The Social Test of Religion
Religion Must be Socially Efficient

The teaching of Jesus dealt with three recalcitrant forces, which easily escape from the control of social duty and become a clog to spiritual progress: ambition for power and leadership, and the love of property, have been considered. How about religion? Is it a help or a hindrance in the progress of humanity? Opinions are very much divided today. No student of society can neglect religion as a social force. What did Jesus think of it?


First Day: Worship is not Enough

What unto me is the multitude of your sacrifices? saith Jehovah: I have had enough of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; new moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies, -- I cannot away with iniquity and the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth; they are a trouble unto me; I am weary of bearing them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. -- Isa.1:11-17.

Wherewith shall I come before Jehovah, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? will Jehovah be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God? -- Micah 6:6-8.

These two passages are classical expressions of a note which runs through all the prophetic teaching of the Old Testament. There was a fundamental antagonism between those who saw the service of God in the inherited ritual and sacrificial action, and those who felt that the essential service of God is righteousness of life. The prophets wanted a religion that would change social conduct, and repudiated religious doings that had no ethical value. They held that worship alone is not enough. God wants life and conduct.

Suggest parallels from the history of the Christian or the non-Christian religions.

Second Day: The Test of Social Value

And it came to pass, that he was going on the sabbath day through the grainfields; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears. And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? And he said unto them, Did ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was hungry, he, and they that were with him? How he entered into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the showbread, which it is not lawful to eat save for the priests, and gave also to them that were with him? And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man; and not man for the sabbath: so that the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.

And he entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there who had his hand withered. And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him. And he saith unto the man that had his hand withered, Stand forth. And he saith unto them, Is it lawful on the sabbath day to do good, or to do harm? to save a life, or to kill? But they held their peace. And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their heart, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thy hand. And he stretched it forth; and his hand was restored. -- Mark 2:23-3:5.

The Mosaic law intended the Sabbath to be a haven of rest for all who were driven, the slave, the immigrant, even the cattle. It was a precious institution of social protection. But the strict religionists of Jesus' time had made a yoke of tyranny of it, so that hungry men could not rub the kernels from ears of grain without being charged with threshing, and Jesus could not heal a poor paralytic without getting black looks. A fine institution of social welfare and relief had been turned into an anti-social regulation. Jesus fell back on the fundamental maxim of the prophets, "I desire kindness and not sacrifice," and laid down the principle that "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." The religious institution of the Sabbath must have social value; this is the essential test even in religion.

Is the Sabbath more useful to society now than in Puritan times?

From which do we suffer more today, from excessive strictness or excessive looseness in Sabbath observance?

How is the social value of the rest-day frustrated for the working class?

Third Day: Natural Duty above Artificial

And the Pharisees and the scribes ask him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with defiled hands? And he said unto them, Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

This people honoreth me with their lips,
But their heart is far from me.
But in vain do they worship me,
Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.

Ye leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men. And he said unto them, Full well do ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your tradition. For Moses said, Honor thy father and thy mother; and, He that speaketh evil of father or mother, let him die the death: but ye say, If a man shall say to his father or his mother, That wherewith thou mightest have been profited by me is Corban, that is to say, Given to God; ye no longer suffer him to do aught for his father or his mother; making void the word of God by your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things ye do. -- Mark 7:5-13.

Contemporary Jewish religion was full of taboos, defilements, and purifications. Read Mark 7:1-23. Jesus was so indifferent about the religious ablutions that he was brought to book for it by the pious. He replied that these regulations were not part of the divine law, but later accretions the product of theological casuistry, and that they tended to obscure the real divine duties. He cited a flagrant case. By eternal and divine law a man owes love and support to his parents. But the scribes held that if a man vowed to give money to the temple, this obligation, being toward God, superseded the obligation to his parents, which was merely human. To Jesus this seemed a perversion of religion. Ecclesiastical claims were made to stifle fundamental social duty. To Jesus the latter had incomparably higher value. Religion had become a social danger through such teaching.

Give proof from modern history that religious institutions may become injurious to social morality and welfare.

Fourth Day: Religion Which Obscured Duty

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone. Ye blind guides, that strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye cleanse the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full from extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup and of the platter, that the outside thereof may become clean also. -- Matt.23:23-26.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is become so, ye make him twofold more a son of hell than yourselves. -- Matt.23:15.

