Three Images of the Church (1955-75)
Bill Long 9/30/06
Explaining the Confusion in Mainline Protestantism
The purpose of this and the next essay is to explore more fully three potentially incompatible images of the American Protestant church vying for preeminence in the years 1960-1975 by focusing especially on number (3) below. The inability to agree on what the central or overarching image of the church ought to be led to a hemorraging of the mainline membership, a bleeding that continues almost unabated to this day. The basic incompatibility was among these three images: (1) Church membership as indication that one was a good American, standing up against the Communists; (2) Church membership as meaning that you had invited Jesus Christ to be your personal Savior and had an experience of grace to support this; (3) Church membership as grounded in the social witness of the Christian Faith--that Christian faith primarily meant to do the work of social justice. I repeat some points I made previously precisely because this "nut" was so difficult, indeed impossible for the liberal churches to crack.
The Social Witness of The Protestant Church
Ever since social gospelers Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch urged the Protestant Churches to recognize their responsiblity for humane reactions to the waves of immigrants coming to our shores in the late 19th century and the consequent dangers of urbanization and large corporate growth, the Protestant Seminaries included courses on social ethics and the Protestant Churches developed outreach ministries to the people in America's large urban centers. Though this work continued over the following decades, by the 1950s the emphasis on national loyalty and church membership as a manifestation of this loyalty drowned out the centrality of the church's social mission. Yet all of this began to change in the 1960s. Emboldened by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement (Civil Rights Act of 1964; Voting Rights Act of 1965), Protestant reformers began to see the Church more and more as the institution that should be in the vanguard of efforts to right social wrongs. It was as if the Civil Rights Movement ignited the souls of many people in the churches, who then wanted the denominations to focus on issues of race, gender, peace, welfare reform, employment issues, housing issues and a host of other "justice" issues that really had never been on the "front burner" of the churches.
No clearer example of this tendency can be seen than by the adoption of the Confession of 1967 ("C'67") by the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (Northern Presbyterians). For the first time in their 400-year creedal history, they inserted articles on "reconciliation in society" that riveted attention and rived people right down the middle. The two I will mention briefly here are the articles on race and on national security.
The Church's Social Witness--in C' 67
The centrality of racial reconciliation for people of faith was an easier sell than the issue of national security. By 1967 a consensus had developed that it was no longer proper to exclude people from institutions solely because of race. So, the first words of C'67 on this were not controversial:
"In his reconciling love he overcomes the barriers between brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary" (II.A.4.a).
But look at the next line, and think for a second about its implications.
"The church is called to bring all men to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights" (Ibid.).
What the confession is trying to say is that it isn't sufficient just to confess with the Apostle Paul that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but that, in Christ, efforts had to be made to make sure that this kind of barrier-breakdown is effected in society. Let me just pose a simple question. Do you know how difficult it is to make sure that people are "upheld" (I guess that means that they receive equal treatment) just in employment alone? One needs not only federal statutes on this issue, and probably state statutes that mimic the federal ones, but one needs court decisions to interpret the fuzzy words of statutes, one needs employers trained in the principles of equal rights in the workplace, one needs administrative regulations that implement statutes, one needs a church apparatus that will "monitor" compliance with all this. In fact, by just trying to make sure that barriers are broken down in one area alone, the church was committing itself (probably unwittingly) to become a sort of governmental/church/educational institution that had a floating commission given to it by itself to make sure that this was done. One needed lobbyists, employment specialists, lawyers, clinics, etc. that would make sure that this goal was implemented.
Notice we have only gotten through one word of the multi-word task that now is upon the churches. They also have to make sure that the work of reconciliation happens in education, housing, leisure (how do you do that? Organize interracial softball leagues?) and in the exercise of political rights. In other words, this sentence would commit the church to reorient its ministry to be an agency that works not for the conversion of the world to Christ, not as an instrument of anti-Communism, but as an instrument of earthly betterment for people.
Though nothing said yet is fully incompatible with (1) or (2) above, the emphasis is far different. And, as the next essay will show, when we read on in C'67 we begin to recognize incompatibilities that emerge among the three pictures of church.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long