This article is adapted from a presentation given in 1965 by Cal Seerveld to a group of Christians interested in organizing groups and institutions devoted to social action. Almost fifty years later the argument remains provocative, challenging us to rethink the spirit of our Christian cultural labour as we seek renewal in a fallen world. In the spirit of Comment, Seerveld is addressing “first principles” of Christian culture-making.
Seerveld is a longtime Senior Member in Philosophical Aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies, and more of his work can be found in the book, In the Fields of the Lord, A Calvin Seerveld Reader, edited by Craig Bartholomew, available from Toronto Tuppence press, www.seerveld.com/tuppence.html.
The rub to Christian organizing—creating groups and institutions for Christian social action—is that it demands public confession of sin and deeds worthy of a radical turnabout to God.
Public confession of sin, the open testimony of needing God’s grace here and now, is not very popular with us; we would rather justify how well we have done and are doing. And deeds— not just talk but actual concrete performance meeting the measure of repentance, of a radically new outlook, disposition, perspective— deeds that are worthy of such a deep turnabout in a man come hard. We believers are more comfortable discussing the faith or confining our acts to holy-huddled churchy activities.
But without openly repentant deeds moved by a holy (set apart!) spirit, the sprinkled mark of God on our foreheads only sets us up for the next baptism by fire, the Lord’s winnowing judgment, on this generation of vipers and at the end.
The question, then, is how, before the jealous Lord of heaven and earth, is a believer to acquit himself historically in creation? With what spirit is the Christ follower to meet his given culture? With the spirit of re-forming its patterns of life until they be conformed intrinsically to the way of the Lord? Or, with the spirit of accepting what is good in existing institutions, Christianizing points where necessary, and influencing established ways as much as possible by personal example and wisdom?
Only when examination and decision fall on such matters will it become clear what can and what cannot be argued with respect to Christian camel drivers, Michigan factory workers, New York administrators, or any other group of workers.
Let me begin by the back door.
There is nothing worse than a Christian organization that lacks the Holy Spirit’s presence. A Christian labour union without Christian dynamic, a Christian college that does not breathe the spirit of Christ in its classrooms, a church dominated by rancour, mistrust, and maneuverings, are all terrible farces, prostitutions of Christ’s name. Such so-called Christian institutions, organizations, are really whitewashed tombs hiding dead men and women within. Just because an organization is put together by Christians or has Christian in its name is no guarantee of actual holy-spirited, Christian witness and activity.
Echoing Augustine, the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd’s comment on religious antithesis (from Vernieuwing en Bezinning) should squelch any misconceived idealization of Christian organization:
The antithesis is not a dividing line between Christian and non-Christian segments of the population. It is rather the eternal struggle between two spiritual principles which cut right through . . . all of mankind, irrespective of the safe castles of a Christian framework to social groupings. . . . We must never forget that the antithesis cuts right through the Christian life itself. . . . Apostasy, schism, discord within Christian groupings witness to the fact that especially there the turbulent Spirit of darkness wages war against the Spirit of Christ.
A Christian organization is necessarily not perfect, even if you make the requirements for membership humanly airtight.
And the miserable wisdom of the philosopherking in Ecclesiastes should touch us too at the start:
I didn’t enjoy all my toiling work struggled for under the sun because [I knew] I had to leave it to some man who would come after me, and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? But no matter which, he shall manage all I have done, sweated for, trying to be wise under the sun. . . . God gives wisdom, insight and joy to the man who pleases him; but to the sinner God gives the trouble of collecting and stacking things up—so that He may give it to one who is lovely to the eye of God (2:18-19, 26).
A Christian organization is vexatious and vain unless it be conceived, maintained, and practiced within the immediate blessing of God.
What Is A Christian Organization?
A Christian organization is an association of men and women, a body of people whose communal existence involves more than the sum of its individuals. A family is not simply the addition of an individual father, mother, two sons, and a daughter. A family has a unique structural bond to it which, while never separable from the constituting members and does not override or extinguish their varying individualities, does hold them together in a unit which exhibits a particular structure unique only to families. So too with political parties and chess clubs and more organizations quite different from a blood-based family: they are groupings of people who have many other interests, activities, and roles. But in each case, they cohere in particular way. The chess club, for instance, involves the use of reflective leisure demanding competence in chess. The political party coheres as an association of men and women who share a moral concern for what political principles best shape the nation.
