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Spring 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 1 · pp. 94–108 

Christian Responsibility in a World of Change

Calvin W. Redekop

Introduction to Calvin Redekop’s
“Christian Responsibility in a World of Change”

Vic Froese

Calvin Wall Redekop (b. 1925) was born to Mennonite parents in Volt, Montana, where the family attended a small Mennonite church. After the end of the Second World War, he served with Mennonite Central Committee in Europe. When he returned, he moved to Indiana to study at Goshen College where Harold Bender was teaching church history, Bible, and sociology. Later he received an MA from the University of Minnesota and a PhD in sociology and anthropology from the University of Chicago (1959). After teaching for many years at Earlham College and Goshen College, he moved to Tabor College, serving as its vice-president from 1976 to 1978. His last employment was as vice-president of Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario, where he served from 1979 to 1990. Calvin and his wife Freda retired to Harrisonburg, VA, where he remains active in environmental causes.

Despite impressive credentials as a social scientist, Redekop developed an abiding interest in business, economics, environmental studies, and twentieth-century Mennonite history. Redekop wrote on all these subjects, and he wrote much. 1

The article reprinted below, originally a lecture delivered at Tabor College early in 1968, explores the opportunity of Free Churches (which include Mennonite churches) to engage with a fast-changing and increasingly secular world. Redekop brings his considerable learning to this essay. He cites the great German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, renowned Russian-American sociologist P. A. Sorokin, and American philosopher and sociologist George Herbert Mead. He more frequently {95} cites the late conservative American sociologist Robert Nisbet (d. 1996), however, specifically his The Sociological Tradition, a general history of sociology still respected today. 2

His familiarity with the work of these social scientists equips him to analyze the deeper dimensions of the secularization phenomenon and suggest how the Christian Church might responsibly address the issues of the loss of community, the erosion of authority, the crumbling of ethics and morality, social estrangement, class division, and the multiplicity of lifestyle options.

While Redekop recognizes that Free Churches are not without faults, he believes that they still have much to offer a world longing for a more humane quality of life. A community of believers, discipleship, mutuality, biblical authority, and egalitarian brotherhood are attributes of a Free Church that should be attractive to a world that suffers for a lack of these life-enhancing features.

In 1968, Redekop said he was “cautiously optimistic” that Free Churches could seize the opportunities presented by the deleterious effects of secularism. Like a prophet, however, he saw signs that they were missing the boat, were too self-centered and hypnotized by their own priorities and accomplishments to see the open door in front of them. Fifty-five years later, his challenge to the church remains a potent one.


  1. For a bibliography of Redekop’s “most significant” books see “Calvin Wall Redekop (1925-),” Mennonite Archives of Ontario, May 2, 2012,
  2. Charles Turner writes that “Almost five decades on, Nisbet’s The Sociological Tradition remains instructive for anyone seeking to write a general history of sociology,” in “The Sociological Tradition or Traditions?” The American Sociologist 45, no. 1 (2014): 22–33,

Christian Responsibility in a World of Change*

Calvin Wall Redekop

A beginning is always implied, whether one is attempting to describe the history of God’s people, as Moses did, or attempting something as prosaic as a vacation trip. The importance of the point of departure (or cognitive orientation, to use philosophical terms) is classically illustrated by the legendary Jew who was asked by a friend, “And how is your wife?” to which the Jew replied, “Compared to what?”

In dealing with the topic, the presuppositions of the writer will become sufficiently clear, so that there is little point in defining the meanings given to the words in the title. The intent of the article is to describe the contemporary world from a sociological perspective, using the best thinking that has emerged among social scientists. A thesis will then be presented which proposes that the Christian option is as viable as it has ever been. In conclusion, it will be argued that the Free Churches have an exceptional responsibility to speak to the contemporary world.


There is an infinite number of ways in which the world we live in can be described. I shall follow here the perspectives provided by Robert Nisbet in an important work in which he distills the essence of the thinking of some leading social scientists. 1 {97}

Loss of Community

One of the basic themes that runs through major sociological analyses of the contemporary world is the loss of community. Though it had been discussed by many others before him, Ferdinand Tönnies brought the concern to the attention of the masses with his book entitled Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. 2 There are various opinions as to what Tönnies’ intentions actually were, but it seems to be rather clear that Tönnies is suggesting that community—the relationships in which people are ends rather than means—is on the wane in the face of increasing industrialization and urbanization. It is Tönnies’ contention that there is an historical tendency for the replacement of the village type of human structure with that of the urban, in which the contract determines the relationship, not the person himself.

