Chapter 3: The Gospel of the Churches

The Gospel and Our World
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 3: The Gospel of the Churches

Up to this point we have used the terms "Church" and "the churches", almost interchangeably, assuming that the Church is the corporate name for the churches. It now becomes necessary to draw sharper distinctions. Our inquiry in this chapter will aim to make some assessment of three dominant types of American church life in terms of their success in inculcating personal religion and communicating the gospel for the upbuilding of vital Christian experience. The types we shall examine are the Roman Catholic, the fundamentalist Protestant, and the liberal Protestant. (The Eastern Orthodox type, though an important part of ecumenical Christianity, is numerically so much in the minority in the United States that it is not included in this discussion).

Since a discussion of this sort so easily runs into generalities, some definitions are required at the start. Indeed, even with the definitions generalizations will be inevitable, for there is no precise measuring rod for Christian experience, and in the nature of the case no statistics are procurable.

As we shall use the term, "personal Christian living" is marked by a conscious reference of the life of the individual to God, both for divine support and in a sincere desire to discover and do the will of God as revealed in Christ. The term "Christian," which we use so glibly, is not easy to define. It cannot be equated with church membership, or with adherence to conventional moral demands, or with a flash-in-the-pan conversion experience if the life of the individual is not made better by it. Perhaps the simplest and most inclusive definition is that a Christian is a person who sincerely tries to be a follower of Jesus.

This is not to say that anyone completely succeeds in the attempt to be a follower of Jesus. "The sin which doth so easily beset us" stands ever in the way, even for the best; and it is a common fact that the best Christians are apt to be more conscious of their sins than those who are lukewarm. Yet to be a Christian, if the experience is real, makes a difference. The life of the Christian is distinguished by an inner peace, joy, serenity, sense of direction, and triumph over adversity that transforms the individual’s personality. If this inward experience is deep and genuine, his life is marked outwardly by an unselfish concern for others and desire to help them in any way that is possible, by courage in making hard moral decisions, by an integrity which goes much deeper than conventional honesty in the eyes of the law. It is impossible to draw up a list of character traits and say that all those possessing them are Christians while all others are not. Life comes too mixed for that. Yet as one thinks of persons he knows to be unmistakably Christian, a certain pattern and quality of life are distinguishable, more readily discerned by acquaintance than defined in words, which give meaning and content to the term "personal Christian living."

A preliminary word is also in order as to the three main types of American Christianity we propose to look at. That one treads on dangerous ground here is evident, for tensions are acute and misunderstandings are easy. Let it be said at the start, therefore, that I have no desire to stigmatize or laud any type, but only to give as fair an appraisal as possible with the hope of seeing what can be learned from types other than our own.

The Roman Catholic type requires no definition. By the fundamentalist Protestant type we mean those churches which hold to the verbal inspiration and hence the literal inerrancy of the Bible, and which defend as of vital importance certain creedal dogmas, notably the virgin birth, the blood atonement, the physical resurrection of Christ, and his visible second coming. By liberal Protestantism we mean those churches which stress the historical approach to the Bible and hence its spiritual rather than literal inspiration, and find the source of Christian authority not in any creedal statement but in God’s total and progressive revelation of himself in nature, history, human experience, and supremely in Jesus Christ. The Roman Catholic and the fundamentalist Protestant positions, though with obvious differences, meet in holding to an authoritarian and traditionalist point of view as over against the liberal emphasis on free inquiry. These types of Protestantism cut across not only denominations but local congregations, for not infrequently the laity are prevailingly fundamentalist while the minister is liberal. There are many churches and some individuals that cannot easily be classified. Yet there are recognizable prevailing trends, and with due allowance for overlapping at the edges certain observations may be made.

