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THE SOCIAL MISSION OF THE CHURCH OF TO-DAY
IT may be said that the Social mission of the Church to-day is both new in kind and of greater urgency than in the past: not because poverty and distress have increased—for that is, to say the least, not capable of proof; nor because the Church is more negligent than before in works of charity—quite the reverse is true; nor yet because self-sacrificing and trained workers are less numerous than hitherto—on the contrary, they have never been so numerous as now. In what sense, then, can the Church’s task to-day be called new and more urgent than in the past? Well, to begin with, history proves that new .and urgent duties never come to light during the dark days of declining movements. In the dreariness and distress that then prevail, all available energy must be exerted to hold fast at least the things that remain. It is only in a progressive age 67that the obligation to new and higher action can be felt; and so at the present time it is just the progress we have already made that thrusts new tasks upon us. In indicating briefly the various lines along which we have advanced, I hope to say nothing with which you will not all agree.
First, we have no longer to do with classes in a state of tutelage, but, though in some respects they may still be powerless, all have equal recognition, and a certain measure of education now belongs to all. I need not enter in further detail into this matter, in which the immense progress of the last century is clearly shown. It is only in small sequestered districts, or under special circumstances, that it is still possible for the relief of the poor to take the form of patriarchal care or patronage by the upper classes of those beneath them. Now that all classes have dealings with each other on the footing of legal equality, a similar freedom of intercourse on equal terms, whether friendly or the reverse, has become more and more general in all the relations of life—a condition towards which the spread of education and equality of political rights have been largely conducive. This only serves to heighten the contrast between wealth 68and the lack of it, as represented by Capital and Labour, opposed to each other as though they were impersonal forces; and to render more intolerable a state of affairs in which whole classes of the population, after enjoying a good education and acquiring thereby a genuine taste for the blessings of culture, must yet spend their lives in such straitened circumstances that they are able to appropriate but few of those blessings, and are, moreover, liable to be ruined by the slightest economic disturbance.
Secondly, conscience is more alive, and there is a keener sense of duty than before with regard to the welfare of all the members of society; that is an unmistakable advance, of such cogency as to compel people to take part in it outwardly, even if they do not really do so in their hearts. Moreover, we have learned to regard poverty and distress as a serious social danger, in a sense very different from that formerly thought of, while at the same time we have become aware that no thorough reform can be effected except by preventive means. The obligation arising from the recognition of these facts is an entirely new one, such as no past generation ever felt. In coping with it, the study of sociology and 69economics is found to resemble that of therapeutics, where attention is more and more being concentrated upon hygiene, the science of preventive measures.
Thirdly, everything to-day is dominated by the mighty power of an economic system embracing the whole world; nothing can escape it; its influenee is felt on the remotest village handicraft; it alters or does. away with existing conditions, and threatens with insecurity the economic existence of whole industries. No wonder that it also affects the organisation of the Church; to mention one point alone, congregational life is endangered by those facilities for migration which follow naturally upon the improved means of communication throughout the world. Both in the great cities, and outside their bounds, there is a vast nomadic population—a class of people in whom, as every page of history shows, it is very difficult to maintain a high standard of morality and religion.
In the fourth place, we are face to face, no longer with merely naïve ideas of Communism, but with Socialistic systems of considerable economic development, founded on a materialistic view of life. These systems and these views are gaining ground among the nations, and already crowds of people are 70definitely and deliberately giving up, not only membership in the Church, but also the Christian Faith, and Christian ethics, so that Materialism, theoretical and practical, is becoming a power in public life. But even this development can by no means he regarded simply from the point of view which condemns it as “desertion” or “backsliding.” Before talking of desertion, we must prove that there was, to begin with, real membership in a corporate body. But large numbers, who are now termed “deserters,” never did lay claim to living membership, and it is only from having been so long disguised that this fact now appears the more striking and appalling. Such make-believe is, to be sure, under certain circumstances a restraining and humanising influence, and one may therefore regret the disillusionment. All the same, it is a step in advance when one theory of existence is straightforwardly confronted with another. Besides, there are even worse things than deliberate materialism, namely, absolute indifference or calculating selfishness, endeavouring to get what advantage it can for itself from all theories of existence at once, and hating every conviction that threatens to destroy its own comfort and impose duties upon it.71
