Does Christian Social Action Demand an Absolute Break?

May 23, 1953

Dear Mr. Runner:

In your article, “Het Roer Om,” appearing in the April-May 1953, issue of the Torch and Trumpet you condemn fellow Christians for taking an active part in the Citizens Action organization. Also you state in this same article, “We must exercise our influence upon the development of this huge nation by way of separate Christian organizations.” (Page 4)

Do you mean that we as Christians must give up our membership in the A.F.L. or C.I.O., the Chamber of Commerce, the Manufacturers Association, the American Medical Association, the Realtors Board, the Republican Party, clubs such as the Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis and many similar business and civic organizations? Certainly these should be placed in the same category as the Citizens Action organization. Your interpretation of the antithesis calls for separate action in every field of human endeavor. You call for an absolute break.

Should we then organize a Christian medical mens organization, a Christian bar association, a Christian chamber of commerce, etc.? Or need we only be concerned with having a Christian Labor Association and a Christian political party?

I know that you will gladly give a bold answer to this question which must now be in the minds of many.

Sincerely yours,

Enno R. Haan


Dr. Runner’s Reply

July 5, 1953


As you suggest, will gladly answer, in brief. the question you direct to me. Whether my answer will be “bold.” I leave for you to decide; I hope it will be clear.

I wonder about your opening sentence, in which you state that I “condemn fellow Christians for taking an active part in” CITIZENS ACTION. I beg your readers and mine to re-read my article in the April-May issue, particularly page 3 column 3ff. Does a minister who warns his congregation against observable incipient sins condemn his flock? In a sense he does, indeed; but there is another sense—one easily read by some into such an expression as you have employed in your letter to me—in which his admonition is in a very important way to be distinguished from condemnation. To condemn in this unfavorable sense would have the effect of cutting off from future dealings. What I did does not of itself lead to separation but rather to discussion among brethren. I stated my conviction and supported it with a reasoned account. The only way to meet a reasoned argument is to accept it or to place over against it another reasoned argument, bespeaking an alternative position and pointing-out the errors and weaknesses of the view originally stated. Not suggesting at all that you were deliberately ambiguous, I have elaborated the point because in our present position it seems to me that we must be able to picture clearly to ourselves the difference between the spirit of schism and the spirit of reformation. The pastor hopes to reform his people, not to create a schism between himself and them.

In reply to your letter I should first like to point out that the speech of mine which gives rise to your question was an address delivered before the Calvinistic Culture Association, and that the general thesis that organizational antithesis is a requirement of our Christian faith is the position not only of me personally but also of that organization.1 Over a period of time our position and the reasons for it will D.V. be brought with increasing fulness and clarity before the Christians of this continent; such things cannot be hurried. I n this letter then I shall limit myself to clarifying in the light of your communication my meaning in Het Roer Om.

Your question seems to me to be about the generality or extent of my plea for separate Christian organizations. You seem to me to be wondering out loud why I singled out CITIZENS ACT ION for mention. And let me say a t once that you are right when you say that my “interpretation of the antithesis calls for separate action in every field of human endeavor.” Why I singled out CITIZENS ACTION I shall take up in a moment. [The next sentence in your letter, where you state that I “call for an absolute break,” might possibly contain an ambiguity; I shall deal with it at the end of my reply.]

You are right: my position does demand general reorganization of our efforts, not just in connection with CITIZENS ACTION or political life generally and labor unions. That is, I take it, the only way to deal with what Groen van Prinsterer was talking about when he said in the preface to the second edition (1868) of his Ongeloof en Revolutie (Unbelief and Revolution): “Modern society, with all its virtues, having fallen into bondage to the theory of unbelief, is increasingly being seduced into a systematic denial of the living God.”

I am simply saying, Systematic unbelief requires over against it systematic belief. Human existence, one in its root, functions universally in all of life’s spheres. The state cannot embrace the whole man; many societal relations are required to express in this temporal life the fulness of our religious principle of life. In all of them the one religious principle will be similarly operative. Accordingly, it is not political life or our labor relations that must be Christian, but our whole life, we as persons, and all the spheres in which we function must be permeated with the Christian life-principle.

However, when I say that I am calling for separate action in every field of human endeavor, I want to be understood. I cannot, of course, sit here in my study and make one simple authoritative declaration which will hold for each and every one of the existent organizations in our American society. Kuyper’s doctrine of organizational antithesis was born in the arena of practical struggle, as S.J. Ridderbos recently reminded us (De Theologische Cultuurbeschouwing van Abraham Kuyper, p. 327) , and is in no wise the abstract dogma of an armchair strategist. Christian men and women everywhere, awakened to their duty as gospel-witnesses and in consultation with fellow-believers who are also daily involved with the various organizations, will have to determine the Christian course of action in each case. The most I can do here is to lay down a general method of dealing with the problem.