The great invective of Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23) deals wholly with the perversions of religion. In these verses he emphasizes the fact that the solemn importance attached to external minutiae turned the attention of men from the really fundamental spiritual duties, such as justice, mercy, and good faith. As the blood was supposed to be the sacred element of life, it had to be drained off in butchering, and a drowned animal could not be eaten. Jesus wittily describes the Pharisee filtering out drowned gnats from the drinking water, but bolting some camel of a sin without blinking. The outside of the cup was kept scrupulously scoured, but the inside was filled with the products of rapacity and the material for luxurious excess. When religion had become of such a sort, even missionary activity became an actual damage, for the converts were turned into fanatical sticklers on trifles. In all this we can see him striking out for a kind of religion that would result in righteous conduct and have social value.

Have we had any experience of religion which obscured duty to us? Have we had any experience of religion which revealed duty to us?

Fifth Day: Religious Wonders and Social Realities

And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and trying him asked him to show them a sign from heaven. But he answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the heaven is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to-day: for the heaven is red and lowering. Ye know how to discern the face of the heaven; but ye cannot discern the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of Jonah. And he left them, and departed. -- Matt.16:1-4.

This demand for a miracle pursued Jesus all through his teaching activity. He settled with it on principle in his desert temptation; he would not leap from the pinnacles of the temple, or do anything to turn his work into a holy circus. But the demand followed him to his death: "If thou art the Son of God, come down from the cross." A good, stunning miracle seemed a short cut to faith, the most convincing way of furnishing proof of his divine mission. Also, it would be mighty interesting. But he never catered to the demand. His power was only for the relief of suffering. He tried to keep his acts of healing private. In this passage he advised his opponents to use their intellect in more useful directions than stargazing for signs from heaven. They were weather-wise. Let them read the signs of the times. Storms were brewing on the horizon. Forty years later Titus destroyed Jerusalem and broke the back of the Jewish nation. The prophetic mind of Jesus saw it coming (Luke 19:41-44).

If they had accepted his teaching of peace instead of getting intoxicated by the visions of revolutionary apocalypticism, the doom might have been averted. He was trying to bring their feet to the ground, turn their mind to realities, and make their religion socially efficient.

Would the sight of a miracle have effected a moral change in a Pharisee?

How would religion be affected, if miraculous demonstrations could be furnished at will?

Sixth Day: When Religion Separates Men

And as Jesus passed by from thence, he saw a man, called Matthew, sitting at the place of toll: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him.

And it came to pass, as he sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Teacher with the publicans and sinners? But when he heard it, he said, They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice: for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. -- Matt.9:9-13.

The Jewish community, religious at the core, had a fringe of people who had failed to live up to the requirements of the Law. They came under the condemnation of the respectable people and of their own conscience, and drifted into the despised and vicious occupations. These were the "publicans and sinners," the "publicans and harlots," to whom the Gospels refer. A socially efficient religion would have prompted the good people to establish loving and saving contact with these people. Actually religion so accentuated the social divergence that the Pharisees were shocked when Jesus mingled in a friendly way with this class and even added one of them to his traveling companions. The parables of the lost coin, lost sheep, and prodigal son were spoken in reply to the slur, "This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them" (Luke 15). The elder brother of the prodigal pictures this loveless and censorious religion.

Jesus crossed the line of demarcation and established social contact and friendliness, through which salvation could come to these religious derelicts. He quoted again the old saying of the prophets, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice." God was not as much concerned about correct religious performances as the Pharisees thought, and a great deal more concerned about mercy for the fallen, and the simple human qualities which bring the strong and the weak together.

What experiences have we had of refusal to associate? Was the cleavage along lines of race, wealth, education, morals, or religion?

Has religion with us been an impulse toward men, or away from men?

Seventh Day: Be Useful or Die

And he spake this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit thereon, and found none. And he said unto the vinedresser, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why doth it also cumber the ground? And he answering saith unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit thenceforth, well; but if not, thou shalt cut it down. -- Luke 13:6-9.

Jesus evidently had some interest in scientific agriculture. Both the owner and the vine-dresser in this parable were out for agricultural efficiency. The owner hated to see soil and space wasted; the vine-dresser was reluctant to sacrifice a tree, and proposed better tillage and more fertilizer. Taking this parable in connection with what precedes, we see that Jesus was concerned about the future of his nation and its religion. Both would have to validate their right to exist; God could not have them cumber the ground. They must make good. This is the stern urge of the God whom we know in history and evolution, with the voice of Christ pleading for patience. But it is agreed between them that ultimately the law of fitness must rule. Religion can not bank on claims of antiquity alone. Every generation must find it newly efficient to create the social virtues then needed. Remember that this was spoken by a Jewish patriot and the supreme exponent of the Hebrew religion.

