Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
November 19, 1964
NUMBER 28, PAGE 4,9b

"My People Is The Enemy"


This is the name of a most challenging book published last summer by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. The author is William Stringfellow, one of the leading Episcopal laymen of the day, and a lawyer with an international reputation in his field. He articulates a question that is coming increasingly to trouble the minds of thoughtful denominational leaders — and which has most serious implications for the churches of Christ.

Mr. Stringfellow examines the whole idea of modern religion's involvement in the "social" questions that trouble our generation. The churches of our day, he opines, are engaged in everything from playgrounds to politics, and from rental housing to racial revolutions. But have they put their eggs in the wrong basket?

He thinks maybe they have.

This book clearly warns the churches against plunging into "all sorts of social work and social action" and thereby neglecting their basic reason for existence, "the proclamation and celebration of the gospel." In their efforts to alleviate man's physical distress, and to relieve his want and hunger, Stringfellow argues that the churches have so "watered down" the gospel as to make it lose its power.

He Writes:

"If the gospel is so fragile that it may not be welcomed by a man who, say, he's hungry, unless he first be fed, then this is no Gospel with any saving power; this is no word of God which has authority over the power of death.

"The Gospel, if it represents the power of God unto salvation, is a word which is exactly addressed to men in this world in their destitution and hunger and sickness and travail and perishing — addressed to them in a way which may be heard and embraced in any of these, or in any other, afflictions."

Stringfellow, who left Harvard Law School several years ago to live and practice his profession in the Harlem ghetto of New York City is particularly critical of what he calls the "urban church concept" of Christianity. "The premise of most urban church work," he declares, "is that in order for the church to minister among the poor, the church has to be rich, that is, to have specially trained personnel, huge funds and many facilities, rummage to distribute and a whole battery of social services. Just the opposite is the case. The church must be free to be poor in order to minister among the poor.

"The church must trust the Gospel enough to come among the poor with nothing to offer the poor except the gospel."

A church rich and affluent can hardly do that; a church poor and humble can. The gospel of Christ, as it is, is adapted to man as he is — miserable, hungry, frustrated, lonely, overburdened with grief, anxiety, and a sense of futility.

The churches of Christ have traditionally understood this. There has been very little of the "social gospel" emphasis among them. Not until lately. But now we are witnessing a significant change. A strong undercurrent of "social gospelism" is becoming quite evident. A tremendous proliferation of "orphan homes" just when the denominational churches and social welfare agencies were turning from them to other and more acceptable forms of child care was but the beginning, and was but a symptom of the real trouble. Vast sums have been spent and are being spent in a wide variety of "social project" efforts among the Churches of Christ. They range all the way from summer camps to homes for unwed mothers to rehabilitation farms for wayward boys and hobby shops for restless housewives. There is a subtle (and probably unrecognized) loss of faith in the power of the gospel. These social projects are not the spontaneous fruit coming from the hearts of dedicated Christians; they are supervised "organizational projects" of congregations. And they are frankly being promoted as "bait" to intrigue the interest and soften up the resistance of the non-Christians! The ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-fed are not going to be interested in the gospel; we must first see that they are well-housed, well-clothed, and well-fed!

Denominational churches have tried this approach. And now Stringfellow's is only one thoughtful voice among many that are being raised to question the assumption. At the very time when our brethren are turning toward these social projects, the discerning ones in denominational circles are questioning the validity of this entire point of view. It is built on a false premise . . . or so Stringfellow contends.

We believe the conservative congregations will not quickly adopt the "social gospel" approach to win people to Christ. And it is quite possible that many even in the more liberal churches will question it. But for all of them, both conservative and liberal, this new book by William Stringfellow ought to be "required reading." It can be ordered from the Gospel Guardian. The price is $3.95.

— F. Y. T.