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THE RELIGIOUS BREAKDOWN OF 
THE MINISTRY 



GEORGE A. COE 

The Union Theological Seminary, New York City 



Does not the Christian ministry of our country show signs 
of breaking down religiously ? The emphasis of this question 
is upon "religiously" quite as much as upon "breaking 
down." We often concern ourselves with external obstacles to 
ministerial success, and occasionally with the defects of 
ministers, but we seldom raise the fundamental question 
whether in the first and distinctive matters of their calling 
they are on the right track. Suppose they should succeed in 
ministering to us precisely as they desire to do: in what sense 
and to what extent would this be a Christian ministry? 

This theme does not invite to fault-finding, but to something 
far more thoughtful. Finding fault with ministers is an old 
amusement, but it requires so little in the way of either intelli- 
gence or skill — for there are no rules of the game — that it can 
hardly be regarded even as good sport. On the other hand, 
criticism, in the more technical sense, is distinguished by care 
both in choosing standards and in weighing performance or 
product. Moreover, serious criticism itself has several pos- 
sible levels, and many methods. We might, for example, 
pass judgment upon the status of a profession by first 
assuming an arbitrary standard of perfect performance 
and then showing at what point between this and zero the 
average or median individual stands. The details might be 
handled after the manner of bookkeeping, the strong and weak 
points being recorded, added, and subtracted. A critic who 
employs this method takes the standpoint of an outsider; at 
his best he would be like a judge of a court, who must have no 
financial or family connection with any litigant. The churches 

18 



THE RELIGIOUS BREAKDOWN OF THE MINISTRY 19 

and the ministry have been subjected to much criticism of this 
general type, but how much they have profited by it one 
cannot say with confidence. 

A far different approach is possible, one in which the critic 
endeavors to think with the minister, not merely about him. 
By thinking with him is not meant hunting for extenuating 
circumstances, but rather seeking a clear definition of purposes 
and of relative values, and then a corresponding evaluation of 
the policies that are pursued. One who had printed a critical 
and largely unfavorable review of a certain book received from 
the author of it a letter saying, " Such a review as yours helps 
a thinker to understand himself." It is not offering incense to 
strange gods, then, if one asks whether we Christians, even in 
what we call Christian, have grown conventional and therefore 
dull in our appreciation of what is central in our religion. We 
do not bring into question the sincerity, devotedness, or 
ability of our leaders, if we inquire whether they really know 
where the sharp edge of Christianity is, and whether then- 
present policies can bring us to the goal of our Christian hopes. 
Such inquiries are a form of co-operation. 

In our part of the world the Christian religion has been 
free to utter itself for several generations. It has placed 
ministers in almost every community; preaching — plenty of 
it — has been accessible to nearly the entire population, and 
has had a rather general hearing; evangelism, moreover, has 
constantly gone outside the stated church services in order to 
reach the masses; enormous use has been made of the press; 
millions of children are constantly under the tuition of the 
churches; almost everybody has a "church affiliation "—in 
short, the religion of our ministers has had abundant oppor- 
tunity to make itself known to a population that is counted as, 
on the whole, intelligent. Would there be anything unfair in 
the assumption that this population must by this time have 
caught the main point : that what our religion is fundamentally 
for and fundamentally against must be clear ? As clear, for 