Obviously, there are various kinds of organizations. Some associations knit the members very closely together in dedication to the achievement of certain goals in accordance with certain principles. Their principles may be expressed or be so commonly held and so essential to the nature and function of the organization that expression is held to be unnecessary. Other organizations are very loose: they provide, for example, opportunity to men engaged in the same vocation to exchange experiences and to discuss in an informal way the situations with which they find themselves confronted.

When I stated earlier that it is my conviction that organizational antithesis is a requirement of our Christian faith I was referring particularly to the stricter type of organization, where the realization of a cultural ideal, a goal, is clearly in view. For in this postulating of objectives, as Prof. Mekkes2 says in his article “Christelijke Politiek,” the apostasy is manifested of men who desire to direct their life without regard to the law or intention of the Creator. The Christian who made himself guilty of this accepts, in Mekkes’ words, the field of labor but denies his office. In my opinion, therefore, the Christian can here support only definitely Christian organizations. Justice, good government, social justice, economic justice—such goals many not be conceived, formulated or pursued by the Christian except in a specifically Christian sense. There are many things that could be said here, but onIy one is necessary. Where problems are discussed and formulated and solutions are offered to the people in a trust of human reason apart from the renewing and disciplining power of the Word of God, there no salvation is possible, there we are helpless to prevent an advance, with increasing swiftness, to the very abyss which is the final end of those who did not like to retain God in their knowledge. And yet that is the situation, systematically, in our American institutions.

The nature of the situation is clear to the student of its historical development. The Reformation of the sixteenth century had been followed by the bloody and exhausting wars of religion in the seventeenth. To Leibniz, universal genius and intimately acquainted with all aspects of the European situation, the man whose philosophy was, according to John Dewey, the dawning consciousness of the modern world, the sixty-four dollar question, so to speak, was how to achieve in a religiously, hopelessly divided Europe the cooperation necessary for order and cultural advance. He applied the new Cartesian rationalism (the cult of pure reason) to this momentous practical problem. Religious issues led unavoidably to division; cooperation, it seemed, would be possible only if those prickly questions of religion could be put aside and the problems of Europe could be studied in the cool light of a dispassionate reason. Action taken would have to be taken quite apart from religious considerations, simply on the basis of pure intellectual analysis. This view, as Dewey has said and as is generally recognized, became the underlying principle of modern societal organization, and penetrated into this country through the acceptance of it by many of our founding fathers. It was common sense in the eighteenth century.

That is why I said above that the principles of organizations can be so commonly accepted as not to require special statement. This modern principle must underlie any type of organization which aims to speak for citizens generally, must it not? In such organizations Jesus Christ and the Word of God are simply declared irrelevant to the situation. Otherwise the rights of those citizens who deny that God’s ordinances are binding upon their lives would be infringed.

Such is the historical background of our American political parties and labor unions, but also of practically all our freely organized American groups.

When I read therefore that one of our own Christian Reformed leaders had over the radio commended CITIZENS ACTION as an organization that was striving after good government in Grand Rapids and had specifically stated that it was composed of citizens without regard to race, creed, or color, I felt that, whether through ignorance or conscious assent based on erroneous thought, a principle inimical to the kingdom of Christ “‘as here being propagated among our people. That is why I singled out CITIZENS ACTION in my speech: it provided a clear example of what I was opposing and possessed undeniable contemporaneity.

I am, of course, aware that those of our number who favor CITIZENS ACTION usually come with the question which is supposed to compel assent: Is it not better to strive after a limited objective and get something done than to set a more ultimate goal and pass up every opportunity of getting some good done? I am reminded of the old king of England of whom it was said that he always won the particular case and lost the general principle. In my opinion, the answer to the question raised depends entirely on how one attempts to strive after the limited objectives. If one would do it and our men in CA are doing it so—by joining immediately with people of all faiths in a common organization, the possibility of Christian political action has thereby been cut off at the start. The [beano] rascals might in fact be thrown out, but there has been no Christian witness in politics. For Christian political action is directed to making of the state what God intends with it, and is never first of all a politics of interests (belangenpolitiek, e.g. pressure groups). If, on the other hand, Christians have organized themselves together politically to reflect on the state and the problems connected with it in the light of the divine revelation and to be in the political sphere a corporate witness to the law and gospel of God, then they can look, together with men of other principal bases, for areas of cooperation in many of the surface issues and technical matters that always demand treatment. This was the way Kuyper sought to cooperate in specific instances with Roman Catholics: “without prejudice to our principles.” Such cooperation is possible, as C. Van Til and Berkouwer have said, because the unbeliever cannot think his wav loose from God’s creation but, inspite of himself and the apostasy in his thinking, is compelled to deal with real portions of God’s created order. And that is precisely what the Christian is dealing with. Only, the Christian deals with it as of a piece with his single-eyed service of God with the whole heart: for him special problems cannot be dealt with in abstraction from their rootedness in his life and world-view. That some of our people are constantly doing such abstracting in their week-day life is, to my mind, no slight cause of the lack of single-hearted service of God to be found here and there in the Christian Reformed Church.

