Church and Community in History (1)

The Disappearing Cornerstone

R.J. Rushdoony

Our subject this evening is ‘the disappearing cornerstone; church and community in American history.’ In our day, the word ‘community’ has lost much of its meaning. In its origin it means ‘common,’ but common itself has many, many meanings. Some of the meanings of that word are; customary, regular, coarse, vulgar, low and so on. At first, the word ‘common’ meant; ‘something belonging to, or shared in, by all.’ And the best example of this usage is perhaps in the title of The Book of Common Prayer, because The Book of Common Prayer gives the prayers and the worship of all the people because it was the prayer-book for the Church of England. Now the word ‘community’ therefore presupposes something held in common. It is a word that is very, very closely aligned to ‘communion.’ The word ‘community’ belongs essentially to Christendom. In other cultures, very, very different ideas set forth the unity of the people or their differences. In Western civilization communion is the ground of community, the Lord’s Table in other words. It is the fact of a common faith in a common savior. This means that community had had, in Western culture a super natural basis, it rested in the triune God, in the decreed plan of salvation, in the atonement of Jesus Christ and our communion one with another in Him.

Now that’s the simple historical fact, community has had a religious meaning in Christendom and in the United States. It has had more specifically a Christian, a Biblical meaning. This is the reason why the modern state is so often at war with Christianity and with the church. A good deal of my time in the past ten, twelve years has been spent in court defending churches, Christian schools, home schools, Christian parents, Christian daycare centers and so on, all of which are expressions of the life of the Christian community. The state seeks to supplant community, Christian community and all its aspects with its own idea of what is commonality and government. Marxism seeks to establish Communism, a state-created and state-imposed community. The dictionary of sociology has defined community as; “a limited territorial area which had characteristics separating it from other areas.” And this characteristic of that community according to the dictionary can be race, national origin, or race affiliations. This is a definition that is very painfully weak, but it is the one that prevails in our schools; it can describe a black ghetto where there is a great deal of violence of black against black. It can refer to an area of Chinese who are divided between those who are for Red China and those against it.

And so the sociological definition of community does not tell you that the thing is a community, and that there is communion between the people. In fact you can call Los Angeles, in terms of some of the sociological conditions a community, but that does not mean there is communion between the people here, or that all is well, or that there is peace. Paul says; “we are members one of another,” because we are all members of Christ and that is the meaning of community, in fact, this was the point at which one of the main areas of warfare between the Roman empire and the Church took place. There were a number; one of course was that Rome required every church to have a license which they would put on the wall, and submit to state control regulation and taxation, and this the church refused. Another was that the Church was accused, and rightfully so, of being an ‘Imperium in Imperio.’ The Latin term means simply; ‘an empire within an empire,’ ‘a government within a government.’ And of course, our Lord was crucified as a king and that was the inscription placed upon the cross, and this I true. The scripture called Jesus Christ; “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” and what does it mean to be a king over kings? It means to be an empire, an emperor! So, Rome accused the church of being an ‘Imperium in Imperio,’ an empire within the empire, governing! And they denied the right of anyone to govern; they did not allow any group to meet without a license. Every meeting, whether they are at a home or at a public place had to be licensed, it had to be controlled, we’re going back to that very rapidly. And what was the church doing? It was meeting illegally and it was governing.

It was doing what God required in His law, what the apostles summoned the Christian to do; they were members of one another. Very, very early, long before the church ever had a building, it was caring for the elderly and the order of widows was ministering to needs in families. It was caring for homeless children, for abandoned babes. It was caring for the sick in hospitals of Christian origin. It set up courts to settle things among Christians, I Corinthians 6, in terms of God’s law, and in no time at all, the pagans were coming to these courts because it was the only place in The Empire for justice. They were setting up schools to educate their own, and so on and on. They were a government, an empire within the empire, and sometimes we don’t realize how all-out and dedicated they were to governing, they’re taxing themselves to govern. You’ve all heard of St. John Chysostom, who in Constantinople was bishop over a hundred thousand Christians. And those hundred thousand Christians were caring for fifty thousand needy people; homeless children, elderly people, the sick, the unemployed. That’s a staggering fact! It gives you an idea of why Rome hated these people; they were an Imperium within Imperio, an empire within The Empire. They were governing, they were a community, they were members one of another, and they were reaching out through all their activities to bring all these others into fellowship with Christ and to minister to them in the name of Christ.

