The Right Kind of Worldliness

Guys in Funny Hats?

Social context typically shapes church conflicts, inclining people toward one view of Scripture, theology, or a moral issue rather than another. An example is Christian Reformed views of “common grace” theology and “worldly amusements.”

In 1928, the synod of the Christian Reformed Church warned against “worldliness” and prohibited movies, dancing, and card playing. It reaffirmed this stance in 1951. Then, in 1966, Synod rethought its approach to worldliness and declared film a legitimate artform, if viewed discerningly. It similarly changed its view of “social dancing” in 1982. It allowed for dances but continued to warn about dangers, especially disco and dance clubs.

I grew up in this era. My parents said The Sound of Music (1965) was the first movie they watched in a theater, the year before synod gave its approval. My high school continued to reject student pleas to organize dances in the mid-1980s. We all played cards—euchre on the bus, gin rummy at home, and poker at Redeemer College and Calvin College (both now universities).

It’s easy to shake your head at old-fashioned moralism. But this history is connected to deeply rooted theological convictions and changing social contexts. The place to start is with debate over common grace in the 1920s. This debate and the prohibition of dancing, movies, and card playing were both about how Christians should relate to the “world”—to areas of life where they encounter non-Christian ideas and habits. Did Christians share some common ground with non-Christians? Or was there a fundamental divide between them?

‘Antithesis’

Reformed thinkers such as the Dutch preacher and politician Abraham Kuyper referred to this divide as the “antithesis.” By grace, the redeemed lived in love for God and could see the truth of things. The unredeemed, however they lived, whatever they worshiped, could not. That is why Christian schools were necessary. Public schools mixed covenant children with children of sin—an obvious danger. There was no middle ground, not even between Christian and non-Christian chemistry.

Or was there?

Kuyper and his followers also talked about common grace. God “favored” all people and all creation with his common grace, they argued, restraining sin so that even people without true faith lived with some virtue and true knowledge. The world thus did not fall into chaos. Christians and non-Christians could share knowledge, despite their philosophical and religious views clashing. Your Buddhist and atheist neighbors might be good people in the civic sense. Common grace was not saving grace, of course. The good done by non-Christians did not redeem them, and their knowledge was not saving knowledge. An antithesis remained. But God’s favor to all humanity, not just the redeemed, meant that Christians and non-Christians could learn from one another.

Debating Common Grace

This idea was debated in the CRC in the 1910s and led to division in the 1920s. Conflict started as fallout from synod firing a seminary professor, Ralph Janssen, for his views of Scripture, as he allegedly taught higher criticism of Scripture. Janssen and his defenders sometimes appealed to common grace. If they read with discernment, Christians could profit from such scholarship.

Among Janssen’s critics was his own pastor, Herman Hoeksema, who also was a prominent critic of common grace. Hoeksema forcefully rejected the idea. It was “utterly inconceivable,” he said, that God would show any “favor” to non-Christians. In 1924, Janssen’s defenders perhaps got some revenge against him. Conflict over Hoeksema’s views boiled up from his congregation to Classis Grand Rapids East and then to synod in 1924.

Synod did not discipline Hoeksema, but it affirmed common grace, declaring: (1) God has a “favorable attitude” or disposition toward “all his creatures”; (2) in his grace God restrains sin in unbelievers; and (3) without changing their hearts, God enables the unredeemed to do civic good that sustains the social order. In early 1925, Hoeksema led most of his congregation out of the CRC. He and several allies founded the Protestant Reformed Church.

What did common grace mean practically? Christians should plant “the banner of the Lord” in every field of life and not hide from the world, explained Reverend D.H. Muyskens in The Banner in 1925. “What God has not abandoned we may not abandon.” From this viewpoint, Hoeksema was fleeing the world, not being a confident Calvinist.

Living in the World

The CRC’s condemnation of worldly amusements in 1928 revealed that it too was wary of the world, however, and not so different from Hoeksema. A few CRC thinkers wanted to explore the culture around them and try to transform it. But most common grace advocates also affirmed the antithesis, believing that “there is more danger of world conformity than of world-flight.”

Synod acknowledged common grace in its 1928 decision but argued that “basis of our fellowship with unbelievers should never be the sin which we have in common with them.” Movies and dancing were not sinful, per se, it admitted. (Card playing was.) But even wholesome dancing and movies were “stepping-stones” to the sinful kinds. All movie going and dancing thus should be shunned.

