Those who are acquainted with current events in the Christian Reformed Church will know that its 1951 general synod, broadest assembly of that denomination, was called upon to devote considerable discussion to the evil of worldliness, especially as it manifests itself in such practices as movie-attendance, card-playing, and dancing.
Long and active is the history of Christian Reformed discussion on this issue. It has been suggested that the peculiar character and history of the Christian Reformed Church has naturally brought to the fore the question as to the relationship of the believer to the world. In its earlier years the Christian Reformed constituency, composed almost exclusively of immigrant Hollanders, followed a rather rigid policy of religious isolation.
This policy, adopted partly because of convenience, increasingly found itself challenged as the erstwhile uncomfortable immigrants became adjusted to American attitudes and customs. Jealously desirous of maintaining the heritage of the fathers, many parents and leaders fell into the temptation of identifying external customs and habits with Christianity itself. Everything different than that which had always been done was censored as of the devil. This attitude was carried to unusual extremes, as is illustrated by a conversation that is alleged to have taken place between a minister and an elderly parishioner at the time when the introduction of the use of the English language in catechism classes and worship services was a burning issue. The old brother is reported to have said something like this: “Dominie, you can’t use English in church! After all, our good Lord can’t understand English!”
A Real Problem
Although we may well smile over ‘some of the “Yankee-Dutch” characteristics of earlier participants in the debate on worldliness, we may never conclude that there is no point to the discussion beyond that of the usual tensions between a previous and a younger generation. The problem of worldliness is not reducible to a conflict between “stiff old Hollanders” and more tolerant, broad-minded Americans.
It must be observed that the matter of worldliness is always a matter of life or death for the Church of Jesus Christ. If indifference ever replaces deep concern at this point the Church is thereby doomed to extinction. To be conformed to the patterns of the world is for the Church inevitably suicidal. By means of the allurements of the world Satan, the arch-enemy of God and his cause, hopes to obliterate the distinction between God’s people and the world. The prince of this world would gladly have us discard the uniform of Jesus Christ, that we might be made to resemble those who willingly give themselves to Satan’s service.
It is also good to be reminded of the perennial pertinence of this problem. The passing of certain well-sounding resolutions in synodical session is admirable, but the temptation is then to congratulate ourselves on the fact that we have once more resisted the temptation “to lower the bars” and forthwith fall asleep. This is only to play into the hands of the enemy. Let us ever remind ourselves that as long as the Church is in the world, worldliness will threaten to engulf her. Still more, let each one bear in mind that the sinful world has a close ally in the “old man of sin” residing within. It is a real danger and a genuine problem.
The seriousness of this ever-present problem was, thank God, officially recognized by both majority and minority sections of the synodically appointed study committee. That worldliness is a deadly foe to be resisted without compromise was acknowledged in every phase of the discussion on this issue both before and at synod. In this concrete evidence of basic agreement we rejoice.
The 1928 Resolutions
Some of our readers might not know the detailed developments which brought about the 1951 discussion in the Christian Reformed Church.
The synod of 1927 appointed a committee to study the subject of worldliness with particular reference to the problem of amusements. This committee presented to the synod of 1928 an elaborate report, a copy of which can still be obtained by sending 25 cents to the Christian Reformed Publishing House, 47 Jefferson Ave., S E., Grand Rapids, Michigan. The resolutions at the end of this report were adopted by the 1928 synod, and have ever since constituted the official position of the Christian Reformed Church on such matters.
What ever the cause, fact is that these decisions have for several years provoked dissatisfaction. Voices were heard charging that they were ambiguous, legalistic or out-moded. In 1949 synod was faced with a number of overtures calling for action, with the result that a study committee was appointed to “clarify and amplify” the 1928 decisions, without changing “the essence of those decisions.” In view of this latter stipulation it is obvious that this committee’s task was mainly one of exegesis or interpretation of an already existing stand.
The resolutions of 1928 which were assigned to the committee for interpretation are as follows:
I. Synod reminds our people of the doctrinal and ethical principles which should guide the Christian in his relation to the world in general and in the matter of amusements in particular, and urges all our professors, ministers, elders, and Bible-teachers to emphasize these principles in this age of prevailing worldliness.
Some of the most important of these principles follow:
1. The honor of God requires:
a) That the Christian’s amusement should at the very least not conflict with any commandment of God;
b) That we and our children should be keenly aware, also in our amusements, of our covenant relation to God as his peculiar people;
c) That the Christian shall dccm it a matter of loyalty to God not to further the interests of an institution which is manifestly an instrument of Satan for attack on the Kingdom of God.
