Moses, Rauschenbusch and Moral Distinctiveness

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Founder & Teacher,

Moses said to the Lord,

How shall it be known then that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us so that we are distinct, I and your people, from all the people which are upon the earth? (Exodus 33:16)

Walter Rauschenbusch was born in Rochester, New York, on October 4, 1861, and died July 25, 1918. Between 1886 and 1897, Rauschenbusch pastored the Second Baptist Church of New York. In 1897 he became a professor of New Testament at Rochester Seminary. He taught there until his death. His name is associated with the term “social gospel,” a movement which got its bad name among evangelicals because it seemed to diminish the importance of individual soul-winning and personal holiness, while calling for the church to make an impact on business and political life.

I just read his essay entitled, “The New Evangelism,” written in 1904. Its conclusions are not satisfying (mainly because they are confessedly vague), but we need to hear some of his questions and claims. Here are some examples: “The monarchical system, so intimately connected with ancient religion, has crumbled and democracy has taken its place, but the Church has not broadened its ethical teaching to meet the new duties of the citizen-kings. It still confines its ethics to personal and family life.” In a democracy we are “citizen-kings” with obligations to shape the life of our land in all its business and professional practices and all its political and legal activity. While social and political life was controlled by a monarch, citizens could content themselves with private ethics. But where “citizen-kings” rule, there is personal responsibility for larger ethical issues.

Rauschenbusch says again, “To be effective, evangelism must…hold up a moral standard so high above the actual lives of men that it will smite them with conviction of sin.” Which is another way of saying that the church must be ethically distinct if it is to be evangelistically powerful. But then Rauschenbusch puts in the dagger: “The morality of the Church is not much more than what prudence, respectability and good breeding also demand. Nor is the morality of church members generally distinguished by the glow of spiritual fervor…But with this moral outfit can the Church authoritatively say to the world, ‘Repent and become like me’?”

This eighty-year-old statement is very relevant. We must keep the question high on our agenda at BBC: How are we morally distinct from ordinary society with its prudence, respectability, and good breeding? What in your life bears visible witness to the power of God?

For Moses it was utterly crucial: we must be distinct from all the peoples that are on the earth (distinct from Americans and Russians and English and Germans and Swedes and Norwegians!). He was convinced that if God was with them, they would be distinct. Please join me in prayer that God will come to us in such radical power that we become a morally distinctive people, with a credible, convincing evangelism!


Pastor John