Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: social gospel

Who am I?

It was in a little church near St Marys, Ontario, that my wife and I were baptized and became members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. After the service, the minister who had baptized us advised us to “Just be yourselves.”

That was a very kind and generous welcome, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t really know who I was. I have spent the forty years since that day sifting through the baggage I have picked up along the road of life and trying to discern which of those things have a place in defining who I am.

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My mother’s ethnic and religious heritage is not part of who I am. Her mother tongue was Plautdietsch and her second language German, the language of the church her family attended and which she joined in her youth. After some years she realized that German was the faith of the church and the things she had learned in the catechism were only decoration. This church had no message for anyone who didn’t know German, including Mom’s eight younger siblings.
She left that church and married my father, a very determined step away from her background. My grandmother sent me a German primer once, I suppose in the hope that I would learn German so I could be a Christian. I mean no disrespect to my grandmother, I loved her, but that was how she had been trained to think. I was intrigued by that German primer, but Mom showed no enthusiasm for teaching me German. If I asked questions she would answer them, but that was all. I soon stopped asking questions. I have no interest in cultural Christianity. That is part of who I am.

My father was from the USA, of Puritan descent but Wesleyan Methodist by faith. That denomination got swallowed up in the social gospel and church union movement. My father had no use for anything to do with the social gospel, in religion, politics or business (the co-operative movement). I have no interest in Christianity as a social movement. That is part of who I am.

My father’s mother spoke French. Dad had some pride in his French heritage but found it embarrassing that his mother actually spoke the language. He wished everyone would speak one language, namely English. Mom talked about how her father had wished that he had learned French when he had the opportunity in his younger days and wished that she could have had the opportunity to learn French. I listened to Mom more than Dad.

I have had allergy problems since I was a baby. That has limited the type of work that I can do. Little by little I have learned what I can do and what I can’t do and am coping quite well, but allergy awareness is still very much part of me. I am a vegetarian, but not because of any religious or philosophical persuasion. I really don’t know why, but I quit eating meat 65 years ago. Maybe it had something to do with my allergies. Maybe it had more to do with the butcherings I saw as a boy.

When we were away from home my father would go up to complete strangers and ask: “What do you think of Jesus?” It embarrassed me terribly when I was young, now I wish I could be more like that. I’m not as bold as my father, but then neither am I as argumentative. Those who know me might wonder about that last statement, but trust me, it’s true. You didn’t know my Dad.

English was Mom’s third language. She had a large dictionary that she had been studying for years and spoke English with no trace of accent. I come by my love of dictionaries honestly. I learned to read when I was four years old and have never stopped. I have been putting my thoughts into writing for a long time now and a desire to communicate is very much part of who I am.

I lived on a farm in the hills of the Missouri Coteau in southeastern Saskatchewan until I was almost 10. There are scenes in my memory from that time that seem almost like heaven. I have lived many other places since then: five provinces, rural areas, towns, villages and cities large and small. I am living on an acreage at this time, but would really prefer to live in a city where there are people around.

I went to a small town school and had read every book in the school library before I finished high school. I learned something important in that reading: two historians can write about the same events and refer to the same dates, the same people, yet come up with different versions of what had really been going on. In my school days, history was taught from the point of view of the Orange Order. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but that point of view has had a negative effect on relations between English and French, Protestant and Catholic, white and nonwhite people in Canada. I am not one who thinks that Christians would be better off not knowing anything about history. I believe that we can’t really understand what is going on today if we don’t know anything about history and the biases created by different perceptions in the past.

I have worked in occupations that encouraged my natural tendency to be detail conscious: like grain buyer, quality assurance and bookkeeper. I probably tend to overdo it at times.

In addition to my parents, I have been influenced by my wife, my daughter, her husband, our grandchildren, brothers and sisters in the faith, preachers, teachers, co-workers. Everybody I have ever met has probably left some small trace on my character.

So who am I? I am a born-again Christian and a Mennonite, not by heritage, culture, language or philosophy, but by the call of God and my response to that call. I am a Canadian, by birth, by education, by life experience. I am a native of Saskatchewan, it is home to me but I have been able to feel at home almost anywhere in this country. I speak both of Canada’s official languages and no others, but occasionally make a stab at learning Italian. I see myself more as an urbanite than as a countryman. And I am a writer. I’ve hesitated for years to admit it, especially to myself, but writing is what motivates me more than anything else.