There is hardly a subject which concerns people more today than the loss of community. The unconcern of people for each other has been illustrated in many ways that have become commonplace. The murder of Miss Genovese in New York while twenty-eight persons “passed by” is only the most celebrated example of the lack of concern people evidence for their fellow man. The development of “ghettoes” of wealth and poor, the whites and blacks, the satisfaction of personal desires at the expense of public good are further evidence of the lack of community. It is not maintained that community does not exist but, rather, that it is on the defensive.


Almost every religious and philosophical system is aware of and critical of secularism. Although there are almost as many interpretations of secularism as there are thinkers, there is still general agreement that our age is secular-sensate, according to Sorokin. 3 Other terms used to describe the age include “declining West,” decadent, and post-Christian. 4

There are several common themes in all of the critiques of the secularism of contemporary society: (1) Christianity, as commonly and classically understood, is no longer guiding the value and normative structure as it once did. No longer does the Church inform the social fabric as it did during the “corpus Christianum” of the Middle Ages. 5 (2) Another theme or interpretation of secularism is that it represents a forsaking of the traditional values, the time-tested norms which have proven useful, meaningful, and the basis for the order that people have known. (3) Secularism has also been interpreted as the disenchantment with the values and beliefs that are emerging. In other words, it is seen as a resistance to change—anything that is new or different from what I have known and loved is secularism. {98}

Whatever the ultimate interpretation of the meaning of secularism, there is universal concern about the crumbling of morality, ethics, and belief, and that what is taking its place is the crumbling of civilization. The vehicle of civilization is on a downward course and what awaits us at the bottom is a crash in which society will return to the jungle, ruled by the elemental laws of nature. There are some optimists, but generally the above view appears to obtain.


The concept of alienation finds strong support in the thinking of social scientists. Ever since Durkheim introduced the concept of anomie, the observation has been made that man is not as closely related to society as he once was, or as he now might be. Alienation is defined as having two aspects: (1) “We see modern man as uprooted, alone, without secure status, cut off from community or any system of clear moral purpose.” 6 (2) In the second perspective “modern society is inaccessible because of its remoteness, formidable from its heavy structures of organization, meaningless from its impersonal complexity.” 7

In the development of modern industrial society, the rapidity of change seems to have left man in the lurch, unable to attach himself to something which is stable and meaningful to him. There is not the space to develop a description of this condition, so only one illustration given by Nisbet can be included: “Central to the alienated view of history is the sense of indwelling and tragic conflict between good and evil; a conflict that to the conservatives was manifest in the struggle between the old and the new orders, with the defeat of the old almost foreordained.” 8

Search for Authority

A fourth major theme that social scientists have used to describe our age is that of authority. The management and use of power has haunted social thinkers for many centuries. But in the last several centuries the concern with the uses and misuses of power has increased dramatically. One authority on the subject wrote, “In our days, men see that the constituted powers are crumbling down on every side; they see all ancient authority dying out, all ancient barriers tottering to their fall, and the judgment of the wisest is troubled at the sight.” 9

The concern with authority has centered around several foci: (1) the fear that authority is being lost and that chaos is replacing order; (2) the concern that authority is being misused in the form of various types of anarchy, totalitarianism, exploitation, and even democracy; {99} (3) the fear that authority is changing hands and falling into the hands of people incapable of handling it.

