When it comes to involvement in our world, two options are available: escape and involvement. Many evangelicals seem to have opted for the first option. They have withdrawn from the world, pulled up the drawbridge, and, apart from occasional evangelistic excursions, been blind and deaf to those in need. After all, the Bible teaches us to separate from the world (doesn’t it?), and to wait for the new age that will be ushered in by the return of Jesus Christ. But it has not always been so.
The history of evangelical engagement is instructive, going as it does through three distinct phases.
The Evangelical Revival in the 18th century did not only bring countless souls into the kingdom of God. It also profoundly affected society both in Britain and America. John Wesley, though chiefly remembered as an evangelist, inspired many to take up the cause of social justice in the name of Christ. He and others preached into a society that tortured animals for sport, trafficked African negroes, tolerated bribery and corruption in public life, allowed the inhuman treatment of prisoners, and was characterised by drunkenness, superstition, gambling, immorality, and ill-health. But, during the 19th century, slavery was abolished, the prison system was humanised, conditions in factories and mines improved, education made freely available, and trades unions begun. There was, in short, a new social conscience, one which is traceable to the revival of vital, practical Christianity.
The evangelical leaders in the generation following Wesley were committed both to evangelism and social action. Wilberforce and a legion of others involved themselves not only in the slavery question, but also in penal and parliamentary reform, education, evangelism and misisonary work, and factory legislation. They campaigned against duelling, gambling, drunkenness, immorality, and cruel animal sports.
Anthony Ashley Cooper (the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury) took up the causes of ‘lunatics’, children and women working in mines and elsewhere, and the many thousands of children who were either homeless or living in slums. He himself made a direction connection between the philanthropic movements of that 19th century and the evangelical faith.
As for the extraordinary expansion of evangelical missions in the 19th century, it must not be forgotten that the emphasis did not fall exclusively on preaching the gospel, but also on humanitarian aid and social justice.
During the first few decades of the 20th century, however, a lamentable shift took place. Evangelicals, as a body, became much less committed to – they even became suspicious of – humanitarian efforts.
A number of causes may be identified.
Evangelicals took it upon themselves to defend the gospel against the insidious attacks of theological liberals. This effort distracted them from their earlier social concerns.
The ‘social gospel’
Theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch equated the ‘kingdom of God’ with a kind of Christian socialism. In rightly rejecting this equation, evangelicals wrongly tend to assume that the biblical gospel has no implications for social change and improvement.
Following World War I, widespread disillusion and pessimism set in. Earlier attempts to improve and stabilise society had failed. The goodness of God could no longer be taken for granted. Biblical Christianity was in eclipse.
The premillenial scheme of J.N. Darby, popularised by C.I. Schofield, portrayed the present world as deteriorating hopeless and inevitably until the imminent return of Christ. Attempts to improvement the present world are futile: the best we can hope for is to preach the gospel and rescue souls for the next life.
Many evangelicals in the middle years of the 20th century were middle-class, and culturally conservative. They tended to be protective of the status quo and unlikely to involve themselves in social and political action. They stress personal salvation over concern for the poor and vulnerable.
During the second half of the 20th century, evangelicalism began to recover its nerve and its vocation in this matter of social engagement. An early clarion call was sounded by Carl Henry, in his book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947). In 1967, at the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress, Anglican evangelicals repented of their tendency to withdraw both from the world and the wider church, and concluded that ‘evangelism and compassionate service belong together in the misison of God.’ Then, in 1974 the International Congress on World Evangelization was held, and the resulting Lausanne Covenant declared that ‘evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty’. A further step was taken in 1982, when the Lausanne Committee and the World Evangelical Fellowship jointly issued a report entitled ‘Evangelism and Social Responsibility’. According to this report, evangelism and social responsibility are equally fruits of the gospel.
The practical commitment of evangelicals to social action has grown immensely. There has been robust thinking on issues such as the environment, disability, war and peace. New institutions have been formed, which seek to promote Christian social action. Many local churches have projects which seek to apply Christian principles to social needs and problems. Missionary agencies espouse holistic mission, linking evnagelism and social action closely together.
We have, in short re-discovered the fact that the same Scriptures that prompt us to proclaim the gospel also urge us to love justice and care for those in need.
Based on Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (4th ed.), 23-32.