2. From the consideration of the welfare of man we conclude:
a) That there is a legitimate place in life for such amusements as are recreative for body and mind;
b) That no physical recreation or mental diversion should be tolerated which is in any way or in any degree subversive of our spiritual and moral well-being;
c) That, even when our amusements are not spiritually or morally harmful, they should not be allowed to occupy more than a secondary, subordinate, place in life.
3. The principle of spiritual separation from the world:
a) Docs not imply that Christians should form separate communities or should shun all association with ungodly men (1 Cor. 5:9ff.);
b) Forbids friendship, in distinction from fellowship, with evil men (Jas. 4:4);
c) Requires that we shun all evil in the world;
d) Demands a weaning away of the heart from the transient things of this present earthly sphere (Col. 3:1, 2).
4. Christian liberty:
a) Consists in freedom from the power of sin; in freedom from the law: its curse, its demands as a condition for earning eternal life, its oppressive yoke; and in liberty of conscience with reference to human ordinances and things neither prescribed nor condemned, either directly or indirectly, in the Word of God;
b) Is limited in its exercise by the law of love (l Cor. 8:9, 13), the law of self-preservation (Matt. 18:8, 9), and the law of self-denial, which often requires the renunciation of things in themselves lawful (Matt. 16:24).
II. While several practices are found in our Circles which cannot pass the muster of these principles, and while all our amusements, not only theater-attendance, dancing, and card-playing, should be judged in the light of these principles, yet Synod feels constrained, in pursuance of the decisions of the Synod of 1926 in the matter of amusements, to call particular attention to this familiar trio. It greatly deplores the increasing prevalence among us of these forms of amusements, urgently warns our members against them, and further refers our people to the material on the subject given in the report of the Committee on Worldly Amusements (Agendum, Part 1, pp. 31–47) .
Ill. Synod urges all our leaders and all our people to pray and labor for the awakening and deepening of spiritual life in general, and to be keenly aware of the absolute indispensability of keeping our religious life vital and powerful, through daily prayer, the earnest searching of the Scriptures, and through engaging in practical Christian works, which are the best antidote against worldliness.
IV. Synod exhorts all our leaders to warn increasingly against the prevailing spirit and forms of worldliness in order that our Reformed principles in these matters may be re-emphasized: insists that these warnings shall be given not only in the preaching, but also in our catechism and Sunday school classes, in family-visitation, and in personal contact whenever occasion presents itself; and urges that these warnings shall be given also in our schoolrooms.
V. Synod reminds consistories that in nominations for or appointments to positions of responsibility in our churches, careful attention should be paid to conduct in the matter of amusements; and suggests that also other bodies, such as boards of Christian schools, city missions, etc., heed this same matter in their appointments.
VI. Synod urges consistories to deal in the spirit of love, yet also, in view of the strong tide of worldliness which is threatening our churches, very firmly with all cases of misdemeanor and ofTensive conduct in the matter of amusements; and, where repeated admonitions by the consistory are left unheeded, to apply discipline as a last resort.
VII. Synod instructs consistories to inquire of those who ask to be examined previous to making public profession of their faith and partaking of the Lord’s Supper as to their stand and conduct in the matter of worldly amusements, and, if it appears that they are not minded to lead the life of Christian separation and consecration, not to permit their public profession.
The 1951 Resolutions
As said before, synod was presented with a majority (signed by five members of the study committee) and a minority (with four sig natures) opinion. The majority report stressed the need of re-affirming the stand of the church against “theater attendance, card playing, and dancing” among other things “as worldly and therefore sinful.” The minority report interpreted 1928 to be silent on this precise issue. This report declared “that it has never been, and neither was in 1928, a policy of Reformed church government to make a list or catalogue of three or more particular sins. Whether or not theater attendance, dancing or card playing arc in themselves, under all circumstances, necessarily sinful is a matter on which Synod has not seen fit to make a positive declaration one way or another” (IV, A, 3, page 66 of 1951 Agenda for the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church).
This represents what I believe to be the heart of the matter under dispute. After a day-long discussion, conducted, I might say, on a high level of Christian considerateness and restraint, synod unanimously adopted the following resolutions as its own:
Synod declares the following to be its interpretation of the decision of the Synod of 1928 regarding Worldly Amusements with a view to clarification and amplification.
a. With a view to clarification:
1) That the decisions of 1928 consist of a Synodical declaration condemning worldliness in general, more particularly worldliness in the field of amusements, and still more specifically worldliness as it manifests itself in theater-attendance, card-playing, and dancing.
