A ‘Rip Van Winkle Faith’ Won’t Work
A ‘Rip Van Winkle Faith’ Won’t Work

In 1974, Christian Standard introduced a column called “Reflecting on the News!” The concept was straightforward, allowing much latitude for the writer.

Today’s article by John Greenlee from October 1974 references “the expression of concern which came this summer from Lausanne, Switzerland.” That seems a rather vague reference to a newsworthy event, especially 45 years hence. Here’s a little background.

The International Congress on World Evangelization—sometimes called Lausanne I, the Lausanne Congress, or Lausanne ‘74—was held July 16-25, 1974, in Lausanne, Switzerland. The gathering was called by a committee headed by Billy Graham and drew more than 2,300 evangelical leaders from 150 countries.

The theme of the congress was “Let the Earth Hear His Voice.” The conference centered on discussion of the progress, resources, and methods of evangelizing the world. The congress helped illustrate the shift of Christianity’s center from Europe and North America to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The gathering produced the Lausanne Covenant, which promoted active worldwide Christian evangelism. After the congress, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization was established.

In 1974, Greenlee wrote six columns for “Reflecting on the News!” The feature appeared in two issues monthly, with three other writers supplying columns.

In this particular column, as you’ll see, Greenlee spends very little time discussing Lausanne. Instead, Greenlee referenced an early-1800s literary figure throughout this piece to comment on a current (at the time) cultural event and how we are to think about the Restoration Movement.

_ _ _

Reflecting on the News!

Oct. 13, 1974; p. 4

By John Greenlee

Rip Van Winkle didn’t know he’d grown a long, white beard; or that his clothes were twenty years old. The narrow lapels were a giveaway! Everyone else knew at a glance that Old Rip was something out of another era. Imagine, a grown man with long hair!

It took Van a long time to realize that he’d overslept . . . two decades worth.

He was sure the world had gone haywire. He was OK, but everyone and everything around him had gone completely bananas. A revolution had taken place. It was a whole new world from which the familiar landmarks had disappeared. . . . He was . . . unable to grasp what had happened to him or the world he had lived in. . . .  

Perhaps Washington Irving was merely telling an interesting story out of Catskill mountain folklore. Perhaps. But maybe he was saying something else. Something like: Neither a man nor an idea can be transplanted unchanged from one era to another without an awareness of the “revolution” which is always taking place. The man may be admirable or the idea may be valid. But clothed in ancient garb and a long beard, either one may be pathetically out of touch with the “now.” Communication with the world we live in requires acute awareness of the changes taking place in that world.

There aren’t many new ideas around. A few, but not many. The Campbells, B. W. Stone, et al, did not have a new idea in restoring New Testament Christianity. That idea had been around for centuries when our forefathers in the restoration movement arrived on the scene. But Campbell and Company were without peer in their time.

European rationalism and American frontier pragmatism of the latter eighteenth century were ingeniously joined in the restoration movement as the vehicle for New Testament authority in personal and corporate life in Christ. (Personally, I think Alexander Campbell’s The Christian System should be required reading for every Bible-college student . . . and probably for the eldership of our local congregations!) These men knew of what, and to whom they spoke. Not a narrow lapel among them!

I am convinced that a crystallized “restorationism,” a denominational dogma like Rip Van Winkle’s old clothes, would have been scorned and rejected by them. The principle, the ideal of restoring the New Testament church is as valid in 1974 as it was in 1809.

But it’s no good trotting out Rip Van Campbell unless we can get what he has to say updated to the orientation and temper of our times. Take careful note, for instance, of the expression of concern which came this summer from Lausanne, Switzerland: commitment to the Word and the world. The security blanket of “old time religion,” with its appeal to nostalgia and a world of yesteryear, may be very gratifying to our sentimental yearnings. But no church I know of really wants to go back to the “good old days.” To do so would be to deny the needs of men and women who, once outside the church building, must return to the world as it is. Rip Van Winkle faith won’t work in the crush of the modern marketplace and home.

“Restorationism” is an anomalous anachronism (To say nothing of being self-contradictory and out of date!). The restoration idea is as new and fresh and timely as ever. The will of God and the action of His Spirit were not completed in the nineteenth century. “Restorationism” is as dead as a dodo. The perpetual restoration of God’s Word as all-sufficient is very much alive.

The Word of God, the kingdom of God, the gospel, are living, dynamic forces which always burst the old wineskins. The Scripture is timeless and, therefore, always timely. The restoration movement must always be a primary concern to God’s people. We may fall into the torpor of Rip Van Winkle thinking, but God and His Word will not.

Irving says that after the long snooze Rip Van Winkle spent his latter days sitting on the doorsill, telling any who would listen of the old times ‘‘before the war.” Here was a man living in a world that no longer existed; oblivious to the revolutionized world in which he was living; unable to grasp the events or the thinking of the present world. For him, it all ended long before.

Mr. Greenlee is minister with University Christian Church, Manhattan, Kan.

_ _ _

In Edwin V. Hayden’s editorial introducing “Reflecting on the News!” on Jan. 6, 1974, he wrote: “These brethren [Fred P. Thompson, E. Ray Jones, Wilford F. Lown, and Greenlee] will not need to be introduced to most of our readers. As preachers, teachers, and writers knowledgeably committed to restoration principles, they have established their right to be heard, and as delightfully perceptive commentators they have gained for themselves a hearing.”

Of Greenlee specifically, Hayden wrote: “Basic restoration principles, distinguished from tradition and kept clear from current confusions, are the declared concern of John E. Greenlee, who is in the sixth year of a second ministry with the West Side Christian Church, Wichita, Kans. An omnivorous reader, avid observer, and energetic commentator, Mr. Greenlee edits a church paper that is quoted, pirated, and plagiarized, to the delight of its users and the irritation of its originator. There’s nothing dull about a Greenlee column.”

Greenlee continued to write six columns yearly for “Reflecting on the News!” through 1979. In 1980, he wrote four more columns when the title of the feature was changed to “Reflections.” That year, a total of 13 writers were enlisted by Sam E. Stone, who had become editor in 1978. The “Reflections” column continued for three more decades, with a different stable of writers chosen every year.

A biography for Greenlee that was included with his Jan. 20, 1980, column noted that the Nebraska native was then serving with First Christian Church of Conejo Valley, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

—Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard

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