A major source of the concern with authority is the rapid transition from the traditional society to the new industrial-technological. In the traditional society, authority was lodged in the mores and values of the society. The sacralization of the old, the tried, and what had always been done tended to create a feeling of stability and dependence, which was rudely destroyed by a shift in the basis of authority. “But when men become separated, or feel themselves separated, from traditional institutions, there arises, along with the specter of the lost individual, the specter of lost authority.” 10

Class Divisions

A fifth and last trait that Nisbet employs to characterize our age is class. Ever since the first philosophers wrote about society, it was assumed that society was organized on the basis of a hierarchy of orders. From Plato we heard of the “great chain of being,” which included a social chain as well. The lowly peasant was one end of the chain, while the mighty emperors were the links on the other end. The entire social structure for many centuries seemed to be based on the concept of orders, or ranks. Each person fit into the order at a certain level and thus became a part of the magnificent social order that was described by religious and secular thinkers from Aquinas to Hobbes.

But with the coming of the Reformation and the scientific and industrial revolutions, the sacred concept of orders began to crumble. There were dramatic changes, some violent, others very subtle and gradual. Various people suddenly found themselves in other levels of the order, different from what they had traditionally occupied. There seemed to be little logic to who was placed where, and chaos seemed to be its end. Beyond this, a consciousness of belonging to a particular class began to emerge, in contrast to the earlier recognition and acceptance of the need to belong to a certain “order” in society. Today the consciousness of class belonging is mature, and it appears most people are concerned with either moving up in the class system or remaining on top of the system. Marxism of course is one of the most violent evidences of class consciousness.

Viable Options

A final, increasingly clear characteristic of our age is its transformation into an Age of Viable Options. Precisely because of the dramatic speed with which society is changing, a situation is developing in which it is becoming increasingly possible for man to become aware of and choose {100} between “styles of life” that are available in society today. Because the modes of community, secularism, alienation, authority, and class are changing, man is increasingly becoming open to choose what values, norms, and behavior shall be his own. Whereas in earlier times man was “stuck” in his niche (in terms of beliefs, relationships, power, and relationship to society in general), today he can choose what shall claim his allegiance.

It is my contention that the evolution of human and technological society has produced the dawn of a new age, which we can term the Age of Viable Options. Alternative modes of human existence are more clearly presented as options to the masses than ever before, thanks to modern technology. Further, due to the great change in the nature of authority, community, and other characteristics described above, man is free to choose and become involved in alternative modes of living. This thesis will be elaborated in the section below.



The search for community appears to be intensifying. Many books are appearing which are telling us how “the other half” lives. Poverty and rejection are becoming “respectable” terms. The knowledge that what happens to others is of direct relevance to me is permeating the society. A concern with what it means to be living in community can be sensed at many levels.

Some of the most massive efforts at building community are taking place in our cities. Entire new cities are being designed by architects and sociologists to ensure the existence of community. Retirement communities are being built which emphasize the relationships of human beings with each other. It is even alleged that the new Hippie villages are an attempt by the new alienated generation to achieve and experience genuine community, though they may not have achieved it very well. Various and numerous voluntary communities are emerging, ranging all the way from Jewish kibbutzes to Quaker settlements in British Columbia.

The upshot of all the evidence is that the Christian Church is faced with a popular demand for providing community for the masses. The Church is literally being invited to speak its word of reconciliation to a society looking for new evidence for community. The “fellowship of reconciled” persons, which has been limited to a few within the church’s walls, is being requested by many on the outside. Christian social workers, peace corpsmen, and numerous other occupational groups {101} are in high demand in the secular society. The opportunity to build the Christian community seems great.


Though determining the degree of secularism a society has reached is a subjective judgment, several observations relevant to the Christian Church can be made. The more religiously and morally “bankrupt” a society is, the more it is open to a religious and moral option. This is a logical truism. But there is an even more powerful argument, namely, the fact that anthropologists have yet to discover a society that can survive or has survived which has not operated on the basis of a religious and moral code. In most societies, if not all, the moral code is derived from religion. Thus, if a society is becoming secular, religion can be seen as a greater option than when it was still under the tutelage of an earlier religious form.

But secularism further offers a greater opportunity for religion because religion itself has been purged of all its non-religious trappings, which may have been the cause for secularization in the first place! Paradoxically, when religion was in control of society it was prone to the greatest corruption. Religion is supposed to become the center and dynamic of human society, but when it does, corruption often sets in. This has been illustrated in the medieval church, the Mennonites in Russia, and the Congregationalists in New England. Only when religion is not in control is it a really live and compelling way.

