Larry Alex Taunton | July 16, 2020
America needs your leadership now more than ever. But there are a few things you must know and a few more you must expect.
A generation ago, pastor and theologian Francis Schaeffer issued a call-to-arms to the American Church in an explosive little book titled A Christian Manifesto (1981). Alarmed by the slaughter of the unborn in the wake of Roe v. Wade, Schaeffer called for social action in the form of civil disobedience. The problem as he saw it was a passive, inert, and ineffective church. Corpulent and self-satisfied, it had become the proverbial salt that had lost its savor.
According to Schaeffer, this was due to weak pastoral leadership:
As we turn to the evangelical leadership in the last decades, unhappily we must come to the conclusion that often it has not been of much help…. Spirituality to the evangelical leadership has often not included the Lordship of Christ over the whole spectrum of life…. The old revivals are spoken about so warmly by the evangelical leadership. Yet they seem to have forgotten what those revivals were. Yes, the old revivals in Great Britain, Scandinavia, and the old revivals in this country did call, and without any question and with tremendous clarity, for personal salvation. But they also called for a resulting social action. Every single one of them did this …
Schaeffer’s indictment of America’s pastors should not upset too many of you since, as old as it is, there are very few of that generation who remain in our pulpits. But were Schaeffer still alive, I fear the knicker-wearing theologian with the Van Dyke beard would be fiercer than ever in light of our current cultural predicament.
But whatever Schaeffer’s criticisms about the quality of the work being accomplished in the church of his day (or ours), he saw the role of pastor, priest, and minister of paramount importance in the life of this country. I couldn’t agree more. As a nation’s pulpit goes, so goes the soul of that nation.
A Call to “Social Action”
I recognize Schaeffer’s call for “social action” will make some of you nervous. Perhaps you associate it with the modern phrase “social justice.” The term was alien to Schaeffer’s day, but the concept was not. The so-called “social justice warriors” we are seeing in our streets rioting, pillaging, and attacking America’s Judeo-Christian foundations are of the same ideological stripe as those he saw on American college campuses in the 1960s. Regardless, “social justice” as it is commonly understood today is not what Schaeffer had in mind when he spoke of social action. He simply meant that the Christian tree should bear fruit, and that fruit should have a demonstrable societal impact. It is what I have called “The Grace Effect.”
- Schaeffer notes that it was the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield that not only gave birth to the Great Awakening and a wave of English reforms but also spared that country from the bloody revolution and Reign of Terror that gripped France for the last quarter of the 18th century.
- It was the constant parliamentary harangues of abolitionists like William Wilberforce (who briefly considered a career as an Anglican priest) and the preaching of men like John Newton, a former slaver and co-author of the hymn Amazing Grace, that conquered the evil of slavery in Britain and throughout its empire.
- It was the preaching of ministers like Jonathan Mayhew, James Caldwell, and John Witherspoon that sparked the American Revolution and gave it ideological teeth. (Not only were they instrumental in the pulpit, but Caldwell served in the Continental Army while Witherspoon served in the Continental Congress and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.)
- It was the preaching of men like Charles Finney that gave rise to the Second Great Awakening and the early anti-slavery movements in America that resulted in the eventual demise of that institution in the United States.
- And it was the preaching of pastors like Martin Luther King, Jr. that would lead the reforms of the civil rights movement, extending equal rights to people of color.
America’s Original “Community Organizers”
In a recent address and subsequent article, I explained how the apparent anarchy we are witnessing in the subversive activities of Black Lives Matter and Antifa are the work of Marxist radical thinker Saul Alinsky who outlined a program for the destabilization and overthrow of existing power structures. To foment social unrest, Alinsky endorsed what he called “community organizers.” This was his grassroots army for social and political agitation.
Consciously or not, Alinsky stole and then perverted a Christian model. As demonstrated above, you, dear pastor, stand in the stream of a great tradition of ministers of the Gospel who transformed souls and, in so doing, transformed society. Just as today’s pastors and priests in many parts of the third world are much more than preachers, so it was for most of American history. You are, in other words, America’s original community organizers and her best hope for national renewal.
But as Schaeffer notes, something, somewhere went wrong in the American Church and with it the American soul. Jesus transformed an empire with twelve. Today we have throughout our country mega-churches with more churches planted every day. Yet their societal impact is negligible. Why? How is it possible?
As the above quotation suggests, Schaeffer attributes it to a poverty of preaching: “Spirituality to the evangelical leadership has often not included the Lordship of Christ over the whole spectrum of life.” Too often a sermon says true things, but not relevant things. There is a subtle but important distinction.
Martin Luther put the problem this way:
If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.
If we were to represent the totality of human existence with a pie chart, many pastors know very well, just as I know as a writer, which pieces of the pie they may attack “boldly” without really risking anything. He can safely pound the pulpit and call for the feeding of the poor and care for the widowed and orphaned. He can passionately preach a series of sermons on the Exodus, the life of Joseph, and the miracles of Jesus, and say a great many true things and suffer no recrimination whatsoever.
But unless he professes with the loudest voice and clearest exposition that point of the Word of God which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, he is forsaking his calling as a pastor.