In April of 1942, Westminster Theological Seminary hosted “The Christian World Order Conference,” just a few short months after the United States had officially entered World War II. It was a time of great uncertainty in the world. The goal of the conference was to contrast a biblical view of the world with fascism, communism, and nationalism, which had taken root in Europe, Asia, and beyond. It was a conference dedicated to applying the riches of the Reformed theological tradition to public societal issues.
The conference’s success was evidence of a need for wider distribution of this content. The Presbyterian Guardian, a newspaper founded by J. Gresham Machen, and loosely affiliated with Westminster and the OPC, published nine articles in a series under the heading “The Christian in the 20th Century World” with the same goal as the conference.
The content of these articles is striking and, in many ways, as relevant to the 21st Century world as it was for readers in the mid-20th century. Westminster Magazine will be republishing each article, in print and online, over the next year.
This, the third of the articles, is John H. Skilton’s “The Christian on Main Street.” Skilton was Professor of New Testament at WTS from 1939-1973. Though he formally retired in 1973 he continued to teach part-time until 1997, a total of 58 years with the seminary. He graduated from WTS in 1933 with a bachelor of Theology. He also served as assistant academic dean, dean of students, and editor of the Westminster Theological Journal. Though a New Testament Scholar, in this article he turns his attention to the conduct of Christian ministers as well as the laity in public life. He draws out, with clarity and precision, the implications of a God-centered Biblical ethic for Christian ministry. In doing so he makes note that such a ministry promotes the well-being of the overall community.
EDWARD BOK, in his autobiography, tells how his grandfather brought order to an island off the coast of Holland, where evil had flourished, and how he made of the island, barren though he had found it, a place of unusual beauty. Bok's grandmother, desiring that her children emulate their father, gave them the following charge, when they were grown: “As you go out into the world, I want each of you to take with you the spirit of your father's work and, each in your own way and place, to do as he has done; make you the world a bit more beautiful and better because you have been in it. This is your mother's message to you”. The principle expressed in this charge, suitably adapted and interpreted, might with profit be followed by Christians in their pilgrimage on this earth.
The Christian seeks to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. To achieve his high end, he must strive to keep the law of God. That law requires not only that he love his God with all that is within him but also that he love his neighbor as himself. He will move among men, he will engage in the various activities of his community, with a sense of exalted calling and responsibility. He will be aware of the profundity underlying even the commonplace, he will realize that he at all times stands before his God, playing a role vital with significance. He would see the whole earth subdued and improved to the glory of God; he would have all men everywhere, in all their activities and capacities, declare their great Creator's praise.
Weak and sinful though even the earnest Christian may be, he will by the grace of God exert an influence for improvement and for righteousness, along his Main Street.
Let us picture for a moment or two a faithful minister who attempts to meet the challenge of his Main Street. He has, like Shakespeare, an “experiencing nature”. He is intensely alive and alert as he walks among men. He notices carefully the people passing by and the background against which they move; he observes their expressions; and he forms a conception of their personalities and of their needs. At times prayers will spontaneously rise in his soul for those whose distress is manifest. He is recognized by many. When he first came to our town, one of our elders took him around to meet the leaders on Main Street. He has cultivated their acquaintance and has made many new friends of all classes. Often people stop to talk with him and often he sows in their hearts seeds of truth, righteousness, and lovingkindness. Our pastor seeks out the troubled and the suffering. It is not uncommon to see him in the hospitals going from bed to bed, trying to help strangers as well as friends, leaving some Christian literature, offering prayer, reading from the Bible, speaking a word in season. A nurse once said that if ever he were to lose his church, she would favor his being engaged just to visit the patients in her hospital, for his visits both helped the patients and made the work of the staff easier.