2) That the seven resolutions adopted in 1928 are, as it were, a declaration of war upon worldliness in general and more specifically worldliness in the field of amusements; that they specify guiding principles in the Christian’s relation to the world and refer to various measures that must be used to combat worldliness.
3) That although synod did not pass judgment as to whether or not theater-attendance, card-playing, and dancing are always sinful in themselves, it did urgently warn, in no uncertain terms, against theater-attendance, card-playing, and dancing, and did not condone participation in them.
4) That in accordance with the principles of Reformed church polity it is left to the judgment of the consistory to determine in each particular case just what constitutes “misdemeanor and offensive conduct” which call for admonition and eventual discipline.
S) That while the decisions of 1928 clearly require that consistories must receive from those who seek to make public profession of their faith satisfaction “as to their stand and conduct in the matter of worldly amusements,” they do not prescribe a hard and fast rule as to how the inquiry shall be made. This is left to the discretion of each consistory.
b. With a view to amplification:
1) What Synod said in 1828 was not mere advice. It was a solemn and binding pronouncement, made in the name of Christ and based upon the Word of God.
2) It is to the development of spiritual life that the Church and all its members must address themselves if the problem that faced the Synod of 1928 is ever to be solved. Without this life, without the enlightened mind, the sensitive conscience, and the dedicated will that grows, under the Holy Spirit’s leading, out of the regenerated heart, no moral problems can be solved.
3) Synod here reiterates and re-emphasizes the condemnation of worldliness in general, and in the field of amusements in particular, in view of its alarming increase and the urgent call to combat it, and therefore strongly urges our leaders, our consistories, and all our people to observe, apply and honor the foregoing declarations.
Will 1951 Do Any Good?
Has the Christian Reformed Church made any headway on this problem? Will the resolutions of 1951 help to stem the tide against worldliness?
No doubt flaws in the synodical decisions of 1951 will soon enough be found. Fact is, certain delegates only three days after their adoption indicated their feeling that these resolutions contained an erroneous idea.
The question as to the success of 1951 does not altogether depend, fortunately, upon the accuracy or inaccuracy of the 1951 exegesis of 1928. If that were the case, there would be no hope for possible benefit from these decisions. They, too, are the formulations of imperfect men, and success predicated upon their perfection is impossible.
On the other hand, these resolutions constitute a golden opportunity for rededication of ourselves to the basic principles and the implied obligations upon which they rest. To my mind this is the significance of this discussion. Through it God has been calling us to rededicated, uncompromising service in his kingdom over against the kingdom of the world. If we will sincerely so rededicate ourselves, 1951 will prove a remarkable blessing. If we will not gladly take as our own these fundamental presuppositions 1951 nor any other synod will avail in the battle against worldliness.
Basic Principle No. 1
The very first principle involved in the Christian’s attitude toward the world is frank recognition of the fact that “there is a line which divides the Church and the world; that Christ’s Church, from its very nature, is separate from the world (the antithesis)” (Majority opinion, pp. 29, 30, 1951 Agenda). Nothing needs emphasis more in this day of spiritual lukewarmness than this antithesis-doctrine.
It is because we are to live antithetically in the world that the 1951 synod issued a “declaration of war upon worldliness.” It is the Christian’s sole task to glorify his God in the midst of and over against a world under the dominion of the Evil One.
This means that for the Christian this world is not an amusement park but a battlefield. Sometimes one wonders just what certain professing Christians are really living for. Grudgingly minimal portions of time and energy are given to the business of “making a living” and meeting the demands of the church, but the real interest and enthusiasm is centered upon “having a good time.” This is a most serious situation, and we ought to realize that unless our attitudes change radically we can make all the synodical pronouncements we please but the devil will win the day.
Let us revive the challenging, biblical conception of the Christian life lived in antithesis to the world! We are not here “just for fun,” but to work and fight for and under Jesus Christ, the Captain of our salvation. Let us be rededicated to that commission.
Closely related to the fundamental principle of the antithesis is a second: the Christian must live out of the principle of the regenerated life.
That this has tremendous implications for every territory of life goes without saying. Perhaps the sheer size of the task involved in this principle has caused Christians to shrink back from it.
Strictly speaking, every genuine kingdom project proceeds from this principle. In education, for example. the very integrity of our program demands that we assume this principle. Otherwise there is no compelling reason for undertaking distinctive educational activity at all.
