A Faith For Today

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 17



THE Church is under criticism today. Men charge that it stands for outworn ideas, that it is not adjusted to modern needs, that it lacks moral and spiritual dynamic, that its constant temptation is to save itself instead of serving humanity, that by its unconcern, if not its opposition, it is a hindrance to social progress. More even than criticism, the Church suffers from indifference. Men feel that it is an anachronism, belonging to an earlier age where men were concerned not with life here on earth, but only with saving their souls and getting to heaven. And so they pass it by.

There is, of course, nothing new in this. The Church has always met with criticism and suffered from indifference; and the criticism has been needed. Yet it is the Church that nurtured the saints of the ages, that gave birth to schools and hospitals and every manner of philanthropy and reform, that stirred men with vision and sent them out to serve, that handed on the Old Testament and gave birth to the New. The Church, the Church alone, preserved for humanity the highest treasure that has come from the past, the picture of Jesus and the story of his words and life. And when the Church needed criticism and reform, when faith hardened into dogma, and formalism and selfishness deadened its spirit, it was from within the Church that the men came who challenged its evils and brought it to a new birth.

The reason why the Church is inevitable lies in the very nature of life itself. The Church is religion in its group expression, religion as an organic, a corporate affair. We have seen again and again how important this principle of organicism is. Life everywhere is a matter of wholes; there is no place in this world for the merely individual. Separation is death; association is the way of life. If you want to be a whole, you must belong to a whole. The higher you advance in the scale of life the more significant that principle becomes. The church is the fellowship of men on the highest level of life, that of religion. To expect religion to be rich and strong without such a fellowship is to deny the principle that runs through life everywhere.

If Christianity is the highest form of religion, then we may expect it to give a large place to this aspect of fellowship. The New Testament shows two striking facts. One is that it contains neither any command to organize the Church nor any rules about its constitution and government. The other is that from the beginning Christianity was a fellowship. It was no specific command but the very nature of the new life that brought that with it: the loyalty to a common Lord, the faith which impelled the disciples to common worship and service, the spirit of love which bound them together. Further, they were sure that this common life of theirs was something divine. They had a profound experience of a certain Presence in their midst, of something greater than themselves. They thought of it as the divine Spirit, or Holy Spirit, as the spirit or presence of Christ, or simply as God among them and within them. It was no mere individual affair; it was a life that belonged to them as the "family of God," the "body of Christ" The Church has never been the result of human decision or divine command, but the inevitable expression of the life of Christianity.


In an earlier chapter we studied the nature of Christianity. There we saw two broadly differing conceptions. We called the one the institutional, the other the spiritual, or vital-historical. Broadly considered, the theories of the nature of the Church divide along the same lines. The most thoroughgoing expression of the institutional conception is in the Roman Church. The Roman-Catholic teaching is somewhat as follows: In religion man needs to know what to believe, how to live, and how to be saved. These three needs Christ met as prophet bringing truth, as king bearing rule and precept, as priest offering salvation. This threefold authority and power he left to the Church, which he established to carry on his work, more particularly to the Twelve with Peter at their head, and to their successors, the bishops, with the bishop of Rome (the pope) in Peter's stead. Thus we have the Church as an institution, "external of its own nature and visible," as Pope Pius declared in his encyclical of 1928, having infallible authority in teaching and rule and charge of the means of salvation through the sacraments. The Church is thus a single visible institution, divine and inerrant.

Against this stands the spiritual, or vital-historical theory. This is no merely humanistic conception; the Church is not just an organization which a group of men decided upon. It is divine, but the divine element is not a legally prescribed and supernaturally established ecclesiastical institution; it is a spirit and a life that entered this world with Christ and has lived on as a creative power in his followers. What Jesus left behind, as Archbishop Temple has pointed out, "was not an organized society with constitution and rules; nor was it a book which he had written for the guidance of his disciples; but it was a group of disciples united to one another by their common allegiance to him. It was a living fellowship." Religion here is divine, not merely human; it is corporate, not merely individual. It has its institutional side: ritual, sacraments, officiary, rules, creeds; but these are the outgrowth of the life, here to serve it, not dominate it, and to be changed when needed.


We can best understand the nature of the Church, its place in religion, and its claim on men by asking what its function is in religion.

1. It is the prophetic Church, the Church with a message. Men are skeptical today about ideas; they call for deeds, not words; for life and not doctrine. Jesus was nearer the truth when he said, "Man shall not live by bread alone." The choice is not between words and deeds; it is, rather, whether our action shall be as brutes impelled by blind passion, or as men guided by ideas and purposes. The first and greatest gift of the Church is its message. That was all that those first humble men had who went forth into the Roman Empire nineteen centuries ago. With that message they faced Roman power and Grecian culture. With it they spoke to the needs of human souls and kindled a new hope in humanity. With it they confronted ancient evils and created a new conscience for king and commoner. And when, at last, the walls of empire crumbled and its armies melted away before the onset of the tribes of the north, it was the foundations laid by these men that withstood the shock; it was their message that conquered the conquerors, and their ideals that gave order to the new age.

