The Church and the Inner City

The concern of this brief article is a report entitled “The Grand Rapids Inner City And The Christian Reformed Church.” This report, as we understand, has been addressed and sent to the consistories of the Grand Rapids Christian Reformed churches. It seeks to alert these churches to the problems existing in the inner city, and also to suggest solutions to some of these problems.

The report itself is divided into three parts. The first part—A Summary Statement—presents seven conclusions, each of which is followed by an elaboration. These seven conclusions set forth the nature of the Grand Rapids inner city problem, and concentrate upon the Christian Reformed churches’ involvement in the problem’s cause as well as the churches’ duty to seek a remedy. The second part of the report contains a “documentation” of the first part. And the third part offers “implications” for the churches and their stance based upon the parts one and two.

A Word of Appreciation

It is good that the churches in the Grand Rapids area, and hopefully throughout the Christian Reformed denomination, are being challenged to confront the problems of the inner city. Too long we have failed to face this issue. Too long we have failed to admit our part in the creation of this problem. But the situation in which we find ourselves and our commitment to Christ and his Word will allow us to “fail” no longer.

It is good also that the churches of our denomination are being moved to seek answers to the social problems of our day. We have erred in being content merely to seek the salvation of men’s souls without bringing the light of God’s Word to bear upon the social, political and economic aspects of man’s life. Our confession of Christ’s universal kingship stands opposed to such “pietism.”

Therefore, we arc grateful for the report “The Grand Rapids Inner City And The Christian Reformed Church,” the authors of which we do not know.

But, having said this, there are questions that must be asked concerning this report. We raise these questions, not because we wish to attack the legitimate concern which the report expresses, but because we must be certain that what we say about the matter of race and the way in which we approach the problem of race are truly in harmony with and proceed from the Word of God.

Institute and Organism

The first question concerns the task of the Church as an institution. The report faces this issue. It recognizes that “both the church as an institution and all of us as individual Christians are required to engage in evangelism” (p. 32). But it goes on to state that “both the church and all of its members must today engage in programs of social and individual renewal in the contemporary urban crisis” (p. 33). Thus the report takes the position that the Church as an institution not only may but must “become involved in a massive commitment to and program of total rehabilitation of the inner city” (p. 31).

Is this true? May the Church as an institution involve itself in a program of total rehabilitation of the inner city? Is it not the task of the Church as an institution to preach the Word of God? Indeed, the Church must minister to the needs of the poor through its diaconate, but is not this ministration to be carried on in connection with the preaching and teaching of the Church? Does this ministration to the poor mean that the institutional Church is to become involved in “programs of total rehabilitation”? And, if the Church becomes involved in such programs is it not in danger of a sinful neglect of its preaching responsibility and an equally sinful assumption of tasks which do not rightfully belong to the Church as an institution?

Individual and Communal

The second question relates to the individual and collective responsibility of Christians in the social-political sphere. The report recognizes the collective and individual responsibility of the Christian, and strongly urges fulfillment of that responsibility. It also recognizes a distinction between the Church as institute and organism:

Both as institute and organism, both in word and in deed, both for its own spiritual health and for effective communication of the Gospel to the increasingly “disillusioned deaf” of our inner cities, both in rehabilitating inner city persons already defeated, and in changing the urbanization processes which defeat and dehumanize inner city residents more rapidly than they can be rehabilitated, the Christian Church must in obedience to its Lord develop immediately a many-faceted approach which will include both a broad scale program of its own, and mobilization of all of its members for intensive and sustained individual corporate action on all fronts to overcome the urban crisis of our times. (p. 5)

However, as the quotation above indicates, the report fails to distinguish between the task of the “institute” and the “organism.” In fact, addressed as it is to the instituted Church and failing as it does to outline a program of communual Christian action apart from the instituted Church, the report seems to be saying that both the collective and individual responsibilities of the Christian are to be fulfilled within the context of the Church as an institution.

Is this a correct position? Indeed, through the preaching of the Word, the Church as an institution must preach the whole counsel of God. Doing so, the Church must not only call sinners to redemption in Christ, but must also make clear to the redeemed that they arc to live under Christ and according to His Word in all spheres of life. At the same time, the Church as an institution must proclaim the Scriptural principles which are to guide the redeemed in the other spheres of life. As we indicated above, we would not deny that there are aspects of the innercity problem which directly concern the Church as an institute. But this issue cuts across every sphere of life—education, labor, business, politics, etc. How are the redeemed going to confront inner-city, racial problems in these spheres? Are they to do so within the confines and as representatives of the instituted Church? Or are they, recognizing the limits of sphere of the instituted Church, to confront this problem in all spheres of life by way of communal Christian thought and action? As we have already indicated, the report seems to say that the Christian is to fulfill his social-political responsibilities within and through the agency or agencies of the Church as institute. We question the correctness of this position.

Church and Community

The third question concerns the relationship of the Church as institution to various community organizations and agencies. The report calls upon the Church to form a “coalition” with the Black Power movement and to build “cooperative relationships with existing social agencies” such as the United Community Services. Admittedly, there are other and acceptable suggestions made. But we are interested in the suggestions specifically cited, because we are not confident that the recommended “coalition” would be to the benefit of the Church or the black community.

If the suggested “coalition” is adopted will this not mean that the Church (either as institute or organism, it doesn’t matter at this point) will be joining with secular organizations in addressing itself to the inner city problem? Would this not mean, further, that the Church would be giving secular answers and solutions, in the name of Christ, to the questions and problems of the inner city or, at best, attempting an impossible synthesis of Christian and secular positions?

These questions should concern all of us very much, for we have suffered too long from cooperation and coalition with secular (cut-off-from-God) movements. There is, there must be a Christian, biblical answer to the racial and inner-city problems. Instead of adopting or endeavoring to “christianize” a secular approach—which is easy—we must find, give, and live in terms of that Christian, biblical solution which will be most difficult.

A Confession

There will be those reading this article who will accuse us of questioning, criticizing, and negating one thing without asserting and positing another position. We are willing to admit that there is a measure of truth in this accusation. In addition, we are willing to hang our head in shame along with others who are castigated by this report. But at the same time we insist upon raising these questions so that, instead of walking the road with a secular, humanistic social-political perspective, we may unite with one another in humbly listening to the Word and courageously speaking and living according to what that Word says concerning all the social-political problems which confront us.

Rev. J.B. Hulst is college pastor and professor of Bible at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.