To social life and to amusements this principle, must be applied. The Synod of 1928 was correct when it said that “the honor of God requires that the Christian’s amusements should at the very least not conflict with any commandment of God” (I, I, a), and that “the principle of spiritual separation from the world: forbids friendship in distinction from fellowship, with evil men” (Jas. 4:4) (I, 3, b).
Rededicating ourselves to this principle means that we will need courage and boldness. God grant that we may not measure our task according to our strength, but rather look to him for the qualifying grace needed to undertake great things in his Name!
Call to Repentance
This leads to a third consideration, no less important than the other two, desperately needed by the church of today. It is the fact that we are always to concede the need for confession of personal guilt, unfaithfulness, and laxity whenever we undertake to frame resolutions regarding our attitude toward the world. Perhaps the majority was right when it declared in its final recommended resolution: “the increasing worldliness in our churches is due in part to the failure of consistories and other representative bodies to carry out those decisions fearlessly and consistently.”
There should be no uncertainty in the testimony of our leaders, ministers, professors, and teachers against worldliness wherever it appears. Fact is, that even Christian leadership today is often characterized by a seeking of the things which are below rather than the things which are above. We have not always been an example to the flock. Little wonder, therefore, that there has been an increasing tendency to stray on the part of the sheep!
Synod of 1951 will be a great boon to the church if we accept it as a call to repentance!
Call to Further Study
We hope that the decisions of 1951 will cause no one to think that all the problems involved in this discussion arc solved. On the contrary, we hope that several questions inseparably connected with this problem and not yet completely answered will receive careful study and earnest discussion by our leaders and our people.
It is always true in this life that further reformatory effort is demanded. We never can claim in this life to know any detail of the truth of God perfectly. Every stage of development calls for more study, more prayer, more discussion, that newer heights be scaled and greater advance be made.
This means that as a people we ought to rededicate ourselves to the obligation we have to know the truth. If we adopt the current attitude toward church membership (itself a most terrible form of worldliness!) which reduces its Significance to church-attendance, paying one’s tithe, sending our children to the Christian school, and so forth, we shall never find ourselves actively engaged in the battle against worldliness.
Smug complacency, re-enforced by the fact that we have successfully negotiated without too much trouble an apparently disturbing issue, will render the 1951 resolutions powerless. Synod of 1951 is a call to further study of the truth of God’s Word!
Questions Calling For Answers
There are still multitudes of problems connected with this entire matter of worldliness which clamor for consideration. No living church could possibly ignore them. Merely as illustration of this fact we cite the following in stances.
To begin with something very general in scope, we suggest that there is real need for reflection and research on this question: What constitutes a truly biblical, genuinely Reformed piety? Unless we can show that such a piety exists, and demonstrate it in practical Christian living, we shall continue to see the growth of the idea that Calvinism is frigidly intellectual, and that one has to go to the Arminian fundamentalist for warm, pious Christianity or to the world for a life that has real zest! We want no truck with worldliness, fine! But that calls us to develop the inherent resources for peace and satisfaction which only the truly “other-worldly” can boast Beginning with John Calvin’s “golden booklet” (The Institutes, Book III, chapters 6 through 10) , let us accept the call to show to all who will heed the deep satisfaction of the pious life!
A more specific question is this: What is the bearing of the doctrine of common grace as taught by many Reformed theologians upon the problem of the Christian’s attitude toward the world ? Does it, perhaps, furnish a bridge over which the Christian may rightfully cross in order to enjoy the good things or the world? We hope that the fine discussion of Dr. James Daane in recent issues of The Reformed Journal on this subject will be continued to include application to such a question as this.
Another question: What is the weight of that argument which maintains that to dramatize life is as such impossible upon Christian presuppositions and therefore is usually demoralizing to the participant? Initial reaction might desire quickly to dismiss this argument to the junk-pile of crack-pot notions. but careful reflection is more likely to convince us that there is a real question here. Rather significant for me is the fact that such a position has been defended by a former university-trained dramatics instructor, who claims that such is his personal observation.
I believe, finally, that this matter of Christian liberty has for Christian Reformed people at least, not come into its own. We may well heed the warning of the Rev. Johannes G. Vas in his well-written pamphlet entitled The Bible Doctrine of the Separated Life as to the seriousness of error at this point. Let our Reformed leaders and thinkers give fresh consideration to this important doctrine, that we may avoid the pitfalls of legalism and license.
The resolutions of 1951 and the current discussion on worldliness can be of tremendous profit for the present day church if we will only go forward in the spirit of those basic presuppositions inherent in the very discussion itself. May God give us grace to put on the whole armor of God, that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.