Project Canterbury

A Bishop Among His Flock

By the Rt. Rev. Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., LL.D.
Bishop of Bethlehem, U.S.A.

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1914.

Chapter XVIII. The Church and Social Service

TO-DAY we are hearing much about social service in its relation to the Church. There has also sprung up within recent years a political party called Socialists, which has more than once put into the field a nominee for the Presidency of the United States. It is at least suggestive that the party polled at our last Presidential election 901,725 votes, as against 402,283 votes four years before, showing that it is making rapid growth among the political forces to be reckoned with in the near future. Moreover, there is a political philosophy called socialism more or less thoroughly organized in this country and in Europe. Certain ideas about property and government and religion exploited by those who call themselves socialists have been somewhat revolutionary and radical. Occasionally doctrines have been propagated under the guise of socialism which have not only been alarming, but clearly subversive of an established law and order, tending toward anarchy and religious as well as political chaos.

It is quite beyond our purpose on this occasion to state in detail the various political and social platforms and theories put forth by the several schools in advocacy of their views. They are easily accessible to all who desire to examine them. It is sufficient to state that some of the opinions expressed under the general term of socialism have been so extreme and radical as to discredit the word, and the thing for which in the popular mind it is supposed to stand. But the abuse and the exaggeration of a thing should not be allowed to prejudice a fair-minded man against whatever truth there may be in the idea itself.

There is a true socialism in which every intelligent Christian believes when he understands what it means. There is also an opportunity for social service in the Christian Church so obvious that no earnest Christian man would knowingly neglect it. It is about this that we desire now to give expression to some thoughts.

In the Christian sense our Lord Himself was a pronounced Socialist. The religion which He founded is essentially a social religion. Christ concerned Himself not only about the souls of men, but about their bodies. His great summary of duty, which He laid down for us, was: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Social service in the Church might be defined as the application of the spirit and teaching of Christ to the conditions and needs of our fellow-man. In saying that our Lord was a Socialist it is intended simply to remind us that He was interested in all human life. With that interpretation of the word we can heartily indorse the epithet as applied to Him.

Christ was not content simply to preach the Gospel, but He was deeply concerned in seeing that men were fed and clothed and that the conditions of life were tolerable. Social service means that the Christian man has a direct responsibility as to the physical and social environment of his brother-man. It means that the members of the Church should not confine their activities to worship and to preaching of individual righteousness and obedience to God, but rather they should prove the effect and practical benefit of worship and preaching by putting forth an earnest effort to secure the recognition and enforcement by individuals and society of good physical and moral standards of living for all men--for those without the pale of the Church as well as those within.

Christian social service means that it is not sufficient for the Church to teach abstract principles of righteousness, leaving each member to apply them as may seem best to himself, but that it should point the way to definite and concrete action and accomplishment and be the leader and inspirer in the development of a social conscience and sense of responsibility.

The Church has always realized in a measure that it is its duty to take care of the physical as well as the spiritual condition of its individual poor, and it has endeavored, more or less faithfully, to fulfil this duty. During the last twenty-five years or more institutional Churches have been established among us which have aimed to promote a wholesome social life, especially among the young, and to provide means of physical recreation and exercise and amusements. This is a movement in the right direction, but it is only the beginning. The social conscience has been enormously quickened within recent years, and the Church now takes a much wider and more sympathetic outlook. It now assumes definite social responsibilities, and considers its duty to know and understand its neighborhood, and how the people live, and to inquire into the sanitary conditions of the streets and houses, to examine into the actual conditions of living and learn what they are and what may be done to improve them.

It is now freely admitted on all sides that in the tremendous and rapid expansion of our industrial life the Church has been too willing to be ignorant of unpleasant things, and that an easy-going indifference, if not insensibility to the troubles and needs of thousands of our fellow-men, has prevailed.

It is now clearly dawning upon us that no Church can claim at all to have done its duty or fairly met its responsibility unless it is alert and eager to seek and find everything that is destructive of men's physique as well as men's souls that may lie within its reach.

