If the foundations are destroyed … The church’s responsibility
There is always a temptation for Christians to wring their hands, and declare that what is wrong with the modern world is Darwin, Marx and Freud, who are popularised today by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins.
Certainly, the West is a different place to what it has been. From his Nazi prison cell in the final years of World War II, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer perceived something of what had happened: ‘The west is becoming hostile towards Christ. This is the peculiar situation of our time, and it is genuine decay’.1
The West has descended into a huge moral and spiritual vacuum. Democracy will not save us, nor will education schemes to promote multiculturalism and interfaith harmony. But Christians who want to bemoan the state of the world would be better advised first to ponder the state of the church.
In his last work, Ethics, put together but not finished before he was hanged on Hitler’s special orders on 9 April 1945, Bonhoeffer surveyed the devastation of church and society in his day.
Here is his confession concerning the church: ‘The church confesses that she has not proclaimed often and clearly enough her message of the one God who has revealed himself for all times in Jesus Christ and who suffers no other gods beside himself.
‘She confesses her timidity, her evasiveness, her dangerous concessions. She has often been untrue to her office of guardianship and to her office of comfort. And through this she has often denied to the outcast and to the despised the compassion which she owes them.
‘She was silent when she should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven. She has failed to speak the right word in the right way and at the right time. She has not resisted to the uttermost the apostasy of faith, and she has brought upon herself the guilt of the godlessness of the masses.
‘The church confesses that she has taken in vain the name of Jesus Christ, for she has been ashamed of this name before the world and she has not striven forcefully enough against the misuse of this name for an evil purpose.
‘She has stood by while violence and wrong were being committed under cover of this name. And indeed she has left uncontradicted, and has thereby abetted, even open mockery of the most holy name. She knows that God will not leave unpunished one who takes his name in vain as she does.’
‘The church confesses herself guilty of the loss of the sabbath day, of the withering away of her public worship, and of the contemptuous neglect of Sunday as a day of rest. She has incurred the guilt of restlessness and disquiet, and also of the exploitation of labour even beyond the working weekday, because her preaching of Jesus Christ has been feeble and her public worship has been lifeless.
‘The church confesses herself guilty of the collapse of parental authority. She offered no resistance to contempt for age and idolisation of youth, for she was afraid of losing youth, and with it the future. As though her future belonged to youth!
‘She has not dared to proclaim the divine authority and dignity of parenthood in the face of the revolution of youth, and in a very earthly way she has tried “to keep up with the young”. She has thus rendered herself guilty of the breaking up of countless families, the betrayal of fathers by their children, the self-deification of youth, and the abandon¬ment of youth to the apostasy from Christ…’
Bonhoeffer asserts that: ‘By her confession of guilt the church does not exempt men from their own confession of guilt, but she calls them in into the fellowship of the confession of guilt.
‘Apostate humanity can endure before Christ, only if it has fallen under the sentence of Christ. It is to this judgement that the church summons all those who hear her message … The renewal of the western world lies solely in the divine renewal of the church, which leads her to the fellowship of the risen and living Jesus Christ’.2
If this is all true, then it is the church that is the key to the present perils. It is the lack of salt and light in the church that has led to our current disastrous situation. This is the most serious and pressing problem, and it is also the one we can do most about. God specifically says that judgement begins with the household of God, not with outsiders (1 Peter 4:17).
The professing church is beset with outright apostasy, as revealed when the homosexual, V. Gene Robinson, was consecrated on 2 November 2003 as the Episcopalian bishop of New Hampshire.
Not so blatant, but in its own ways as disturbing, is the soft evangelicalism that has emerged in so many places. With good reason, Udo Middelmann writes of The market driven church, Kaye Ashe of The feminization of the church and David Wells of No place for truth, God in the wasteland and Losing our virtue.
As C. S. Lewis noted in his book, first published in 1963, the year of his death: ‘Liberal Christianity can only supply an ineffectual echo to the massive chorus of agreed and admitted unbelief’.3
To be concluded
The author is minister of Revesby Presbyterian Church, New South Wales
1. D. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, SCM; 1971, p.87.
2. Bonhoeffer, pp.92-95.
3. C. S. Lewis, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm, Fountain Books; reprinted 1977, p.119.