Over the past 50 years, evangelicals have debated whether the church’s mission is, or should be, primarily or even exclusively that of evangelism, or a combination of evangelism and social action.
At the forefront of this debate has been the distinguished evangelical leader and teacher, John Stott.
In The Contemporary Christian (chapter 20), Stott articulates his conviction that
‘authentic mission is a comprehensive activity which embraces evangelism and social action.’
In this understanding, the gospel has a vertical dimension (the salvation of souls) and a horizontal dimension (the improvement of society).
The issue has often been polarised, with evangelicals tending to focus exclusively on evangelism and liberals concentrating on meeting social needs.
This polarisation, suggests Stott, has been ‘a disaster’.
Stott quotes Carl Henry, who stressed in 1966 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 jurisprudent and in evangelism.’
The relationship between evangelism and social responsibility
The Lausanne Covenant (1974) affirmed that ‘evangelism’ and ‘socio-political activity are both part of our Christian duty.’
Evangelism has a certain logical priority, for it is only as people are evangelised and discipled that they can become socially responsible Christians.
Moreover, evangelism concerns people’s eternal well-being, and therefore addresses their ultimate needs. This is not to diminish, but simply to put into perspective, the importance of meeting their temporal needs.
According to the Grand Rapids Consultation, held in 1982, social activity
- is a consequence of evangelism, as faith works through love, and love issues in service;
- can be a bridge to evangelism, by breaking down prejudice and suspicion, opening closed doors, and gaining a hearing for the gospel;
- accompanies evangelism as its partner; they are the two wings of a bird, or the twin blades of a pair of scissors.
Individually, Christians will differ in respect to how they engage in this pair of activities. Some, like the Twelve, will be called primarily to a pastoral ministry, whereas others, like the Seven, to a social ministry (Acts 6:1-7).
Similarly, each local church should have groups of people who can take up particular evangelistic, pastoral or social needs according to their gifts, callings and interests. The church itself shouldrecognise these groups, offering encouragement, advice, prayer and finance.
How should we speak of the partnership between evangelism and social action? If ‘mission’ describes everything that the church is sent into the world to do, then it includes both within its orbit. Some fear that linking them in this way will lead to a neglect of evangelism, but this is not necessarily so. Within the church’s overall mission, it will be right for some to specialise in evangelism, discipling, church-planting, and Bible-translating, while others specialise in medical, education, or development ministries.
The biblical basis for this partnership
(a) The character of God. Since God is both Creator and Redeemer, it follows that he has a concern for both the material and the spiritual.
‘On the one hand, God yearns after his creatures in their lostness. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and is not willing that any should perish. So he begs them to listen to his word, to return to him in penitence, and to receive his forgiveness. On the other hand, God cares for the poor and the hungry, the alien, the widow and the orphan. He denounces oppression and tyranny, and calls for justice. He tells his people to be the voice of the voiceless and the defender of the powerless, and so to express their love for them. It is neither an accient nor a surprise, therefore, that God’s two great commandments are that we love him with all our being and our neighbour as ourselves.’
The outworking of these two great commandments is made clear in the law. People were to serve God by obeying his commands, and by following the example of the One who ‘defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him good and clothing’ (Deut 10:12-20).
The prophets insisted that God’s people walk in justice and mercy (Mic 6:8). They denounced those who flouted God’s will in this regard, with Elijah equally acting as champion of both religious loyalty and social justice (1 King 18; 21).
The great exilic prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, continued the same tradition. They raised against the people who had embraced idolatry and shed the blood of the innocent (Jer 19:40; cf. Eze 22:3f).
(b) The ministry and teaching of Jesus. Words and works went together in his public ministry. He was a preacher; but he not only announced the coming of the kingdom of God, but also demonstrated its arrival by works of compassion and power, Mk 6:6; Acts 10:38. ‘He was concerned not only with saving man from hell in the next world, but with delivering him from the hellishness of this one’ (Charles Colson).
Jesus’ words explained his works, and his works dramatised his words.
If the parable of the Prodigal Son highlights conversion, then that of the Good Samaritan illustrates social action. Both the lost and the abused are to be cared for, and brought home. Each of us resembles the prodigal; each of us should resemble the Samaritan. We should be concerned both for the sinner and for the sinneed against.
General William Booth asked:
‘What is the use of preaching the gospel to people whose whole attention is concentrated upon a mad, desperate struggle to keep themselves alive?’
(c) The communication of the gospel. Just as the Living Word became visible, so must the spoken word.
‘We cannot announce God’s love with credibility unless we also exhibit it in action.’
(a) Shouldn’t Christians steer clear of politics? We should be cautious before becoming involved with party politics. But involvement in the life of the ‘polis’, the city, and in the art of living together in community, is part of the calling of us all, since Jesus calls us to live in the secular world, and not apart from it.
Social service, without social action, is not enough. There is limited value in caring for the sick if were are unwilling to involve ourselves in the provision of effective health care systems, or in showing compassion to the slave if we fail to challenge the institution of slavery.
(b) Isn’t this going back to the old ‘social gospel’? No: we are concerned here, not with the ‘social gospel’, but with the social implications of the gospel.
(c) Isn’t this social concern the same as ‘liberation theology’? No: liberation theology mistakenly equates salvation with social, political and economic liberation. But evangelicals have been too slow in developing a true biblical theology of liberation.
(d) Isn’t it impossible to expect social change unless people are converted? No: the gospel has always had a beneficent effect on society (in areas such a health care, education, respect for women and children, human rights and civil liberties, conditions in factories, mines and prison, the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. God’s common grace means that people will benefit from, and disseminate, the beneficial effects of the gospel even where they do not receive Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
(e) Won’t commitment to social action distract us from evangelism. Yes, it might, but it need not. If we live in the light of Jesus’ saving work, then social action will not diverty us from evangelism, but rather make it more effective by rendering if more visible and more credible.
This partnership in action
‘The gospel itself…obliged [the early missionaries] to oppose whatever was incompatible with it, whether slavery in Africa, untouchability and other evils in India, or the exploitation of tribespeople and the degrading poverty of the masses in Latin America.’
In our own day,
‘It is impossible to evangelise in the West and simply turn a blind eye to the plight of the unemployed and the homeless, or of alienated youth and single-parent families in decayed and deprived inner-city areas.’