite need of something they simply cannot afford, whether it be medicine, food, glasses, fuel oil, and so on. An appeal to our fund brings immediate response and financial aid.

So far we have received approximately 50 requests, and like the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, due to the generosity of people and the fund-raising efforts of our parishioners, it now has 10 times the original amount. With that ever-growing surplus we are now hoping to set up in the near future a home-maintenance program. Our fund would supply the materials, and volunteers from the community would supply the labor to go into homes that are in desperate need of repair for leaky roofs, broken windows, holes in the walls, little or no insulation; we would do what we can to correct these unlivable conditions.

Also in the works right now is a plan to open a thrift shop in town by which poor people can obtain used clothes at a very low cost. Of course, if they cannot pay, they won’t be expected to. The income from the project will be used to pay the rent of the store (which we recently obtained), the heat, and the utilities; anything over and above that will be turned over to other service projects in our area. The store will be staffed by volunteers and overseen by one of the Lake County social workers and myself.

Now, in the first place, it ought to offend the sensibilities of any Reformed believer to have a representative of Roman Catholicism, which is both historically and actually an enemy of the Reformed faith, set forth as an example and an “inspiration” to Christian charity. But apart from this, in the second place, there is in all that I have quoted above nothing whatsoever to indicate that this alleged charity is Christian. It is strictly on a horizontal plane. It is strictly concerned with the material, this-earthly, economic, social needs of its objects. It is involved with the administration and use of Federal Government funds. There is nothing whatsoever in the entire description of the work to indicate any spiritual concern even of a Roman Catholic kind. It makes itself available for the use of various government welfare agencies. In fact, there is nothing to distinguish the entire project from any worldly social welfare agency. There is no mention of the mercies of Christ or of the Name of Christ even in a Roman Catholic sense. And all this, mind you, is held up as an example and an inspiration for Reformed believers! To me, this is nothing but the horizontalism of the social gospel philosophy!

But there is more and worse. In the same issue of The Banner the editor himself writes about the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come.” And he identifies the struggle for civil rights in our country with seeking of the kingdom of God. He identifies suffering in the cause of the civil rights movement with suffering for the sake of the kingdom of God. Writes he: “And has no word ever seeped into cellars like this (the imaginary cellar of a Russian Christian, HCH) of Christians beaten, spat upon, reviled, jailed in the struggle for civil rights—the rights of the Kingdom—in the USA?” Mind you, the lawlessness, the disobedience, the rebellion of an utterly humanistic movement, a movement which had nothing Christian about it except the fact that it had some modernistic church leaders at its head, a movement whose acknowledged leader and dreamer was Martin Luther King, Jr., who could not even loosely be called an evangelical—De Koster identifies this with seeking the kingdom of God, and their sufferings with persecutions for Christ’s sake! Nothing but the social gospel philosophy, while he scornfully characterizes Christians with the true, other-worldly hope as having “an eye fixed on pie in the sky, all for themselves to boot.”

But in the April 4, 1975 issue of The Banner, Editor De Koster goes to extremes with respect to the second petition of the Lord’s prayer. In an editorial entitled “We Hold These Truths” he continues to speak of the alleged political ovetiones of the second petition. The following quotations will give you some idea of his thoughts. Referring to another series of articles by Mr. Everett Huizenga, he writes: “Set in the context of Mr. Huizenga’s observations, the Lord’s Prayer becomes an obvious political commitment. To pray, ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth. . .’ commits the believer politically to the pursuit of political liberty. Or again: “To say seriously (and what other kind of praying ought there to be?) ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth. . .’ sets the believer at odds with tyranny. And if his praying is not to be merely sentimental, the Lord’s Prayer commits the believer to political action in search of democracy.” And in this connection he writes: “And this is precisely why Reformed Christians from Geneva onward have etched deep into Western history a revolutionary pursuit of political democracy—and why we, and especially the youth among us, should thoroughly familiarize ourselves with Calvinist Puritan history on these American shores. One of the lasting achievements of our spiritual ancestry here is the Declaration of Independence (and subsequent Revolution) which will be commemorated next year. It would be a fine contribution to the Bicentennial if some of our historians joined those secular students already in the field who are busily uncovering the Calvinist roots of American democratic institutions.” A little later he writes: “Can we who do not know from experience the absolutist state, even understand how a fellow believer prays there for political liberty, so that the Word may be openly spoken and freely obeyed?”

And then De Koster waxes eloquent in his praise of American democracy:

Then our eyes fall upon another great land mass, the American continent. There, yes, the pulpit is free! There, yes, obedience and conscience are unfettered! No arrest by secret police even when the Word preached calls the state itself to judgment. No imprisonment for obedience; and a fair trial for questions of conscientious objection. No, still far from a perfect community; much yet to be accomplished, even to realize all of the promise of the Declaration of Independence. But there is freedom of worship, the dear fruit of sacrifice and death and suffering and hardship for those who once fought to attain it.

One’s heart leaps! Praise God for the political differences between this continent and Eur-Asian totalitarianism! Praise God for those whose spiritual commitment made them political revolutionaries! And pray God that we may never waste away those hard gained ‘blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.’

All of this is so foreign to truly Reformed thought and to Scripture itself that one hardly knows where to begin with his criticism. On the very surface of it, De Koster is wrong. In effect, he subverts the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, which speaks of the kingdom of God in Christ (an absolute monarchy!) into a prayer, “May democracy come!” Besides, he attributes the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution to the influence of our Calvinist Puritan heritage—something which is not even historically accurate. Go down the list of the framers of our Declaration of Independence. Was Thomas Jefferson, its reputed chief author, influenced by Calvinist principles? Far from it! In the third place, De Koster glorifies the principles of revolution, something which is neither Calvinist nor Scriptural. Scripture teaches us to be in subjection to the higher powers, not to rebel against them. But De Koster wants us to praise God for the “spiritual commitment” of these “political revolutionaries.” In the fourth place, De Koster identifies our American situation, in which we have a “freedom of worship” which is nothing more than the non-establishment of religion, and in which all religions, true and false, Christian and non-Christian, and even atheistic have equal rights, with the coming of God’s kingdom. Yes indeed, we may be thankful to God for the fact that we live in a land in which it is still possible to worship Him freely and without persecution. But this is a far cry from De Koster’s identification of all this with the coming of the kingdom and from his identification of political democracy with the coming of the kingdom. The fact of the matter is that Scripture is singularly indifferent as to the question what political form of government there may be. The Word of God is not interested in the question whether we have a democracy or a monarchy or a dictatorship; it is interested only in the truth that the people of God must conduct themselves as people of God, must live and walk as Christians, also with respect to the state, no matter what the form of the government may be. And the Word of God—and along with it, our Reformed confessions—are notably intolerant with respect to all false, religions.

If you would have a graphic illustration of the fact that Editor De Koster has strayed far from the Reformed line, just compare what he writes with what our Heidelberg Catechism teaches the Christian to pray in connection with the second petition: “‘Thy kingdom come’; that is, rule us so by thy word and spirit, that we may submit ourselves more and more to thee; preserve and increase thy church; destroy the works of the devil, and all violence which would exalt itself against thee; and also, all wicked counsels devised against thy holy word; till the full perfection of thy kingdom take place, wherein thou shalt be all in all.”

Of “political action in search of democracy” this petition says nothing. In fact, if the principles of that democracy are the principles of revolution and the principles which allow the false church and false religions equal rights with the true church as it represents the kingdom of God in the midst of the world, then principally this second petition stands in antithesis to “political action in search of democracy.”

Let us not be carried away by the growing tide of horizontalism!