We are members one of another and over the centuries the great theologians of the church stressed this. In the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas said;

“Everyone living in a community is in a manner part and member of the community, and any evil or good done him rebounds to the whole body.”

John Calvin went to the Apostles Creed to the clause ‘on the communion of saints’ and he declared that;

“The saints are united in the fellowship of Christ on this condition, that whatever benefit God confers on them they should mutually communicate to each other.”

It was the sharing of fellowship, they cared for one another. In those days, and for centuries thereafter the deacons ministered to the needs of those in need. This fact of a shared life and fellowship, has been too seldom appreciated, but it has been a very, very important aspect of Christendom. Again and again, major advances in Western civilization have been a product of this community action by the Christians. In 1780, the Marquis de Chastellux described how American settlers on the frontier could in two years clear a forest, build houses for themselves, put up fences, and begin to ship food to the market. And, he said, in four to five years, all of them would be debt-free. Now, contrary to the modern myth it was not the result of rugged individualism, but of Christian community in action. As the Marquis wrote;

“I shall be asked, how one man or one family could be so quickly launched. I reply that in America, a man is never alone, never an isolated being. The neighbors, for they are everywhere to be found, make it a point of hospitality to aid the newcomer. A cask of cider, drunk in common and with gaiety, or a gallon of rum, are the only recompense for these services, helping one another build their homes, and clear their land. Such are means by which North America, which one hundred years ago was nothing but a vast forest, has been peopled by three million inhabitants (this was at the time of War of Independence that he wrote). And such is the immense and certain profit from agriculture that notwithstanding the war, it maintains itself wherever it has been established, but it extends itself to places which seem the least favorable to its introduction. Four years ago one might have traveled ten miles in the woods I traverse without seeing a single habitation.”

And he went on to say that now; “…it is peopled with farms and with churches.” Such mutual helpfulness was once commonplace in the United States. It is still routine among some religious groups, notably the Amish.

Now it is important to know the motive-force for such a way of life. Although church attendance is now high in the United States, church membership is not a serious matter. And many people join and break with a particular church very, very casually, most of the time their reason for the break are personal and even petty, not theological. Perhaps the best index to our current problem is marriage, the closest and most thorough form of community. One can say that marriage is a form of communism and the only form which the Bible allows, because property in the Bible is family owned. Moreover, the past generations, as well as those that come have an important stake in the family property because the living members are trusteeship from the past to the future. They receive something from the past, and they have a duty to transmit it to the generations to come. King Ahab was willing to give Naboth more than his vineyard was worth. But Naboth refused Ahab because he saw himself as a trustee who could not act in terms of self-interest.

The family today seems both marriage and property in terms of personal satisfaction and self-fulfillment, not as a responsibility under God. Debt-living has replaced responsible trusteeship. And the romantic ideas are substituted for godly marriage. Very few pay attention to Scripture when it limits debt to six years and tells us that, as a general rule; “owe no man anything but love one another.” Today, when problems arise, the solution is not sought in Christ and in the Scriptures, but in the civil court of law. In recent years this has even been the recourse of people who are living without marriage; everything is going to be settled by the court. But even a humanist like Carlton Kramer reminds us; “Legal remedies are highly imperfect solutions to most social problems.” Which both parties would write that into their plans. “Legal remedies are highly imperfect solutions to most social problems.” But in one area of life after another today it is legal remedies which are sought because men no longer see Scripture and the Lord as the remedy.

This means we are in trouble. If our necessary, and our basic community is humanistic and political, rather than Christian, we will seek, through coercion and law to establish community, and we will always feel frustrated. Our problem today is that community is sought through legal coercion rather than by Christian grace and Godly justice. We are going to legislate community into existence, which is a ridiculous idea. Very early in the history of the United States after 1780, the intellectual leadership and the men of law, began to stress the policy of community through civil government. Most Americans continued to see Christian faith as primary, but in time with the ups and downs of Christian vitality the humanistic doctrine of community by civil law has prevailed. And it has prevailed because, to a large extent, the church, through pietism has withdrawn itself from the problems of the world.