Get out of the bus and walk

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Sunday morning. Dad had come in with pails of steaming milk and was cranking the cream separator, Mom was getting breakfast ready and I was setting the table. Over the radio came the voice of Ernest Manning, telling us again how world events were shaping up just as foretold in the book of Daniel and in Ezekiel 38 and 39. Gog and Magog (Soviet Russia) and their allies were on the verge of attacking Israel, which would trigger the Battle of Armageddon.

Dad had experienced crushing disappointment when the Wesleyan Methodist Church that he had been raised in disappeared into the United Church of Canada. This was a church that now taught that Jesus, if he ever really existed, was our model for setting to rights the evils of society. Dad had no use for this Social Gospel, he wanted to hear about the Jesus who could save us from our sins.

Shortly thereafter he heard William Aberhart preaching on radio and had gone to Calgary to visit the Prophetic Bible Institute. When Aberhart formed the Social Credit Party (which was the complete antithesis to the social gospel) and was elected Premier of Alberta in 1935, Dad decided the way to defeat the Social Gospel, Socialism and Communism was to elect Christian statesmen to government. When Aberhart died in 1943, Ernest C Manning took his place as head of the Prophetic Bible Institute, speaker on Canada’s National Back to the Bible Hour and Premier of Alberta and held those roles for another 25 years.

We listened to Manning every Sunday morning and once when the broadcast team held a service in Regina we went to hear him preach in person. I suppose he spoke about other things in all those years, but all I remember is Gog and Magog and the Russian bear.

I was aware that there were people propounding other versions of Bible prophecy. I had listened to the Voice of Prophecy a couple times, out of curiosity. According to them, the “voice of prophecy” the only reliable source of Bible truth, was the writings of Ellen G White. They also talked about a millennium, but had a different interpretation. And they had a lot to say about the Sabbath day. People calling themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses occasionally showed up on our doorstep. Dad called them Russellites, after Charles Taze Russell, their founder. They had another explanation of how things would work out when Jesus returned.

In 1970 I was converted and then married. In the winter of 1971-72 an aged minister conducted a series of Bible studies in which he expounded the dispensational pre-millennial doctrine. We drank it all in. After all, he had Bible verses to prove every point and the way he told it, it seemed completely relevant to events in the world at that time. I got myself a Scofield Reference Bible and read books by Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dwight Pentecost, John Walvoord, Hal Lindsey and others.

Those four were all prominently associated with Dallas Theological Seminary, but I began to note a few discrepancies. Then I began to wonder if those Bible verses the old preacher had quoted actually fit together the way he said. It seemed that it would not be possible to find those meanings just by reading the Bible, you needed a guide to show you how to take the Bible apart and put it together the right way. At that point, my confidence in their teachings crumbled.

It seemed to me that all the different prophetic teachings that I had ever heard were like tour buses, taking people on a tour of ancient cities and each one only showing the sites they wanted you to see, in the order they wanted you to see them. I decided it would be better to get off the bus and hike through the Bible myself, with only the Holy Spirit to guide me.

Later, I have read how that the whole millennial fever was sparked by Jesuit writers trying to counter evangelical criticism of the papacy. Anabaptists identified the papacy as the Antichrist hundreds of years before the Reformation. Luther and Calvin picked up on that and repeated it in their attacks on the Roman Catholic Church.

In order to defend itself, the Roman Catholic Church first decreed that its members could only read books approved by the church. Two 16th century Jesuits wrote books explaining how Antichrist was not the papacy, but an individual who would appear at the end of the Christian era, become ruler of the world and abolish Christianity. Those books weren’t read by many people, but in 1791 another Jesuit, Manuel Lacunza of Chile wrote a book under the assumed name of Rabbi Ben Ezra. This book was translated into English and French and seems to have been the springboard for the millennial fervour which followed.

Edward Irving, a former Presbyterian, formed the Catholic Apostolic Church in England and began to expound on Lacuna’s teaching of the end time Antichrist. John Nelson Darby, a former Church of England clergyman joined the Plymouth Brethren, took on Lacuna’s teachings and expanded them into the dispensational pre-millennial doctrine that I was taught 45 years ago.