These are the principal factors which go to make up the existing situation, and they must be kept in view while seeking for an answer to the question: What is the special social mission of the Church to-day? There are two mistaken notions which I surely no longer require to correct, namely, that it is the duty of the Church to disentangle these difficulties, and that it is in possession of a sovereign remedy for all ills. The Roman Catholic Church does indeed sometimes seem to imply that it holds such a secret panacea, and is only waiting for the nations to swallow it; but it does not seriously mean it. As a Christian Church, it, too, cannot eventually disregard the fact that the peace promised by the Gospel is a peace which the world cannot give, and that the improvement of economic conditions is not the duty of religion. Therefore, when we are speaking of the Social mission of the Church—of our Evangelical Church—our object must simply be to settle what form, under present circumstances, this task must assume, a task always one and the same in its fundamental nature, but differing much from time to time in its characteristic forms. So, too, the means at its disposal never really change, but the use to be made of them varies with the period.72
Above all it must be remembered that the chief task of the Church is still the preaching of the Gospel, that is to say, the message of Redemption and of eternal life. Christianity as a religion would be at an end if this truth were obscured, and the Gospel were to be changed into a social manifesto, whether for the sake of gaining popularity, or owing to excessive zeal for reform. More than that;. none dare ultimately expect more for himself from the message of the Church than a firm, consolatory faith, able to triumph over all the troubles of life. “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” This conviction and the glad tidings of Jesus Christ the Redeemer constitute the essence of the Gospel, from which is developed that view of life—that is to say, that way of thinking of the soul and the body, life and death, happiness and unhappiness, riches and poverty—which is the truth, and therefore makes men free. But the power that lies in every definite theory of existence is proved at the present day by the Socialistic movement. At one of our last Congresses it was eloquently demonstrated that it is just to such a clear theory of life that the Social-Democratic movement owes its strength. Its thousands of 73adherents do not want merely bread; they know full well they do not live by bread alone; they want an answer to all the questions of the universe and of life, and for that—for their faith—they are ready to make sacrifices. For that very reason, the work of the Church is easier at the present time than at any period in the past, since never before were so many men filled with such longing as to-day for firm and consistent convictions. In spite of social divisions and apparent disintegration, there is an all-penetrating force which binds men together with close ties of spiritual fellowship, namely, Thought and Speech. And the strongest expression of Thought will prevail. Men are ready to-day to give anything for a conviction that is real conviction—for a belief that really is believed in. Men are not so base that they can find satisfaction in the gratification and the service of their individual existence; they require convictions as to the meaning of life. But the demand is for a faith in which there is real faith; and to provide this, constitutes the mission of the Church—its task both new and old. It has to proclaim to the present generation the living God and life eternal. It has to testify of the redeeming Lord, whose person still wins reverence and love even from 74those who are most alienated. Zealously and earnestly it must teach that sin is the ruin of mankind and the strongest root of all misery; and must preach that truth both fully and freely, in au intelligible form, so expressed that all may understand. When that is done, the main part of its Social Mission will already be fulfilled. But in order to be able to do so, it must ally itself with all real knowledge and with truth of every kind, or else it will bring discredit on the message it proclaims. It is true that one ray of Gospel light is often sufficient to illumine the heart, and make a man free; and the lowliest servant of Jesus Christ may prove a true saviour to his neighbour; but in the great battle of intellects, where one theory of the universe is opposed to another, the victory can only remain with that interpretation which is a complete whole, and can prove itself true and strong in every way.
I said that none dare ultimately expect more for himself from the message of the Church than a firm, consolatory faith, able to triumph over the troubles of life. The emphasis here is on the words “for himself;” it is a very different matter with regard to other people. Our historical retrospect has shown us that it is an essential part of Christianity to weld the 75individual members of a congregation into a brotherhood full of active life, and then to knit such congregations together into a great association of willing helpers, and that when in course of time congregational life collapsed, this meant a serious loss to the Church. In the early days of Christianity active philanthropy was one of the most persuasive methods of propaganda, and Jesus Christ Himself preached the Gospel while He went about doing good. If sin is at the root of misery, misery and error in turn produce fresh sin and shame. Therefore war must be waged upon misery; but to win the day two things are essential—personal influence from man to man, and the growth or genuine congregational life. Of the first of these there is no need to speak at length. We all know that in the end it is only personal love that really counts. Institutions and charitable organisations touch but the fringe of the matter; only that which proceeds from the heart and addresses itself to the heart is of real moment as weighed in the balance of eternity. In helping one’s neighbour, one must set oneself neither above nor beneath him but beside him. Brothers, not patrons, we are called to be; and in answering this call, Christian charity finds its scope and proper work—a 76work the more necessary the more the relations between the classes assume an impersonal form owing to the development in our midst of our modern economic order.