Our pastor is interested in almost every activity in town and encourages such civic, social, and cultural efforts as he can; but he finds it impossible to support every community endeavor. For all his concern about the general welfare, he does not approve of some relief enterprises. Certain welfare drives find him uncooperative, because he disapproves of agencies and activities sustained by them. He prefers to help the needy in the name of Christ through Christian organizations or by dealing directly, with them himself. Sometimes he makes arrangements with the proprietor of a boarding house or with a mission to give food and shelter to those he may send. He tries to give spiritual help to all who come to him for aid; and he is generous, but careful and. discriminating in providing material assistance. Through his wide acquaintance among the business men of the town, he is often able to obtain employment for those who are qualified and willing to work. But under no conditions does he unite with non-christian religious associations, whatever guise they may assume and whatever good they may claim to do.
Our pastor is a sane type of patriot. He participates in community defense efforts, donates to the Red Cross blood bank, buys government bonds; but, above all, he calls on men to subdue that basic spiritual rebellion which leads to wars and rumors of wars. He warns against the flouting of the law of God in the name of the war effort. Community patriotic demonstrations and unprofitable and unnecessary war work on the Sabbath, profanity from the lips of leaders, and a lack of humility on the part of public officials draw from him both public and private protests.
And let no one think that our pastor cannot admonish and reprove when he feels obliged to do so. He is usually mild in his manner and aims to be charitable and fair in his judgments, doing justice to the work, of God's special and common grace in men; he is not contentious, a fighter over trivialities; he tries, as a Christian gentleman, not to inflict needless pain; but he cannot flatter or condone evil; and he cannot call a truce with sin. He opposes lasciviousness and all uncleanness, wherever found—on the street, stage, in books, and on the newsstands; he corrects the blasphemous; he openly sides with the forces of order and decency against offenders; and he speaks out against organizations which oppose the teaching of God's Word. The propagation of the theory of evolution in the public schools and in the local museum has come up for his vigorous protest. And he is not silent either when proper liberties are attacked in church or state.
Some persons do not like the stand that our pastor takes for the truth, and a member spoke openly against him. Nevertheless, he has gained the respect of many for his sincerity and fearlessness. Yes, Main Street in our town is much the better for our Christian pastor’s walk along it.
It must not be thought that only the minister is to be expected to bring good influence to bear on Main Street. God has not given two rules of right and wrong—one for the pulpit and one for the pew. There is much that the minister will do which every Christian ought also to do; and there will be some opportunities for doing good which will come only to the layman. A Christian of accomplishment in our town, a man who had been successful in the real estate business and and had become mayor of one community in which he had lived, declared toward the end of his life, without intending any irreverence, that in his business his partner had been the Lord. Certainly every Christian business man ought to regard himself as laboring in the presence of his God, and as bound by the commandments. He should abhor deceit, evasion of just laws and regulations, profiting by the weakness and misfortune of others, and whatever violates the best interests of those with whom he deals. The employer should seek to give fair compensation; the employee should strive to do his work well and not make unjust demands for it; and the client or customer ought not to be unreasonable in his requirements. We need more people today like that Christian woman who is a better protector of the interests of those who serve her than they themselves. She neither demands nor receives unfair or questionable price concessions. If she finds she has been undercharged, she is not satisfied until she has made proper settlement. She shows concern of a most conscientious type for the safety of those who work for her. Truly, in business relationships there is need of more love and of more thought for the good of others.
The Christian in business should not violate the Sabbath. The storekeeper should not keep his store open on the Lord's day, pleading that his business will fail if he does not observe the same hours as his Sabbath-breaking competitors. He should keep the Lord's hours, regardless of consequences. And he may be surprised at how favorable the consequences really are. The story has been told of a business establishment at a certain resort which remained closed on the Sabbath, despite the fact that that day was regarded there as the best for business. This establishment, although it lost all the business of the busiest day of the week, nevertheless did a larger business. during the season than any other concern of its type at the resort. But even if failure in an enterprise should come because of the observance of principles of truth and righteousness, it would be better by far to fail under such conditions than to achieve the greatest of success with Satan as one's partner.
There ought to be something distinctive about the atmosphere of a Christian's place of business. Profanity, blasphemy, and all questionable conversation should be banned. Nothing injurious to the cause of Christ should be either displayed or sold. Clean and orderly in appearance, wholesome in atmosphere, governed by the holy law of God, the Christian establishment ought to bear tribute to the grace and power of the sovereign Christ.
