Elton Trueblood on the Conversion of the Church

March 8, 2013 — 2 Comments

Logo Transparent jpeg without words“It is not only Church members but the Church itself which requires a radical conversion. Few phrases deserve currency in our time more than the phrase “The Conversion of the church.”                  Elton Trueblood


Yesterday I introduced Elton Trueblood’s vision of the missional church. Many responded by sharing with me how this great Quaker theologian influenced them. It occurred to me that many people, especially the younger ones among us, never knew this great man of God. So, I want to share a little more about him and encourage you to read some of his books, starting with The Company of the Committed.

Given his Quaker roots, it probably surprises no one that Dr. Trueblood was committed to the doctrine of universal priesthood. He agreed with Martin Luther’s statement from the reformer’s book  To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation:

“That the pope or bishop anoints, makes tonsures, ordains, consecrates, or dresses differently from the laity, may make a hypocrite or an idolatrous oil-painted icon, but it in no way makes a Christian or spiritual human being. In fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism, as St. Peter in 1 Peter 2:9 says, “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly kingdom,” and Revelation 5:10, “Through your blood you have made us into priests and kings.” 

Trueblood put it this way in The Company of the Committed:

“When  we think of religion as the professional responsibility of priests, clergymen, and rabbis, the major harm lies in the consequent minimizing of the religious responsibility of other men and women. The harm of too much localizing of religious responsibility in a few–however dedicated they may be–is that it gives the rank and file a freedom from responsibility which they ought not to be able to enjoy” (p. 9).

The church’s strong dependence upon buildings and paid staff create a number of problems. Of course, it consumes most of the resources of the typical church and leaves little for mission and ministry. But, just as importantly for Trueblood, it contributes to the compartmentalization of our faith experience. He wrote:

“The major danger of our contemporary religion, then, is that it makes small what ought to be large. By segregating religion in place or time or personnel, we make religion relatively trivial, concerned with only a part of experience when it ought to be  concerned with the whole of life” (p. 10).

Trueblood went on to write about how, even though the church seems to be extremely successful (remember this was 1960-1961), it was in fact becoming increasingly marginalized in society. People were not antagonistic toward the church, it just didn’t make much real impact on their lives, even with those who participated regularly in its activities. He argued that the church was simply becoming irrelevant and was “looked upon as something to be neither seriously fought nor seriously defended” (p. 17).

The church’s emphasis upon membership and attendance at worship services lead people to think they are good Christians if they attend these entertainment events. Trueblood reasoned, “This accurately indicates our own preoccupation with public meetings as the chief form which contemporary religious experience can take, but it was certainly not the chief form it took during the formation of the original Christian community” (p.16).

Elton Trueblood drew an important conclusion that few in his day were willing to admit. “It is not only Church members but the Church itself which requires a radical conversion. Few phrases deserve currency in our time more than the phrase “The Conversion of the Church” (p. 10). One has to wonder, if that was true in 1961, how much more true is it today?

QUESTION: Do you think Trueblood was right about the church? How has the church and society changed since he wrote The Company of the Committed?

Dr. Gary Thompson


I am a retired United Methodist pastor. I write adult curriculum for the United Methodist Church and have been doing so for over 10 years. My passion is helping the Christian Church more effectively fulfill its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ and to help individuals identify and fulfill their God-given personal mission.

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