Give historical instances of the permanent downfall or decline of nations. Trace the connection between their fate and their religion.

Study for the Week

Jesus Christ was the founder of the highest religion; he was himself the purest religious spirit known to us. Why, then, was he in opposition to religion? The clash between him and the representatives of organized religion was not occasional or superficial. It ran through his whole activity, was one of the dominant notes in his teaching, culminated in the great spiritual duel between him and the Jewish hierarchy in the last days at Jerusalem, and led directly to his crucifixion.


The opposition of Jesus was not, of course, against religion itself, but against religion as he found it. It was not directed against any departure from the legitimate order of the priesthood; nor against an improper ritual or wrong doctrine of sacrifices. In fact, it did not turn on any of the issues which were of such importance to the Church in later times. He criticized the most earnest religious men of his day because their religion harmed men instead of helping them. It was unsocial, or anti-social.

The Old Testament prophets also were in opposition to the priestly system of their time because it used up the religious interest of the people in ceremonial performances without ethical outcome. It diverted spiritual energy, by substituting lower religious requirements for the one fundamental thing which God required -- righteousness in social and political life. They insisted over and over that Jehovah wants righteousness and wants nothing else. Their aim was to make religion and ethics one and inseparable. They struck for the social efficiency of religion.

At the time of Jesus the Jewish sacrifices had lost much of their religious importance. During the Exile they had lapsed. They were professional performances of one class. The numerous Jews scattered in other countries perhaps saw the temple once in a lifetime. Modern feeling in the first century was against bloody sacrifices. The recorded sayings of Jesus hardly mention them. On the other hand the daily life of the people was pervaded by little prescribed religious actions. The Sabbath with its ritual was punctiliously observed.(3) There were frequent days of fasting, religious ablutions and baths, long prayers to be recited several times daily, with prayer straps around the arm and forehead, and a tasseled cloth over the head. The exact performance of these things seemed an essential part of religion to the most earnest men.

We have seen how Jesus collided with these religious requirements and on what grounds. If men were deeply concerned about the taboo food that went into their bodies, they would not be concerned about the evil thoughts that arose in their souls. If they were taught to focus on petty duties, such as tithing, the great ethical principles and obligations moved to the outer field of vision and became blurred. The Sabbath, which had originated in merciful purpose toward the poor, had been turned into another burden. Religion, which ought to bring good men into saving contact with the wayward by love, actually resulted in separating the two by a chasm of religious pride and censoriousness. A man-made and artificial religious performance, such as giving toward the support of the temple, crowded aside fundamental obligations written deep in the constitution of human society, such as filial reverence and family solidarity.

Other reformers have condemned religious practices because they were departures from the holy Book or from primitive custom. Jesus, too, pointed out that some of these regulations were recent innovations. But the real standard by which he judged current religious questions was not ancient authority but the present good of men. The spiritual center on which he took his stand and from which he judged all things, was the Kingdom of God, the perfect social order. Even the ordinances of religion must justify themselves by making an effective contribution to the Kingdom of God. The Sabbath was made for man, and its observance must meet the test of service to man's welfare. It must function wholesomely. The candle must give light, or what is the use of it? The salt must be salty and preserve from decay, or it will be thrown out and trodden under foot. If the fig-tree bears no fruit, why is it allowed to use up space and crowd better plants off the soil? This, then, is Christ's test in matters of institutional religion. The Church and all its doings must serve the Kingdom of God.


The social efficiency of religion is a permanent social problem. What is the annual expense of maintaining the churches in the United States? How much capital is invested in the church buildings? (See U. S. Census Bulletin No.103, of 1906.) How much care and interest and loving free-will labor does an average village community bestow on religion as compared with other objects? All men feel instinctively that religion exerts a profound and subtle influence on the springs of conduct. Even those who denounce it, acknowledge at least its power for harm. Most of us know it as a power for good. But all history shows that this great spiritual force easily deteriorates. Corruptio optimi pessima.

