MEDITATION: The Question Of The Church, by H. Richard Niebuhr

From The Church Against The World

The title of our book is not so much the enunciation of a theme as it is the declaration of a position.  We are seeking not to expound a thesis but to represent a point of view and to raise a question.  The point of view is from within the church, is that of churchmen who, having been born into the Christian community, having been nurtured in it and having been convinced of the truth of its gospel, know no life apart from it.  It is, moreover, the point of view of those who find themselves within a threatened church.  The world has always been against the church, but there have been times when the world has been partially converted, and when the church has lived with it in some measure of peace; there have been other times when the world was more or less openly hostile, seeking to convert the church.  We live, it is evident, in a time of hostility when the church is imperiled not only by an external worldliness but by one that has established itself within the Christian camp.  Our position is inside a church which has been on the retreat and which has made compromises with the enemy in thought, in organization, and in discipline.  Finally, our position is in the midst of that increasing group in the church which has heard the command to halt, to remind itself of its mission, and to await further orders.

The question which we raise in this situation may best be stated in the gospel phrase, “What must we do to be saved?”  The “we” in this question does not refer to our individual selves, as though we were isolated persons who could have a life apart from the church or apart from the nation and the race.  It denotes rather the collective self, the Christian community.  In an earlier, individualistic time, evangelical Christians raised the question of their salvation one by one, and we cannot quarrel with them; they realized the nature of their problem as it appeared to them in their own day.  Today, however, we are more aware of the threat against our collective selves than of that against our separate souls.  We are asking: “What must we the nation, or we the class, or we the race do to be saved?”  It is in this sense that we ask, “What must we the church do to be saved?”  It is true that the authors of these brief essays have no commission to ask the question for others, nor to raise it as though they conceived themselves as spokesmen of the church.  Yet they can and must ask it, as responsible members of the body of Christ, who believe that many of their fellow members are asking it also, and that the time has come for an active awareness of and discussion of its meaning.

The point of view represented and the question raised are to be distinguished, we believe, from those of many of our contemporaries who look at the church from the outside.  Though some of these are members, yet they do not seem to be committed to the church, and they appear to direct their questions to it rather than to raise them as members of the community.  They seem to criticize the church by reference to some standard which is not the church’s but that of civilization or of the world.  Apparently they require the church to engage in a program of salvation which is not of a piece with the church’s gospel.  They demand that it become a savior, while the church has always known that it is not a savior but the company of those who have found a savior.  These critics have a right to be heard.  A church which knows that it is not self-sufficient nor secure in righteousness but dependent on God for judgment and renewal as well as for life will expect him to use as instruments of his judgment the opponents and critics of Christianity.  Yet the judgment of the outsider is not the final judgment of God, and his standard is not the divine standard for the church.  An individual can profit greatly by the criticism of his fellows yet he will realize that they are judging him by standards which are neither his own nor God’s, that he is both a worse and a better man than their judgments indicate, and that the greatest service they can render him is to call him back to his own best self.  He will realize that he is not under any obligation to conform to the ideals which his friends or his critics set up for him, but that he is indeed obligated to be true to his own ideal.  It is so with the church.  Much as it may profit by the criticisms of those outside, it must not forget that they are asking it to conform to principles not its own, and endeavoring to use it for ends foreign to its nature.  The question of the church, seen from the inside, is not how it can measure up to the expectations of society nor what it must do to become a savior of civilization, but rather how it can be true to itself: that is, to its Head.  What must it do to be saved?

This question is not a selfish one; it is only the question of a responsible self.  Critics of the gospel of salvation, who characterize it as self-centered and intent upon self-satisfaction, thoroughly misunderstand the sources and the bearing of the cry for salvation.  In the period of individualism, persons sought redemption not because they desired pleasures in “the by-and-by,” but because they found themselves on the road to futility, demoralization, and destructiveness.  Because they were concerned with their own impotence in good works and with the harm they were doing to others, they were not less altruistic than those who were concerned only with doing good, and inattentive to the evil consequences of many good works.  The avowed altruists were not less selfish than seekers after salvation just because they wished to be saviors rather than saved.  Nor is it true that the desire for salvation is unsocial.  It arises – for the church today as for individuals in all times – not in solitariness but within the social nexus.  The church has seen all mankind involved in crisis and has sought to offer help – only to discover the utter insufficiency of its resources.  Confronting the poverty, the warfare, the demoralization of human life, it has sought within itself for the wisdom and the power with which to give aid, and has discovered its impotence.  Therefore it must cry, “What must I do to be saved?”  It has made pronouncements against war, promoted schemes for peace, leagues of nations, pacts for the outlawry of war, associations for international friendship, organizations of war resisters; but the march of Mars is halted not for a moment by the petty impediments placed in its way.  The church has set up programs of social justice, preached utopian ideals, adopted resolutions, urged charity, proclaimed goodwill among men; but neither the progressive impoverishment of the life of the many nor the growth of the privileges of the few has been stayed by its efforts.  It has set up schemes of moral and religious education, seeking to inculcate brotherly love, to draw forth sympathetic goodwill, to teach self-discipline; but the progress of individual and social disintegration goes on.  The church knows that the meaning of its life lies in the service it can give to God’s creatures.  It cannot abandon its efforts to help.  Yet, looking upon the inadequacy and the frequent futility of its works, how can it help but cry, “What must I do to be saved”?

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