It has been said that man is incurably religious. If this is true, then even though secularization is taking place, there will still be a niche which only religion can fulfill. Even the philosopher finds a need to transcend himself. Christianity offers man one of the finest options in terms of transcendent ideas, beliefs, and loyalties. It is evidenced by the reception Christianity is receiving on university campuses. The Christian Church is finding an open door, precisely at the point of increasing secularization, for the reasons cited above make it one of the most viable alternatives to secularism and/or nihilism.


Though modern man seems to be alienated, there is evidence that he would like to find a meaningful integration of his own life and of the society in which he lives. George Herbert Mead stated some years ago that the only basis for cohesion of individuals into the group was a common hostility. “War on occasions makes the good of the community the supreme good of the individual. What has the pacifist who would abolish war to put in its place?” 11 Mead then goes on to state that only {102} if man finds a basis for relating to others on a basis beyond common hostility can society make any progress.

The search to find a “moral equivalent of war,” as William James first put it, continues in ever increasing tempo and fervor. 12 War, however, is not the only illustration of alienation; hostility, violence, and mental illness are others. But to all of these conditions, it is suggested, there is only one answer, namely, love. Mead suggests that as nations discover that their own fate is dependent on the fate of others, war will recede as an option to settle differences. It is proposed that only acceptance and love can solve the fact of mental illness at its roots. It does not take much of a stretch of the imagination to see how the Christian Church is being enlisted in the battle to help provide love and acceptance in human society.

Pacifism and nonresistance are no longer the exotic luxuries of a few quaint “peace churches.” They are options chosen by many who have never heard of the religious origins of the concepts. Acceptance and love are being preached by “secular” psychiatrists, many of whom are surprised when told that that has been the message of Christian churches for centuries. Love and acceptance are even being extolled as the only help for the extremely alienated individual, namely, the criminal and the antisocial. The “way of love,” an ethic that was first enunciated in its fulness by a Galilean two thousand years ago, is now being demanded by the world; what is now required is that the Christian churches demonstrate it in their own houses and then share it with the world.


The search for authority in modern society is especially painful and crucial. Commercial industry, through advertising, would provide us with a formula for truth and absolutes. Jules Henry, in a penetrating study, states that the heart of truth in pecuniary philosophy is contained in the following three postulates:

Truth is what sells. Truth is what you meant people to believe. Truth is that which is not legally false. 13

Other industries and groups also vie for the right to direct the course of human society. Hitler, Stalin, the Communist Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and many other movements in history, have claimed legitimate authority to lead the destiny of men.

The emergence of numerous movements and leaders attests to the readiness of the masses to follow authority. Because of the rapid change of the world people know, there is increasing opportunity for {103} authority to emerge almost anywhere. It is almost impossible not to gather a following, as many politicians and church leaders know. It must be clear to most thinking people that there is here a desperate cry for leadership and authority—a demand for leadership of mind and energy. The Christian Church again finds itself in a strategic position at present. It alone, of all social institutions, has a history of stability and experience which give it the perspective and wisdom needed to lead men in a changing society.

There is only one difficulty in this almost unparalleled opportunity for the church—it may exploit this, as it has so often in the past, for its own purposes and ultimately for its own downfall. Thus, the true authority that the Church has exercised, when it has been effective, is the authority of servanthood. When the Christian has taken the role of servant, he has been Christianity’s greatest ambassador.


The fact of class divisions is becoming ever clearer in most human societies. Class there always has been, but the awareness of it is growing. The poorest ghetto dwellers are now becoming aware that they are in the ghetto. The wealthiest can no longer live in smug evasion of the presence of poor around them. The poor and outcast “want in,” and fast! “Freedom Now,” is the cry of the American Negro.

The common fatherhood of all men under God has long been held by the Christian Church. The common humanity of all men is now being more loudly proclaimed by men everywhere. It is clear that the two proclamations are focusing on the same thing—the destruction of classes, divisions, and boundaries with their attendant discriminations, hostilities, and brutalities. The Christian Church is therefore being challenged to provide brotherhood for all men on its terms. The concepts of mutual aid, sharing, care, and concern are being literally demanded by the world at large. Workers want a share in the wealth of management, Negroes want a share in the education available to white men, the poor want an adequate guarantee of health and shelter. Governments are looking to the church for initiative in providing retirement facilities, housing projects, mental health clinics, and many more. What is necessary is an awareness on the part of the church that its message is precisely what the world is calling for but not seeing demonstrated in very great force.