One European has said that the modern church, especially the American church, which should be the center of the vitality, because there’s more Bible-believing Christians in the United States than anywhere else in the world, but he said the churches have become “…convents and monasteries for married monks and nuns.” They have withdrawn from the problems of the world. As a result, the primary hope of the twentieth century American, whether he is Christian or humanist, is in civil law, in politics, in community by coercion. And this transfer of responsibility for community and for justice and for love from the person to the state. The result has been, to cite Cramer again; “…highly imperfect delusion.” Now the change in the United States began with the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

David J. Rothman has documented this. Some of the changes that took place under Jackson. When the shift from solving problems through Christ to solving problems through politics came into vogue. First; the poor previously had been cared for by relatives or neighbors. It was an action by a Christian community. Alms houses and poor houses began to replace it,the state began to replace the Christian community in dealing with the poor. Then, second; the prisons began to replace fining, whipping, and restitution. For minor misdemeanors there were fines or a public whipping. For anything serious there had to be restitution, restitution, and people were only put in prison until they were tried. And if it were a capital offense they were executed or at the trial they were sentenced to restitution. I’m very happy to say that some states today, as a result of Reconstructionist legislators and judges, have begun to require restitution. Then third, the insane were cared for by their families, not by institutions with financial aid, but, we saw, in the time of Jackson institutions replace families and healing began to disappear. People with mental problems were perpetually restored through Christian love and grace, and discipline. But with the institutionalization of the mentally troubled, we began to have a permanent population of mentally disturbed people; incurable through humanistic means. Then fourth; homeless children were taken in if there were no relatives by neighbors as their Christian duty. The state now began to assume a custodial role. Through Rothman’s account another function was added; about the same time the state-school system began, with devastating consequences for this country. In colonial preaching the care of the poor was treated as a Christian duty not as a state responsibility.

And this continued for a century after the Constitution. But, with this departure by the churches from Christian concern, came humanistic reasons for social problems. Instead of saying that people were criminals because they were sinners, that they were in rebellion against God and His law. What they began to say in the presidency of Jackson, was that vagrancy could be traced to the legal system, not the criminals. That society was to blame, or the laws were responsible, or in that day, they began to say the family, so parents began to be blamed. In other words the guilt became environmental, not personal. Moreover, instead of seeing offenders as responsible persons, and I quote now again from Rothman; “They stripped the years away from adults, and turned everyone into a child.” They began to develop the idea, that some people think originated from our lifetime, that there was something wrong with the training of the child, and that was why he went astray, and the parents, the family was to blame. But that goes back a hundred and fifty years. Everything was viewed as a social condition, not as a personal problem, not as sin. The problem was always viewed, after 1830, by the educators and the sociologists and others as due to the environment, not as sin. The root of the problem, in the words of Walter Channing, who was the brother of the leading Unitarian, William Ellery Channing, wrote; “SOCIETY ITSELF (and Channing capitalized every letter of those words) is here I look for the great and whole source of the whole misery of the social state.” Society and the family had become the source of sin and the state was now the savior. Now that took place during the reign of Andrew Jackson and where were the churches? They had retreated into their walls, They had become married priests, monks and nuns.

In fact they were buying this argument. For example, the Reverend James B. Finley, who was a chaplain in those days at the Ohio Penitentiary, and a man who professed to believe the Bible from cover to cover, had professed to hold an evangelistic faith and zeal, said; “Never, no never shall we see the triumph of peace, of right, of Christianity, until the day that the habits of mankind undergo a thorough revolution.” Well, what was that revolution to be like? Well, he said, what we’re doing in the prisons we need to do to all society. Can you imagine a man who professes to believe the Bible from cover to cover and is an evangelist making a statement like that? This is what he said and I’m reading just a portion of the horror of his remarks;

“Could we all be put on prison fare for the space of two or three generations, the world would ultimately be the better for it, indeed, should society change places with the prisoners, so far as habits are concerned, taking to itself the regularity, and temperance, and sobriety of a good prison, then all worthy goals would be attained. As it is, taking this world and the next together, the prison has the advantage.”

The prison, with its total regulation of man, total control, he said is better than life and freedom here, or even life in heaven. And if we could only put all men in prison for two or three generations we would attain paradise. Where in the world did he find that in the Bible? But this is the kind of thing that was preached.