Religion may develop an elaborate social apparatus of its own, wheels within wheels, and instead of being a dynamic of righteousness in the natural social relations of men, its energies may be consumed in driving its own machinery. Instead of being the power-house supplying the Kingdom of God among men with power and light, the Church may exist for its own sake. It then may become an expensive consumer of social wealth, a conservative clog, and a real hindrance of social progress.

Live religion gives proof of its value by the sense of freedom, peace, and elation which it creates. We feel we are right with the holy Power which is behind, and beneath, and above all things. It gives a satisfying interpretation of life and of our own place in it. It moves our aims higher up, draws our fellow-men closer, and invigorates our will.

But our growth sets a problem for our religion. The religion of childhood will not satisfy adolescent youth, and the religion of youth ought not to satisfy a mature man or woman. Our soul must build statelier mansions for itself. Religion must continue to answer all our present needs and inspire all our present functions. A person who has failed to adjust his religion to his growing powers and his intellectual horizon, has failed in one of the most important functions of growth, just as if his cranium failed to expand and to give room to his brain. Being microcephalous is a misfortune, and nothing to boast of.

Precisely the same problem arises when society passes through eras of growth. Religion must keep pace. The Church must pass the burning torch of religious experience from age to age, transmitting the faith of the fathers to the children, and not allowing any spiritual values to perish. But it must allow and aid religion to adjust itself. Its inspiring teaching must meet the new social problems so effectively that no evil can last long or grow beyond remedy. In every new age religion must stand the test of social efficiency. Is it passing that test in Western civilization?

Religion is a bond of social coherence. It creates loyalty. But it may teach loyalty to antiquated observances or a dwarfed system of truth. Have you ever seen believers rallying around a lost cause in religion? Yet these relics were once a live issue, and full of thrilling religious vitality.

Society changes. Will religion change with it? If society passes from agriculture and rural settlements to industry and urban conditions, can the customary practices of religion remain unchanged? Give some instances where prescientific conceptions of the universe, embodied in religion, have blocked the spread of scientific knowledge among the people. The caste distinctions of Hinduism were the product of a combination between religion and the social organization of the people; can they last when industrialism and democracy are pervading India? The clerical attitude of authority was natural when the Catholic clergy were the only educated class in the community; is it justified today? Protestantism won the allegiance of industrial communities when the young business class was struggling to emancipate itself from the feudal system. It developed an individualistic philosophy of ethics. Today society tends toward solidaristic organization. How will that affect religion and its scheme of duty? Thus religion, by its very virtues of loyalty and reverence, may fall behind and lose its full social efficiency. It must be geared to the big live issues of today if it is to manifest its full saving energies.

How does this problem of the efficiency of religion bear on the foreign missionary movement? How will backward or stationary civilizations be affected by the introduction of a modern and enthusiastic religion?

We may feel the defects of our church life at home, but there is no doubt that the young men and women who go out from our colleges under religious impulses, are felt as a virile and modernizing force when they settle to their work in Turkey or Persia. Christian educational institutions and medical missions have raised the intellectual and humane standards of young China. Buddhism in Japan has felt the challenge of competition and is readjusting its ethics and philosophy to connect with modern social ideals. The historical effects of our religious colonization will not mature for several generations, but they are bound to be very great. The nations and races are drawing together. They need a monotheistic religion as a spiritual basis for their sense of human unity. This is a big, modern, social task. It makes its claim on men and women who have youth, education, and spiritual power. Is the religious life of our colleges and universities efficient enough to meet the need?

Here are the enormous tasks of international relations, which the Great War has forced us to realize -- the prevention of armed conflicts, the elimination of the irritant causes of war, the protection of the small nations which possess what the big nations covet, the freedom of the seas as the common highway of God, fair and free interchange in commerce without any effort to set up monopoly rights and the privilege of extortionate gain, the creation of an institutional basis for a great family of nations in days to come. These are some of the tasks which the men and women who are now young must take on their mind and conscience for life, and leave to their children to finish. What contributions, in your opinion, could the spirit of the Christian religion make to such a program, if it were realized intelligently and pressed home through the agencies of the Christian Church? In what ways has American religion shown its efficiency since the war broke out?