A political party and a chess club, like a family, have an identity and, generally, a proper name. It is a certain community that can act as a unit in its proper place of competency, even if it is only to set the time for the next meeting. Important to me here is simply this: organizations are structured human relationships built in response to particular God-given needs and potentialities.
There are all different kinds of these structured relationships. There are importantly different, specific kinds of human social structures:
For instance, marriage is a sexual love union between a man and a woman so intimate and lasting that only infidelity, or the death of one of the two, breaks it. Membership in a high school basketball team, on the other hand, lasts at the most for four years and depends on your marks, athletic prowess, and whether you can find time to practice.
The state today is a human social structure ordained by God in which one is usually involuntarily a citizen; and revolution against its binding power is a serious evil. Whereas a union or corporate chain of grocers is by nature a voluntary type organization, here with a peculiarly economic orientation.
Some structures are of a historically transient character, while others are more lasting, and ordained from the beginning of creation; some are voluntary, others inescapable. How one analyzes and encyclopedically orders the myriad number of organizations in our complex, civilized society will say much about one’s philosophical and even religious perspective. And yet, they all are alike in being open to the sin of humanity and the Grace of our Redeemer.
Let me be clear. A marriage of unbelievers is still, before God, a marriage; it is not continuous fornication. And a family who has its confessional papers with an orthodox church is not necessarily a Christian family. If an evil spirit infests the family’s conversations, its eating habits, its living room, it is an unholy horror even if they give a double tithe on Sunday. Christian believers have no corner on creational order, no monopoly on human social structures, except the church. And no concrete organization, including the church, is Christian just because its paperwork, constitution, or statement of purpose is formally in order.
Testing The Organization
This seems to leave precision of Christian organization up in the air. Can you ever—when would you ever—dare call a college faculty and administration a Christian college? Can you ever call a husband, wife, and their children a Christian family?
When the leading spirit driving an organization is one of selfless passion to show God’s presence, Christ’s blessed ruling order at work in its given social area, then that concrete, temporal human social structure is a truly Christian organization. Its sins may cry out to heaven and incompetence plague its operation, but if its living conception, dynamic, and direction is one of openly impassioned, joyful struggle to incarnate the Lord’s wisdom, then you have a human grouping moved by the biblical faith.
But still, if Christian organization is determined by this spirit of utter dependence upon God, a constant searching, claiming the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit, isn’t discerning the spirit of an organization a pretty subjective thing? Is it even possible, or worthwhile, to ask if a given organization is Christian?
I would answer that there comes a time when one has to decide where the line is to be drawn, what is the language of faith and what is the language of reason. Prayerful discerning of the spirits is an agonizing business, which takes time—and it is not wise to chit about it from the outside. However, because discernment is difficult and fallible does not permit one to abdicate responsibility under the slogan of “subjective.” To do so calls into question the very reality of the Holy Spirit’s guidance of a group of people.
A truly Christian organization may be elusive to pin down observationally and to build up actually—the Holy Spirit does not let himself be boxed in so easily—but it is not indecipherable or a matter of momentary visitations by eternal grace breaking within the time barrier. God’s word according to Matthew 3 speaks quite definitely about the action God wants from his saints: open confession of Jesus Christ’s lordship and deeds touched by single-minded repentance, a facing-God praise response. Such a temper and fruit only comes when the Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts of men and women, and only such fruit is worthy of our baptism.
Again, I know the temptation to decipher “good fruit” in a positivist manner. It’s both tempting and easy to add up the number of college graduates in the last five years who, for example, become Christian school teachers, subtract the graduated number who left the church, multiply by the number of missionaries, divide by the number of criminal deviants, and if you get a certain score you are a successful Christian college.