20 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

example, as the popular apprehension of the antagonism 
between the steel trust and organized labor ? I have in mind 
nothing that requires historical insight, or systematic thinking, 
or even ability to state an article of a creed, but only rudi- 
mentary apprehension of any central issue that the ministers 
have actually pressed upon the conscience of the people. 
Surely spiritual clarity in the pulpit and in the guidance of 
religious instruction could hardly result in spiritual ignorance 
and confusion. Let us remember that our ministers have had 
a fair opportunity to make themselves understood, and that they 
have had a remarkably large direct hearing besides being able to 
guide the teaching activities of multitudes of laymen. Yet who 
does not know that the populace is ignorant of any specific, 
sharp issues for which the clergy as a whole stands? The 
English and American reports on conditions in the armies 1 
have awakened little or no surprise on the part of those of us 
who have approached our religion from the educational point 
of view. We have known that spiritual illiteracy abounds in 
the churches themselves, and we have repeatedly pointed out 
some of the reasons for it. Among the seasoned leaders in the 
reform of religious education there is a widespread conviction 
that the greatest single obstacle to this reform is the inertia 
of ministers. This inertia is present in what is certainly 
central and crucial in our religion. Everybody knows that 
ministers stand for goodness in general, and against wicked- 
ness in general, and this is no slight ground for praise. But 
what is the Christian view of wickedness and of goodness ? 
What is the main point ? Wherein should we expect a Chris- 
tian to differ from anybody else ? On vital points like this 
the ministry as a whole has not spoken so that the populace 
can understand. 

If we hesitate to place so much stress upon the state of 
the popular mind, let us limit our inquiry to members of the 
churches. Suppose we were able to ask of them, What do you 

1 The Army and Religion. Association Press, New York, 1920. Religion among 
American Men. Association Press, New York, 1920. 



THE RELIGIOUS BREAKDOWN OF THE MINISTRY 21 

judge that the ministry stands for with life-and-death serious- 
ness ? We should learn much, no doubt, of the amiability of 
the clergy, of their high character, of their sympathetic 
helpfulness, of their general support of conventional ethical 
standards. But the names of many of them would call up 
no focalized message, and, for the rest, the issues that would 
come to mind are, with occasional exceptions, such as these: 
some view, orthodox or otherwise, of the Scriptures or of 
dogmas; some ideal of churchmanship, or the promotion of 
church enterprises; some reform, as temperance, or some sin, 
as worldly amusements; some mode of piety, mystical or 
other; the conversion of sinners. The importance of these 
interests is not here called into question, least of all the last 
named. The conversion of sinners might be so conceived as 
to offer us the great characteristic issue for which we are look- 
ing. But until there is far sharper definition than now prevails 
of what we are to be converted from and what we are to be 
converted to, even a life-and-death purpose to win converts 
will remain, like the evangelism that we know, as only one 
item in a miscellany of ends that have no obvious co-ordinating 
or central principle. The members of the churches themselves 
cannot tell what dominant issue the ministry as a whole 
stands for. 

Another approach to the same phase of our problem may be 
put thus: What have the members of the churches been led 
by their pastors to understand as the meaning of church 
membership ? Let not this question be confused with popular 
flings at the inconsistencies of Christians. The point concerns 
their conscious standards of the Christian profession and life, 
not their successes and failures as measured by these or any 
other standards. Here, surely, is a perfectly fair test of 
ministers. For, before a candidate is received into full 
membership in a church the minister instructs him or sees to 
it that he is instructed in the meaning of the step, and then 
examines and approves him. Moreover, though the minister 



22 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

may be relatively unknown to many in the community, he has 
opportunity to enlighten his own congregation upon the way 
of life not less often than once a week. Yet the ideas of 
church members concerning the significance of their member- 
ship, like the ideas of the general populace concerning the 
Christian religion, are partly vague and partly miscellaneous 
and unco-ordinated. That I am a church member means that 
I have been converted; that I believe the Christian doctrines; 
that I go to church; that I partake of the bread and grape 
juice of the communion; that I abstain from killing, stealing, 
lying, liquor, and fornication; that I am benevolent; that 
I pray, and use the other means of grace; that I support 
church enterprises with my money and my labor — is not 
this a fair inventory of current ideas as far as they are at all 
definite ? 