Our need is just as great today. It is not bread alone for which men are hungering. "What does life mean?" they cry. "What can I hope for? Where can I turn for light?" There is no answer in the pessimism and naturalism of our day. In its hopeless creed,

"The world rolls round forever like a mill,

It grinds out death and life and good and ill,

It has no purpose, heart, or mind, or will."

The Church comes with a historic revelation, with One in whom word became deed, and through whose deed the living God has spoken to men. It bids the common man look up and say, Our Father. It bids him look out and see a world that he can face without fear. It holds up an ideal that at once commands his loyalty and gives his life meaning and hope. Its message is just as necessary for the social order. "In general the forces that go to make up public opinion in this country are narrow and selfish," says President Hutching, of the University of Chicago. "They can be called Christian only by courtesy. Yet no one will venture to express a doubt that the message of Christ is more necessary to the world today than at any earlier period in our history." (In the volume of addresses, No Friendly Voice, p. 137.) The Church does not claim omniscience, and its work has been imperfectly performed, for the Church is human; but it has been the one voice that has persisted through the ages in its witness to the way of justice and love and peace which is given in the Christian gospel.

2. The second function of the Church is to aid men in worship. "Upon this earth there is no scene more impressive" writes Joseph Fort Newton, "than a company of human souls, or many or few, bowed in the hushed awe of a house of God" (Things I Know in Religion, p. 87). There is no higher exercise of the human spirit than that of worship. Here man visions the unseen and lifts his soul in adoration. Here he renews the depleted forces of the spirit and wins strength for life. Here the soul, beaten and bruised, finds healing. Here, in quiet recollection of spirit, we not only see God but look at life once more in the light of the Eternal, find where its true wealth lies, and reaffirm our loyalty to high ends. It is not easy to worship. The tides of daily life do not carry us in this direction. To see the unseen and to live by it is a never-ending challenge. In principle all life should be a sacrament of God; in practice we all need help in order to carry God into life. The Church is a fellowship of worship. All its other service will avail little if it fails in this great task of making God real and of sending men forth with a new sense of his presence. There is a place for solitude and meditation and individual prayer; but nothing can take the place of the worship of the company, where the common praise and prayer and confession of faith unite us with each other and lift us together, where the word of truth from God is honestly spoken, and the windows of the house of worship look out upon the world to which we are to return with new strength of purpose.

3. The Church stands for service. Religion is possible without service, but not the Christian religion. The room cannot remain dark once it has opened its windows to the light; the life cannot remain self-centered when it has received the God of love. A Christian Church without service would be a contradiction in terms. There is not one interest or need of man that is foreign to the Church. Some of these needs it will meet directly through its own organization and activities, but in increasing measure it should serve the community and the nation through individuals and agencies that it inspires. In times past education, philanthropy, hospitals and healing, drama and recreation, music and art, and even direction of industry have all fallen to its task. But whatever the form taken, nothing human must be alien to it, and it must always remain "the union of those who love in the service of those who need." What its task is in the social order will be further noted in the discussion of social salvation.

4. The ministry of reconciliation is especially needed today. The Church is not only a fellowship, but is the world's great creator of fellowship. Consider first the need of overcoming division. Ours is a divided world—class against class, race against race, nation against nation; and division means death. The wise leaders of political, industrial, and international life see this, but have not found a way out. Our leagues and courts and pacts are noble efforts but largely futile because unsupported by deeper unifying forces. The Church, so far as it is loyal to the spirit of Christ, rises above these divisions ; it knows not white or black, rich or poor. But it does more; it is a creative force for fellowship. It binds men in a brotherhood that reaches round the world and takes in every race. It unites them in a common faith: one God and Father of whom all men are children. Its supreme word is love, and love means fellowship. Paul saw the new force at work in his day, a day that had close resemblance to our own. Christ, he declared, had broken down the middle wall of partition and made men one. When men found him, they found a unity in which there could be "neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither bond nor free" (Ephesians 2. 14; Galatians 3. 28). Reverence for all men as brothers and as children of one Father, faith in God and recognition of his authority over all, a spirit of good will uniting us in effort for a common good and cutting across all lines of class and nation—these alone can overcome the divisions that are today making for destruction. These must come through religion and religion must work through the Church.

It is what the Church does that gives it its claim upon men. We need the Church in our own individual life. "Every man who learns what the true goal of life is," says the philosopher Josiah Royce, "must live this twofold existence—as a separate individual—yet also as a member of a spiritual communion which, if loyal, he loves, and in which, in so far as he is loyal, he knows that his only true life is hidden and lived" (The Problem of Christianity, Vol. I, p. 203). "This twofold existence" is really one; neither side is possible without the other. We must achieve individual life, rich, strong, free; but life cannot be achieved in a social vacuum, least of all the high life of religion. Many who imagine themselves quite independent of the Church are living on what they have received from the Church, directly through home and early training, indirectly through ideals and institutions, through literature and men who have been molded by the influences of religion mediated through the Church. Life on the highest plane demands fellowship even more than on the lower levels.