The Christian character of an organization cannot be quantified or tabulated circumstantially. Wormy fruit may be born of consecrated labour, and good apples may be a pure gift of God in spite of the rotten tree. Nevertheless, the spirit of an organization is fine but discernible. It can be seen in its approach, expression, and within the very cultural force it sets in motion. We can judge whether an organization’s spirit is one of reforming historical patterns of life till they be conformed to the way of the Lord. Christian institutions and organizations are often deemed to be isolationist, or non-inclusive, even by Christians. But a Christian school, or business, is no more a “separate” organization than a Waldorf school or a socialist political party is separate. Christian organization is not a forced construction superimposed upon the unwilling faithful; it is rather the embodiment you would expect of men and women who share a deep communion in Jesus Christ and who are busy socially. Christian organization is not a frenetic imperialism to win the world for Christ our way against all odds. Its fight and passion is one of joyful obedience to God to bring the light of His Word and Christ’s easy yoke to bear upon all of the many facets of society; to free men from their captivities. In the realm of politics, to take an example, a Christian political grouping will not be the machinery of an elite band of political scientists, who now are Christians, telling the faithful mass where to apply pressure; but Christian political action, like any communal Christian cultural endeavour on earth, will be a slow, generations-long buildup of the believing community’s sense of Christian political office till they are wise enough to use the power of the state in a biblical way.
To damn Christian organization because of perceived “separatism” or “factionalism,” or because of its weak and sinful proponents, seems to show a lack of biblical wisdom and Christian charity. But some Christians have other reasons for their skepticism.
Christians In Secular Organizations
Some Christians disagree with the call to Christian organization for quite weighty reasons, the best of which is this: Christians can break through to the world, be a more effective witness to the gospel in existing non-Christian organizations, and should do so in good conscience until such organizations become explicitly anti-Christian.
I think this position is common, respectable, and wrong—better said, informed by a different spirit than the one that meets and grips me in the Scriptures. And since this position of “Christians in secular organizations” is sometimes supported not as the happenstance situation of a believer who has no other option—Daniel comes to mind here—but as the leading policy believing Christians should follow today, I should like to analyze briefly a few things it presupposes.
The first is that it assumes that organizations are neutral, or that they are not motivated by some deeper beliefs and assumptions. “But what about chess clubs?” you say. Or, “Is there a Christian way to brush your teeth?” That is not an honest question, sincerely asking for information; it is a pseudo-question, pure bunk, to which a nonsense answer is “brushing up and down is humanistic, sidewise pagan, and Christians do it deftly in the form of a cross.” It is bunk, because it assumes some areas of life are not directly subject to God’s redeeming Grace. If you accept the question, you cannot give an answer that assumes all life is religion in operation without appearing ridiculous.
Likewise to move from the description of fact that Christians and unbelievers can, do, and may co-operate in organizational structures not breathing adoration of Christ’s name, to a recommendation that this is the best policy for Christians to pursue in cultural matters, assumes, if I see it rightly, a secular definition of organization that denatures man or idolizes him, removing a truly significant area of historical concern from the rooting power of the Gospel.
To encourage Christians to take active part in non-Christian organizations as the way to fulfill their cultural responsibility to our Lord God is problematic because non-Christian organizations by their nature would suspend or be non-committal about the basic reasons, motive, or purpose for doing what they are doing. And those basic matters are not simply theoretical add-ons but constitute the very dynamic—spirit—of the organization’s doings. When the Christian rationale is levelled on a par with unbelieving rationales, the resulting spirit is a horizontally noble human spirit that inevitably will constrain the Pentecostal way the Holy Spirit flows into and through and out of a believer’s life.
One could deny that organizations have a spirit deeply embedded, moving in its workings, but that presents an insoluble puzzle for those Christians who admit that everything an individual does is before the face of the Lord Jesus, in his name or not, no third possibility. For it suggests that when two or three individuals are gathered together suddenly what they do is in nobody’s name, neither for nor against Jesus Christ, as if it is a neutral affair.
I do not dispute that sometimes and in some places Christians must wait with Christian organization and work within so-called secular institutions. Afghanistan may be closed to Christian missionaries, but the government invites two highly competent Christian M.D.’s to staff posts in its medical university. It would probably not be biblically wise for them to found the Christian Medical Association of Afghanistan that year. Or in a remote province of Japan where there are a dozen converted young Japanese couples who, despite the vision of what a Christian school education would mean for their children, simply cannot bring it off. You need a Christian community to act Christianly communal. That is why “Christian Camel Drivers, Unite!” does not make much sense where I live; there are not many camel drivers in Canada. But if in Jordan or Palestine there is a growing body of Christians driving camels, the exhortation would be most biblically appropriate, so that they might surprise their fellow Arabs, Jews, and secular Western business men with the cash value of all that highfalutin talk about the relevance of the Christian faith for daily social life. As we have noted earlier, because an individual is not swallowed into the makeup of an organization, it is possible that a Christian’s membership in a “secular” organization is not incompatible with subscribing to the church’s creeds, so long as the mission and vision of that organization doesn’t effectively become his creed. Also, I would not think ill of a believer who, conscious of his brief lifetime and the critical state of the Christian community, judges that organized Christian development of certain culturally insignificant areas can be safely neglected.