A fifteen-year-old girl from Irving’s church had a dream that Christians would be removed from the earth before the coming of Antichrist. Darby also went to hear the young lady tell her dream. This is the origin of the secret rapture teaching. No one has ever found that teaching in the Bible, since all the mentions of Christ’s return talk about the trumpet sounding, the voice of the archangel, and “every eye shall see him.”

Many different millennial fever tour bus companies were spawned in the mid 1800’s, each offering their own unique view of future events. As you can see, I have gone along on a few of those rides and eventually decided they were leading me away from Jesus, rather than closer to Him.

What I was longing for, and not finding on those bus tours, was a place of rest and joy near to the heart of my Saviour. I have realized that anything that comes between me and that place of rest and joy is Antichrist. That word means “in place of Christ” or “in front of Christ.” If we forget the tour guides and search for Christ alone, we will find Him.

Doctrines of the Humanist Religion

 

1. Nothing is real if it cannot be explained by the human mind

I may call myself a lover of the truth, but if I am unwilling to believe anything that does not fit the measure of my mind, am I really open to consider what truth is? Scientific hypotheses attempt to fit the things observed and experienced by man into a framework that gives a logical explanation for those phenomena and events. In order to do this, they must reject anything that cannot be measured and counted. Paradoxically, occult and shamanistic beliefs are attempts to do the same thing, only with different rules of evidence.

2. We are inherently good – our failures are due to a lack of knowledge. The best informed person will always make the best decisions.

The knowledge required might be a better understanding of how to appease the pagan gods and spirits. It might mean getting psychiatric counselling to discover the root causes of troubled emotions and relationships. Or it could mean getting a university education to better face the challenges of life. We often hear it said “If only I had known before what I know now I wouldn’t have got myself into the mess I’m in.” Most often the cause of the trouble was not a lack of knowledge but a decision to follow the baser inclinations of human nature.

3. It is a great evil for people to be deprived of the things that could bring them pleasure.

Why can’t my wife, husband, parents, friends, or boss treat me with the consideration that I deserve? If only I had a little more money, a better house, more time for recreation; if only I lived somewhere else, things would go better. Is our happiness really based on things, or other people?

People tend to think they have a right to physical health. Well-meaning Christians sometimes think that admitting their illness would be a lack of faith and live and die in unreasoning fear. Others spend all their substance, travelling over land and sea, in a desperate search for a healer in whom they can trust. Often they leave their families destitute.

4. The evil that men do is caused by factors outside of themselves. If society can only be restructured to remove all the causes of injustice and lack of fulfilment.

The social gospel and other movements that aim to eliminate inequities and provide fair and just treatment for all began with good intentions and great expectations. Are people happier as a result? Or are we just hacking away at the leaves and branches and completely missing the root of the problem?

All of the above ideas shape our thinking about how to raise our children. We have come to understand that children can only develop their true potential when given maximum access to information and the freedom to decide for themselves what to believe and do. Now it seems that many parents to consider their children to be burdens. And when the parents come to their declining years, their children consider them to be burdens.
Everything we do is governed bu our religious beliefs, even when we profess to have no religion at all. There is within every person a longing for answers to the questions of life. Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? The answers to those questions make up our religion and become the reference point for the choices we make in life.

Man-centred religion makes human wants and aspirations its reference point. Upon this foundation are built myriads of elaborate structures, each claiming to be the best road to true happiness. These structures include everything from rigid adherence to man-made beliefs about God, to mysticism, to atheism. Almost everyone we meet is a missionary for some form of the humanist religion. Businesses, banks, schools and the media do their utmost to persuade us to follow the way of humanism.

Only a few have a truly God-centred religion that makes God the reference point for all the decisions of life. They acknowledge God as Creator, Lord and Saviour, devoting their lives to serving Him

There is no neural point; every person on the planet adheres to one of these two religions. The man-centred religion is built over, and tries to conceal, the pit of hell. The God-centred religion is built upon the eternal and unmovable rock -– Jesus Christ.

Books I didn’t like

Among the thousands of books that I’ve read in my lifetime there have been books that were useful and informative, books that conveyed truths that have inspired me, books that were merely interesting, books that were so uninteresting that I never finished reading them and books that were well written but quite deceptive. Here are four books from that last category that stand out in my mind.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: I was young and impressionalbe when I read this book. Still, the idea of a better world that would be built by pure unbridled selfishness didn’t impress me as being a world where I would want to live. I didn’t find John Galt a very sympathetic hero, either.