There is both truth and falsehood in the assertion frequently made, that if one wants to find virility and power in Christianity today, he has to go to the Roman Catholic or to the fundamentalist Protestant churches to find it. That there is enough truth in it to give sober concern to others is attested by the almost universal witness of the chaplains during the war. Both the Catholics and the members of fundamentalist groups seemed to take their religion more seriously than the rank and file of service men brought up in liberal Protestant homes and churches. Not only did they attend chapel more faithfully, but they seemed to have more to rely on in time of crisis. And they knew far more definitely what they believed, the religious illiteracy of men from the major Protestant churches being one of the most conspicuous and startling discoveries of the war experience. To move to a different sphere of witness, I can testify from nearly twenty years of college teaching that the students likely to resist the inroads of secularism, and to maintain a warm interest in religion when the pull of the college community is in another direction, are most often those from Catholic and conservative Protestant homes. Those in the latter group not infrequently break with their parents’ theology to move to a more liberal outlook, but it is significant that they have something to move from.

A more telling form of witness lies in the realm of intangibles. Among the professing Christians we know, who is able best to take calamity without being floored by it and, whatever happens, go forward with faith that all is safe in the hands of God? Who finds from his religion greater staying power in the face of what he recognizes as moral temptation? Who takes his religion seriously enough to attend church when it is highly inconvenient? Who puts himself out most to see that his children receive religious instruction? There is no possibility of fiat generalizations here, for some persons in each type rank high and others low. Nevertheless, it is my conviction that in most of these questions the scales are tipped on the side of the authoritarian types of Christianity.

In any case there is no clear evidence that liberal Christianity is superior in its personal fruits, and there are some indices to the contrary. This does not mean, as some might superficially conclude, that the liberal approach is thus proved false, and that the ground it has gained during the past century in the quest for a freer source of authority in Christian truth ought to be surrendered. It means only that if the Roman Catholics or the fundamentalist Protestants have any real achievements which liberal Protestantism lacks, we had better find out what they are, and why, and what is to be done about it.

If the conservative churches are producing more personal religious vitality than the others, the explanation is not likely to be found in one quarter only. The primary factors which bear on the question seem to me to be five: (1) the churchgoing habit in these churches is earlier and more persistently associated with religion; (2) the emotional accompaniments of worship are more vivid and dramatic; (3) greater demands -- or at least, greater consciously recognized demands -- are made on church members; (4) more concrete instruction is given in Christian doctrine; and (5) in spite of some false notes, other notes are struck which in certain great essentials lie closer to the heart of the Christian gospel than the usual liberal emphasis. Each of these matters requires further examination.

In the first place, for the development of personal religious living and the inculcation of loyalty both to Christ and his church, when ought children to begin going to church? I do not mean going to the church school, or the boys’ or girls’ club which meets at the church, or to the daily vacation Bible school in the summer vacation. All of these if properly conducted have a highly useful function. But I am asking a more radical question. When ought a child to begin attending the Sunday morning service of worship? In general the Roman Catholic and many of the more conservative Protestants begin taking their children to church as soon as they are able to sit through a service without making a public disturbance. In the Catholic fold a child by the age of seven has usually made his first communion, and the obligations of regular attendance at mass are as binding on him as on his elders. Protestants vary widely, but the more sophisticated the church the more likely the assumption that the church service is for adults only, and the children either do not go to church at all or leave before the sermon.

This latter practice we have adopted from a prevalent psychological assumption, namely, that a child will be so bored by the church service that he will be injured in his psyche and perhaps alienated from religion by being forced to submit to it. This assumption I regard as false and disastrous to both the child and the Church. A truer psychology affirms that what is put into the first of life is put into the whole of life, and that very little does get into the whole of life which does not have its roots in the early years. Probably most of you who read these pages, like me, began going to church longer ago than you can remember. I doubt that it ever hurt us; and if we had not begun young, we probably should not now be caring much either about the Church or about reading books on the Christian religion.

