This theme, concerned with objections and hindrances to the Gospel in the Church, is a call to self-examination. It is certainly no matter of indifference, whether or not we are ready for such self—evaluation, whether we are willing to recognize the problems and requirements of Christian identification in the world, whether we are willing to seriously investigate the actual condition of the Church.
This matter involves a question of basic importance. What does it mean when we say that the Church -- which by its nature and commission is to be the bearer of the good news – may itself hinder the influence of the Gospel, that Christians themselves may be guilty if limitations and barriers prevent the spread of God’s Word? Certainly such critical charges cannot be put aside lightly. It is only right that we take these important questions seriously. They deserve a full and thorough reply.
An intensive approach of this kind is possible, of course, only after we have clearly established the basic meaning of the concepts “Gospel” and’ “Church,” and have determined what relationship “Gospel” and “Church” actually bear to each other.
This much is certain: “Gospel” and “Church” are not two giant entities that stand side by side in isolation, and that can be judged independently. Actually they stand in an indissoluble relationship. The Gospel points to the Church, and the Church derives from the Gospel. This statement will be understood properly only if we turn aside from what history has come to designate as “Church.” We do well to guard against the many forms and differences, the misconceptions and contradictory statements given in various religious presentations. Likewise when we use the word “Gospel,” we must remember that its meaning is determined not by some current concept nor by subjective interpretation or this or that person’s theology.
Moreover, in considering the determinative relationship between the Gospel and the Church, we must go back to the original setting of the New Testament record. We will gain the correct answer to our problem only if we ascertain the origin of the Gospel, and the beginnings of the “Christian Church.” This source available to us is thoroughly enlightening. The judgments gained therefrom are of basic significance for our investigation.
We must keep three facts clearly in mind: first, we must understand that basic to every statement concerning the Gospel and the Church is a presupposition that, like a great railroad switch, everything turns in a specific direction. This presupposition is a fact, a reality that men have neither brought about, nor can they produce. This fact is the invasion of God’s revelation into history. The fact that Almighty God descended into the earthly realm of His creatures, that the living God. locked Himself into the history of humanity, spoke and dealt in a unique way through a specific nation and then poured out the fullness of His deity and grace in Jesus Christ, manifests a reality that is totally new and beyond comparison. Therefore this reality of the God revealed in Jesus Christ cannot be measured in human terms. Human reason, the world’s reasonableness, must shatter upon it. The definition of the Gospel now becomes signally clear. It is the “joyous news” that no man could ever have devised, the news that in Jesus Christ, God took pity on the world; that the Incarnate One, God’s Son become flesh, Jesus of Nazareth; that the Crucified One, the One who was crucified and died, that the Resurrected One, He whom God raised from the dead, is the Redeemer of the world. This is the “joyous news”: Jesus Christ died as a sacrifice for the world, He lives for us as the Risen One, He leads mankind toward its eternal goal.
This brings us to a second consideration: it was this Gospel that gathered together the body of Christ, that inspired the Christian Church. We fail to understand the meaning of the Church unless we marvel that, as the Easter message spread throughout the world, the Spirit of the living Lord opened the pathway of faith to humble hearts and enabled them to witness for Christ. The Church issued from this Gospel and not from some system of ethics. For this reason the Gospel and the Church stand in the closest of essential relationships. The Gospel is the means, the tool, the instrument through which Jesus Christ reveals Himself as active and alive in the Church. Everything, accordingly, depends on whether or not this Gospel is preserved and carried forward unclouded and unabridged. This Gospel not only brings the Church into being, but also impresses upon it its nature and substance; the Gospel is the Church’s lifestream which united it with Christ as its head and heart, as the very core of its being.