The search for community, morality (the opposite of secularization), mutuality (opposite of alienation), authority, and brotherhood continues and seems to increase in each generation. Social scientists have apparently isolated some of the most important themes in human existence in these {104} five areas. But these have reproduced a milieu in which more freedom is available to choose alternatives to those that obtain at the moment. The Age of Viable Options is upon us, and this is also thus the age of opportunity for the Church of Christ. The Christian Church is almost being forced into being faithful to its comprehensive commission given by Christ when he said, “All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations . . .” (Matt 28:18). But the Christian Church has often been a miserable failure. In the area of alienation alone, George Herbert Mead has declared, “The great days of religions have been the days of hostility, between the religions, between the Church and the sects, or between different churches.” 14

The challenge before the Christian churches, therefore, is twofold: (1) to recover their original genius so that they can be an option in the modern world; (2) to take advantage of the great opportunity the Age of Viable Options is providing for the Christian Church.


The analysis however cannot end here. There is an axiom which has been handed down to us which states, “To whom much is given, of him much will be required.” A close analysis of the history of the Christian Church shows that certain groups have been given much by way of understanding and commitment to the heart of the Gospel. The so-called Free Churches or Peace Churches are groups that have been given much insight. 15 What is their responsibility in the Age of Viable Options?

A Community of Believers

There can be little doubt that the Anabaptist and Quaker traditions especially, although the Brethren cannot be excluded, have stressed the concept of community. The Hutterites stand as the most intensive attempt at community building. Mennonite rural communities have been held up as examples of preservation of the best in community building.

The fact that these communities have often degenerated into closed, traditional, and rigid enclaves should not obscure the fact that the impetus for the genuine man-to-man relationship was stressed and achieved here and there. The challenge of building community in the city looms large for the Peace Churches, and whether they will meet the challenge remains to be seen, but in any case, the Peace Churches are actually forced into the limelight in building community in the contemporary world. {105}

Ultimate Loyalty

The Free Church tradition has a peculiar role in the process of secularization. It has always been skeptical of absolutizing any man-made system or social structure. Where the other groups felt they could “establish” religion with secular support, the Free Churches maintained that the only loyalty they could hold was to the Gospel of Christ and Christ himself. It thus never identified with any temporal power or structure and has been in a position to demythologize the accoutrements of a profaned religion.

The Free Churches have proclaimed, therefore, that the Kingdom of God was the ultimate basis for loyalties, that citizenship in the Kingdom of God made all other things relative, but useful. All idols were broken, and Christ alone was enthroned. It is therefore no overstatement to say that the Free Churches are the most free of idolatry (if they have been true to their tradition) and, therefore, they are the most obligated to present a basis for a moral-ethical perspective which will be acceptable to a society which tends to neglect traditional religion.


Alienation is a term foreign to the Free Churches, for one of the things stressed most by them was discipleship and commitment. The “Nachfolge Jesu” was stressed to the point of legalism at many points in its history. The utter commitment to the Gospel and the “beloved community” has been one of the earmarks of the Free Church tradition. Violence, coercion, force, and bloodshed were abjured and repudiated. Pacifism and nonresistance have been bywords of the Free Church tradition, by and large.

At a time when alienation is increasing, the need for a commitment to integration and acceptance is greatest. The Free Churches are in a unique position to proclaim and expedite the integration of all men into one society. The basis for cohesion in the Free Churches has been love and acceptance. This option is desired by many today.

Biblical Authority

The Free Churches have always rejected earthly authority of any form. They have indeed rejected authority of religious men, unless they are subjected to the body of believers, the Church. The Free Churches have stressed the importance of the “binding and loosing” power of the fellowship of believers. Ultimate authority is the Church as an extension, as it were, of Christ’s authority on earth. Charisma was thus ordained by the Church as a body of believers. There was to be no coercion in {106} matters of belief or practice. Only mature adult believers were to belong to the discerning body.