In His Steps by Charles Sheldon: I have read this book four times, trying to figure out how anybody could consider this a Christian book. What I found was people who read the Bible but never got any direction from it; people who prayed but never got any direction through answers to prayer; people who sang hymns but never got any direction from the words of the hymns. The only way they got any direction was to ask themselves  “What would Jesus do?” Then they found the answers within themselves.

Well, actually the answers came from Charles Sheldon. The whole sin problem in the world is the fault of privately owned business and the solution is for ordinary people to band together to counteract the nefarious influence of big business. The newspaper owner is the epitome of Sheldon’s solution when he plans to turn the newspaper into an employee owned cooperative.

Sheldon called himself a Christian socialist. Notice that socialist is the noun and Christian is an adjective, mere camouflage for the real message Sheldon wants to convey. He uses Christian words all the way through, but they are eviscerated of all meaning. It is very skilfully done, but this book is actually a primer on socialism.

A Theology for the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch: Rauschenbusch follwed in Sheldon’s steps and coined the term “social gospel” in the early 1900’s. This book reveals the full scope of his thinking. There is no such thing as a sin against God. God appears to be a philosphical construction to provide a framework for ethical teaching, not a divine person who actually exists. Sin and redemption are not matters of personal concern, but involve all of society. The sins for which Jesus died are: religious bigotry; the combination of graft and political power; the corruption of justice; the mob spirit and mob action; militarism; and class contempt.

Rauschenbusch taught that there were two kinds of business organizations: the saved and the unsaved. Unsaved business are those that are privately owned, saved businesses are socially owned, such as cooperatives and goverment owned businesses.

One hundred years have passed since this book was published. I see the results all around me: churches, political parties, cooperatives and government owned businesses built on social gospel principles. I don’t see any evidence that they have succeeded in ushering in Rauschenbusch’s vision of the kingdom of God.

The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whittal Smith: This is another pseudo-Christian book which I have read several times. All I could find was pop psychology couched in Christian language. If people are unhappy and unfulfilled, they might want to ask if there is some sin hindering them, or are they not hearing and following the voice of the Holy Spirit. There is no mention of any of that in this book. It is do-it-yourself Christianity. I would recommend the Bible and genuine Christianity.

Have we misdiagnosed the problem?

It is at least 50 years since C.S. Lewis wrote: “The greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin . . . We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect then to welcome the news of the remedy.” (from God in the Dock, published by Eerdmans.)

The evangelism methods of 100 years ago still work quite well in many places in third world countries. Not so well in North America and Europe. In fact, hardly at all. Why, they don’t even seem to have a lot of impact on children raised in Christian homes.

Evangelicals have responded in various ways: We have to try harder; We have to make our approach more seeker-friendly; We have to avoid those parts of the gospel message that people find offensive.

Have we misdiagnosed the problem? People have been told for the last 100 years, by people calling themselves Christian, that it is the society around us that needs fixing; people aren’t sinners, the world we live in is sinful. Fix the world and we can all live like Christ wants us to live.

There is now a continual hubbub around us of people trying to save the world. And it seems that they are in a constant state of outrage towards those who don’t wholeheartedly endorse their project for fixing the world. If one steps back a moment to observe, it all goes to prove that people are indeed sinners. The anger, hatred, harassment and violence that comes forth from attempts to save the world actually prove the need for the message of the gospel.

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.  But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace. (James 3:13-18)

Cultural amnesia

One hundred years ago, when the Social Gospel was well on the way to infiltrating and taking control of many of the major Christian denominations of North America, my father was already 24 years old. It has lately dawned on me that because I was born when he was 50 I have a window on that long-ago era that most people today know nothing about.

My father was a Methodist, but the social gospel changed that denomination into something he no longer recognized. He told of visiting Edmonton in 1925, and attending a Methodist church there. The minister had much to say about the social responsibility of Christians, but it became evident as he spoke that the Bible’s accounts of creation, the miracles, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were just mythology, allegories meant to teach moral lessons. My father walked out into the street after the service and wept.

A few years later the Methodists, Congregationalists and half the Presbyterians merged to form the United Church of Canada. This was by far the largest protestant denomination in Canada and it was dedicated to ministering to the social and materiel needs of all those oppressed by the evils of our society. The belief that the greatest need of each person was to find forgiveness of sins and peace with God was dismissed as a childish amusement that diverted people’s attention from more important concerns.