That these standards are not insignificant goes without 
saying. It is no slight thing to have in every community 
an organization and a voice that constantly speak for so much 
that is good. But we are not at all concerned at this moment 
with the question whether the church is worth while. Of 
course it is. Our sole concern is to know what ministers think 
about the function of the church, and to evaluate what we 
find. In the churches we behold a vast number of men; 
men who have responded to what they regard as the call of 
God; men to whom this means pursuing good and not evil. 
Here is potential spiritual energy so vast that if it were 
directed toward a definite objective it would be irresistible. 
Here are enormous investments of money, and even these 
represent but a fraction of what church members could give 
to any cause that was dearer to them than life. If church 
membership meant that there is such a cause, imagination 
can hardly picture the possible results. It is clear, however, 
that the ministry has not succeeded in impressing upon the 
laity that church membership has any such meaning as 
this. The natural inference is that the ministrv itself does 



THE RELIGIOUS BREAKDOWN OF THE MINISTRY 23 

not think in such terms. We must assume, of course, that 
our leaders might make the attempt to impress an ideal upon 
their followers, and yet fail. Certainly some ministers, in 
the aggregate a considerable number, have seen a vision, and 
have endeavored to communicate it. They have found in the 
gospel such big, inclusive conceptions, a revelation of such 
overwhelming needs, an experience of power so adequate for 
these needs, such a foretaste of a regenerated world, that they 
have said to their brethren, "Come, let us mass all our forces 
upon these great world-objectives." But the response from 
their brethren in the ministry has been so slight that there is 
not the least ground for supposing that the situation in the 
laity is due to unresponsiveness toward clerical leadership. 
No; the clerical profession as a whole has not espoused any 
such large and aggressive cause as vital to the meaning of 
church membership. 1 

But perhaps we ought not to seek an index of the ministry 
in the everyday, commonplace life of the churches. One 
might plausibly argue that, just as we did not perceive the 
heroic qualities of the holder of a Carnegie medal until he 
had an opportunity to risk his life to save that of a drowning 
person, so the religious vitality of the ministerial profession 
will fully demonstrate itself only in times of unusual moral 
stress and danger. Well, we have had opportunity to see 
what clergymen do in spiritual emergencies as well as in the 
common day. Was there ever a greater spiritual emergency, 
in fact, than that which the Great War precipitated ? Here, 

1 The criticisms thus far made do not apply equally to the Protestant and the 
Catholic clergy. Every intelligent Catholic has definite and correct ideas as to what 
his priest stands for, and of the meaning of membership in the Catholic church. This 
gives the advantage of a unified and determined front, indeed, but the ulterior problem 
here concerns the ends prescribed by the hierarchy to the faithful. To save one's 
own soul by obeying an autocratic spiritual authority, and to contribute to the final 
and complete triumph of this autocracy — this conception of spiritual life, duty, and 
destiny makes the problem of the priest too simple. He can fulfil his essential functions 
by performing certain prescribed operations in his strictly official capacity (ex opere 
operato), and teaching certain doctrines and duties already strictly formulated. The 
problem of the Protestant minister goes many fathoms deeper than this. 



24 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

surely, were issues sufficient to stimulate to the utmost what- 
ever there was of conscience in men. Here were moral con- 
fusions to be cleared up; here were temptations as vast as 
empires to be met; here, if ever, the difference between the 
Kingdom of God and every other aim in life needed to be 
brought to the fore in men's thinking concerning the future 
of society. If ever in the history of man a "Thus saith the 
Lord" was needed, it was needed then. Yet the ministry in 
general had nothing distinctive to offer. Here and there a 
little group — Quakers for instance — bore testimony by word 
and deed to something specific that they thought they had 
received from God. A few individuals paused to ask whither 
the spirit of Jesus would lead us in the world welter, and a few 
endeavored to weigh in Christian scales the principles upon 
which our contemporary society is so bunglingly organized. 
A few gestures of friendship were directed by ecclesiastical 
groups toward members of Christian communions in enemy 
countries. But the masses of the clergy took their cues concern- 
ing the great issues of the time from the same prompters to whom 
the worldlings who control our newspapers turned for guidance. 
It is only fair to say that the clergy employed their faith 
in God and a future life so as to bring comfort to the suffering 
and the bereaved, and that many ministers, working among 
our soldiers and sailors, brought to multitudes of individuals 
strength to endure temptation and hardship. We do not 
undervalue such services if we point out that, on the other 
hand, the attitudes taken by the generality of ministers 
toward the major moral problems — problems that concern the 
meaning and ends of our organized life — were little if at all 
affected by religion. In all good works of mercy and help 
they labored as equals with those not of the faith. In speech 
and in print they supported, on the whole, just what non- 
Christians supported. It is not evident that their position 
on the great issues differed from that of plain secularists — 
apparently their religion had no contribution at this point. 