In the third place, it becomes evident from this origin of Christ’s Church in the revelational event, that the Church has a task to do in the world, and that it is empowered to go throughout the world. If, as the Body of the living Christ, the Church has become the beginning of a “new creation,” then it is directed to proclaim its joyous news to the world. The overwhelming apostolic confession that “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature” the Church does not wish to keep only for itself, but desires to proclaim as a promise to a weary, death—ridden world. As a church of the Gospel, therefore, the Church is not called to flee and despise the world, not forced into a narrowminded isolation, not condemned to a ghetto existence; just the reverse is true: the Church is called to be on display before the world. The Church stands under its Lord’s command.: “Go ye into all the world,” “Ye shall be my witnesses,” “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” The Gospel that the Church proclaims to the world is the very invitation extended by Christ Himself: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
This relationship between the Gospel and the Church represents an extraordinary situation, an unusual authorization, a unique responsibility. What happens, however, when opposition is leveled at the Gospel in the Church itself, when hindrances stand in the way of the Gospel? This is a depressing thought. It is one that deserves our complete attention.
Everything pertaining to this matter centers around the basic question of what facts, what circumstances harm the Gospel in the Church, and that do so, in fact, from within. The first determinative principle can be summarized thus: anything, everything that bedims the message of the Gospel, that prevents the heart of the Gospel from shining through clear and true must be considered an obstacle and hindrance.
We must remind ourselves of what confronts us a thousand times over in the life of the Church. We think of Christians who are consciously identified with their churches, who attend and participate in the worship services according to custom, who are willing to give themselves to charitable works —— all these things are worthy of note and of recognition. But a certain lack should not be overlooked. There are many who abide completely by and within the limits of the traditional patterns of the Church, who are satisfied with the “iron rations” of the confession of faith learned in childhood, whose Christianity is a matter of sentiment and who now and then succumb to a pious mood. Certainly we ought not minimize this, but there are those whose faith has stopped growing, whose progress in the life of faith has been interrupted. They accordingly have stopped meditating personally on the Gospel in order to gain clarity concerning the meaning and significance of their faith. For them Christian phrases and biblical terms are like old worn coins whose value is no longer discernible. Therefore their faith does not radiate, has no convicting power, and the Gospel appears lame and, weak. If someone calls himself a Christian and does not himself understand the illuminating power of the Gospel, he is neither qualified nor in a position to bring the Gospel to those who are outside the Church and to make it plain. The New Testament was keenly aware of this dangerous possibility in the churches, and thus laid down the principle: “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you.” If Christians hesitate to give an accounting to themselves and to others concerning the what and wherefore of their faith and step aside from essential exposition of questions of the faith, then the Gospel will become muddied and unclear.
Much more serious, certainly, is the hindrance to the Gospel that comes from the weak faith, the doubting faith, yes, even the unbelief of those who call themselves Christians. Among these, their church membership notwithstanding, an internal falling away from the Gospel has set in; among these, through the deception of non—Christian spiritual powers, deterioration has begun. In such a situation the influence of all kinds of ideologies and world views, of religious speculation such as spread by the sects, of nihilistic skepticism even to the point of atheistic disputing of God, can spread stealthily through the Church. Suddenly the Christian who through baptism and confirmation was planted into fellowship with Christ succumbs to the whisperings of false spirits, yields to superstitions, and charts his life by horoscopes. The age-old doubt, “Hath God said?” only too often becomes linked with egoistic lovelessness that cares nothing for one’s neighbor and says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
This failure to prove the faith and this denial of neighbor love become a constant offense to the world round about. Because Christians appear so “unredeemed,” and act as if they had no faith, the death sentence is passed upon the Church and thus upon the Gospel itself. The disfigured image that these false representatives give, to the life of the Church makes the proclamation of the Gospel untrustworthy and counteracts the unfolding and outworking of the Gospel that would arouse men and women to faith.