What this meant was that even these people who profess to believe the Bible from cover to cover have replaced the Holy Spirit and being born again as the way to regeneration of man and society with the power of a prison-state. The power of God unto salvation was replaced by the supposedly saving power of the police-state. Jesus Christ was reduced to someone who speaks to the individual soul concerning heaven, but is not “…the blessed and only potentate, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” And that’s the kind of church life and preaching for the most part that we’ve had since then. It does not confront the problems of the day and it does not say the solution is in Jesus Christ, and in the infallible Word of God. For their day-by-day social problems, man; in and out in the church, has since then looked to the state, not to our savior. Why did the change take place ? The Christian community has been replaced by the state as the divisive and regenerating force in the life of man. Statist coercion has replaced the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of man. To see what that leads to, look to the Soviet Union. The Jacksonian revolution, when this change took place, coincided with the rise of Arminian revivalism. The revivalist outlook was hostile to Christian schools, it was hostile to all the work for the poor, and it was hostile to the establishment of hospitals. “Concentrate on saving souls,” they said. It held, and we still hear it said at times, that it is better for a child never to go to a Christian school, to know himself to be outside of Christ in order to be saved at a revival meeting.

I recall the gleeful caricature and damnation of the older Puritan view at a pastoral conference a few years ago, where the man said the older system was; “baptize, chastize, and catechize.” Well, at least it worked. It didn’t produce the kind of culture we have today. But every time this evangelist mentions these three things; baptize, capsize and catechize, it drew gales of laughter from the pastors at that conference. Pietism called for a retreat from the world into the soul, from the responsibilities of community life into a retreat into private devotion. The high point of the Christian life was attendance at spiritual retreats, and a disavowal of worldly concern. Pietistic churches became convents for withdrawal from the world, and they had less relevance very often, and still do, to the world around them then medieval monks and nuns sometimes to their world. As a result, the cornerstone of the godly community disappeared. A friend who was a very good supporter of our work, a doctor at the other end of the country, went to a church that he felt proud of because, he said; “they do, in this community, preach scripture faithfully, not as well thought as I’d like but still more or less faithfully.” And one day, and this was a church in the older part of the community (his own house was built in 1780) and the church goes far back in American history and it’s a beautiful old church, a stone church, and the family going back to the colonial era had an important part in the life of the community and the building of the church. And the stained-glass windows in the church commemorated various members of that family which was now reduced to one woman, a retired school teacher, living in the lovely old family estate on her pension, which now was resulting in malnutrition for her, because it did not go very far.

And when this doctor realized that this lovely elderly Christian woman was suffering from malnutrition, and this was a problem, he immediately went to the church and the officers and told them the problem. And he said; “I believe that we, as Christians, must help her, and I’m ready to pledge a hundred dollars a month and more, but we have to do it, she is our responsibility, and we’re all deeply indebted to her and her family to what they have been to this community.” A month later he had heard no word and when he saw one of the church officers on the street he stopped to ask him about it, and the man immediately interrupted and said; “nothing to worry about, we met with her, took some application forms with us, and persuaded her to fill out a form applying for welfare.” And George told me; “I have never set foot in that church from that day to this, nor will I.”

Our Lord calls upon Christians to be the salt of the earth, that is, the agency that preserves it from corruption, because salt was how you preserved and kept things in those days, and to be the light of the world, for without light, we are lost. Too many today try to dilute the force of our Lord’s work by turning salt into no more than a flavoring agent. I’ve heard pastors insist on that. But salt was the preserving agent, and what our Lord was saying was that because men are sinners, without you the world will be hell on earth, because it will take its natural course, and the fall will develop and all its implications and that’s what you see all over Los Angeles today, the fall and its implications developing and creating an ever-broadening hell.

But our Lord’s meaning is clear;

“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, your good works! And glorify your Father in Heaven.”

Isn’t it time for the church to come out from under the bushel? It’s been there for a century and a half and there is no holiness in hiding, nor in retreat. Thanks be to God the church is emerging from the bushel basket! We’ve seen the Christian school movement and a non-Christian told me today they number thirty five percent of the school population, together with the homeschool movement. We are seeing Christian ministries to the poor, to drug addicts, to prisoners, to the needy, and many, many other areas. But we must still say there are many, many Christians around us who are still under the bushel basket.

“Wherefore he saith, awake thou that sleepeth, and arise from dead, and Christ shall give thee life…”

Thank you.

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965.  His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books. Learn more about R.J. Rushdoony by visiting:

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