But all this historical turmoil, shifting, qualification in which Christians live and move must not be that from which they take their cue. And because non-Christian organizations are tolerated and used by believers in our broken-down historical situation does not imply they are neutral before Jesus Christ, much less that they are the straight and level ways of the Lord we should be building! Such suggestions are false, misguided directions without biblical support. There is a fine line between the compromise of mental reservation and practical necessity and the biblical sanity of living out of faith in territory that can, at times, be hostile to the faith. What spirit fires a man and drives him on determines the issue.
This points to the other disconcerting feature I shall mention detected in the position proposing Christians infiltrate secular organizations. Such a posture seems to assume that the Christian faith does or cannot produce culture but rather only critically influence it; it may not employ worldly power but only speak to it, not change the world but only interpret it. This a-historical temper seems to give a strangely high valuation of humanistic culture plus the conviction that the only really necessary Christian organization is the church, conceived in high church fashion as the controlling refuge which makes all things well.
I do not think one can gainsay this position once a Christian firmly adopts it. If you want, you can even find proof texts for this sort of evangelical withdrawal, compartmentalized adoption, and narrowly “churchy” standpoint. All I can say now is: the a-historical bent of this position, pulled from an absolutization of the crucial mission task of God’s people is foreign to the biblical Reformational Christian faith as I have always understood its genius.
I learned from Dr. W.H. Jellema a long time ago that you deform the biblical richness of the Reformed faith if you reduce Christian witness, which is an activity of civitas, civitas Dei, to a matter of personal, individualistic testimony. And I have gradually learned from Dr. Evan Runner that doing good, competent work in a field, and also thanking God for it in church, is a pretty meagre, split response of a believer who wants to live singly, wholeheartedly, and with his or her whole body, directly and fully, totally out of the hand of God and focused by His directing Word.
Reformation Or Accommodation?
It would be helpful to get straight what is at stake in the debate on Christian organization. It is not the question whether so-and-so believes in Jesus Christ. And it is not the question whether so-and-so’s understanding of what is happening on the North American cultural scene is accurate (fellow Christians may analyze current trends somewhat disparately). Those are not the matters to discuss and impugn.
The question that must be faced is this: With what spirit is the Christ follower to meet his given culture? With the spirit of re-forming its patterns of life till they be conformed intrinsically to the way of the Lord, or with the spirit of accepting what is good in existing institutions, Christianizing points where necessary, and influencing established ways as much as possible by personal example and wisdom?
In the balance is a reformational Christian faith. If you do not hear the Scriptures tell you all life is religion in operation before God and the body of Christ is to act like one, I who hear this to be utterly, simply, biblically true cannot convince you of it. The pity is you may have a personally rich grip on our common Lord. What differentiates other Christian faith from the reformational Christian faith is the makeshift reservations, human blind constructions, and divisions that—it seems to the reformational believer—the other tries, for whatever religious motive, to insert confusingly into the biblical dynamic. Nothing less than everything brought subject to Christ’s footstool satisfies such a “reformational” faith.
Maybe it has struck you that those in Christian organizations act as the opponents of Christian organization say we should act—in confrontation with the world—while those propagating a Christian presence in secular organizations seem to be generally acting as they say Christian organizations would—reflectively on the sidelines as far as outspoken Christian confession and repentant deed goes. That should bother Christians who would be busy trading their talents in the marketplace as they anticipate God’s kingdom fully come.
It is not who your father is or how successful your deeds are that count with God, but whether the work of your hands be fruit of obedience to the Word, the profession of turned-around men sanctified by the Spirit, performed in undissembled love for our jealous God.