In subsequent years, the Anglican Church of Canada and some Baptist, Mennonite and Lutheran churches have also embraced the Social Gospel. It is worthy of note that the social gospel churches have all experienced precipitous declines in membership. People are either turned off by the social gospel or decide that the battles can be more effectively fought outside the churches.

The social gospel movement was the main impetus behind the co-operative movement. People were taught that the private ownership of business was a great injustice that deprived them of the fruits of their labour. They formed co-operatives to buy grain from farmers and to provide the supplies they needed, co-operative retail stores and co-operative banks (credit unions).

For many years the grain co-ops were the dominant agricultural businesses in Western Canada. They calculated patronage dividends for their farmer-owners, based on the amount of business they did with them, but retained the money to provide working capital. Farmers were able to withdraw their patronage dividends upon retirement. Then difficult times came and the co-ops suffered financial reverses. All the prairies grain co-ops merged into one, reorganized as a shareholder owned corporation, then sold out to a Swiss investment company. In the process, the patronage dividends evaporated into thin air. There is no evidence that farmers have suffered from losing the opportunity to sell to the co-operatives.

The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was a political party born of the social gospel. It promised to bring about a more just society by limiting the depredations of privately owned businesses, so that resources were more evenly shared between all people. This party (now known as the NDP) formed the government of my home province for the best part of 60 years. They did many good things, but the social gospel ideals of economic equality created an atmospherics of suspicion of anyone who appeared to prosper more than the average. The result was economic stagnation, leading to an increase in unemployment and poverty – very much the opposite of the promised result.

My father saw the fatal flaw in the social gospel long before I was born. Time has proved him right – in church, in business and in politics.  But the social gospel message still has power to seduce well-meaning people into expending great efforts on activities that will not produce the promised results.

Now we hear people who once were evangelical Christians proclaiming that our highest duty is to reach out to the suffering members of society. There is an element of truth in this, but if one listens closely it becomes evident that the social, emotional and economic needs are their sole concern and the spiritual needs of people are forgotten. This is simply the social gospel warmed over for a new generation who are not aware of history and are not aware that the promises of the social gospel are doomed to fail.

I am not trying to say that we need to forget everything else and just preach the gospel. After all, James said “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” If we are blind to the material, emotional and social needs of others, we are not going to present a complete gospel. But the spiritual distress of people around us cannot be relieved by only ministering to their outward needs.

My concern is that if we trim our sails to catch the latest wind of doctrine and ride the wave of what is highly thought of in the world, we will end up far from where we thought we were going.

The Welfare Trap

Welfare systems began with the noble intent of helping those unable to help themselves. Well, actually those noble intentions were somewhat tainted from the beginning. Christians had long felt a need to help those most in need. Governments, motivated by the social gospel, decided people needed something better than to rely on charity.  Thus a bureaucracy was built step by step, and the bureaucracy needs clients to justify its existence. Therefore, it has become increasingly difficult for welfare clients to escape the system.

Whatever the faults of Christian charity, it did not encroach on people’s dignity nearly as much as organized welfare systems. These systems are structured so that there are penalties for every effort a person makes to become self supporting. Income from a part time job is deducted from welfare payments. Find full time employment and you lose your rent subsidy and many other benefits. Enrol in a government sponsored training program and you likewise lose all your benefits. Whether such disincentives are deliberate or not, the fact is that the system is rigged to keep people on welfare. After a while many people give up hope of finding a way out.

Then there are the child welfare services. One lady went from foster home to foster home during her growing up years and was left feeling that she must have been a difficult child. In her adult years she approached the welfare agency and was given a report of the times she had been moved. In every case there there had been some misconduct by the foster parents — she had never been the problem.

Here in Saskatchewan, many First Nations reserves have their own child welfare agencies. They try to provide some continuity in the life of a child that is at risk in the home of his parents by placing him with relatives. That seems like a sensible solution. The problem is that many families live off reserve and when problems arise they fall under the jurisdiction of the provincial social services agency. Children are placed in foster homes that may not have any understanding of their cultural background. At the first sign of trouble the child is moved to a new home. And on and on. What they most need is stability and only a few find it.