Second, what ought the service of worship to do for the worshiper? It ought clearly to lift him into the presence of God, make him feel the sustaining power of God, stir him to self-examination of his own moral life, send him out with a sense of joy and peace to better living. The two prevailing types of cultus in Christian churches are liturgical and sermon-centered, corresponding roughly to the Catholic and Protestant traditions though with no clear demarcation between them. The liturgical type centers in the "objective" worship of God, with the primary focus on what God has done for men in the sending of his son Jesus Christ for our redemption and the continued mediation of divine grace through the Church. The architecture of the church is designed to accent this note, with the altar in the center and much use of the church’s historic symbols. Whether or not a mass is celebrated, what is done in such a service is usually done with beauty, dignity, and reverence. The sensuous imagery of vestments, candles, bells, and other physical media of worship, the solemn hush of the assembly as the prayers of the ages are said, the bowed head, the bended knee, the music which is never frolicsome but searching in its simple cadences -- all this tends to produce an impression of worship which even without much ideological content is deep and compelling. Protestants often assume that Catholics go to church only because of fear and ecclesiastical compulsion. Rather it needs to be asked whether it is not the combination of a deep-seated churchgoing habit with such use of drama appealing to the imagination which keeps so many Roman Catholics faithfully attending church while their Protestant friends stay at home for a long Sunday morning snooze.

But what of Protestant worship? It of course takes many forms too numerous to describe. (An important type is the silent worship of the Friends’ Meeting, in which there are often both a high expectancy and discovery of the Divine Presence. It is omitted here because the chapter attempts to discuss only the three most prevalent types of churches). What is most noteworthy from the standpoint of our present concern is that fundamentalist Protestant worship, though at opposite poles from the type just mentioned, has great similarities in its basic appeals. If one goes to a tabernacle or tent meeting, he hears jingly "gospel" songs, animated tones, shouts from the preacher, and frequent "Amens" or other more pointed ejaculations from the pews. There is much personal testimony, and the success of the meeting is judged mainly by the number of conversions it brings about. This intensely personal, apparently spontaneous action under the power of the Holy Spirit seems far removed from the sober dignity of a liturgical service. Yet in both there are strong sensuous appeals, expression of the religious life through dramatic familiar forms, group reinforcement of a dominant idea, and something for the congregation themselves to do. Compare either type with the dignified but largely colorless conventional Protestant service in which the would-be worshipers sing perfunctorily, sit woolgathering through the prayer, and listen passively while the preacher discourses moral platitudes which most of them have heard all their lives -- and it is not surprising that Rome and the sects seem to be winning out.

But, in the third place, what do the churches ask their people to do? This question may be asked in several senses -- either about what is required to be done in the church service, or in the service of the Church, or in the service of God and one’s neighbor under the impulsion of the Church. It requires, therefore, several different answers.

Within the service of worship itself much is required of the worshiper in the Catholic service by way of kneeling, standing, saying responses, genuflection, and making the sign of the cross. There is no opportunity, however much one may desire to, to go to sleep; and while there is no sure preventive to mind-wandering, the service through centuries of tradition has been so formulated as to require a considerable degree of attention. In the more emotional types of Protestant service both the external stimuli and the inner warmth which the worshiper expects -- and goes to church to secure -- are conducive to attention. Indeed, so captivated is his attention that he may find himself shouting and leaping for joy without realizing he is doing so. In our more formal sermon-centered services little is required of the worshiper except to sit decorously, stand, and bow his head at appropriate intervals, and rare indeed is the minister who can capture his roving thoughts all the time from eleven o’clock until twelve-fifteen.

From the standpoint of duties owed to the Church, the Roman Catholic churchman again is in a favored position in that he knows definitely what is expected of him. He must attend mass once every Sunday and on specified holy days; he must eat no meat on Friday; he must confess his sins at intervals; he must see that the children are baptized, instructed, and confirmed in the Catholic faith; he must perform his Easter duties; he must give generously to the church, the amount or the proportion of his income being perhaps specified by the priest. There is no guesswork as to what is required; and if he is a "good Catholic," he does all of these things without a great deal of rebellion. Protestants may scoff at the artificiality of it, but there is a form of moral discipline here which ought not to be surrendered without more vital substitutes.