The rampant individualism in modern religion, as well as in society, is best answered by a group whose authority is based on a clear and biblical process of decision making. On the other hand, the highly conformist tendencies described above are also best challenged in a system where each member is forced to participate at least to some degree. The Free Churches therefore are being urged to provide authority and leadership which is based on a process which protects the individual and the group from exploitation.

Priesthood of Believers

The Free Churches have been designated as the first “lay church” in Christianity. They did not accept any differences between clergy and laity. This “equality” was generalized to all social statuses, so that the poorest and the richest, the learned and unlearned, farmer and urbanite, theoretically at least, considered themselves brethren. The fact that Mennonites never owned slaves and that the Quakers were the first to free theirs in America, is proof that the brotherhood of man was believed in and practiced.

There is some empirical proof that the Free Churches are being given great receptivity in areas where there have been great class distinctions. Hence, in missions in Africa, China, South America, and in American cities, Free Churches have spoken with an authenticity often denied other groups. Even in local congregations, differences will be found among members that indicate that class and status are not important. Often it is difficult to tell who has the greater education or wealth within the congregation.

The Free Churches are not perfect—far from it. What is described above is the vision which the Free Churches have been given, not what they have achieved. The challenge to the Free Churches is the same as that presented above for Christendom at large: (1) inner growth in order to proclaim its genius; (2) taking advantage of the open doors facing the Free Churches in society today.


Some of the most significant aspects of our society have been described, based upon observations of some of the most astute students of our civilization. It was proposed that the developments of contemporary society have produced a condition in which the Christian Church has an unparalleled opportunity to implement its witness. It was implied that the church may inadvertently fall into its greatest opportunity if it does {107} not march into it. Is there cause for optimism that the church will meet the challenge? Only cautious optimism!

The Christian Church has become so self-centered and hypnotized by its own institutions and accomplishments that there is great danger that it may lose its right to speak. Its position on the problems of poverty, race discrimination, injustice, war, and other issues—which is another way of talking about the lack of community, moral direction, separation of individuals from each other, confusion of leadership, and divisions of mankind—has been rather unimpressive. The Christian Church will need to repudiate all idolatries and worship only the true God if it is to become effective once more.

The Free Churches have also begun to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage—in this case, the pottage is the cult of “respectability” and ecumenism, getting on the bandwagon and becoming “like the rest” of Christendom. At a time when the world is looking for community, morality, mutuality, authority, and brotherhood, the Free Churches are looking to others for direction and purpose. Will our grandchildren need to rediscover what we have forgotten?


  1. Robert A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition (New York: Basic Books, 1966).
  2. Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society [Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft], Harper Torchbook ed., trans. Charles P. Loomis (New York: Harper and Row, 1963).
  3. P. A. Sorokin, The Crisis of Our Age: The Social and Cultural Outlook (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1941).
  4. The perspectives upon which these terms have developed are rather varied, but it can be argued that there is a basic similarity identifiable in all the conceptualizations. Nisbet suggests that “Words . . . are witnesses which often speak louder than documents.” Nisbet, Sociological Tradition, 23.
  5. This concept has been carefully described by Ernest Troeltsch, in The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (New York: Macmillan, 1931), especially volume 1.
  6. Nisbet, Sociological Tradition, 267.
  7. Nisbet, Sociological Tradition, 266.
  8. Nisbet, Sociological Tradition, 269.
  9. Nisbet, Sociological Tradition, 107.
  10. Nisbet, Sociological Tradition, 108.
  11. George Herbert Mead, “National-Mindedness and International-Mindedness” in Selected Writings, ed. Andrew J. Reck (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1964), 355.
  12. William James, “The Moral Equivalent of War” (1910), reprinted in William {108} James, Memories and Studies, ed. Henry James, Jr. (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1911).
  13. Jules Henry, Culture Against Man (New York: Random House, 1963), 50.
  14. Mead, “National-Mindedness,” 360.
  15. I do not attempt to define Free Churches or Peace Churches. I assume that the argument itself will make clear which groups are meant.
* This article was originally published in The Journal of Church and Society 4, no. 1 (Spring 1968): 2–14.

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