THE RELIGIOUS BREAKDOWN OF THE MINISTRY 25 

Of course the ministers prayed, but into their prayers they 
poured the very desires that secularists and they had in 
common. Of course they searched the Scriptures, and there, 
to be sure, they found texts that fitted the spirit of the times! 
Can anyone show a plausible reason for believing that if 
the clergy as a whole, adopting an "interim ethics," had 
taken a vacation from their pulpits for the duration of 
the war, the mind of the church, as far as the main issues 
of the hour are concerned, would have been appreciably 
affected ? Would not the newspapers have taken care of the 
consciences of church members as well as their spiritual 
shepherds did? I am amazed at myself for asking this 
question; all my training prompts me to reject the implications 
of it. But the evidence must decide, and the evidence does 
not show that our tragic moral emergency evoked from the 
clergy, except in a few instances, any guidance or inspiration 
that had a specifically Christian source or character. The 
clergy did count, and that splendidly, but it was not their 
religion that counted. 

A similar lack of religious distinction meets us when we 
ask what attitudes the clergy take toward several ethical 
problems of our domestic policies and conduct. For example, 
what have our spiritual guides found in the Christian religion 
that bears upon the proper treatment of conscientious 
objectors? Only a bare handful of ministers seem to see 
that freedom of conscience and humane treatment of prisoners 
are religious issues at all! No one will claim that the course 
that events have taken has been influenced by our religion, 
which has remained, in the persons of its official representatives, 
acquiescent and aloof. I forget! One minister did propose 
that conscientious objectors should be deprived of the right 
to vote, and another wrote with a sneer of their sufferings. 
Perhaps, after all, the ministry had more influence than I have 
just now attributed to it. I am far from intending to approve 
or condemn, at present, the conduct of our government in 



26 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

this matter; the whole point is that the clergy as a whole 
showed no positive sign that the matter interested them as 
Christians. Unless we assume that they are ignorant that the 
relation of human government to the conscience of the citizen 
is counted a great point in religious history and in the con- 
ception of modern civilization, we must conclude that the 
explanation of their attitude is to be sought in the realm of 
spiritual sensitiveness. 

No Protestant who is informed on the history of his faith 
will deny that freedom of speech and of assemblage is a matter 
in which religion is deeply concerned. What, then, is the 
attitude of the clergy toward the suppression of freedom of 
speech and of assemblage in our country at the present 
moment? Since this suppression is effected not in spite of 
government, but by using the police power itself, we have 
before us all the elements of an issue which in other days 
provoked appeals to the will of God. But times have changed. 
The old problem is here, but those who speak for God are, 
with a few notable exceptions, silent. The events that are 
occurring under our eyes strike no religious chord, and church 
members are receiving their guidance in this tremendous issue 
almost exclusively from extra-ecclesiastical sources. 1 

The relation of the clergy to the ethical issues involved in our 
economic and industrial life is distinctly better. With some 
approach to unanimity they opposed the liquor traffic, and 
with complete unanimity they favor a rest day for workers, 
generally on humanitarian and not merely ecclesiastical 
grounds. Further, they have taken high ground, in the 
social creed of the churches and elsewhere, upon child labor, 
the labor of women, and other industrial problems. The 
interchurch investigation of labor conditions in the steel 

1 In respect to issues such as these the failure of the Catholic clergy is more 
profound than that of the Protestant. For, (i) no one but the pope may assume 
prophetic functions in the church, and (2) the pope is so hedged about by traditions 
that must not be contradicted that even he becomes little more than a warder of the 
status quo. The inability of the head of the church to cope with the problem of the 
historical criticism of the Scriptures is typical. 