But there is, further, also the looser type of organization, where the members constituting the association function in it more as individuals, and do not, as in the previous case, become so completely identified with certain goals to be achieved by the group. I am thinking of organizations where doctors, lawyers, merchants, farmers, etc. get together to discuss their problems. In such organizations Christian individuals may find it possible to participate. Superficial discussion of a common “theatre of operations” is possible for the reason given above, and there may be real value in sitting down together with others whose experiences are in the same general area or life. Of course, the discussion will have to remain superficial. For that reason I feel that the Christian should not stop with such general associations. For the subject he is concerned with in these associations is one he is called upon as a Christian to view in the light of the Truth. In this connection we must remember that, because the root of our human existence is religious and the one end of human, existence in its integrality is to serve and glorify the Creator-Redeemer, there is never a purely analytical problem, a purely social, economic or juridical question. Even the goat-breeder will have sooner or later as goat-breeder to race the problem of when an overemphasis is being put upon the economic market. That is not a purely economic question at all but one concerning the relation and proper balance between the economic and the other spheres of human functioning. Such a universal question is always, whether the persons or organizations involved know it or not, decided on the basis of a general life-and world-view. For that reason I am not too impressed by the recent attempt to shock our people by referring to what was obviously regarded as the madness of establishing a Society of Goat-breeders on a Reformed Basis. Without denying what I said a moment ago about the probable possibility of cooperation in these looser organizations I wish to emphasize the need for Christian association also here. My acquaintance with the Christian Reformed Church convinces me that no small number of our people have accepted in practice the idea that these practical questions can be handled purely technically. Where then will our people learn to serve God in their daily work and be themselves i.e., redeemed children of Jehovah, if not in such Christian associations?

Finally, in your list occur at least a couple of examples, I think, of organizations which represent the “leveling” influence of American culture, which turns almost every association, ultimately, into an opportunity for “gezelligheid,” with a little charity to the blind or some other class of unfortunates thrown in on the side. Personally, I feel we need the company of God’s people more than anything else, and is not charity the work of the diaconate and perhaps also of Christian charitable organizations?

In closing, I wish to state that I have heard the position I have been describing characterized as Anabaptistic. By that term the critic means to say that my position requires us to get out of this world. T he reader can see at once how foreign to my conception is the idea of WOrld-Hight. Rather, it is our awful awareness of our responsibility to the world that causes us to give earnest consideration to these matters. And it is sol id analysis which reveals that to influence the world we must have a principally based activity. If this position is Anabaptistic, then Groen, Kuyper, Colijn, and almost every Reformed person in The Netherlands is an Anabaptist. For this is their position, and I learned it from them. What they and I am recommending therefore is an absolute principal break with the world, not a withdrawal from personal association in the world. This by way of explanation of your statement that “I call for an absolute break.”

It is also frequently said that my position is incapable of realization. I have already stated it as my conviction that the Christian must do things because God requires them, not because in his own calculations he sees chance of success: the Christian’s life is a life of faithful obedience (“Trust and Obey”). The Christian must not expect really to straighten out the world by his activities. The kingdom of righteousness will come catacylsmically, by God’s own intervention. But after having said all that, and realizing full well that we do not know what God’s intention is with respect to our generation, I should like to quote what to me appears to be a very Christian remark by that great Christian statesman who all his life stood and fought practically alone, Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer:

Much that is considered to be impossible of realization will be brought to realization when men experience a lively feeling of the necessity of that which appears to be impossible. If there are obstacles which can only gradually be removed, that is no reason for delay ; zeal must be doubled according as the job is harder. The first Christians did not inquire whether their faith was congenial to the pagans. The age of Luther seemed little suited to defying the might of Rome; the century of Wcliffe and Hus was not suited to it, when the scaffold was the reward of confession. But to come out for the truth, to recommend it and spread it abroad is always our duty, and is especially our duty when men misjudge it. The outcome is no concern of ours when Our duty has been clearly pointed out to us. And now, when the scourge of unbelief is devastating our world and when the combatting of false notions as yet demands little self-sacrifice, at this time should men, for fear of displeasing, be held back, whereas no fear of suffering and death restrained those heroes of faith of our Dutch ancestors!

We men do not know whether in God’s plan moments or centuries are required. By ordinary calculation, however, where you have con fusion as at present, order cannot be restored within a few years. The period we are living through is glorious enough. If it is not the time of fulfillment, it will be the time of preparation.3

I hope, sir that these remarks have cleared up any uncertainties you may have had as to my meaning.

Sincerely yours in Christ,


1. See also Gereformeerd Weekblad, June 11 and 19, 1953.

2. A.R. Staatkunde, xxi-9. p. 285ff.

3. From Verspreide Geschriften, p. 136ft., quoted in Boissevain, Een Christelijke Staat.