by Jim Reapsome
The problems of the poor were rudely thrust upon Pope John Paul II when he landed in Latin America. Welcome to the club, we might say, because the poverty of the poor is very much at the heart of debate among missionary thinkers of all shades of theological opinion.
The problems of the poor were rudely thrust upon Pope John Paul II when he landed in Latin America. Welcome to the club, we might say, because the poverty of the poor is very much at the heart of debate among missionary thinkers of all shades of theological opinion. For example, it’s because of attitudes toward the poor that we’re finding evangelicals divided in the "battle for world evangelism." Do missionaries go to the Third World with equal amounts of food for the soul and food for the body? Or, do they feed the soul first and then the body, or vice-versa?
Evangelical missionaries have never doubted for a moment that they should feed the poor, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and heal the sick. Relief has flowed spontaneously out of compassion for those who suffer. To relief has been added development. Evangelicals have seen the wisdom of putting in irrigation systems, teaching agriculture, financing small business ventures, and so on.
No one debates whether Christians should do such things. But an extremely bitter debate has arisen about whether or not Christians should do something about the underlying causes of poverty. Are social justice and equality part of the gospel? Should Christians use political and economic means to bring about justice, to change the social order?
Liberation theology says yes. Some evangelicals have said that if the gospel does not include social change-rooting out corporate injustice and inequality-it is not the whole gospel, or it is not the gospel of the kingdom. Preaching personal soul salvation is not the whole gospel, they say.
Not only the pope, but evangelical missionaries are caught in this cross-fire. For example, when two respected leaders and thinkers like Arthur Johnston and John Stott cannot agree precisely on where the balance is between evangelism and social action, it cannot be thought strange that the rank-and-file get tangled up also.
To hazard a guess, I would suppose that most of the evangelical front-line troops would agree with Pope John Paul’s statement that social justice must be sought spiritually and not politically. Deep down, they are committed to the strategy that says outward social change comes about when a significant number of persons are changed inwardly.
On the other hand, as they look about them and see thousands of conversions (some church growth people say 55,000 everyday), they wonder when social change leading to justice and equality– and jobs, clothing, education, votes and food– will start to happen. They see the supposed 40 million born-again people in the United States and wonder about the social needs of the poor, the minorities, the migrant workers, and so on. If inward change brings justice, what happened to these people?
So, we come back to basic theological commitment, as well as to the roles and strategies of missionaries, who face not only enormous social needs but also increasingly militant, outspoken church leaders of all kinds who are demanding radical action, not prayers, sermons and hand-outs.
Pope John Paul II told the conference of Latin American bishops that the idea of Jesus Christ as a political figure does not add up. He warned the clergy not to get too involved in temporal affairs, reminding them that they are spiritual guides, "not social leaders, political leaders, or employees of temporal power. "
Is this the counsel evangelical missionaries need also, or have they neglected the battle for social justice while engaged in the battle for more narrowly defined evangelism? Regardless of how readers judge the evidence, missionaries ought to agree at least that there must be some connection between the faith we profess and the solving of human problems. One need not espouse Jesus as a revolutionary, or promote liberation theology, to agree with that basic point.
Is it really that difficult to apply, for example, the letter of James to a modern context? Or, does the missionary force need to be reminded of his blunt reminders of the correlation between faith and works? At some point, in some way, the poor and the oppressed of this world need to see that Christians care. While some missionaries may not agree with, or even may despise the ardent social reformers who have taken to the barricades, so to speak, they dare not back off from some practical expression of God’s concern for rich and poor alike.
At the same time, wealth and poverty are not the eternal criteria of what this life is all about. It is possible to tilt biblical truth out of balance by emphasizing material categories of rich and poor at the expense of spiritual wealth and poverty. In biblical terms, the rich of this world really have nothing without Christ, while the poor of this world have everything with him. That is why God says the rich will be humbled and the poor will be exalted.
Copyright © 1979 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.