The Church: An Organic Picture of Its Life

by Robert Brow

Chapter 1

Sixties and Seventies

The most visible part of the church in the 1960s is self-criticism. No longer do Christians sit in judgment on others, or rebuke the ways of the wicked world. "Woe is me! I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips" is what Isaiah felt when he had seen a vision of God. Today the church seems to be saying "Woe to us as a church. We are outdated. Our message is irrelevant in a world that has left us behind."

Nineteen sixty-three was the year of Honest to God, Bishop J. A. T. Robinson's self-criticism of the message of his church.[1] The same year Pierre Berton's The Comfortable Pew provided the first case of an avowed agnostic's being hired by a Christian church to castigate its doctrine and practices. Its success was tremendous, at least among the faithful, and cries of outrage helped to fan the flames. One minister called it "an ecclesiastical Fanny Hill"; another invited Berton to preach in his Anglican (Episcopal) church .[2]

The United Church of Canada immediately followed suit with a more modest invitation to half a dozen writers "not noted for their pious forbearance" to throw their rocks at the church. One of these was duly impressed by the fact that "only the strong offer themselves for martyrdom," which was perhaps what the invitation was meant to prove.[3]

The mood of self-flagellation has taker, strongest root in the Roman Catholic Church, especially since Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. Instead of building prickly defenses, its theologians, orders, and laymen have begun a remorseless program of questioning even the most sacred institutions. By 1967 the mood had become a flood, and for the first time an international gathering of Roman Catholic laymen dared to criticize openly the decisions of the Pope himself.[4]

Seven main directions of self-criticism are evident. First, in the tradition of Honest to God, is the suggestion that the message of the Christian gospel is dated, unintelligible to modern man, and in need of reformulation in space-age terms. Bishop Robinson was quickly followed by those who thought that it was quite inadequate merely to tinker with the creeds. What was needed was an acceptance of the fact that God himself is dead, and Christians are really better off without him.

Second, and much older, is the problem of church unity. "The sin of our divisions" is the main concern of the World Council of Churches, and a large part of assembly and committee time in the Protestant churches is devoted to the practical problems of administrative unification. Previous church union schemes such as those in southern India and Canada were more like trial balloons, launched in countries where Protestant church history was hardly a century old. In the sixties large, prosperous churches began to struggle seriously to unite across major historical cleavages; and at the same time the possibility of eventual union with the Roman Catholic Church came into clear focus.

The third area, the need for social involvement, had been championed in Britain since F. D. Maurice and the Christian Socialist Movement. The political implications of the kingdom of God on earth was a favorite theme of the American Unitarians and Modernists. Now in the sixties the church's self-criticism on social matters has become strident with the explosive issues of civil rights and war in Vietnam. It is one thing to feel that the church should be doing more for bringing about the day of peace and brotherhood on earth; it is quite another to have millions of ordinary Christians involved directly in racial hatred and a war that very few either understand or even want.

A fourth, more sophisticated self-criticism has come to the fore in Harvey Cox's The Secular City. Cox's problem is not how the church is going to speak and act in relation to social problems caused by political forces. He suggests that the very concept of the church as a religious institution is wrong. Christians in the urbanized technopolis of the 1970s must be ready to be utterly secular. They should be thoroughly of the world as well as iii the world. Instead of preaching from outside, they must live and exert an influence from the inside. Rather than repent, they must be responsible and mature, which does not mean traditional Victorian morality.

Fifth, laymen are disillusioned, dissatisfied, disoriented because they cannot see where they fit in the life of their plush new suburban churches. They no longer accept the minister as one of the three sources of all wisdom together with the village teacher and doctor. A hundred years ago the minister was usually the most educated man in the community; now he is surrounded by scientific, technological, sociological, and commercial experts in their own right. The laymen of the sixties know that they know something, whereas the minister's theological science has become so uncertain that he hardly has a right to speak. In the past he could at least be expected to be a competent administrator, and the flock could agree to follow. Now there are laymen by the hundreds who belong to the new breed of executives. These men are paid according to their ability to get things done efficiently. In the church they are expected to give their money for inefficient projects and to waste their time in committee activities and trivialities, things that would never be tolerated in a business corporation.

The 1960s have seen the growth of a powerful charismatic movement parallel to and sometimes overlapping the administrative dissatisfaction. Although some ministers have been prominent in this, it is largely an expression of spiritual hunger on the part of Christians hoping to recover the spiritual emphasis of the New Testament. Bored with strawberry festivals, interminable committees, and superficial togetherness, men and women are willing to spend whole evenings in prayer, Bible study, and fellowship at a very deep level. The attention given to this movement has usually been focused on speaking in tongues and on its notable failures, but to emphasize only this is as shallow as to ignore the life of the New Testament churches because they spoke in tongues and had the admitted Judases - Ananias and Sapphira, Demas, and the rest. The point is that this is a genuine movement of self-criticism that is dissatisfied with substandard Christian living and believes that somehow the Holy Spirit is still relevant to the twentieth century.

The seventh movement of self-criticism is found among the ordained ministers of all the major denominations, as well as the priests of the Roman Catholic Church. Such self-criticism is inevitable in view of the other six: theological confusion, interchurch dialogue, strong feelings of concern on social issues, the secularization of everything except the church, lay- men who make no bones about their disrespect, and a charismatic movement that is divisive, confusing, and at the same time a reminder of what happened in the New Testament. All these things have produced deep self-searching among thousands of men, who at one time thought they had been genuinely called by God to serve in the ministry. Their self-criticism has been silent. They have seen some writing on the wall, but it is not to be shared with their church members, or even with their fellow ministers. Their very life is involved. Countries complain of a "brain drain," but the flight from the ministry is of staggering proportions. If we took the last twenty graduating classes of any well-known Protestant seminary, and checked how many are actually in regular parish ministry, the dropout rate would be astonishing. Disquieting surveys have indicated that few ministers would recommend the ministry to their sons, and that many would in fact make a change to another profession if they had half a chance.

What then of the seventies? Surely we cannot continue our exhaustive self-criticism for another harrowing ten years. Christians are duly convinced that the church is in a mess; their leaders are more dubious about its present state than they are. Admittedly we live in an age of revolution and the church is left on the shelf; we face a life and death crisis, etc., ad nauseam. But where do we go from here and how do we get there? That is the question that lies behind our self-criticism, and this book is a small contribution towards an answer.

I have no intention of adding to the works of flagellation. My aim is to suggest that the organic life of the first century of the church is equally suited to the twentieth century,. In the words of Marshall McLuhan "the medium is the message," and in a very real sense the church of Jesus Christ is the message of Jesus Christ. If the church could be freed to live as it lived in the first two or three centuries, many of the problems that we have noted would be solved in a genuinely radical fashion, from the root.

Our method, then, is to look again at the original and perennial forms of the church as a living organism - a body, in the sense of that term in Paul's epistles. In the case of each form or activity, we shall first try to recapture the atmosphere of the New Testament, and then see how this developed in helpful or unhelpful ways in church history and in various denominations. In some cases this should result in practical suggestions for the 1970s. Having seen the church from the inside in several countries and three or four different denominational traditions, I have no doubt that what is alive is worth conserving. I would like to convince the doubters and the self-critical that Jesus Christ intends to keep building his church, and that the gates of hell are even less likely to prevail than in the past. Where criticism is necessary, this is not directed at any particular denomination, since I delight in the one church of Jesus Christ, and the reader will discern that I long to see every part enjoying the richness of the whole.

Chapter 2...