It is no longer enough that a Church shall take care of its own members and supply them with spiritual food. Its function is to inspire those members with a keen interest in behalf of the weak and tempted and unprivileged classes. Unless it is willing to do this it has no right to call itself a Church and think it is listening to the call of its great Head. In other words, social service calls the Church in the name and by virtue of the life of Christ to an earnest love for human beings as such, whether they are connected with the Church or not.

It has been feared by some that all this activity in the welfare of our brother-man, which we call social service, will interfere with the preaching of the Gospel; that such a program for the Church shows too much care and thought for the worldly welfare of men; that in working for their material betterment the Church will lose its spiritual vision and will gradually lessen its dependence on God and become a mere social agency. There can be no better answer to this than to point to the teaching of the great Prophets of the Old Testament from Moses to Malachi and, above all, to the words of Christ and His Apostles. Indeed, in that great and memorable picture of the Day of Judgment which Christ paints for our warning in St. Matthew He makes obedience to the law of social service the sole condition of inheriting the Kingdom. Those alone are to receive His blessing and be set on His right hand who have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, shown hospitality to the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and those in prison. It is remarkable that our Lord does not propound any test of orthodoxy or theological soundness to the assembled multitude before Him. He seems to make everything hinge on their conduct toward their fellow-man.

Thus does He lay solemn emphasis on the Gospel of Brotherhood as an essential part of that righteousness of which His whole life is a proclamation.

How can a Church claim to be God's Church if thus, in obedience to Christ's teaching, it fails to seek earnestly for the weaker members of society and to stand boldly in their behalf for proper standards of education and living? How can it retain its self-respect if it makes no protest against the overworking of young children and women, the crowding of people into narrow and filthy and unsanitary quarters, against the payment of such low wages as make normal family life simply impossible to employees. Indifference and insensibility on the part of the Church to such wrongs cannot escape the condemnation of the law of Christ. These are but a few illustrations of the many directions in which the Church's sympathy ought to be enlisted to-day.

Thus it will be seen that the Gospel of spiritual salvation and the Gospel of social service are not distinct and separate, but different manifestations of one and the same Gospel.

No man can read the Sermon on the Mount with an open mind and then dare to say that the Church has fulfilled its whole function when it has taught and listened to doctrinal and moral teaching. The preaching of a sound and Scriptural theology is fundamental and vital to religion; but the theology is empty and dead, and is neither Scriptural nor sound, that does not inspire men to a righteous activity in behalf of their brother-man. All the greatest religious teachers of the past have taught the doctrine that the love of God and the love of man are alike parts of the religion of Christ, and that through the love of man through every day and practical service for the weak and unfortunate and erring is the surest and quickest entry into sympathy with God.

Social service is the practical, inevitable, necessary consequence and complement of true spiritual belief. They are mutually essential and mutually dependent.

Unless the Church is loyal to its Master's call for help to the oppressed and downtrodden, from whatever cause, it will lose, and deserve to lose, its hold upon the hearts of the common people. On the other hand, the power of the Church to teach the law of fair dealing and righteousness is greater than any other power on earth. Spiritual power is the only power that can save us from the domination of heartless greed and wickedness and degeneration, the only power that will cleanse and purify the world from the tyranny of selfishness and bring peace and good will between individuals, classes, and nations.

Here is a field where all Churches can agree about many of the problems of social righteousness and the methods of dealing with them. All can agree to study together more thoroughly the facts and philosophy of other complicated problems which are difficult to solve. Practical social service affords a common platform for action on which all may stand together as nothing else does. Working together for human betterment means fuller mutual understanding and appreciation and deeper sympathy, which may lead us all to see with clearer vision what are the real and eternal truths of religion, and thus bring us to that unity of spiritual life for which we devoutly pray. Let us be awake and doing with saneness, patience, boldness, and love.

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