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The Church as Prophetic Critic

by John C. Bennett

John C. Bennett was co-chairman of the Christianity and Crisis Editorial Board and president of Union Theological Seminary. He has contributed significantly to Protestant thinking on international affairs, communism, Catholicism and church relations. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 6, 1954. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The role of the church as the prophetic critic of society is neglected today; instead, the chief emphasis is on the healing ministry of the church, on Christianity as the antidote for anxiety, on the gospel’s promise of peace of mind. There is a prophetic No which still needs to be said, but there is a tendency to omit it, in part because of our preoccupation with the "positive" message and in part because in the nation’s present state of mind prophetic criticism is more than usually misunderstood or resented.

I am not suggesting a one-sided return to what I call here prophetic criticism. My only concern is to call attention to the fact that things are now out of balance. Is it not of the essence of the Christian gospel that healing and judgment belong together? The deepest source of healing is the forgiveness that follows confession. At the heart of our faith is the cross, which is at the same time the demonstration of the consequences of sin and the revelation of God’s forgiveness. In the light of the message entrusted to it the church is called to act as prophet, pastor and priest at the same time for the same people. There was a strong negative note in almost all the prophets of Israel; and, while Jesus showed only compassion toward all who recognized their weakness and need, his words to the hard and self-righteous were as negative as anything that we find in the prophets.

There are two good reasons for shrinking from the role of negative critic. One is that the prophet who assumes this role easily becomes self-righteous and unlovely. Prophets who emphasize the negative side of their message often become single-track and very poor guides. They are inclined to identify their own convictions, even on difficult political issues, with the will of God. There are in the Christian faith correctives for these tendencies, but only too often they do not take effect. The prophets should realize that they also are under judgment, that they have their own special temptations. Most often confession with the people rather than denunciation of the people should be the way in which the prophet speaks. I have in mind here the church and its representatives in their prophetic role.

The deeper reason for shrinking from this role today is that we realize the real difficulty in relating negative judgments, which create in people a sense of guilt, with the healing of their souls. The emphasis on the destructive effects of guilt feelings and anxiety seems to point the church away from stressing negative criticism. We may admit that most guilt feelings which disturb the deeper level of the soul are misplaced, that they are a holdover in mature life from experiences in childhood which are irrelevant to the moral experience of the adult. The warning of psychiatrists and educators against instilling in children feelings of guilt which can have these later disturbing effects is much needed. But this does not mean that there is no place for the kind of moral judgment that is relevant to mature experience and that makes men uneasy, more fully aware of the consequences of their decisions, more sensitive to the dark side of their culture. The appropriateness of such moral judgment is merely the other side of the reality of moral obligation and of human freedom.

There are three conditions in our country today which make it difficult, but all the more necessary, for the church to give emphasis now to the negative or critical elements in its message.

First is our national tendency to develop a shell to protect us as a nation against criticism. It is imperative for the church to break through this shell. Recently I became vividly aware of this problem when I was in a group of about a dozen churchmen who were trying to agree on something to say together on social problems. Two of those present objected to a simple statement to the effect that our responsibility to God rises above all other claims and responsibilities. Their reason for objecting to this idea was that it might make room for treason.

The first thing to say about this is that Christians can expect at times to be regarded by some people as taking positions which are treasonable. Ever since the first apostles said "We must obey God rather than men" this has been a possibility. The Christian, when he so acts, is trying to be loyal to what he believes is God’s purpose for his country and to his country’s true welfare.

One view of this fear of treason is that Americans have received such a shock because of the revelation of actual cases of Communist-inspired treason that they are now a wounded people and need to be dealt with very gently. There is some truth in that contention, and the church should take it into account. The other side of the picture, and at the moment the far more important side, is that, while there have been real wounds, there are today powerful men in our country who specialize in reopening those wounds, not to help them to heal more completely, but for quite other purposes -- to gain a partisan political advantage or to secure personal publicity; but most often in order to discredit by insinuation, if not by direct charges, all who believe in some changes in the economic order. These men use the conflict in faith between Christianity and communism to give a Christian sanction to the most conservative interpretation of the American way of life.

There is so much activity of this kind that, while some consideration should be given to the sense of having been wounded in the past, our greatest emphasis should be on the new wounds that are being inflicted in the name of national security, in the name of anticommunism, in the name of patriotism. Our country has almost lost the capacity for self-criticism or for listening to criticism from others. The church is the one voice in our national life and in our local communities that is under no American authority. Its duty today is to seek to counteract the fog of fear and defensiveness which envelops our national life.

