There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
The above is a passage from Letter from Birmingham Jail, written by Martin Luther King Jr. to address concerns raised by eight white clergymen, one of whom was Earl Stallings, pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church. King had gone to Birmingham to lead and participate in a non-violent demonstration protesting the discriminatory policies of the city and was jailed for eight days. The letter seeks to address, one after the other, the concerns the clergymen raised in an open letter to King challenging his methods. It takes on a pastoral tone as it instructs them in the injustices blacks routinely experienced.
In the letter, King expressed his deep disappointment in white church leaders, although he did commend Stallings by name for welcoming blacks who attended First Baptist the previous Sunday, which happened to be Easter. King’s disappointment sprang from his belief that individual Chris-tians together make up the body of Christ and that we should feel each other’s pain — a theological truth expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink …. God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (12:13,24-26, NIV).
King speaks not as a critic of the church, but as one nurtured in its bosom. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all preachers. His high expectations of the church have fostered his deep disappointment.
Growing up, as I did, in the southern half of a border state, I was infused by my family and cultural contacts with a pervasive sense that things were good the way they were and rocking the boat was bad for everybody. Now, bear in mind these folks were good Christian Baptists. They were good hearted and kindly disposed to help folks who were hurting — all folks. They would literally give the shirt off their backs to any individual who needed it–white or black.
But when it came to seeing African-American individuals collectively and being aware of racial injustices, it was as if they saw through a glass, darkly. Part of the problem was society was so segregated that whites had little understanding of what it felt like to be black in those times. As a 12-year-old boy, I mistook the attitudes of my elders for truth. King’s letter is a masterpiece of persuasive logic as he listed the reasons for his actions. From the vantage point of half-a-century, I wonder that my family and the white church in general could have been so blind.
But King’s letter is ancient history, isn’t it? After all, there are college freshmen whose parents hadn’t yet been born when King uttered those words 50 years ago on April 16. And, fortunately, many of the injustices King describes have long since vanished. True, but King’s challenge to the church is as timeless as the moon and stars.
Unfortunately, his pastoral letter has proved prophetic and his challenge rings as true today as it did then. The unity of the church has always been challenged by divisions. If this were not true, Paul’s words quoted above would have been unnecessary. Cultural customs clashed, language differences impeded communication, class consciousness created suspicion and the haves and have-nots had little in common. But Paul, too, proclaimed a timeless truth. In Christ we are one!
Today, just as in times past, the church has an opportunity to be a thermometer describing what is, or a thermostat determining what can be. If we agree that we want to be a thermostat, by what means shall we create and control the climate around us? This is what Jerry Falwell tried to do with the Moral Majority. Others are attempting to do it through legislation while still others have resorted to demonstrations. They hold up signs and posters when the need is for signs and wonders.
The church needs to cease demanding change around it and increase being changed within. Let
The church demonstrate purity within and goodwill without — all empowered by a sacrificial Spirit not of this world.
King was prophetic. If we fail to be authentically the church, we will become irrelevant.
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.