Safety First!

The article mentioned above states that there are in our Church three different attitudes toward the world which enjoin three very different courses of action: the mind of safety, the mind of militancy, and the mind of love. The first, we are told, leads to world-flight, the second to world combat; but “neither has any right of existence except in so far as they are subordinated to the mind of love.” Dr. Stob adds that governing the first two minds, as they actually exist among us, is the mind of fear.


We cannot at present recall any article with which we disagree so completely as the one now under consideration.

Our first objection is that it is a misrepresentation, a caricature or distortion, of the attitude which we have labeled Safety First. Those who have this attitude are said to be motivated by fear rather than love. The “mind of safety” is so anxious about the purity of the Church that those whom it characterizes are unable to laugh at themselves; they have lost their sense of humor. They stifle theological growth and block the way of theological advance. Their attitude encourages isolation, and therefore it ignores large social evils such as prostitution, segregation, tenement housing, tyranny, and the like. It encourages externalism, legalism, and individualism. This is not a description but a distortion of the attitude: Safety First.

The “mind of safety” is further characterized in a very practical way according to certain recent manifestations; for example, as being opposed to sending our young men to Union or to Princeton. It is opposed to inviting Dr. Lever of the Free University to Calvin Campus as a short-term lecturer in biology. It insists that “outsiders” who are converted should stay in the chapel until they have a complete(!) understanding of Christ. It fights the admission of negroes into our congregations. It wants Christian textbooks from which “everything anti-Christian or even non-Christian is excluded.” It is reflected in the synodical decision of 1945 which urged our people to establish Christian labor unions in view of the moral and spiritual dangers of membership in non-Christian organizations. It is legalistic because it wants the church to publish bans against worldly amusements. Because of it we cannot look for a definitive Reformed ethic any more than we can look to it for a vigorous Reformed dogmatic.

Some of these allegations are correct; others are incorrect or exaggerations. Our judgment stands that the article as a whole is a caricature of the attitude which it labels as “the mind of safety.”

Our second objection to Dr. Stob’s presentation is that it is divisive. Its implication is that those who have this “mind of safety” are motivated only by fear, not by love, In being zealous for the preservation of the purity of the church they do not have love as a governing motive—love for the world round about us which—we are commanded to win for Christ. Perhaps without intending it, the writer is passing judgment on the hearts of those whom he takes to task. There is something provocative in this type of writing which, to say the least, does not promote unity and good feeling. We have read other articles, in Dutch periodicals, on the question whether Preservation or Extension should be the main objective of the Church, but we have not read any which judged so disparagingly of those who put “Bewaring” before “Vermeerdering.”

Our third objection is that the distinctions which the writer makes cannot be defended either on the basis of Scripture or of logic.

First of all, one does not need to be theologically grounded to realize that the safety-first mind does not exclude the mind of love. Why should it? In fact, it is precisely a deep love for the truth, for the Church, and for the world to which the pure gospel must be preached which accounts for that attitude.

In the second place, this “mind of safety” is declared to be the product of fear. There are types of fear which are bad and others which are good. That is true even in our daily life. Fear of danger, for example, may be a very wholesome thing. If all who drive automobiles would make “safety first” their consistent motto, fewer pedestrians and drivers would be killed on Our highways. But then safety must be the first consideration! True religion requires n certain amount and kind of fear. “Serve Jehovah with fear and rejoice with trembling,” says the Psalmist (Psalm 2). There is room for such godly fear even in the New Testament era. The Lord Jesus said: “Be not afraid of them that kill the body…fear him, who after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell: yea, I say unto you, Fear him.” Paul exhorts us to “work out Our Own salvation with fear and trembling.” The author of Hebrews exhorts us to “fear” lest we come short of entering into God’s rest. Such fear does not militate against love. On the contrary, it requires love.

There could conceivably be a paralyzing fear for the future of the church—a fear that stymies all progress. But there is a more wholesome fear—a deep concern for the retention of the heritage which God has entrusted to us as a church. We find litHe evidence of such concern in the article of Dr. Stab. He does admit that the advocacy of those who put safety first as the policy of the Church springs from good intentions. That is all the credit they receive. Their good intention is said to rest on “sound perception;” namely that, as our creed puts it, “the devils and evil spirits are so depraved that they are enemies of God and every good thing; to the utmost of their power as murderers watching to ruin the Church and every member thereof and by their wicked strategems to destroy all (Belgic Confession, article 12)—a passage which pleads strongly for the position of “Safety First.” It is admitted that “Satan and the flesh are dire threats to the truth and holiness and must be held off; that piety and purity are delicate things and most be carefully tended; that the biblical faith is a precious possession and must be strictly preserved.” The writer even adds that this concern “…is a legitimate, indeed an indispensable concern, and I could wish that we had more of it.” But that concern, we are told, must not be Our primary concern. Our fault lies in making the question how the Church can preserve its truth and piety central. For in doing that, the Church “inquires not about its mission but about its safety.”

