Niebuhr, H. Richard. "Chapter One: The Church and Its Purpose." The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry. New York: Harper & Row, 1956, 1-47.
In the mid 1950s, H. Richard Niebuhr served as the director of a project named The Study of Theological Education in the United States and Canada (Niebuhr 1956, xi). The work of this study involved visits to and interviews with approximately a hundred schools of theology which taught a broad cross-section of primarily Protestant pastors and theologians.
Niebuhr observes that any work of education occurs in a particular societal climate. It is impossible to adequately evaluate an educational enterprise without considering its society (Niebuhr 1956, 1). Theolgoical education, therefore, must always be considered in light of both short-range and long-range goals, aimed at a particular theological view of the world. The role of the Christian faith in the current culture is a matter of fundamental importance (Niebuhr 1956, 3). It is necessary to follow historic views and to identify how those views intersect with the contemporary world.
Niebuhr proposes that theological schools in the United States think of themselves as functioning within their particular denomination rather than describing themselves in terms of their doctrinal or theological context (Niebuhr 1956, 6). Further, since the schools represent a variety of orientations, Niebuhr thinks the trend has been toward individuality and self-support of schools. This in turn relies on a dependence on lay support and use of business practices to make support development effective (Niebuhr 1956, 7). What is curious to Niebuhr is that with all this diversity and distinction among groups, the schools, which are distinctively American in tone, rarely make their American church part of their description. Rather, they generally refer to a denomination if they reference anything (Niebuhr 1956, 9). He does note, additionally, that while the schools seem to have little in common, they are active in their disciplined study of Scripture. Niebuhr considers that the Fundamentalist schools ask more sophisticated questions than the liberal schools think they do and that the liberal schools look to Scripture more than the Fundamentalists think they do (Niebuhr 1956, 14). He also notes that within a study of Church history, the mephasis is on the whole of the Church. Similarly, studies of systematic theology tend to engage in theological questions which pertain to all of Christianity (Niebuhr 1956, 15).
Niebuhr notes that where there is "confusion and uncertainty in theological schools" (Niebuhr 1956, 17) it is often rooted in an inadequate definition of the Church. Theological schools and church bodies are perhaps better at describing the structure of an organization than the philosophical undergirdings. Niebuhr tentatively defines it as "the subjective pole of the objective rule of God" (Niebuhr 1956, 19). It adheres to and imitates the actual kingdom of God. The Church, then, draws attention to God, rather than to itself. It is a social reality and institution, but it is never merely that (Niebuhr 1956, 21). Niebuhr sees the Church in terms of "polarities." For instance, it is unity but a diverse group. It is one body but many congregations (Niebuhr 1956, 23ff).
While churches and schools may have any number of distinctive purpose statements, Niebuhr concludes, they have one underlying purpose. That he identifies "as the increase among men of the love of God and neighbor" (Niebuhr 1956, 31). This goal is compatible with, and even sums up, the seemingly conflicting mission statements which he summarizes. Niebuhr goes on to describe the many ways love of God and love of neighbor can be worked out as the ultimate goal of theological training. His description is of a decidedly counter-cultural conception of God, of neighbor, and of love itself.
Niebuhr's summary of the situation is that theological schools confuse proximate goals with ultimate goals (Niebuhr 1956, 39). This confusion may be manifested in confusing a denomination for all of Christianity, for instance, or a confusion which mistakes the work of God's kingdom for the work of God (Niebuhr 1956, 41). Niebuhr concludes that these confusions are deeply harmful to our understanding of Christianity and our ability to pursue adequate theological understanding which guides our life.