The Abiding Church
A CHIEF function of Christianity is to produce Christ-like men. For this result it provides both agencies and nurture. Among agencies the Church has been and will remain the very chief. It cannot be too clearly understood that the Church is not Christianity. Nor is it synonymous with the Kingdom. In Christ's teaching he put all emphasis upon the Kingdom. It was ever in the foreground of his thought. He did, indeed, give an important place to the distinctive idea of the Church. But this was far less frequent of expression, far less of emphasis, than the place and importance which he assigned to the Kingdom.
No sufficient analysis can be given to Christ's relative thought of the Kingdom and the Church which will not yield the conclusion that with him the Kingdom was the all-inclusive end and aim of the gospel which he preached. To this end, the Church, however important, however indispensable in itself, was simply an agency. In later time, indeed as early as in the period of apostolic teaching, the "Church" rather than the "Kingdom" was the term of more popular Christian use. Why this substitution may not perhaps be altogether historically clear. The very term "Kingdom," if it had been one of common proclamation, might have subjected the early Christian teachers to peril from imperial persecution. Roman imperial thought would refuse to understand the Christian import of the term, and it would be intolerant of the conception of a Christian imperium in imperio.
Another reason for the popular adoption of the term "Church" might have grown out of the practical limitations of early apostolical work. Saint Paul, for in-stance, laid great emphasis upon the "Church." Nearly all of his epistles were written to individual churches. Practically nearly all the contributions of the apostles toward the Kingdom were embraced in the organization and establishment here and there of individual Christian societies. The Christian societies (churches) were the foundation stones necessary to be laid in order to the after-structure of the Kingdom itself. These early churches were the nuclei, the fountains of influence, the schools of nurture, whence the leaven of Christian ideals and forces was to work its general way into civilization.
For Saint Paul, as for his illustrious compeers, the founding, the training and nurture of individual churches, became an absorbing lifework. This was the immediate and providentially assigned work given to them as builders of the Kingdom. It can be no wonder that the churches as such filled both their heart and their vision. But all this harmonizes perfectly with the assumption that the Kingdom was the larger end which these churches as subsidiary agencies were to serve. In contrast with Christ's idealism of the Kingdom, the Church, in its historic developments, has always proven an imperfect vehicle of Christianity.
Christ's conception of the Kingdom was a realm of moral forces, a society of good will and of benevolent activities, one of human brotherhood, of unselfishness, a realm under whose standards spirit should be of more value than substance, men of more value than machinery ; in which God, and worship, and the human soul should be held as facts of transcendent significance and worth.
Christ's kingdom is one of perfect ideals. It is dominantly, spiritual in conception. It is a kingdom of righteousness. Its law is the divine will. Its ideals have no space for unethical motives or practices. Its love and helpfulness are as broad as the Fatherhood of God, and reach to the last need of the weakest and most helpless of the human brotherhood. Its spirit will not quench the smoking flax of moral desire, nor break any bruised reed of righteous aspiration. Its citizenship is of all races. To use a classification of Dr. Whedon, wherever in Christian or in heathen lands, one has "the spirit of faith and the purpose of righteousness," whatever else his knowledge, or lack of knowledge, there is a citizen of the Kingdom. Christ knows all human limitations, whether from heredity, from environment, from limited capacity, or from poverty of opportunity. But he puts before all men ideals born of heaven, and not of earth. And any man, whatever his lack of knowledge, who, according to his light, conscientiously puts his face toward the good, and who seeks to put evil behind him, is a citizen of the Kingdom.
The Church being a working organization of human forces, has never in its practical realizations been either as lofty, as broad, as helpful or as holy as are Christ's ideals of the Kingdom. The Church has often put organization before life, creed before spirit, its orthodoxies before character. Times without number, in its mistaken judgments, it has construed the nonessential into the order of the vital, has instituted inquisitions against the pure and good, and has persecuted the noblest disciples of truth.
The ideals of the Kingdom are always perfect. The achievements of the Church have oftentimes been most sadly defective. Judged by the standards of the Kingdom, many are in its citizenship who are not in the membership of the Church ; and many are formally enrolled in the membership of the Church who are not really citizens of the Kingdom.