The Christian may well try to improve the appearance of his dwelling, keep it in good order (without becoming a slave to it) and cooperate in some attempts to beautify his. community. A prudent steward of his own possessions, he should be as considerate and careful of the property of others as of his own. He ought not to be careless about fires he has started in the open, nor to leave picnic grounds looking as if a cyclone had struck them. He should not be one of those who leave places of beauty as barren as Bok's grandfather found his island at the start.
The Christian should remove, not produce, hazards for others. In driving—and in walking too—he ought to be considerate of the safety of his fellowmen. He may be constrained to remove, or have corrected, menaces to safety like sidewalk hazards, road obstructions, faultily operating traffic lights. Any equipment, such as conveyances which he may supply for public use, should be in a safe condition. If he witnesses an accident, he should render whatever help he can. If he himself is responsible for damage done to the property of others or injury to their persons, he should be. willing to admit his fault and seek to make all reasonable amends. He should be quick to offer or obtain assistance for the weak if attacked or for his neighbor if his property is endangered. In the event of a catastrophe in his community, he ought to be willing to open his home and offer goods, his available time, and his blood itself to relieve the distress.
The Christian should seek to improve, and not harm, the health of others. He should endeavor not to communicate to his associates even the slightest afflictions or, by negligence in the performance of any of his duties towards others, to expose them to illness. He may in good conscience encourage certain organized efforts to overcome disease. He will do well to avail himself of the best fruits of medical science and to assist others to obtain similar benefits. He should realize that God can be glorified by the intelligent use by His people of the means that He has made available for the relief and prevention of illness. He may justifiably be interested in athletic and other recreational facilities for himself and others-and in the prevention of the abuse of those facilities—and he may also be interested in providing outings and vacations under Christian auspices for the children of the poor.
The Christian should further aim to protect and do justice to the reputations of his neighbors. He should not encourage rash censuring and the spreading of gossip. He ought to strive to uphold truth among men, to remove, not foster, misunderstandings. He should attempt to make peace where there should be peace, to discourage base prejudices, racial antagonism, and class hatred.
In his family and social life, the Christian ought to endeavor to be above reproach—and ever the Christian. It is good to see him offering thanks before meals not only at home but also when he is at the restaurant or banquet hall. He should not be found participating in every type of social gathering, but he ought not to disdain wholesome functions. He will remember that his Lord once was present at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. If he is wise, he will not disregard the customary courtesies, good manners—and he will pay the customary gratuities of social life.
If the Christian wishes to be a really good neighbor and an effective strategist in dealing with his fellows, he will wish to avoid committing the petty nuisances and displaying the faults that any city block-dweller can catalogue for us. Let us permit some of them to pass in quick review: un-controlled pets; beating one's rugs when the neighbors wash is on the line; pounding the piano, blowing the trumpet, and letting the radio blare early or late (and sometimes in between, too); appropriating goods under the euphemism of “borrowing”; excluding the “party” from the party-line by interminable conversations; acting as the sidewalk counterpart of the road hog; letting the winds dispose of one's rubbish; easing ahead of one's turn in the store; boarding the trolley like a fullback ready to die for good old Alma Mater; and sitting, if a robust man, in a crowded public conveyance, like an insensible lump in the presence of elderly and infirm strap hanging ladies who really need a seat.
The Christian ought to strive not to produce petty annoyances; but he ought, on the other hand, not to permit the little faults of others to irritate him unduly. His life must not sink into a mere battle over trifles. He must contend on a grand scale, remembering that he is engaged in a conflict of epic proportions.
Perhaps when the earnest Christian is called away from his Main Street to the place where there is no more striving against sin, he will not see much evidence that he has made his world more beautiful and better for his having lived. Mighty forces have opposed the good that he strove to do. He himself in his, weakness has often failed to do what he knew was right. But his Main Street has suffered loss. It needs many more who will struggle to make it more beautiful and better, to the glory of God; and it can ill spare even the most humble servant. of truth and righteousness.
(November 10, 1943)