Protestantism, whether conservative or liberal, has far less explicit religious duties; but in what is required in money-giving, money-raising by church activities, and the carrying on of the church’s voluntary organizations there is a source not only of power for the church but of growth for the church member. It is a great disadvantage for any church to be heavily endowed, and virile Christianity is seldom found therein. This is no small part of the reason why the American churches, with all their weakness, are in general in a healthier condition than the state-supported churches of Europe. Laywomen are generally closer to the life of the church than are the laymen, not because they are essentially better Christians, but because they find more to do in the church’s voluntary organizations. Young people not put to work are often lost to the Church, and this is one main reason for the heavy leakage in the college and immediately postcollege years. "Spectatoritis" in any church is a dangerous malady, which has been greatly intensified of late years by the prevailing practice of securing a speaker for every occasion instead of using local effort and initiative in preparing a program.

It is at the point of what the Church requires of -- or at least enjoins upon -- its members in the total social situation that the liberal churches compare most favorably with the other two. This is our hope; is it fulfilled? Theological conservatism often, though not always, goes hand in hand with social conservatism. Ministers trained in liberal seminaries usually have a more informed and sensitive conscience about the bearing of Christianity on major social problems. Some of them preach in these terms with great prophetic passion and power. Yet the troublesome fact that confronts us is that so many seem mainly to preach inoffensive moral injunctions, and apparently pride themselves on keeping their congregations from discovering that in the seminary they acquired any new ideas! One listens to such a sermon and goes away feeling, "That is true, but what of it?" The reasons are doubtless many, and they center in human nature rather than in liberal theology. Conservatism gives tough resistance; the effort follows an uphill road; the minister has the duty to be tactful as well as courageous -- and before long he is saying things so flattened out as to offend nobody. The Mr. Browns and Mr. Smiths listen politely, and go home to keep up with the Joneses.

Whether the laity in prevailingly liberal churches can be shown to have more sensitive consciences than others and a greater sense of compulsion in serving their fellow men, I do not know. The cultural level is generally higher, but culture is not Christianity. The much-publicized poll reported in the November, 1948, issue of the Ladies Home Journal ("God and the American People" by Lincoln Barnett.) could have thrown light on this question if closer correlations had been drawn between the replies to theological and ethical questions; but as the report stands, a very general state of complacency and self-satisfaction is indicated regardless of religious background. The most that can be said with certainty is that while liberal preaching specializes on the moral aspects of Christianity, there is no clear indication that higher moral fruits are obtained.

Whether or not there is actually a connection between theology and morals, there ought to be; and if we were giving the right teaching in both fields, there would be. What then, in the fourth place, can be said comparatively regarding instruction in the truths of the Christian faith?

It must be said frankly that no one of the types of churches we are considering is doing a highly commendable job at this point. Roman Catholic children have to learn their catechisms before they are confirmed, and those who attend parochial schools receive more instruction in doctrine, as well as in the practices of their church, than Protestant children generally get. But this is not to say that they understand what it means. In fact they are commonly encouraged not to try to understand the mysteries of the faith. Conservative Protestants believe strongly in a limited circle of ideas and know how to quote texts freely in support of them, but again this is not to say that there is any comprehensive grasp o£ the issues involved.

Both of these authoritarian groups are ahead of the liberals in the concreteness of their religious instruction, as well as probably in its amount. Despite the great emphasis on religious education in the liberal churches during the past fifty years, the religious illiteracy of the general public has increased rather than diminished in this period. For this there are various reasons which cannot all be laid at the door of the liberal churches, and without their efforts the situation would certainly be worse. But one fundamental question must still be asked, Do we care enough to see that our children are instructed in the Bible and the Christian heritage? Deplore as we may the existence of the parochial school, its challenge to the separation of church and state, and its attempted inroads on the public treasury, the fact remains that parochial schools exist primarily because Catholic parents, who pay their public-school taxes, think it worth while to submit to additional cost and often to much inconvenience to see to it that their children receive the religious instruction denied them in the public schools.