But to stop here would be distinctly selfish. What right have we to judge the Church simply in terms of what it can give us, to pass it by because we think the preaching is not great, or the music good, or the social opportunities large? Of course the Church is imperfect, but that very fact constitutes a claim upon us. We may say with Royce: "The true Church is still a sort of ideal challenge to the faithful, rather than an already finished institution." The churches as they are now are not indispensable; but mankind cannot get along without the Church. The Church that serves men has a right to ask that men serve the Church. Individualistic philosophy and the selfish attitude have no more place in religion than anywhere else in life.


So far we have been speaking of the Church, the fellowship of the followers of Jesus Christ. What now shall we say about the churches? For what we actually have is not one Church but many churches. Not merely are there different associations in different countries and communities, but in each locality we find separate and sometimes hostile groups each calling itself a Christian Church. We face the curious paradox here, that the institution which represents the principle of unity, or fellowship, in actual practice appears as division. At a time when the forces of evil are stronger, better organized, and more threatening than ever, the Church is unable to present a united front. It has no common witness in the word that it speaks. It does not know how to unite for action. In a given community one can see a half dozen weak groups using up their resources in the struggle to keep alive, instead of employing them to face common foes and serve community needs. Further, by such divisions the fellowship itself is impoverished; the individual communion is deprived of elements that would enrich its life, becoming instead narrow, sectarian, and parochial.

One of the great tasks of today, therefore, is to work for larger Christian unity. That is being attempted in many different ways, and it would be a great mistake to assume that there is but one way in which it is to be done and one form which it is to take. There is, for example, the idea that there must be one big organization, with one authority, one form of creed, one kind of orders and organization. This is the position of those who, like the Roman Catholics, hold the institutional conception of Christianity. According to this, there can be only one true Church, and the way to unity is to have all Christians submit to this. But that is begging the question, for the real issue is, What is Christianity? What is the Church? Much the same position is held by those for whom Christianity is, first of all, a set of doctrines to be accepted by all as a condition of fellowship. These are really methods of exclusion, not of inclusion, of division and not of unity. Christian unity does not necessarily mean one great organization, and it certainly does not mean uniformity. The Church of the first generation certainly showed no such uniformity or central authority. The Pauline churches, for example, were never administered by the apostles in Jerusalem.

Whatever form the coming unity will take, it must leave room for the first demand of religion, that a man shall be true to himself and to the light that he receives. It must be a unity within which there is liberty. Clearly, too, there must be a certain autonomy in different lands and communities. The task, then, is to secure unity of spirit, the practice of fellowship in life and worship, and a united and cooperative activity.

It is well also to consider how much of actual unity there is among Christians today. First, we all belong to one fellowship of faith and love and life. A large majority of Christians use the Apostles' Creed with its declaration, "I believe in the holy Catholic Church." "Catholic" comes from a Greek word, holos } which means "whole." Its use goes back to a time when there was no division of "Catholic" and Protestant, of Eastern and Western Churches. "Holy," as here used, does not mean morally perfect; it means belonging to God. We are all members of one universal fellowship, the Church that belongs to God from which no authority of men can shut us out. We are, first of all, not Presbyterians or Methodists or Roman Catholics, but Christians and members of this Church of God, the Church that takes in every land, that goes back through history and unites us in fellowship with Paul and Peter, with Augustine and Francis of Assisi, with John Huss and Martin Luther, with John Calvin, John Wesley, and John Fox. Further, that which unites the different Christian groups is much greater than that which divides. What have I in common, for example, with the devout men and women in the Roman Catholic Church? We believe in one God and in one Lord Jesus Christ; they accept all those books of the Bible which I use, though they add certain others of a secondary rank, the apocrypha; we are agreed that the highest way of life is to live according to the spirit of Christ; like them, I hope that some time that spirit shall rule in all the life of men; together we hope for a life to come in the presence of God.

It is well also to note what is actually being done to advance unity today. The World Conference on Faith and Order has brought together all Christian bodies except the Roman Church, as has the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work. Great mission gatherings like the Jerusalem Conference have back of them increasing co-operation in the mission fields and at home. The United Church of Canada, in which

Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists have joined, and Methodist union in America are prominent illustrations of continual progress in organic union. The Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, representing practically all Protestant communions, is a fine illustration of cooperative effort. But the list is far too long to enumerate. Mutual understanding that will remove prejudice and further fellowship, a larger insight into the nature of Christianity as spiritual and not institutional, increasing fellowship and co-operation within present conditions, and, above all, a richer religious life—these are the great needs if we are to have larger Christian unity.


  • The principal forms of service which the Church should render to the individual; to a community.
  • What has been the service of the Church in history?
  • What charges can be made against the Church in regard to failure in duty or harmful attitudes and actions ?
  • State in order the forms of help which you would like to receive from the Church.
  • What is the obligation of the individual in relation to the Church as regards membership, attendance, and service?
  • What are the essential elements which go to make up a Christian Church?


  • Articles in E. R. E., Hastings' D. B., and The Catholic Encyclopedia
  • William Adams Brown: The Churchy Catholic and Protestant
  • B. H. Streeter, Editor: The Spirit, Chaps. LV, V
  • Frederick C. Grant: Frontiers of Christian Thinking
  • F. G. Peabody: The Church of the Spirit
  • H. F. Ball: A Working Faith