Christianity has been a great power in our country to cleanse and fraternalize the social life of simple communities. Can it meet the complex needs of modern industrialism in the same way? It can not truthfully be claimed that it has done so in any industrial country. Its immense spiritual forces might be the decisive element, but they have been effectively organized against a few only of the great modern evils. On the fundamental ethical questions of capitalism the Church has not yet made up its own mind -- not to speak of enforcing the mind of Christ. Nor have the specialists in the universities and colleges supplied the leaders of the Church with clear information and guidance on these questions. We can not make much permanent progress toward a just social order as long as the masses of the working people in the industrial nations continue in economic poverty and political helplessness, and as long as a minority controls the land, the tools, and the political power. We shall linger on the borders of the Inferno until a new accession of moral insight and spiritual power comes to the nations. How will it come?


What could the churches in an average village community accomplish if they intelligently directed the power of religion to foster the sense of fraternal unity and to promote the institutions which make for unity? How could they draw the new, the strange, and the irregular families into the circle of neighborly feeling? In what way could they help to assimilate immigrants and to prevent the formation of several communities in the same section, overlapping, alien, and perhaps hostile? How would it affect the recreational situation if the churches took a constructive rather than a prohibitive attitude toward amusements, and if they promoted the sociability of the community rather than that of church groups?

With the rise of land prices and the control of transportation and markets, the rural population is moving toward a social crisis like that which transformed the urban population in the industrial revolution. Agriculture will become capitalistic, and the weaker families will drop to the position of tenants and agricultural laborers. Cooperation is their way of salvation. Its effectiveness has been amply demonstrated in older countries. It requires a strong sense of solidarity, loyalty, and good faith to succeed. It has made so little headway in America because our national character has not been developed in these directions. What could the churches do to save the weaker families from social submergence by backing cooperation and developing the moral qualities needed for it?

The strong religious life of our people might be more effective if the churches were less divided. Their economic and human resources are partly wasted by useless competition. Our denominational divisions are nearly all an historical heritage, imported from Europe, and coming down from a controversial age. Their issues all meant something vital and socially important in the midst of the social order of that day; but in many cases the real significance has quietly crumbled away, and they are not really the same issues that deeply engaged our forefathers. We are all "tithing mint, anise, and cummin," and forgetting the weighty matters, such as social justice and Christian fraternity. Everybody is ready to acknowledge this about every denomination except his own. We need a revaluation of our religious issues from the point of view of the Kingdom of God. That would bring us into harmony with the judgment of Jesus. Nothing else will.


The social efficiency of religion -- what call is there in that to the college men and women of this generation? Shall they cease to worship and pray, seek the salvation of society in ethics and sociology, and abandon religion to stagnation? Or shall they seek a new experience of religion in full sight of the modern world, and work by faith toward that reign of God in which his will shall be done?

Suggestions for Thought and Discussion

I. When the Salt Loses its Savor

1. What is the individual to do when religion becomes a hindrance to religion?

2. What types of revolt against inherited religion have you met in college?

II. Prophetic Religion Against Traditional Religion

1. What did the prophets criticize in the religion of their day?

2. What was Jesus' test of religion?

3. Give instances in which he found religion to be a hindrance to the highest welfare. How did religion obscure duty?

4. What was the essential cause of the clash between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day?

III. The Historic Reformation of Religion

1. In studying history, what sins or failures of the Church have impressed you most?

2. What did the Protestant Reformation contribute to make religion efficient?

3. Has the Church been a rival or a feeder of the Kingdom of God?

4. Give historical examples of the failure of religion to meet the changed requirements of a new epoch.

5. What contributions has the Church made to social progress?

IV. Religion Today

1. What have Christian missions done to change the social conditions in non-Christian countries?

2. How do you rate the social service value of a first-class minister in a community? On what does his value depend?

3. Of what social value to a community is a costly and beautiful church building?

4. What investment in capital and annual expenditure does the maintenance of the churches in your community entail? Does the social return to the community justify the investment?

5. Are the issues which divided the Protestant denominations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries still vital enough to justify the continuance of the divisions? Summarize the evils of the divisions and their counter-balancing good.

6. Is the ordinary criticism of the churches fair? Are ministers overpaid or underpaid? Do the churches graft? How do the churches compare in social efficiency with other similar social institutions?

V. For Special Discussion

1. Why did the reformation of the Church historically precede the reform of politics and industry?

2. Do the unsolved social problems of Christian nations prove the social inefficiency of religion? Could religion alone change the maladjustment of society?

3. Why has religion been more effective in the field of private life than of public life?

4. If you had full control of the churches in a given country or village community, on what aims would you concentrate their forces?

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