The second factor in our culture which makes it difficult, but extremely important, to give more emphasis to the church’s role as prophetic critic is the habit of viewing most things from the standpoint of "public relations." Now responsible and honest public relations are a necessary instrument in our complicated society, and there is no institution that does not need to make use of this instrument in order to communicate to the public the things it stands for and the reasons for supporting its work.

There is, however, a false type of public relations in America which is the result of the attempt to apply to human groups and institutions the methods of advertising which may be suitable in selling soap or automobiles. There may be kinds of soap which are 99 or 100 per cent pure; there may be automobiles which are mechanically almost perfect; and claims for either the soap or the automobiles may not be exaggerated. I pass over the insinuations of superiority to all other products, which often are less than honest.

But "public relations" becomes absurd when we apply the same kind of advertising and promotional techniques alike to the American economic system, to business in general, to labor, to a political party or candidate, to the policies of a government, to a public utility, to a book, to a church. All these things are very human and very mixed, and there is always another side that is carefully suppressed. We Americans have formed the habit of selling things to each other in this way. I often wonder how far people discount what others say when they remember what they have themselves said or left unsaid on another occasion. It often seems that people who are otherwise discerning believe their own propaganda. I have had the privilege of meeting with representatives of business and labor and various agricultural groups and have often noticed how very sensitive each group is to any criticism. They like to draw pretty pictures of themselves which are too good to be true.

This tendency is quite different in origin from the defensive shell which we develop because of fear of communism. It has independent roots in our habit of selling things, which is so large a part of our life. But it has the effect of reinforcing the defensiveness which is due to fear. Together these two factors exaggerate perennial tendencies among men to resist self-criticism and to concentrate on the beam in the brother’s eye.

Surely within the church there must be a definite attempt to counteract this tendency to deceive others and ourselves, and especially to oppose the use of the Christian religion as a means of commending ourselves, our policies and our institutions to ourselves and to the world. The use of our religion as a sanction for what we ourselves desire most to preserve leads easily to American forms of idolatry which may be more treacherous enemies of Christian faith than explicit denials of it.

The third factor which is both obstacle to and reason for giving new emphasis to the neglected function of the church as critic grows out of the fact that the churches reflect the assumptions and attitudes of particular communities, often of a particular social class or residential area. The democratic structure of many of our denominations suggests that the church should do no more than echo the attitudes and convictions of its members. Some denominations are more inclined than others to suggest that Christian truth is established by majority vote.

To speak of majority vote in this way may be an unfair caricature, but it does call attention to a real problem in Protestantism. Even our denominations which are most democratic in their form of government and which stress as much participation as possible by all their members must recognize that, if a church is Christian, it is confronted by a revelation of God’s truth which it did not create and which no majority vote can cancel. It is confronted by a word of judgment from beyond the desires, expectations and ideals of its members. The preaching of the Word of God is one method by which the church provides for the hearing of this judgment. It is often very difficult for the church to accept this judgment when it concerns the social institutions with which the church lives and the culture which surrounds it and almost saturates it.

The freedom of the pulpit is freedom to be responsible to the revelation of God in Christ and not to any national or socially dominant ideas concerning what is good. Like other forms of freedom it is easily abused, and the interpretation which individuals give to the revelation needs to be checked by various forms of corporate prophetic teaching. One of the finest examples of such corporate teaching in the church was the letter from John Mackay and the General Council of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to the ministers of that church. Fortunately, while this letter was addressed to the church, the world was allowed to read it, for it was published in full in the New York Times.

This letter brought a Christian judgment to bear on the greatest moral threats to our national life and on our favorite self-deceptions. It dealt chiefly with the false ways in which we respond to the menace of communism. It dealt very forcefully with the disregard of human rights in the current inquisitions and then spoke of the fanatical negativism without any constructive program of action which is leading the American mind into a "spiritual vacuum." It said: "Our national house, cleansed of one demon, would invite by its very emptiness the entrance of seven others. In the case of a national crisis this emptiness could in the high-sounding name of security, be occupied with ease by a fascist tyranny."

In calling attention to the present lack of balance in the message of the church and, perhaps even more, in the current popular interpretations of Christianity, I want to emphasize something more than the need of preserving both the prophetic role of the church and its role as healer of the soul. Criticism or the prophetic No should always be in the context of the total gospel so that men will not be afraid to hear it or defend themselves against it. Only as people are helped, even while the No is being spoken, to see beyond it to God’s love for them and for the world can they really receive the word of criticism. Let the positive word come first, so that the gospel may undercut the fears which cause men to harden their minds and hearts against any criticism; but then the word of judgment is needed to prevent all that is positive in the gospel from creating false peace of mind in personal life or complacency about our national culture.


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