With an eye to hindrances to the Gospel we must be aware also of another fact: that in the course of history the difference between the form or structure of the Christian Church and its content or message is inescapably obvious, Of course, it would be a fanatical delusion to think that the Church of the Gospel could do away with all outward forms and still fulfill its tasks. The reality of revelation, that “the Logos, the Word of God, became flesh,” already shows the necessity for the historical, the bodily, earthly—human aspect of the Church. The first gatherings of the early Church show certain definite patterns, as seen by fellowship in the apostles’ teaching and faith, the Lord’s supper and prayer. The Christian Church in the midst of the world always needs some external form or structure. A glance at church history shows us an abundance of church institutions, large and small organizations of impressive and historically important church groups, as well as powerless church endeavors unnoticed by the world. Their names may be diverse, diverse also their external structure and inner organization; on the one hand is the hierarchical range of offices that stem from the Church; on the other, the multiplicity of functions.
For our discussion the question is especially pertinent as to what importance form has had for the success of the Gospel. To what extent does the external structure and order of a church body, however indispensable and justified this form may be, constitute a hindrance to or obscuring of the Gospel?
A church that bears a thankful sense of responsibility to its Reformation fathers will be concerned for maintaining the purity of the Gospel and its furtherance. It will therefore consider church forms, ceremonies, rites, and traditions of only relative value, and in no way necessary for salvation. The structure of the Church in itself is never “sacred,” but, determined only on the basis of suitability, is oriented to implementing a purposeful proclamation of the Gospel.
This interpretation of church form immediately makes clear what danger for
the Gospel may lurk in this historical institutional structure. It is possible
to retain old religious forms, encrusted traditions which hinder and do not
promote a new vital development of the Church, or there may be a revered language
of the Church that as time passes no longer clearly communicates the meaning
of the Gospel; there may be a jungle of religious bureaucracy that supersedes
the principle of stated order, that
assaults and controls the course of daily life and embitters people.
The need for church reform has been stated repeatedly in numerous ways in our time, at the Kirchentage (church conventions), for example. One ought not be deceived into thinking, however, that much will be accomplished simply by changing external forms. On the contrary, modern accommodations to current tastes, or even the adoption of cheap gimmicks in the Church can pose hindrances to the Gospel, inasmuch as interest is shifted to secondary things and the centrality of proclamation is pushed aside.
The only valid consideration for the Church to realize at all times must be what serves the Gospel, its credibility, its deepening, its propagation. What forms, customs and ordinances must be removed, changed or avoided, lest the Church itself be a burden to faith in the Gospel? When it is under the control, under the lordship of the Gospel, the Church remains in vital operation, experiences constant proper reformation, and is se1 critical in order that its entrusted Gospel can function in the world as “lights” and “salt.”
We find situations in still another area of the Church that hinder the Gospel, and in quite another way. Difficulties to proclaiming the Gospel that we have considered thus far have stemmed from man’s wrong relationships, from the human weakness of church members, or from erroneous evaluation and inadequate ways and methods of presentation; now we confront hindrances that come from altering the Gospel itself. We have seen that correct doctrine and proper proclamation do not guarantee the penetrating power of the Gospel, since various personal and very real circumstances can hover over the Gospel like a dismal smokescreen and thus hinder and make difficult its clarity. But what can be done when the very content of the Gospel is abused and changed, when its very essence is misunderstood and misinterpreted?
This decisive fact probes open wounds that particularly characterize the Christian Church today. The dire case would seem to be that man no longer subjects himself as a listener and receiver to the testimony of the Gospel, but instead puts himself under the norm of his own personal discoveries and experiences, and then according to his comprehension and rational promptings adjusts the Gospel message to suit his own needs, corrects them and manipulates them to his own purposes. In this manner he at one stroke exalts himself above the authority of the Gospel, makes himself lord over the Word, over God’s revelation.