With regard to the second point, it is certain that where there are no close congregational ties, all effort remains isolated. We should therefore be grateful to those who are now once more calling attention to the fact that ever since the Reformation our Church has been called upon to build up real congregations, and so to revive a vigorous corporate life. The following objection is often heard: “It is too late for that now; organisation of that sort is no longer possible; neither is it compatible with the bureaucratic constitution of our Church, nor yet can living congregations be formed from the kind of Christianity professed by the masses and the State.” To be sure such a task is hard enough, but we need not yet despair of its fulfilment. if we really had to abandon it, I do not know where we could turn for help, for the service of the congregation is one that no public institutions can perform, and for which neither their social work nor their coercive measures are any adequate substitute. We have much to be thankful for in the survival of the congregation, 77even in a defective form; and it would be a fatal error to despise what remains to us, and search for other ideals of organisation. As every one knows and feels, these Congregations are in their original intention communities in which all distinctions of high and low, rich and poor, are swept away, and class differences count for nothing; in fact, just such institutions as we have special need of at the present time. Therefore we must do all in our power to build them up, and give them life, and then patiently wait to see whether their existence will not lead to the gradual transformation or abandonment of State-government in our ecclesiastical polity. Next to the preaching of the Gospel, the reconstruction of congregational life is the chief evangelical-social task now before the Church. The pusillanimous, who regard with despair the fulfilment of this task, on the ground that existing conditions would never allow of such an organisation, would do well to consider the example set by the Social-Democratic movement. It has succeeded in creating and maintaining, among a migratory population, and in face of obstacles of every kind, an organisation closely knit, operative alike in the cities and the provinces, both national and international. 78Why could we not do the like? Because, it will be said, that movement is essentially concerned with one class, and with a common interest serving as a link between its members. But have not we, too, a common interest, and have not we a message which unites the different classes in a spiritual union? If our congregations neither are nor become what they ought to be, it is not the fault of circumstances, but of lack of faith and love.
It is, indeed, certain that we can no longer draw people into congregations whose sole end is Divine Service, and that such congregations are necessarily without real efficacy. But the early Church furnishes a pattern of what true congregational life should be, and the lines along which charitable work in the Church has developed during the last century point in the same direction. It is no empty dream that, in the history of Christianity, there have been congregations—capable of supervision, well ordered, bound together by close ties—in which, next to divine service, active charity was the central point—in which, rather, service to God and active charity were merged in one. And dare we say that for us that is unattainable? Nay, rather we must keep it clearly before us, as the goal towards which we constantly aspire. For 79this reason all great works of Christian charity must not only be fostered and extended, but also made more and more congregational in their organisation. Where one congregation is too small to do by itself all that is required, several must join together so as to form eventually a strong local association. The church-building must also be an assembly-hall for the community, or, better still, there must be an assembly-hall in addition to the church, and people should meet together, not only to hear sermons, but also to take counsel about benevolent work of every sort. A true Christian sense of honour must be aroused, allowing none to call himself a Christian unless he is ready to come forward in person to minister to the distressed and. help the needy; and, besides this, there should be professional trained deacons and deaconesses at work in every parish. Not one of the destitute should any longer be able to say that nobody cares for him. The present age is one that delights in Utopias—dangerous toys with which it is only too ready to play. This idea is not Utopian, but can be realised. Upon its realisation, and the consequent triumph over indolence, avarice, and selfish love of ease, depends, not indeed the actual existence of our Church—for it has 80many supports, and might possibly hold out for a very long time—but at all events the existence of a really evangelical Christianity, and the claim of our Church to appeal to the hearts of the people.
At the same time, our opponents are right in saying that the formation of such congregations is a task demanding time, and that the present conditions of public life necessitate action of another and more immediate kind. Can and should the Church—I am referring to the organised Church—do anything more than preach the Gospel, and revive congregational life? This is a most important question, and we have to answer it. Some—and the majority —reply most decidedly in the negative, and they explain their reason for doing so in very different ways. Others answer it in the affirmative, but generally not without qualification; or else they evade it by the reply that, whatever the Church may do or leave undone, individual Christians are bound to carry the Gospel into public life and bring it to bear upon current conditions.