Consistories should “deal in the spirit of love” with people who fell prey to such amusements. But they should respond “firmly” in cases “where repeated admonitions” were “left unheeded.” With repeated admonitions in mind, Synod dismissed a Calvin College professor, B.K. Kuiper, for going to movies after being warned to stop.

In 1966, Synod changed course. It rethought which Reformed principles to apply to worldly amusements and decreed the legitimacy of the film arts. The context was growing participation by CRC members in popular culture, with TV added to the mix.

Immigrants Becoming Citizens

In 1928, the CRC was shifting from Dutch to the English language and Americanizing. But it was still an immigrant church. It valued isolation and tended to associate modern technology and culture with American life. Both were threats to the distinctiveness of Dutch Reformed communities.

Over the next 40 years, CRC folk thoroughly Americanized. Military service in World War II gave young CRC men a great deal of worldly experience, for example. So, too, did large numbers of them going to college afterward with help from the G.I. Bill. Like other Americans, CRC folk in the 1950s and 1960s enjoyed the fruits of prosperity, moving to the suburbs and enjoying annual vacations. Much the same was true in the immigrant CRC churches in Canada.

Movies and the CRC

Synod took up the issue in 1966 in response to an overture in 1964 from Classis Eastern Canada. The classis had surveyed its youth about movie going and found that 71 percent of “Young People” attended movies “more or less regularly” in their teens. Twenty percent were disobeying their parents, but 58 percent had permission.

The classis asked synod to rethink CRC policy on movies, given the gap between its stance and its members’ practices. It wanted synod to help churches and families choose movies wisely. Its overture appealed to common grace and the belief that God called people to participate in all areas of life, including the film arts. It urged Synod to ask Calvin College and other CRC schools to offer “courses in the art of cinema and T.V. production.”

Synod agreed. It noted the danger of worldliness and the wisdom of “abstaining from sinful areas of life.” But it affirmed “Christian freedom” and acknowledged that movies and TV were part of life. Crucially, it appealed to theological principles neglected in 1928, notably God’s dominion over all of life, the cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:28), and the call to provide Christian witness in all areas of life. Movies and TV, it noted, were akin to radio, magazines, and books, all of which could be edifying or dangerous. Synod also noted the value of movie reviews by Christian experts, production of films and TV shows by Christians, and education to distinguish good and bad films.

Synod’s decision was meant to be a more effective “No!” against un-Christian influences and a prudent “Yes!” to participation. Instead of proscriptions, it affirmed mature, discerning participation.

After 1966, all that was left to debate was details. Should The Banner review movies, especially ones like Hard Core (1979) and American Gigolo (1980) with “mature” themes? A writer-director who had been born into the CRC but left it had made them. How should CRC members judge The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a film based on a novel by a Greek Orthodox writer who struggled with faith? Could films that were unorthodox, even dangerous, also be thought-provoking and legitimate for discerning viewers?

What Have We Learned?

Several things strike me about this history.

First, Christians worry about some forms of worldliness more than others. Radio and novels were not a concern for the CRC in the 1920s and 1930s, or less so. The CRC worried about Freudian therapy, women’s clothing, and birth control, but not so much about consumerism generally, the pursuit of wealth, and the inequities of capitalism, despite the Great Depression.

Second, social context mattered. An immigrant CRC still sought isolation in 1928. It emphasized the separation of saints from sinners, an antithesis that was religious and ethnic. In 1966, a more comfortably modern and confidently North American CRC cited theology that promoted participation in the world. It followed where its young people were going, unlike in 1928 and 1951, when it tried to prevent them from watching movies.

Third, common grace theology largely had faded to the background by the 1960s. The 1966 decision instead cited creational theology, notably the cultural mandate. Christians should be salt and light in all areas of life, even movies. More subtly, synod acknowledged that enjoyment of culture was legitimate and not to be dismissed as a distraction from faithfulness.

Finally, we usually notice the worldliness of others more than our own. My point is not to avoid judgments, or always assume that we are no better or worse than anyone else. It’s that we should look for our own worldliness first. We can’t easily distinguish faithful participation in the world from sinful worldliness. Sinfulness and the need for grace—common and saving—do not run between people but within each person’s heart. There is no easy formula for the right kind of worldliness.

About the Author

Will Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is a member of Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids.

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