THE RELIGIOUS BREAKDOWN OF THE MINISTRY 27 

industry speaks in unmistakable terms of the spiritual aggres- 
siveness of the group that carried it through. But there is an 
underlying and all-pervading ethical issue, not at all foreign 
to historical Christianity, upon which no clear guidance is to 
be had from the generality of ministers. In order to make 
sure that I shall not be misunderstood when I state what this 
issue is, a paragraph must be devoted to certain distinctions. 
Condemnation of ministers based upon the assumption that 
they ought to be competent as technical economists, sociolo- 
gists, or statesmen, is to be resisted and refused all standing. 
It is criticism of the first type mentioned at the beginning of 
this article, and it is erroneous because of. a false standard 
arbitrarily assumed. Likewise, to demand of ministers such 
fabulous wisdom as to be able to tell just what to do in every 
troublesome situation is unjust for the same reason. But, 
though the Christian minister be not a social researcher or a 
social engineer, he is, by the nature of his office, a guide and 
inspirer of social ends and motives. Though he decline to 
judge whether the timbers of a certain bridge will bear a 
certain load, he must be ready to say whether the road that 
goes over this bridge runs east or north. And not only must 
he seek to be expert in discriminating motives and ultimate 
ends; he must also take account of the conditions that further 
or hinder these motives and ends. That is, he must be a 
critic of social organization and process, and particularly of 
the human product thereof. Though he is not required to be a 
church architect, he must be able to judge whether a given 
edifice is adapted to the needs that called it into being. To 
what extent does our social order aim to produce, and succeed 
in producing, the best sort of men and women, specifically 
men and women related to one another as members of a family 
of God ? The major part— by far the major part — of men's 
thoughts and purposes and labors arise within our economic 
order and refer to economic ends. This is life; this is where 
meaning must be found; this is precisely where ideals belong. 



28 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

The minister must understand it, judge it, and in view of its 
products suggest needed changes in aim and motive. It is his 
function to utter the divine will with respect to the fundamental 
ethics of our organized life, and not less to call, whenever 
necessary, for social repentance and regeneration. 

Is a system in which one works for wages and another for 
profits fundamentally Christian, anti-Christian, or neutral? 
Are its motives Christian ? What is the effect upon character 
of the repeated exercise of its motives? What is the actual 
outcome as respects the relation of man to man? Here we 
are concerned with the meaning and value of life. Our 
question leads straight back to Jesus and straight forward to 
any vision that we dare indulge concerning the coming of 
the Kingdom of God. It is not answered by any position we 
may take upon such special problems as hours of labor or 
prevention of industrial accidents; much less can any talk of a 
fair wage so much as touch it. It is the great parting of the 
ways for the Christian ethics of society. The ministry must 
take upon this question an open stand that is definitely Chris- 
tian or lose its soul. 

We have needed guidance on this point — O how sorely! — 
for years. Industrialism has developed its logic far faster 
than our ethical insight into the new conditions has grown. 
For many years, too, voices have been challenging us to face 
this issue, so that we can hardly plead that we have not had 
time to find an answer. "And while men slept, an enemy 
came and sowed tares." Opposing forces are gathering — 
enormous forces on both sides— to attempt the solution of this 
fundamental ethical problem by a clash of non-ethical weapons. 
And the Christian ministry is looking on! 

It is needless to pursue the theme farther. If the nature 
and the functions of the Christian religion are what I have 
assumed them to be, and if the facts are as I have alleged, then 
the answer to the question with which we started is before us. 
The conclusion, let it be noted, does not depend upon dissent 



THE RELIGIOUS BREAKDOWN OF THE MINISTRY 29 

from anything that ministers teach, or upon disapproval of 
anything that they do. Our question concerns their grasp of 
religious problems as religious, and their conception of their 
calling as they reveal it in their practice. What has been 
indicated is, in part, lack of point, and tendency to blur; in 
part, lack of religious perspective even where devotion is 
focalized; in part, failure to recognize vital religious issues 
when they arise.