The church exists to serve Jesus Christ, not count its members

The church exists to serve Jesus Christ, not count its members

Barbara Brown Zikmund

A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ

In political campaigns there is always a temptation to dwell upon the weaknesses of the other candidate or party. Zealots think that the need to win, or convince the undecided voter, justifies attacking and condemning the other camp. This is what politicians call negative campaigning.

It is often the same with religion. Out of a commitment to one truth, religious people denounce and deny the truth of their neighbors. In religious conflicts, it is common to attack those who are different.

The UCC is not immune from this pattern. Yet, thankfully, there have been moments in its history when petty partisan bickering and vindictiveness did not prevail.

German immigrants who settled in the Mississippi valley in the 1830s and 1840s were varied: Some were strict Saxon Lutherans eager to maintain religious purity far from Europe. Some were aggressive rationalist/secularists enjoying beer and rowdy singing societies. Some were Christian Evangelicals—moderate Protestants who organized the "German Evangelical Church Society of the West" to "encourage and strengthen one another to work for the glory of God and the Saviour Jesus Christ."

Louis Nollau was a key leader among a group of German Evangelical pastors who gathered in Gravois Settlement, Mo., in October 1840 to organize a Kirchenverein (church society). He and other German Evangelical pastors were severely criticized as unorthodox and heretical by their conservative Missouri Lutheran neighbors.

Nollau responded to their "unjust, unjustifiable, intolerant and unchristian" attacks in a "calm and reassuring manner," refusing to meet hard words with hard words. Rather, he asked whether they all might work "side by side for the Kingdom of God and the salvation of souls while it is yet day?"

Nollau suggested that as Christians they all should be seeking to win souls not for "their church," but for the "Head of the Church." He wrote, "We beseech our opponents to refrain in the future from using the sword against brothers lest haply they be found in the end as such who have opposed God."

Christians, according to Nollau, needed to unite in opposition to their true enemies—unbelief and sin in the hearts of people.

This legacy of Christian charity in the face of disparagement and sectarian arrogance is a special gift brought to the UCC by its congregations and leaders rooted in German Evangelical faith and practice. May they continue to remind us that the church exists to serve God and Jesus Christ, not to win or lose members.

Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ. Currently, she is a missionary associate for the Global Ministries Board. She teaches American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. 

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