Is indoctrination wrong? It depends on what is indoctrinated. There can be no real education without the passing on to the next generation of the heritage of the past. If liberal Protestantism has a broader conception of revelation and hence a richer content of truth, it has accordingly the greater obligation to impart it to the people with concreteness and power. I do not say that it is easy to do this and maintain the liberal spirit of free inquiry. I say only that it can be done, and that it must be done if the Christian faith is to be meaningful and vital to the modern mind.

This brings us to our fifth point. I suggested earlier that the Roman Catholic and conservative Protestant churches are in certain great essentials closer to the center of the Christian gospel than most liberal Protestant churches. This, I must repeat emphatically, does not mean that they are closer to truth throughout, or that the great contributions of the liberal spirit are to be surrendered to them. The historical approach to the Bible, the discovery of God in a progressive revelation that sweeps the centuries and embraces the whole of life, the unharnessing of minds to receive whatever is found to be true in any science yet with a vital sense of the divine Presence, an appreciation of the worth and dignity of every human being as a child of God and a determined attack on social evils that thwart and injure personality, the refusal to condone untruth or injustice in any sphere, and above all the centering of the Christian faith in the Jesus who lived within history the life of perfect obedience to God and has shown us the way -- such notes ought never to be surrendered. Neither an authoritarian method which tempts faith to run into credulity nor any dogmatic insistence on traditional doctrines held to be orthodox can satisfy a mind that has learned to think along broader lines. I am not among those theologians who like to speak of liberalism in the past tense, as if it had had its day and ceased to be for I know too many areas in which it is not yet born! Whatever its defects of strategy or content, I doubt that we can properly go beyond it until we have first gone through it.

Nevertheless, both the Catholic tradition and conservative Protestantism strike certain deep notes which, though not absent from liberal Protestant thinking and preaching, have been underemphasized to our great loss. These notes center in the salvation which God brings to the seeking and repentant sinner through the living Christ. What the Roman mass has been saying in glorious drama through the centuries is that in the sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection of Christ, ever repeated through the most solemn rites of the Church, the God who has acted in him for our redemption is here at the altar and will act again and now for those who seek him in true penitence and faith. What Reformation Protestantism said, and what Pentecostal Protestantism now says, is that "Jesus saves" and "Whosoever will may come." Let sinners repent, and the grace of God is at hand to lift and heal and give new life.

Fortunately these groups have no monopoly on these great truths! They belong to the common heritage of our Christian faith and ought to be accented wherever essential Christianity is proclaimed. We may rejoice that the pendulum is swinging back from the extremer forms of liberalism to a type which gives them a place, and that emphasis on the saving act of God in Christ and forgiveness of sin through the divine mercy is again theological doctrine in good standing. If we neglect this note in our churches, as we too often have, we lose the heart of the gospel.

Liberalism rightly emphasizes breadth of vision, with humility, tolerance, openness to new truth as fundamental notes. But for a river to be broad it does not need to be shallow, provided it is fed from perennial and abundant springs. It is from God’s life-giving, never-failing sources that liberalism, in so far as it is authentic, draws its truth and power. It must therefore recover and increase its urgency and evangelistic passion -- in short, its depth -- if it is to mediate God’s truth and power to an age in desperate need.

What this means in conjunction with the theme of this book is that the gospel must be communicated in ways that combine honest and open thought with a living faith. "Have you saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?’’ is the most important question any man can put to himself -- or put to another. It ought to be put, both to ourselves and to others, with variety of wording as the circumstances may direct, but with a burning center. It ought to be put far more often than it is. Only so can the Church as the carrier of the living gospel maintain its existence among the churches.