The Church has wrought throughout the Christian centuries. In civilization it has laid broad and deep the foundations of Christianity. On the whole, it has been in the world the most fruitful source of lofty ideals, the chief educator in morals, the foremost promoter of righteousness. It has inspired civilization with its noblest motives and purposes, has begotten increasingly in the recent ages the most humane thought and most gracious philanthropic ministry, and, as a very breath of heaven, it has carried an atmosphere of sweetness and of helpfulness into the social and industrial thought of the times. It has begotten a numerous progeny of ideals and forces which have gone forth from its portals to be in fields, even wider than its own, the working evangels of the Kingdom for all the world.
The mission of the Church, in preparing for the coming of the world-Kingdom, has been vast and vital beyond all measurement. But the great revival of the present age is one of the Kingdom rather than of the Church. As in the early Christian ages the immediate mission and conception of the Church put the distinctive and larger idea of the Kingdom into the background, so in this later age, after centuries of preparation, in the fullness of time, the Kingdom, a fact far larger than the Church, is coming to its own in Christian thought.
The signs of the coming of the Kingdom are sentineled visibly, as never before, clear around the horizon of the broadest and most far-seeing Christian thinking. The belated sleeper has but to brush the night dews from his eyelashes to discover that the mountain tops are agleam with the harbingers of coming day.
A question of paramount interest, one which the remaining discussion of this chapter will seek partially to answer, is : What is to be the future relation of the Church to the wider movement of the incoming Kingdom? In the very nature of the case the Church must stand central and regnant among the Kingdom-forces.
The Church as an institution grows out of the religious necessities of human nature. As in society and in government organization is a necessity to protect and to promote the social interests of the community and to give a collective value to the institutions of the State, so Christianity can discharge its social and moral mission to the world most efficiently and only through organization. This organization is the Church. As in the social world the individual comes to his largest influence in and through the social organism, so in the religious life the individual worker can realize his largest influence and usefulness only as he works in and through organized agencies.
This is not to say that one might not be a Christian outside of an organization. But it would be safe to say that such a person is, if at all, a Christian because of influences which have reached him through organized Christianity. The government of the State acquires its ability to create its institutions of popular education, its police systems, and its various agencies of public service, through the aggregated life and support of the body of citizens. So Christianity institutes its schools, its presses, its agencies of philanthropic service, its ministries of spiritual nurture, through, and in the strength of, religious organizations.
The supreme and indispensable human agency for the bringing of Christ's kingdom in the earth is regenerated individual lives. The Church, and the Christian home nurtured in the atmosphere of the Church, must ever remain the chief sources for the begetting and developing of Christianized characters. No other agencies will ever substitute these twin and creative sources.
For the highest efficiency of the learned professions and of the technical arts, it has been found an increasing necessity to establish special training schools. These schools must be equipped with every appliance of advanced science, and must be under the direction of highest skill. Such schools are contributing immeasurably to the advancement and perfection of the useful arts. If Christianity has a mission of supreme interest to mankind, then this mission must be studied and pro-claimed to the world through special agencies ordained and adapted for this high function. What in the lesser world of the learned professions and the skilled arts the training schools are, the Church is and must remain in relation to the imperative teaching and work of Christianity. As no other agency the Church is ordained and endowed as the supreme and authoritative teacher of the world in all high matters of spiritual truth. From its schools will go forth those who are to be the peer-less expositors and interpreters of God's revelation to men. From the training schools of the Church will be continuously recruited the ranks of those best fitted for moral leadership in the Kingdom itself, the inspired prophets of the new and growing moral age. Think of the superlative truths with which it is the distinctive mission of the Church at first-hand to deal.
1. The Truth about God. God is the supreme fact of the universe. In human vocabulary there is the term "atheist. An atheist, if such there really be, is one who believes in the non-existence of God. For all practical consideration of the question, he is a negligible quantity. The overwhelming and historic conviction of the race testifies to the Being of God. This testimony receives most rational ratification from the sanest and profoundest thinkers. It is a testimony which roots itself in the deepest instincts of mankind. It may be said that a sense of God is primal in human nature.
The mood of agnosticism toward the idea of God does not, rationally considered, furnish so great ground for wonderment as does that of atheism. Agnosticism does not deny the fact. It simply does not know, and, therefore, finds no sufficient ground for intelligent belief.
