BRINGING THE GOSPEL TO LIFE
by Rev. Norman S. Ream
How we can bring the Gospel to life is a problem men have struggled with for many centuries. They have not always agreed on the answer, so it is not very surprising that in our own day there is still some measure of disagreement.
Some men have felt that the only way the message of the New Testament can be made effective in the midst of our modern, complicated, social structure is through the application of a measure of force. The modern social gospel is based on this principle. In the midst of economic inequalities and racial inequalities: when large numbers of humans are in mental, physical and spiritual need: when evil conditions continue to exist unabated: the only effective method of meeting the need is to apply the force of law. We must compel men to do that which is right and proper. Men have not yet been persuaded to be good, so they must be forced into goodness under the pressure of legal penalties.
Social Welfare Legislation
The outcome of such a point of view is, of course, stacks and stacks of social welfare legislation. It is not good for industry to make too much money; it is not right for the aged to be destitute; it is a social evil to work longer than 40 hours a week and for less than 75 cents an hour: farmers ought to get their fair share of the total national income. Men and women are not Christian enough to change these evil situations voluntarily, so we must pass laws that will force them to act according to the Christian standard.
Those who see in this approach the answer to the problem of making the Gospel live have the argument that even though you can’t force people to be Christian, nevertheless, social welfare legislation does tend to educate people or at least acclimate them to a better way of life.
They also argue that even though there is a measure of force and violence involved in their method, it is the outcome of the democratic process. The majority of the people, by their vote, approve such a solution to social problems.
In short, the program of those who believe in legislating solutions to social problems is one of reliance on government. A famous quotation of Abraham Lincoln is, by them, interpreted very liberally: The government must do for the people what the people cannot or will not do for themselves. This, they believe, is the best way into the Kingdom of God.
Emphasize Personal Gospel
There are men and women, on the other hand, who feel that the advocates of social action are taking a short range view of the total situation. These people emphasize the personal nature of the Gospel. They feel that the most effective way, the only permanent way, to bring the Christian Gospel to life is to put it to work in one’s own life in the most complete way possible.
These persons share the conviction of Meister Eckhart, a 14th century mystic, that “People should think less about what they ought to do, and more about what they ought to be.” They hear the social reformer urge that laws be passed to force men to do right and they ask, “Who is so perfect among us that his concept of right deserves to be forced upon all men?” They remember the pages of religious history which run red with the blood of persecution when some men who felt that they knew what was right attempted to force their concept upon others.
No, the advocates of the personal Gospel are convinced that each man must first pluck the beam out of his own eye, must first straighten out his own life, must seek first and above all God’s will for himself. Then, by example, he must seek not to force, but to persuade, others that the way of the Gospel is the only permanently satisfying way.
Only One Gospel
Let it be clearly understood that this is not an argument that there are two gospels, one personal and the other social. There is only one Gospel—the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It has social implications as well as personal implications. The problem is one of emphasis.
My own emphasis is on the personal aspects of this gospel. I believe that each man is responsible personally to God and that no individual, group, or institution can assume for him the duties God has laid upon him.
Many people today, influenced by the social welfare trend of thinking, assume that the government should give every old person a pension and that this relieves them of a personal responsibility. But when God told man it was incumbent upon him to care for father and mother, he did not add, “That is, unless you can force someone else to do it for you.” The children’s responsibility is a personal one.
If your neighbor is sick or in need, Jesus implied in the parable of the Good Samaritan that it was your job to take care of him. Your neighbor is your own personal responsibility. You can not evade that responsibility by insisting, “I pay taxes: let the government take care of him.”
All of which is to say that charity which is legislated, which is the result of force, which is completely impersonal, is not Biblical charity, if indeed it can be called charity at all. When the government taxes me in order to help you no charity is involved. I am not charitable because I have not done an act of kindness voluntarily. The government is not charitable because it gives you not its own money, but mine which it has taken away from me by force.
Social action of this kind does result in meeting some needs to be sure. But it meets those needs by employing what advocates of the personal Gospel feel are wrong methods.
What has been said does not imply that advocates of the personal Gospel are immune to human suffering, or callous and indifferent to social problems. What it does mean is that they see different solutions to the same problems. They feel that in the long run an expedient solution is never a permanently satisfying one. Any solution which seeks to evade personal responsibility or relies upon force for implementation is to them expedient. Such a solution always results in the long run in a loss of human values.
Neither does what has been said imply that advocates of the social Gospel are unconcerned about personal religion. They are impatient over social ills, however, and are tempted to use means which many feel are out of harmony with the New Testament ethic.
There are, as you know, many translations of the Bible. Someone has suggested that the best translation is the one we make in our own lives. How can it help but be so? Men can read us much more quickly and easily than they can read a book. If we let our lives become living examples of what the fully dedicated Christian life ought to be, if we ever witness to what we believe to be the highest values of life, we will voluntarily and cooperatively achieve that which laws and force can never accomplish.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America