We need not here discuss the duties of individuals, but there seems to me to be no question that since our Church still holds a great and influential place in the State, and 81in the life of the nation, it is bound to make use of this position for the advancement of evangelical social ideals, and accordingly to seek the most opportune ways of making its voice heard. Otherwise it will always be suspected of being merely an accommodating tool in the hands of an “Aristocratic Government,” and will incur the blame of allowing an ever-widening breach to divide Christian ideals from the social ordinances of public life. Even in the days when it was numerically weak, the early Church raised its voice against abuses in the State. We saw that the Church of the Empire, as it became after the reign of Constantine, was faithful to its obligations, and exerted its influence to bring about the suppression of moral evils. In the Middle Ages, too, the Popes opposed tyranny and violence, as well as open immorality, and they do not to this day forego their claim to pronounce judgment upon important ethical and social questions. It is, indeed, on this very point, that the difference is so marked between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. To the former the “Church” means simply the hierarchical institution, with which, consequently, all responsibility rests, whereas, according to Protestantism, the spirit of Christianity is not confined 82to any organised ecclesiastical body, but is to be found also in the mundane pursuits and ordinances of Christendom. Therefore Protestants believe that if the Government or other secular authority exercises its power rightly, it will be at one with the ethical ideals of Christianity, and accordingly, the ordering of temporal affairs may safely be left in its hands. But this in no way debars the Church from raising its voice in protest against moral and social evils, and from influencing both public opinion and the conduct of matters of national interest. It becomes, indeed, its duty so to do, if the State shows itself negligent or callous. Within the last thirty years our churches have become better able to express their opinions. But to what purpose have they this voice—in congregational representation, district, provincial and general synods, ecclesiastical courts and high consistories—if not to testify in the parish, in the city, in the province, in the whole country, on questions of moral and social welfare, and to declare: “This is right; that is wrong”? Are they to deal only with church rates, church formularies, and unimportant details? This may satisfy people for a time, but in the long run it will prove intolerable, and must soon excite feelings of pity or 83worse towards the organisation of the Church as a whole; for its vast apparatus has a right to exist only if it renders real service to the whole body—not by words, but by evangelical-social work, work in which every order must perform its own share.
But the more stress is laid upon this, the more need there is to define the limits within which the Church must confine its activity—bounds that do not include economic questions. It has nothing to do with such practical questions of social-economics as the nationalisation of private property arid enterprise, land-tenure reforms, restriction of the legal hours of work, price-regulations, taxation, and insurance; for in order to settle these matters, such technical knowledge is required as is altogether outside the province of the Church, and if it were to meddle with them at all it would be led into a secularisation of the worst description. But it is its duty to interfere in public conditions wherever it finds that serious moral evils are being tolerated. Can it be right for the Church, as it were, to shrug its shoulders and pass prostitution by in silence, as the priest did the man who had fallen among thieves? Is it enough to collect money for penitentiaries, leaving it to particular Christian associations 84to fight against the evil? Is the Church not bound to set its face against duelling? Dare it, again, keep silence when it sees a state of things destructive of the sanctity of marriage, and of family life, and devoid of the most elementary conditions of morality? Dare it look calmly on while the weak are trodden under foot, and none lends a helping hand to people in distress? Dare it hear, without rebuking it, language which, in the name of Christianity, destroys the peace of the land and sows scorn and hatred broadcast? Is it really only a bureaucratic institution, or is it not its duty, as an established Church, to preserve peace, both civil and international, to draw together rich and poor, and to help to break down mischievous class-prejudices? There will, it is true, be found plenty to reply that the Church has enough to do if it preaches the word of God and administers the sacraments. But the same answer was made to the demand that it should undertake foreign and home missions. To that suggestion, too, the Church at first was deaf, asserting that such an undertaking formed no part of its office; but it has since come to see that by not attending to these matters it is neglecting its duties. There would at first sight seem to be more weight in the objection 85that the representatives of the Church have no power to enforce their decisions on questions such as those I have mentioned; and that, owing to the peculiar composition of ecclesiastical gatherings, there is a risk of proposals being put forward without regard to their practicability, and therefore coming to nothing, as well as of meddling and interference in matters with which the Church has no concern. Such apprehensions are not unfounded, but the anticipation of mistakes in carrying it out is no adequate reason for opposing a course of action in itself necessary and good. Church assemblies will learn to measure their strength and to recognise their field of work only by practice in that work; and the well-defined arid special relation in which the German Evangelical Churches stand to the State is sufficient guarantee against too ambitious schemes.
