Is the Church Good for Anything?

No — and that's kind of the point

Is the Church Good for Anything?
Cropped photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

Dear Friends:

I was going to write this week about the "moral economy of fear," but that idea turned into an article on Katie Britt and "tradwives" that ran in Religion Dispatches. So instead of the normal political rant this week, you get something else. (Go read that article, though. It's one of my better ones.)

The other day, while researching a joke of all things, I stumbled across a fascinating article by H. Richard Niebuhr titled "Utilitarian Christianity." Those in the ecclesiastical know will remember that Niebuhr was the younger brother of Hulda1 and Reinhold Niebuhr.2 Richard never established the same fame as his brother, but he was and continues to be a well-regarded and influential theologian.

I won't pretend that this obscure article from 1946 will captivate your attention. But Niebuhr raises some still-relevant points. And, let's face it, you're reading my newsletter. Arcana comes with the territory.

With that said, Niebuhr argues that instrumental uses of religion seem to be all around in the post-war context. Various actors deployed religion as a tool of social control, economic and social development, even the treatment of mental illness. Utilitarianism, he says, even crept into the church. Advocates held Christianity up as an alternative to communism, the key to justice or just peace, or the path to achieving the human "quest after health, peace, prosperity, justice, joy."

That's not a bug in the Christian program.

Utilitarianism comes from the faith itself. There is always a temptation to lose one's life to find it "for the sake of food and clothing." It's a particular temptation in times of anxiety over values, or dire emergency, or to prove the truth of Christian faith.

It's easy to see how Niebuhr could be concerned with all three of those situations. He wrote in the shadow of the Holocaust, the bomb, shattered societies and millions of refugees around the globe. The post-war period was a time of intense anxiety and uncertainty as the world tried to put itself back together.

But the lessons do apply to modern politics. We are caught in the worries of choosing America's path forward, addressing the war in Gaza and climate change, and debating the Christian role in responding to all of it. I'm sure there are more than a few left-of-center religious types tearing their hair out trying to conceive of a way their church can respond to this crisis or that. Or really, all the crises. It's the kind of time we live in.

The "fullness of life" trap

Niebuhr lists several good reasons not to give into this temptation. First of all, there's always the question of whether the church can live up to the utilitarian promise. Look at the Jewish people, Niebuhr says: they're as practical and as committed to social ministry as anyone. But they can hardly be said to have experienced "fullness of life" over the course of history. Meanwhile, Christianity has sparked innumerable wars, suffering and oppression. It's entirely possible that the church has done more harm than good, Niebuhr remarks.

Nor does Christian scripture or theology give much support to the idea of a useful church. The faith runs right through the suffering servant, Jesus' death on the cross, and the resurrection. This is hardly fertile ground for a faith built on metrics and concrete social action.

Which is not to say that Christianity has no social relevance. It does. But to Niebuhr's mind, that relevance has to come from the church's own imperatives. Worldly do-goodism with a bit of faith sprinkled over the top like fairy dust won't do. As Niebuhr says, repentance for the sake of social good is "a bad kind of magic."

Christians repent not to prevent their own suffering or to prop up social norms. We do it because others are dying in our place.

Instead, Christians repent not to prevent their own suffering or to prop up social norms. We do it because others are dying in our place. We do it because we spit in God's eye every time we try to get out of suffering or maintain our culture.

Furthermore, non-utilitarian Christian faith maintains relevance by virtue of its call to ministry. The church does not, or should not, entertain utopian notions about the possibility of success. The church "acts in hope, to be sure, but love and justice are its immediate commands and not its far-off goals."

This kind of faith doesn't show that the gospel solves all the world's problems any more than scripture tells us all we need to know about nature. It does push Christians to use their noodles to make the world a better place. Such a faith engages secular means of working to benefit the world, because those means work. And that's okay. Think about Catholic or Lutheran Social Services here. Both are social service agencies staffed with professionals qualified and licensed by secular authorities. But both come with missions motivated by the faith of their parent bodies. Both do great work!

"With quietness and confidence"

In 1946 and the years following, some church leaders liked to think of Christianity ideologically, as the best "ism" around. It was the motivator behind establishing "In God We Trust" as the national motto, for example. It also propelled Billy Graham's work well into the 1970s. Churches are less susceptible to such triumphalism these days. The liberal ones, anyway. The more conservative ones remain more dogmatic, both as a matter of political identity and in regards to utilitarianism.

So Niebuhr's counsel remains sound. Christians should simply go about fulfilling their calling to minister to a broken and hurting world "with quietness and confidence." Now, as then, we live in a power-hungry world, and there are already too many forces eager to claim credit for solving the world's problems. The church has better things to be about.



1Hi, Mom! I didn't forget Hulda! 

2This probably interests no one but me, but all the Niebuhrs attended Elmhurst College and Reinhold graduated from Eden Seminary. My folks also went to Elmhurst, and Dad's divinity degree was from Eden. It's a well-trod path in our church, including by my grandfather and Walter Brueggemann. Again, arcana is par for the course.