Some foster parents are able to manoeuvre through the bureaucratic jungle of social services and provide a secure and stable home for children in their care. They do a wonderful job, But they are not produced by the system The good that they do is the result of their personal convictions and principles.

The idea that governments can create a better world, where everyone is valued, everyone’s needs are met and everyone’s dignity is respected, has not worked out in practice. This is the social gospel, and it is a false gospel. Yet people are still looking to governments to fix what they have broken.

Business and Church

I grew up in a small Saskatchewan town with four grocery stores and three churches. One store was owned by a cousin and another by an old friend of the family. Another was owned by a Catholic family and the fourth was the local Co-op.

The three churches were the United Church of Canada, the Roman Catholic and the Anglican. The United Church was the largest and the Anglican the smallest. My family was Anglican. Sixty years ago there were enough mouths to feed in the town and the surrounding farms to support all four stores. Cut-throat competition was unheard of.

As the years went by things began to change. Gravel highways were paved, and travel to the city became more common. Young people went to the cities to further their education and stayed to work. Small farmers sold out to their neighbours and moved to the cities. Families had fewer children. As the population of the town and the surrounding countryside slowly shrank, the owners of the grocery stores began to feel pressure on their profit margins.

One day a fire started at one store. The bell on the town hall was rung, the town’s fire engine and water wagon rushed to the scene, and in true small town neighbourliness every able bodied man and youth converged on the scene to fight the fire. In their zeal to help, they got the fire hoses tangled up. By the time they got them straightened out and were able to pour water on the fire the store was past saving. It was not rebuilt.

The other stores could breathe easier for a time, but the trend toward a shrinking local market continued. One day a lady came to my cousin’s store to ask him to buy an ad in a Catholic periodical. He was not interested. She told him that if he did not buy an ad the Catholic people would be told to stop buying at his store. He didn’t take it very seriously, but one by one his Catholic customers stopped coming into his store. Some of them were among his best friends, and they remained friends, but the priest had told them they should support the business owned by a Catholic and they felt pressed to do so.

The United Church and the Co-op were both products of the social gospel movement, resulting in a similar commitment from the United Church people to support the Co-op. That left my cousin with the Anglicans and the people who were of other religious persuasions, or none at all. He began to reduce the shelf space devoted to groceries and to stock clothing and dry goods, items where he had no competition from the Catholic or social gospel people. This provided a livelihood for a number of years. I believe the town is now down to two churches and one store, the Co-op.

Thinking over this little bit of history has raised a question in my mind. When I go into business, should I feel that my brethren are obligated to do business with me? Should I expect the deacons to drop a few gentle hints that brethren should support my business rather than a “worldly” competitor?

Having a captive market may sound like a sure road to success in business. But does it work that way in real life? I think I know myself well enough to admit that the quality of service to my customers would tend to go downhill if I could take it for granted that most of them would deal with me even if I made no special effort to see that their needs were being met. A captive market begets mediocrity.

We operate a business to earn a livelihood for our family. In most cases, we could not make a living by serving only the members of our own church community. This is a good thing. Our neighbours are predisposed to see us as closed, inward-looking people. Operating a business in the community can give people a better picture of what we are like. Our business is not a mission, but the way we run it shows what is important to us. When we are open, honest, friendly and fair to all, that is a witness of what our faith is. When we and our employees work together harmoniously, when there is no foul language, and no racy pictures on the walls, that is a witness. When we patiently and kindly attempt to meet the needs of customers who are old, frail and a little confused, and customers who are angry and demanding, that is a witness. When we show no evidence of prejudice or favouritism, that is a witness. Honesty in our dealings with governments is also a witness.

The purpose of a business is to serve our customers and support our families, not to bring salvation to our neighbours. Yet we should remember that as these neighbours observe us, they will form impressions about the church to which we belong, the faith we profess and the God we serve.

The empty pew — why?

Fifty years ago the Anglican Church of Canada asked well known author Pierre Berton to write a book on the state of the church and how to rejuvenate it. The book was called The Comfortable Pew, and it created a sensation when it was published. Here is a one sentence summary of the book that I found on the net: “He said the church had failed as an instrument of social justice and no longer served as a conscience for the nation holding people accountable to a high ethical standard.”

Ten years ago the church hired a consulting firm to advise them on demographic trends and the future of the church. As I recall the report stated that if present trends continued, in 75 years there would be two members left in the Anglican Church of Canada.