The intellectual environment of an agnostic has to be considered. He may be entirely honest in purpose and not undevout of spirit. A review of the religions of history, while giving abundant proof that the conviction of supreme and over-ruling divinity, or divinities, has been well-nigh universal, will also show that this conviction has clothed itself in a great variety of forms, from the crudest fetishism and the grossest polytheism up to the loftiest monotheism. The sense of divinity has been universally active in the human breast. Vision and knowledge as to the real character and attributes of God have been most sadly lacking in the human world.
True knowledge of God is dependent upon revelation. The most perfect revelation which even God could give of himself is limited in its effect by the receptive and appropriative capacity of the mind to whom the revelation is addressed. Hence God's method in revelation has proceeded from simple and rudimentary beginnings, advancing toward its fullness of expression by processes of intellectual and moral education of the race. In the Bible itself, as chronologically traced, there is a well-nigh indescribable progress from the first crude conceptions of monotheism to the culminating revelation in Christ Jesus. The process of God's unfolding is still, and will ever continue to be, active. The expanding moral sense and the growing moral vision of the race are ever perceiving and appropriating an enlarging knowledge of God's true character and purposes; and this process will ever continue.
While God as Creator has implanted universally in the human mind a sense of himself, it remains true that the Bible alone furnishes the supreme record of his moral and spiritual revelation of himself to mankind. In this record God is God alone. He is the sole Creator and supreme Sovereign of the universe. He upholds the physical systems by the might of his omnipotence. He directs them by the power of an unerring will. But the real glory of God's sovereignty is in the moral universe, a universe compared with which all the physical immensities are but as the staging and scaffolding to the rising cathedral. God's supreme glory is in his moral attributes. He is not only all-powerful and all-knowing ; but he is all-holy and perfectly righteous. His holiness and righteousness are equaled only by his love. God's supreme purpose is to people the moral universe with children begotten, nurtured, or reclaimed, into his own moral likeness. In this conception there is room for majestic expansiveness of idea, of illimitable outreach for the moral imagination.
In thinking about God in his relation to the larger physical universe, it would be fatuous either to ignore or to deny the infinite shrouding of mystery that lies over the entire question. Human reason is staggered at the thought of the physical immensities. It often shrinks from accepting all the implications involved in the monotheistic sovereignty of the universe. It thinks of man peopling his sand-grain of a world in the infinite spaces, and it does not seem probable that the Ruler of infinite systems can give himself much concern over man's tiny citizenship.
Probably the real significance of this mental temptation, a temptation quite common to the human reason, is in the proof it furnishes of the real infantile character as yet of the human mind. This type of reasoning under-estimates both the capacity of God and the human potentialities. God, just because he is the Infinite, can guide the outermost physical universe, and at the same time put over his tiniest child the brooding care and nurture of his love. As for man, his dwelling place in the universe may be remote and his playground small, but if he be God's child, he carries in himself the potency of values which have and can have no equivalent in all the physical spaces.
This is not a field in which any blatant skepticism can even appear respectable. Taking no advantage of what to many would seem only reasonable assumptions of religious faith, it is safe to say that in discussing the question of God and the universe no skeptical philosophy has been able to suggest any more rational view than that set forth in the Christian-theistic conception.
There is evidently some single and uniform sovereignty everywhere regnant throughout the physical universe. As far as the human reason can follow the path of light, it finds not only all suns and systems composed of common substances, but it finds all the families of worlds yielding to common laws, to the sway of a common scepter. There may be something in all this to excite in the human breast a sense of 'profound wonder. But it should not the less beget a sense of profound reverence. A materialistic skepticism furnishes no satisfactory theory of the universe. But a materialistic skepticism is not to-day of even good repute. A spiritual philosophy is at the fore in the world's best thinking. The God of Christianity is big enough for the job of directing the physical universe, and at present there are no pretenders in all the field that can make any respectable challenge of or show of rivalry against his supremacy.
But when, as best we may, we have explored all outer-most fields, our chief and well-nigh our only interest in God is in his relations to our human world. Here our .most interested and most searching questions are answered in Jesus Christ. It was Christ's special mission to reveal God to men. Indeed, in his own person, in his character, his teachings, his dispositions, his motives, his services, his sacrifices, he was the living translation to the human heart and thought of God's dispositions and relations toward humanity. Christ reveals God as a divine Father to all the children of men. He is the God of an ever-watchful and loving providence, a providence so minute in its thought of us that it fails not to number the very hairs of our heads.