I have so far tried to indicate the social mission of the Church, but, besides this, there are many important tasks which Christians cannot regard with indifference, although their accomplishment lies outside the actual scope of the Church. Purely economic questions must admittedly be estimated and decided only from an economic standpoint; but there are many which affect vitally the moral conditions 86of the people. Therefore the Church must not obstruct the discussion of such questions amongst its members—as, for instance, at these Evangelical-Social Congresses—for it is to the interest of the whole Church that warmhearted, clear-sighted Christians should so study the subject as to be able to distinguish those efforts at reform which are full of promise for the future from such as are merely visionary, and to point out the nature and extent of their connection with moral questions. They should be ready to make sacrifices for social progress on sound lines. It cannot, indeed, be denied that the whole history of the Church shows that when warm-hearted Christians take up economic questions, they tend to favour radical projects. For their demands bearing on political economy they are wont to claim the support of the Gospel, and they endeavour to construct from it a socialistic programme. It must be admitted that we are even now threatened by this danger. Even Protestantism is not free from the danger that some day a second Arnold of Brescia may appear in its midst, Patarenes again arise, and clerical students of political economy attempt, in the name of the Gospel, to prescribe to others, as with legal force, the attitude which, 87if they are to retain the name of Christians, they must assume towards social questions. There is certainly an element of danger in that coquetting with the Social-democratic movement which may already be noticed in certain quarters. As long as the leaders and journals of that party inculcate a life devoid of religion, of duties, of sacrifice and of resignation, what can we have in common with their conception of life as a whole? It is, again, a more than questionable procedure to prejudge and condemn “the rich” and whole classes of the nation, and dream that it will be possible by beginning at the bottom to construct by degrees an entirely new Christian commonwealth. As yet, indeed, these are only fragmentary and passing indications of what might happen in the future. There is as yet no one among us who does not believe that only such claims ought to be put before any individual in the name of the Gospel as are addressed to his conscience, his free choice and his love; and it is still clearly felt that the Gospel is concerned with supplying other than temporal needs; but things have their own logic, and those who have sown the wind will reap the whirlwind.
This warning is, however, not intended to 88dissuade either evangelical Christians as such, or clergy and theologians generally, from occupying themselves with economic and social questions, and forming their own opinions upon them. On the contrary, Christianity ought to stand aloof from no common experience of life and the world, and it should he open to the consideration of all great questions. Thus for centuries its connection was of the closest with philosophy, and especially with metaphysics, in which all the intellectual life of the time was summed up. No one was then an educated Christian who was not also a philosopher. In like manner, history and social questions occupy a prominent place in the intellectual life of to-day, and those who wish to participate in this life cannot afford to neglect them.
But, above all, it is the want and misery of our fellow countrymen that act like a goad, urging us on to study and investigate the construction of the social organism, to examine which of its ills are inevitable, and which may be remedied by a spirit of self-sacrifice and energy. The magnitude and importance of this task make everything else that we have to do on and for this earth seem small. How can we as Christians leave this work undone, 89and how, if, through our selfishness, indolence and sloth, our position becomes ever more difficult and critical, can we be surprised when we find ourselves overwhelmed with radical proposals from those who think differently from ourselves?
A few words in conclusion. The signs of the times seem to point to further development of the socialistic principle of State administration of public and economic affairs. There are many who hail this tendency with unmixed delight, but I cannot number myself unreservedly among them. We have certainly reason to rejoice when sources of poverty and want are stopped, and misery is obviated. But we must not forget that every fresh regulation of this kind acts also as a check upon free development, and so compels us to devise new ways and means whereby conditions necessary for the training of free and independent personalities may be maintained. If it were all to end in legalised slavery; if, hemmed in from childhood by coercive measures, we were to lose all individual character, what a disaster that would be!
Three great tasks have been committed to our charge, as duties not only towards ourselves, 90but towards future generations. These are the defence of the Evangelical Faith, the prevention, as far as in us lies, of distress among our fellow men, and the encouragement of education and culture. In the heat of economic conflict, and amidst rival schemes for allaying it, the last of these is apt to be forgotten; and yet moral and economic ruin would follow speedily upon the decline of culture. But the successful pursuit of education depends upon certain fixed conditions, which cannot be changed in an arbitrary manner, and by which, therefore, the nature and scope of all social and economic work must in part be determined.
Education can no more be brought within the bounds of one unbending system than Truth, from which it draws its breath, can he reduced to one dead level. But the Evangelical Church would be false to its own nature were it to renounce its alliance with truth and education, no longer making it its aim to train up free and independent Christians. This too is a great evangelical social work, and we have good reason to attend to it, since powers hostile to education stand in strong array against us.
Evangelical Faith, a heart sensitive to the wants of others, and a mind open to truth and 91 the treasures of the intellect—these are the powers on which our Church and nation rest. If we are but true to them, we shall realise more and more the truth of the promise expressed in your brave hymn of faith:
“Now is there peace unceasing;
All strife is at an end.”
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