By George W. Sarris
In my last blog post, I pointed out that the evangelical church in America has grown phenomenally in size during the last 50 years. But at the same time, its influence on the surrounding culture has dramatically diminished. I suggested two reasons for this: we misunderstood the Great Commission to mean make converts instead of disciples, and we failed to love our neighbors without a hidden agenda.
The roots for these problems can actually be traced back to a series of events in the 1920’s and 1930’s that resulted in a major split within Christendom in this country. At its heart, the Fundamentalist–Modernist Controversy was a disagreement over the authority of Scripture. It began in the Presbyterian Church, the fourth largest Protestant denomination at the time, but its effects quickly spread to most of the other denominations, as well.
The Modernists had abandoned the belief in the historicity of the Bible and favored what has come to be known as a “social gospel.” For them, issues involving social justice, racial tensions, crime, liquor, child labor, bad hygiene, slums and poor schools were at the center of the church’s mission to the world. They were concerned about helping people in need, but turned away from many of the historic doctrines of the Christian faith. They focused on the horizontal relationship between man and man.
The Fundamentalists were committed to the authority of Scripture and favored what might be called a “faith gospel.” They were convinced that the most important issue facing humanity was the need for reconciliation with God. They were steadfast in their commitment to the doctrines of Biblical faith, but tended to withdraw from activities that had their focus on helping people. For them, the vertical relationship between man and God was paramount.
The Fundamentalists who were the predecessors of modern Evangelicals were godly people who desired deeply to be faithful to Scripture and the tenets of their faith. However, the net effect of their decision to emphasize faith issues to the exclusion of social issues was that they withdrew from the culture around them. They sought to obey the first and greatest commandment – to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. But, they forgot the second commandment which is like it – to love your neighbor as yourself. They were legitimately concerned with not being “of” the world. But, the result was that they withdrew from the culture and were no longer “in” the world.
Separatists or Puritans?
Throughout history, different groups have approached problems in the Church or the culture in radically different ways. “Separatists” see the errors in an institution and decide to withdraw to set up a new order. “Puritans” see the same errors, but choose to work within the system to bring about change.
The Fundamentalists chose the way of the Separatists. They looked to the instruction in the Old Testament for their model, but misunderstood the differences between God’s purposes for the Old Testament people of God and His purposes for the New Testament people of God.
Ancient Israel was called by God to be a separated community. They were to be attractive to the pagan, non-believing world. But, their primary purpose was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
Through the Old Testament instructions about the Tabernacle and Temple worship, the ceremonial laws, and God’s work in the events of history, God laid a foundation for a proper understanding of the Person and work of Christ. Because of this, when John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” his hearers clearly understood that the One who would take away their sins had arrived.
The New Testament people of God, however, were to be different. The Messiah had come and accomplished His work, and the command now was to enter the world and impact the culture! They were to "go" and be an infiltrating community who would transform the world.
One of the clearest messages that God gave to indicate that a change had occurred in how He wanted His people to interact with the cultures around them related to what they were to eat.
The dietary restrictions God instituted for His people in the Old Testament were a very practical way to help keep them separate from the people around them. If you can’t eat the same food as your neighbor, you probably won’t become close friends. But, after Christ had come and accomplished His work on the cross, God removed those restrictions. When the apostle Peter failed to understand this truth and hesitated to reach out to the Gentiles, God used the illustration of the food laws to confirm this change of direction. Now, God wants His people to eat the same food as their neighbors so they can impact their lives.
The Long Term Result
Although there were certainly exceptions, the general direction of the Fundamentalists to separate themselves from the culture and focus on “faith only” issues led them to remain silent when faced with the defining moral issue facing this country in the 1950’s and 1960’s. They did not see God’s heart as it related to the injustice associated with segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. They had removed themselves from the culture and were quiet – when they should have been vocal.
When the next defining moral issue hit in the early 1970’s, the Fundamentalists, who were now calling themselves Evangelicals, were lukewarm in their response. One spokesman for the evangelical church at the time was asked why he did not speak out against abortion. His response was, “I speak out against sin, not against sins.” But, you can’t really speak out against sin unless you define what it is. Again, we were silent – when we should have been vocal.
When evangelicals ask themselves why they have lost their influence in the culture, part of the answer is because we withdrew when we should have engaged. When the chips were down and we had an opportunity to speak out boldly for truth as it related to the defining moral issues facing our society, we were not part of the conversation. We lost our credibility and became irrelevant. We were, as the saying goes, “so heavenly minded, that we were no earthly good!”
God certainly wants us to focus on our vertical relationship with Him. But, He also wants us to be alert to our horizontal relationship with the people around us. The two great commandments go together – we are to love God with all our hearts, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
When asked to choose between the “social gospel” or the “faith gospel” . . . we should choose two!