Obviously this change in the content of the Gospel has far-reaching implications, since the birth, maintenance or destruction of faith are at stake. Church history has demonstrated the many ways in which such diminution of content has expressed itself. Already in apostolic days such threats to the pure Gospel were acute. The early Church obviously was not sheltered and protected like some island in a sea of nations and peoples; rather, it stood in the very midst of countless religious ideas, mythological concepts, philosophical world views; in other words, the early Church was exposed to foreign influences of many kinds and degrees. The Apostle John accordingly found it necessary to warn against the spiritualism of the agnostics who denied the revelation of Christ come in the flesh. And at any and all ideas that would adulterate the Gospel he proclaimed into some new legalism, Paul hurls a severe, harsh “no!” He pronounces a passionate “Beware!” upon every perversion of the Gospel, upon the preaching of “another Gospel.”
Like dark shadows such death—dealing threats to the Gospel pursue the Church of Jesus Christ here on earth. Again and again voices are heard that offer their own ideas, their own piety, their own ethics in place of the Gospel’s. On the one hand one hears claims that only by some particular way, and according to one particular method, only on the basis of some one specific experience may one become a true Christian; on the other hand, one sees all those statements of the Gospel silenced and pushed aside that are not in harmony with the particular convictions being propagated. Even today one finds a narrowminded, rigid kind of Christianity that lays burdensome demands and duties on the Gospel, a Christian legalism that is neither winsome nor gladdening, but repels and makes being a Christian seem something joyless and depressing.
The face of a distorted Gospel is quite different; however, a distorted Gospel that under the influence of some current philosophy and absolutely defined scientific arguments and hypotheses has undergone a content—changing revision. It has become apparent to many who discern the situation that today we are dealing with just such a profound threat.
The tendency here is not to burden “modern” man with a heavy package of what he must believe; rather the procedure is to avoid whatever he does not want, and whatever he does not consider rationally comprehensible or actually possible. The point of departure is total adaptation to a philosophical system in which the only valid reality is the here and now. This purely immanentistic thought system discards every suggestion or thought of a metaphysical other world, any thought of transcendent reality.
Into these cliches that bear the imprint of certain presuppositions of present-day existentialism, the Gospel must then be fitted. The result, obviously, can only be a thoroughgoing transformation of the Gospel. One can then no longer speak of God as someone above and beyond the world who in sovereign majesty and power can step into the world as creator and redeemer. In the realm of causal relationships, no room then remains for miracles whose reality is indissolubly linked with the Gospel. Jesus Christ can be honored only as a man, not as the world’s Redeemer who died on the cross for mankind, not as the risen Lord in whose life rests the basis of eternal hope. In the last analysis, the Gospel itself becomes a mere symbol, a code to some new human understanding of the self, a thrust to help gain some anthropological meaning for existence.
The much-vaunted effort of modernistic theology to make possible and to simplify
Christian faith for today’s man is purchased by changing the essential
nature of the Gospel. Continued use of Christian—biblical concepts like
Word and Faith, Christ and Redemption, Pardon and Eschatology, must not keep
us from seeing that these terms have a new content, communicate an entirely
different meaning. Perplexity of spirit, fogging of the battle lines, uncertainty
of individual Christians in knowing what to believe are the fruit of this falling
away from the Gospel. A Gospel that has become cheap is a defeated, emasculated
Gospel that can no longer sound a clear trumpet call.
Obstacles and hindrances to the Gospel inside the Church? To be keenly aware of them and not to consider them harmless is the Church’s responsibility, the task of her theology. This involves honest insight into the deepest needs of the Church and knowledge of how error develops within the Church. Such self—awareness is a form of true repentance.
What is needed? A return to the substance of the whole Gospel. Only if the Church stays with its task is fruitful conversation, is meaningful encounter possible with a surrounding world that thinks differently. The very plurality of values and viewpoints today demands singleness of belief by the Church. Only the message of Christ, however unpopular and offensive it may be, can steady a tottering world. In the last analysis, man, is unable to break down the barriers and overcome the hindrances; this only the Gospel itself can do, the Gospel that displays the presence and the power of God’s Holy Spirit.