By Edward O. Bragwell
The search for relevance is perennial in religious circles. Each generation produces those who regard the preaching and practices of their predecessors irrelevant to their needs. This is true even among those who profess to be New Testament Christians. Some are demanding new and exciting ideas expressed in new ways. This has been the cry of many since the early 1950’s as the institutional controversy began to sweep across the land.
Leroy Brownlow, in his Sermons You Can Preach outline book (1958), published an outline called “Give us Something Practical.” He ably dealt with the plea in those days, for more “practical” and less “doctrinal” preaching. He aptly shows that nothing can be more practical and suit-able to man’s real needs than those old fundamental doctrinal themes that we have preached for years.
We are beginning to see the same thought pattern evolving among some “non-institutional” brethren today. Consequently, many are abandoning doctrinal sermons and classes, especially those that contrast sound doctrine with false doctrine, in favor of “practical” or “real life situation” themes.
Many topics publicized for evangelism and edification reflect a subtle shift away from emphasizing salvation from sin, staying saved, preparing for heaven, and avoiding hell. Improving man’s “quality of life” on earth is fast becoming the main objective of preaching and teaching. Why? The average person has little interest in his real spiritual and eternal needs. He wants to know how we can make him happy now feel good about himself now, always. He is interested in the present, not the hereafter. So, to be relevant, churches and preachers think that most of their teaching must address the day to day concerns of people in the church and the community at large concerns that mostly relate to things of the temporal and fleshy side of man.
Many more liberal churches have “ministries” for all of man’s temporal needs and interests. Many of these churches have a counselor or director for just about any physical, social and psychological need (real or perceived) in society. This has become known as the social gospel.
Brother Sewell Hall aptly summed up our need to stay away from the social gospel approach: “The real problems of the world are spiritual. The local church is God’s organization for dealing with such problems and the gospel of Christ is the means he has given us with which to con-front them. Ten thousand other organizations are addressing the social problems of our day, using every conceivable re-source. It is urgent that we not allow ourselves to be distracted from our unique mission or disillusioned with God’s unique method” (mine, EOB.).
Again, we sincerely believe that some “conservative” brethren are unwittingly slipping over into the social gospel. The teaching done by more than a few congregations points in that direction. It deals more with stress than sin. It emphasizes man’s social and physical well-being more than his spiritual welfare. It gives more attention to social relationships than spiritual relationships. Its primary objective is finding happiness and contentment in this present world. It is no longer designed to convict men and women of their sins, but to make them feel good about themselves as they are.
No one denies that the Bible deals with stress, social relationships, and happiness. However, the gospel does not put the emphasis upon these things. The New Testament preachers did not go out preaching Christ as the answer to stress and the key to happiness, but Christ as the author of salvation and the answer to sin. That salvation from sin improves happiness and relieves stress, no one denies. We can even see from the Bible that such was the case. Still, that is not where we should place the emphasis. The New Testament church was not a recreational, social or psychiatric center for the community. It was a spiritual institution with a higher mission.
One symptom of some liver diseases is a headache. Suppose there is an out break of liver disease in the community. Many people are concerned about their head-aches. A concerned doctor offers his help. If the doctor mostly attends to the patient’s immediate interest (the headache), he will not really help the person. He may give him a pain-reliever, make him feel better for a while. An incompetent doctor may even think he has done his job. After all, the man went home feeling good about the matter. A good doctor would focus most of his attention on the diseased liver. He would deal with the headache only in the context of the liver disease. When this concerned doctor approaches such patients they may not know that they have diseased livers. They are only concerned about their headaches. At this point, they would probably consider any talk about the liver to be irrelevant. Should the doctor play to their immediate interest and shy away from talking about liver disease? Or should he inform them of their real problem and try to convince them to be treated for liver disease? I think we all know the answer.
An individual’s spiritual condition may cause him social, psychological, and even physical problems and pain. The gospel deals with the spiritual problem (sin). We will help any problems caused by sin when we take care of the sin. If one still has such problems after taking care of his sin, then physical, psychological, or social therapy may be in order. However, this is not the work of the church or preachers of the gospel. Others can do the job much better.
So, brethren, let’s get back to emphasizing the gospel of Christ as the power of God to save man. It saves him from sin and the wrath to come. It saves him for a life of godliness and hope in the midst of a troubled world. It will eventually save him eternally in heaven.
Let’s get back to talking about the church of Christ as that body made up of those saved from sin. Let’s get back to emphasizing submission to the authority of Christ as the means of avoiding sin. Let’s get back to stressing the importance of following the New Testament pattern in all our spiritual activities, as individuals and as congregations. Let’s get back to emphasizing how men and women should be faithful to Christ, the author of their salvation, to go to heaven.
Let’s get back to teaching folks the true gospel with its results as compared to perverted gospels with their results (Gal. 1:8-10). Let’s put the “doctrine,” the “reprove” and the “rebuke” back with the “longsuffering” and the “exhort” in Paul’s charge to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:1-4).
One can find fulfillment for his social, physical and emotional aspirations through a variety of programs offered in the community. However, he can find salvation from sin, the hope of eternal life and the truth by which he must go to heaven only in the gospel of Christ properly preached. This is the truth of which the church of Christ is the pillar and ground. (1 Tim. 3:15). What could be more relevant than that?
Guardian of Truth XXXIX: 4 p. 6-7
February 16, 1995