Christians have often perceived a tension between evangelism and social action. Evangelicals have usually stressed the former, whereas liberals have invariably emphasised the latter. John Stott writes: ‘the evangelical stereotype has been to spiritualise the gospel, and deny its social implications; while the ecumenical stereotype has been the politicise it, and deny its offer of salvation to sinners. The polarisation has been a disaster.’
The Need for Holistic Mission
Speaking at the World Congress on Evangelism in Bertin in 1966, Carl Henry stated, ‘that evangelical Christians have a message doubly relevant to the present social crisis…For they know the God of justice and of justification…Whenever Christianity has been strong in the life of a nation, it has had an interest in both law and gospel, in the state as well as the church, in jurisprudence and in evangelism.’
Raymond Bakke has written: ‘We Christians are the only people on this earth who have the integrated world view of matter and spirit that enables us to tackle sewer system development and the salvation of souls with equal gusto.’
The ‘Consultation on the Relationship between Evangelism and Social Responsibility, held in Grand Rapids in 1982, asserted that
- Social activity is a consequence of evangelism, for evangelism brings people to faith, and faith works through love, and love issues in service.
- Social activity can be a bridge to evangelism. Love in action can break down prejudice and suspicion, open close ddoors, and gain a hearing for the gospel.
- Social activity can be a partner to evangelism, just as the two were wedded in the ministry of Jesus.
The relationship between evangelism and social responsibility
This is based on
1. The character of God. The God who calls people to a saving relationship with himself is the God who cares for the poor and the hungry, the alien, and widow and the orphan. He denounces tyranny and oppression, and calls for justice. He tells his people to be a voice for the voiceless, and the defender of the powerless. No accident the the two great commandments have to do with love for God and our neighbour.
2. The ministry and teaching of Jesus. Words and works went together in his ministry. He went about teaching and doing good. ‘He was concerned not only with saving man from hell in the next world, but with delivering him from the hellishness of this one.’ (Chuck Colson) Jesus’ works made his words visible; his words made his works intelligible.
3. The communication of the gospel. To be sure, the gospel must be verbalised; we reject the modern disenchantment with speech as a medium of communication. Yet the Word became flesh, and if God’s Word became visible, our words must become visible too.
Objections to the partnership between evangelism and social responsibility
1. Shouldn’t Christians steer clear of politics? No, not if politics means ‘the art of living together in community’. We have to go beyond healing individuals to building hospitals, beyond feeding the hungry to establishing a new international economic order in which hunger is abolished, beyond binding up people’s wounds to the task of ridding the Jericho road of brigands, beyond the fair treatment of slaves to the abolition of the institution of slavery.
2. Isn’t this going back to the old “social gospel”? No, and this objection confuses the (so-called) social gospel of theological liberalism with the social implications of the biblical gospel, which calls us to permeate society as salt and light.
3. Isn’t this social concern the same as “liberation theology”? No, for liberation theology tends to equate political and economic emancipation with the “salvation” which Christ came, died and rose to win.
4. Isn’t it impossible to expect social change unless people are converted? No, for Christ through his people has had an enormous influence on society in areas as diverse as health, education, respect for women and children, human rights and civil liberties, improved working conditions and so on. Legislation can secure social improvement, even though it does not convert people.
5. Won’t commitment to social action distract us from evangelism? No, not necessarily. Social action, far from diverting us from evangelism can and should make it more effective by tendering the gospel more visible and more credible.
Based on Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 337-352.