That, in our opinion, is the weak spot, the Achilles heel, in the argumentation of the article now under discussion. Those who put the safety of the church before all else do not make it their only concern. Their motto is safety first. Unless we put safety first we shall not be safe. That slogan, as far as traffic is concerned, does not interfere with traffic. On the contrary, it serves to expedite traffic because it tends to prevent carelessness and accidents. Similarly, making the safety of the Church, the preservation of its rich heritage of truth, our primary concern need not in any way interfere with its true progress. We know of no one whose insistence on the purity and safety of the Church excludes a hearty interest in its mission.

As a matter of fact, the very reason why we should make the safety of the Church our first concern is that the Church cannot properly discharge its task in this world unless it clings with might and main to the truth which it has embraced, and not only clings to it but also contends for it (Jude vs. 3). We must be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We must bring the pure, unadulterated gospel to the nations. We must also preach it to our people and teach it to our youth. But it will be impossible to do all this unless we retain our heritage. Therefore our first and foremost task is to cling to that heritage in order that we may communicate it, uncorrupted and undiluted, to others. Hence the real question is whether the danger of losing our “purity and piety” is so great that unless we bend every effort toward the preservation of the Church we shall fail to “hold fast” that which we have (Revelation 3:11). The answer to that question is found in Scripture and in the history of the church.

As for Scripture, we have but to think of the frequent and serious warnings in the New Testament epistles against false doctrines, heresies, and false teachers. What Paul’s “mind” was in this matter we learn from his agitated epistle to the Galatians in which he does not hesitate to pronounce a double curse on those who corrupt the doctrine of free grace (1:8, 9). We are reminded of his warning to the elders of Ephesus that after his departure “grievous wolves would enter in among them, not sparing the flock; and that from your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” His words on this theme begin with “Take heed” and end with “watch ye.” His solemn warning must have embued the elders of Ephesus with the mind of “safety first.” It paid well. How significant that when Christ later addressed that church in Revelation he praised it for having succeeded in preventing the entrance of false doctrine and licentious living, saying: “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” If we had a little more of that holy hate we would not be so casual and indifferent about the possibility of defection in the second century of our existence as a denomination.

The history of the church also justifies the motto: Safety First. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to mention a single church or denomination from the days of the apostles till our own which has remained wholly loyal to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Churches that were once staunch defenders of the truth have drifted into doctrinal indifference and error. They are today overrun with teachers who believe in Higher Criticism, Modernism, Rationalism, Evolutionism, Barthianism. They have ceased to indoctrinate their youth and to use the kingdom key of discipline. We cannot suppress the question whether the Christian Reformed Church will prove to be an exception to what appears to be inevitable: that churches gradually decay spiritually and in the end renounce the very faith they confess in their creed. For though we have the promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, there is no promise that our denomination or any other will prove to be impervious to corruption.

In view of all this we cannot understand the apparent nonchalance about the future of the church and the objections against making the preservation of the purity of the church Our first concern. Nor can we understand the misleading characterization of the mind of safety—misleading because this “mind” is accused of being more or less indifferent about the “mission” of the church. Misleading because this mind is said to favor “isolation” as the source of spiritual strength. Misleading because it is charged with being the child of fear and timidity. Misleading because the slogan “Safety First” is virtually changed into Safety Only. Misleading because it is said that safety is regarded as “life’s alpha and omega.” Misleading because the emphasis is said to “exclude respect for theological advance.” Misleading because the “mind of safety” is said to be responsible for the alleged fact that we have little contact with much of contemporary theology and do not encourage theological discussion with men of other faith.

Instead of being inimical, hostile, to theological advance, the spirit of “Safety First” is the spirit or mind which can in sure theological progress. Such progress is possible only if our theologians seek to build on the foundation of our faith as expressed in our creeds. Anything which conflicts with our basic faith is not advance but retrogression and corruption. There is no advance if we turn to the vagaries of Barthianism or the unproved assumptions of Evolution. Safety first marks out the road along which alone progress—spiritual, ecclesiastical, theological—is possible: the road that starts from the inspired, infallible Scriptures and continues in their direction.

If the mind of “Safety First” is not the proper mind of the church, one of two things must be true: that the faithful performance of its mission and task in the world does not depend on the preservation of its purity, or that the purity and piety of the church are not in great danger of being lost. Both assumptions are false.

Unless we put safety first, the church is not safe. Only if every single minister and consistory and teacher in our college and seminary and in our Christian schools has a clear understanding of our faith and is truly committed to the retention of that faith, willing to contend for it, can the church be relatively safe against the invasion of corrupt teachings and false standards of conduct. How safe are we?

In a following article, which will appear in the July-August issue, we shall discuss Dr. Stob’s remarks on Dr. Lever, conditions for church membership, divorce, the admission of negroes to our churches, worldly amusements, the Christian textbook program, and the Christian labor union.