Christ's revelation of God makes him a Being not less sovereign, not less holy, not less intolerant of sin, but a Being underneath whose robes of justice, and at the very heart of whose love there dwell a spirit of forgiveness for his sinning children, a spirit of sacrifice that will stop at no costs for the winning to reconciliation of those who have alienated themselves from his love.
Such are some of the qualities of God as set forth in Christ's revelation. In the very measure in which these questions are apprehended will it be seen that a knowledge of God, a knowledge of his will and purposes toward mankind, is a question of supreme human import, No subjects should so fully challenge human interest and study as a right understanding of these truths.
In a previous chapter I have dwelt specifically upon some of the great truths for which the historic Church has stood. In this relation I only purpose to emphasize the indispensable mission of the Church in enforcing attention to these truths and in keeping them ever alive in human thought and conviction. The fundamental truths of Christianity have their source in God, They, of all truths, are most vitally related to human welfare and destiny. The Church is God's ordained agency for the exposition and proclamation of these truths to the ages.
2. Calvary. It is not needful here to attempt a definite theory or philosophy of Calvary. Nothing can be clearer than that the whole enacted and indescribable tragedy was something necessitated on account of sin. In a series of divine movements, all concentrated upon man's salvation from sin, the cross was a supreme manifestation. The cross will ever stand in human history as the superlative object lesson of God's love for man. Whatever else it may have meant, it would seem that even God himself could give no more vivid or impressive demonstration to human view of the divine earnestness in seeking man's redemption from the consequences of sin than is furnished in the tragedy of Calvary.
This one measureless sacrifice carries with it the pledge that all divine resources, if needs be, are subject to requisition in order to effect man's reconciliation to God. Calvary is God's bond that he will do all divinely possible to save his human child. If after Calvary any soul is lost, it will be because such soul insists on using its sovereign decision for self-destruction.
I do not tarry to discuss the fact of man's sinfulness. The human sense of sin is universal. The fact of sin is the tragedy of the race. All history asserts man's helplessness of self-emancipation from its bondage. His only salvation is in divinely proffered help. It will always remain one of the chief functions and obligations of the Church to herald to the world an awakening and alarming message in exposure of sin; always its high function to direct human thought to Calvary, where may be seen God's most impressive revelation of the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.
3. The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the continuous Teacher and Inspirer of the Church. From the character and teachings of Christ he is ever unfolding new meaning and enlarging spiritual application for the studious and devout seekers after truth. The Holy Spirit is God working in all the processes of spiritual enlightenment and moral growth. He is preparing the hearts of men and of civilizations for the final coming of Christ's kingdom. In the field of the Spirit's work there is room for exhaustless study, and in the interpretation of that work there is an infinite wealth of material for Christian teaching. The Spirit-inspired Church must ever hold in the world the distinctive function of translating the mind of the Spirit to the thoughts of men.
4. Christian Living. The Church must remain a chief training school for practical Christian living. Saint Paul had a habit of crowding into his epistles many precepts for the Christian life. He discoursed upon the relations of husbands and wives, of parents and children, of masters and servants. So the Church is to be the expounder of Christianity in its application to the practical everyday needs and life of its subjects. It is its teaching function and responsibility to give a rational construction of the uses of prayer, to expound the offices of faith in the Christian life, to impress upon all the necessity and values of ethical living.
The Church should be a herald for high ideals of honor and equity in business life. It should be a clear and forcible expounder of the high moralities which should rule in the home, in society, and in politics. It should impress upon all men the serious gravity of living, the real stewardship of life, the Christlike lesson that life's noblest ends can be realized only in a spirit of service and helpfulness to the world.
The Church should lay a full and cheering emphasis upon the optimisms of the Christian faith. When Saint Paul was in the Roman prison under sentence of death he wrote to the Philippian church, declaring his own joy that he was counted worthy to be made an offering in their behalf. His position would not seem to be conducive to joy, but in this very epistle he repeats over and over the Christian privilege of rejoicing. Among his closing words are these: "Rejoice in the Lord; and again I say, rejoice." Christianity comes with a great wealth of cheer, of hope, of spiritual uplifting to the world's burden-bearers, to the weary, the weak, and the depressed.