Pierre Berton’s talents in writing and historical research enabled him to write a number of best-selling books about important events in Canadian history. The Comfortable Pew was a good read too, but I fear that his vision of what people need from a church was distorted.

He wasn’t alone in that. Many church leaders have tried a variety of approaches and tactics to make their churches more attractive and relevant. Most of them have bombed.

The social gospel has been tried, especially here in Saskatchewan, and hasn’t created a more Christ-like society. Prophecy has enriched a few writers, but it doesn’t fill many churches anymore. Mussolini wasn’t the Antichrist after all; most of the generation alive in 1946 is no longer alive and Jesus has not returned. Christian rock music isn’t enough to fill churches Sunday after Sunday. If pop psychology is your interest, there are many other places to find it. None of these things are relevant to the real needs of mankind.

Unfortunately, far too many churches are focussing far too much of their energy and attention on things that have nothing to do with meeting the real needs of the people sitting in the pews. And little by little the pews are becoming empty.

Strange Gospel

Approximately 300 years ago there arose a line of thought in pietistic Protestantism that God’s reign would progressively manifest itself through human action cooperating with God’s action. The belief that the gospel will gradually Christianize the world, bringing a reign of peace and harmony preceding the return of Christ, is known as postmillenialism.

In 19th century Germany, theologians Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf Harnack concluded that most of the Scriptures were simply mythology or allegory used to convey spiritual teachings. This was called higher criticism of the Bible. Although they did not believe the Bible to be literally true, they taught that the life and teachings of Jesus carried a message of hope for the poor and oppressed. Rejecting the historical truth of the Bible, they also rejected the thought that evil was the product of the sinful nature of the heart of man. They rather taught that it is the evil in the social environment which prevents men and women from living as Jesus taught. This teaching infiltrated most of the major protestant denominations, and was called “modernism.”

Meanwhile, the success of the abolition movement in the USA led to a belief that it would be possible to cure all the ills of society. In His Steps, published in 1897, became the second-best selling book in the USA (after the Bible) for the next 60 years. This was the account by Charles Sheldon of the transformation of the fictional town of Raymond when people began to ask “What would Jesus do?” It seems an inspiring story, the Bible is read, powerful prayers are offered up, good things happen.

But when answers come to the question “What would Jesus do?” they do not come from Scripture or from the leading of the Holy Spirit, but rather from the intellect and imagination of the persons asking the question.

The theme of the book is that the liquor business and big business in general have created a social environment where people cannot live a Christian life. There is no hint that the great need of rich and poor alike is to repent of the evil in their own heart. The sin of society must first be addressed. This book played a large part in creating the Social Gospel movement.

Walter Rauschenbusch was the principal theologian of the movement. He was a Baptist minister of German descent, who had studied the writings of Schleiermacher, Ritschl and Harnack. His work as a pastor in one of the worst slums of New York City led him to develop a theology to impel Christians to work towards the immediate correction of the evils in society.

His best known book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, appeared in 1917. Rauschenbusch quotes Scripture and uses the language of evangelical Christianity. But he does not believe in the divine inspiration of the whole Bible, leaving him free to select certain Scriptures as authoritative, and to reject others. The Scriptures he does use are interpreted according to social gospel theology.

According to Rauschenbusch, the kingdom of God includes all of humanity. Men are not inherently sinful, but live in a sinful environment which hinders them from living as God wants them to live. Sin is not committed against God alone, but since God resides in every human being, every sin against our fellow man is a sin against God. There is no thought of Jesus being the incarnate Son of God. He was simply a man who attained to a new level of understanding and living the kingdom of God.

Rauschenbusch names six sins which caused the death of Jesus: religious bigotry; graft and political power; corruption of justice; mob spirit and mob action; militarism; and class contempt. There is no mention of a resurrection. The devil, hell and heaven exist only in a figurative sense. All people are somewhere in the unending process of growing closer to God and becoming more like him.

Rauschenbusch considered the production and marketing of alcoholic beverages to be a great evil. Even worse was the oppression of mankind by privately owned businesses operated for the profit of the owners. He called these businesses unsaved organizations. Collectively owned businesses, such as co-operatives and government owned businesses, are saved organizations. This is the Social Gospel and it is indeed a strange gospel.

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