The life of the Church ought always to be buoyant and songful in the joy of Christian inspirations. It owes this constant attitude to the wayworn pilgrims whose feet it is pointing to the gateways of the blessed life. Christianity does not promise to its subjects exemption from toil, or trial, or even sorrow. But it does promise to every obedient disciple, whatever his earthly lot, sustaining grace in the full measure of his needs. It should not be a chief aim for the Christian to pray for deliverance from trial. The good God may be preparing the best possible things for us in the very processes of our trials. The diamond receives its finest polish for the king's diadem by the most merciless grinding upon the lapidary's stone. So the Word tells us that they who shall rank most conspicuously among the finally glorified, those who shall stand nearest the throne, are they who shall have come up through great tribulation.
There is a distinctive mission which it is difficult to see how any other agency than the Church can ever as fittingly discharge. This is a ministry to the sick and to the bereaved. When people are old or sick, and are far down the slopes toward the great divide, they need consolations other than any which are earth-barn. It is a blessed thing in these closing stages of the journey to receive from sympathetic hearts and skillful lips divine consolations. And if when are hushed "the last low whispers of the dying" there be no messenger from heaven to the smitten living, how sad and forlorn the situation! It is in life's extreme emergencies that the Church may impart a ministry priceless in its sympathies and inspirations. The Church has an invaluable ministry for life in all the journey from birth to death. The commission for this ministry will never in time be recalled.
5. Immortality. One of the chief doctrinal missions of the Church will be ever to keep alive in human convictions and hopes the revelation of immortality. With-out the faith of immortality, Christianity, however otherwise beautiful and inspirational, would be bereft of that which gives it chief significance and divinest values. Christianity is a religion with eternity in its message. If human faith shall lose sight of the superlative motives and inspirations of this revelation, then, whatever else comes into view, there is hidden from life the very crown of its possibilities, and man is blind to the supreme and fadeless values which God purposes for his destiny.
The Kingdom upon which Christ so habitually dwelt is indeed for this world. It is, so far as our world-history is concerned, the one supreme goal toward which God is directing the moral and spiritual activities of the race. It is God's purpose that the very earth itself shall be transformed into an abode of righteousness, that it shall finally be something far better than the lost Eden of the Genesis story. Toward this coi summation there are now set great and increasing trends in the social and moral movements in history. There will come a day somewhere, when, considering the inevitable limitations of human existence, this world in its physical, intellectual, social, and moral conditions, will be as perfect a world as God can produce through a regenerated humanity.
But when finally, in that good age which has filled the vision of prophets, this world shall have come to its best, it will then be no more than a kindergarten in God's great plans for human destiny. The final, the consummated, Kingdom toward which Christianity works will be realized in climes whose atmospheres have never been touched by contagion, and whose landscapes bear no marks of graves. God's moral purposes for this world embrace infinite improvements, unmeasured trans-formations, for human betterment. But in all the divine scheme for this human world, there is nowhere any promise that man shall not die, that he shall be exempt from accident, that he shall not know the pains and weakness of disease, the sorrows of bereavement.
When this world is made as perfect as possible by the installment of all sanitary science, and by the regnancy of highest moral living, it will then fall immeasurably short of that world where God shall have wiped all tears from the eyes of his people, where there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; because the former things are passed away.
The ideal world-kingdom is at best but a transitional stage between much that is now evil and perishing to that which is perfect and eternal. A vivid faith in Christian immortality is of deepest necessity to the passing life of men. The world-kingdom, in its perfection, can be but gradually approached. Its goal may be far distant. In the meantime multitudes of God's people in this world are struggling with poverty, with privation, are pressed upon by immeasurable limitations, by lack of opportunity, are burdened with toil, infirmities, and disease. These are the true heirs of God's redemptive grace. He does not mean that in his larger scheme of being these shall in any measure be robbed of their birthright. For them the faith of immortality holds infinite compensations.
For the toilsome children of mortality, for the foot-worn and weary pilgrims of time, the Church will ever have a high and divine mission in proclaiming a clime of abiding rest for the weary, of perfect health for those now sick, a land where labor shall be an endless exhilaration, a land of plenty forevermore, a land in which age and decay shall give place to the beauty and vigor of undying youthfulness.
( Originally Published 1914 )
The Inworking God
Divineness Of Man
The Abiding Church
Read More Articles About: Christianity And The New Age