by Charles H. Troutman
Differences of opinion on the subject of evangelism vs. social action are of long standing — so old, in fact, that the roots go back to pre-Christian paganism.
Differences of opinion on the subject of evangelism vs. social action are of long standing—so old, in fact, that the roots go back to pre-Christian paganism. In a sense, the problem has never been settled and probably never will be fully resolved because of the nature of the New Testament revelation; but perhaps a creative tension may be reached that will do justice to the full teaching of the Scriptures.
Medieval churchmen, unfortunately, made a very sharp distinction between what they considered sacred and the rest of life, which was called profane. Such a division did not come from the Scriptures, but was derived from the outlook of ancient Greece and the old religions of the Eastern Mediterranean. These non-Hebrew cults declared some persons or things and acts to be pleasing to the gods and others as of little religious value perhaps necessary, but probably sinful. As a result of this heathen distinction, Christians today continue to contrast the sacred and secular, faith set against works, holiness as something different from service, and evangelism vs. social action. Our thinking is more pagan than we like to admit. We still find it natural to think of prayer as more spiritual than dispensary work, in spite of our Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan, or the comprehensiveness of Paul’s epistles combining doctrine and practise.
It was unfortunate that the Reformation created a climate which for many people made the idea of doing gaol either irrelevant or prohibited, since the issue was faith alone. This became especially evident as the vibrant confessions of the reformers degenerated in succeeding generations to the formal acceptance of creeds and liturgy. Lesley’s strictures against Calvinists of his day, who did nothing but convince themselves that they were among the elect, are an illustration of the rebirth of the biblical emphasis on the unity of all God’s works. Many evangelicals have been brought up with the biblical insistence that salvation is by faith alone in the merits of the risen Savior, and they find it hard to respond spontaneously to the physical needs of men.
But the reaction of biblical evangelicals to the popular social gospel of the early part of this century is more relevant to this discussion. Whatever may have been its origin or the motives behind the formation of the social gospel, it became something quite different from and openly antagonistic to the New Testament gospel. The historical circumstances produced an either/or situation – either one held the social gospel and denied the old story, or the reverse. Evangelicals had no alternative but to deny this new gospel and consequently refused to have anything to do with those social and economic programs which were promoted as the means of salvation for mankind. It was a costly stand and yet it spoke highly of a desire to be faithful to the gospel.
The issue at stake was a faulty diagnosis of the plight of man on the part of the social gospel advocates, and thus they offered an inadequate cure. They believed in the basic goodness of man and so were forced to look elsewhere for the origin of his problem. They thought they discovered this in his environment – in his poverty, hunger, lack of education and his resulting irrational way of life. Consequently, if war, disease, poverty, ignorance and faulty education could be eliminated, mankind would then be free to work out its own salvation. At least the proponents of the social gospel recognized that there is sin in the structures of the world, just as the prophets and Paul declared. But they failed to see that the basic problem is man himself, who needs to be forgiven and transformed. This made the salvation offered by the social gospel less than Christian. Whatever its valuable insights may have been, it was a non-Christian religion.
Without sitting in judgment on the faithful men who opposed this nonbiblical gospel (not all of whom could be called fundamentalists) it is now clear that their stand produced a new type of evangelical. Though they followed the Reformation tradition in line with the Moravians, the Wesleyans, the American revivals, and the missionary movement of the nineteenth century, they differed completely in their understanding of Christian social responsibility. They developed – first as a reaction, then as a positive conviction – the idea that the proclamation of the gospel had no basic connection with Christian works. They did not deny the need for social action; but they broke the intimate relationships which had existed between the revivals and evangelistic movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries aid such movements as prison reform, the abolition of slavery, child labor laws anal popular education.
Evangelicals’ fear of the old social gospel has been historically justified. Today again there is cause for anxiety in a contemporary situation with another salvation offered to men in the name of Christ. Like its predecessor, it deals chiefly with the material aspects of man’s life; but unlike the old social gospel, it seeks redemption chiefly though the revamping of the political structures of society. Perhaps this new approach should be called the political gospel. It is far mare perceptive than the old social gospel because it discerns clearly that there is evil in individual and collective action by sinful men, especially in the ultimate power structures. It is plain from the present stresses of society that soave kind of change is needed, and perhaps is inevitable. Now whatever good may be done by a political reorganization, this political gospel is non-Christian in at least two areas: it imposes a redemption from without rather than a regeneration from within, and it ignores or denies the validity of spiritual reality.
Nothing less than the gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. We are not facing straw men. Some contemporary missionaries and mission societies aggressively advocate a political gospel quite different from evangelicals’ understanding of the biblical gospel. Because the needs of which they speak are real needs, the evils which they describe are real evils, proponents of a political gospel are winning the sympathies of many believers. Certainly there is a tremendous job crying to be done in the world today. It is just here that evangelicals can lose out. Just because the political gospel is so similar to the old social gospel, evangelicals must guard against mire reaction. We have previous experience to warn us of the pitfalls. An either/or situation must be avoided and a stand taken on the basis of the whole counsel of God. Only in this way can we avoid confusion in setting priorities.
A gospel that rightly insists on the priority of man’s relation to God may run the risk of implying that man’s relationship to his fellowmen as individuals and in society is unimportant. By our failure to follow the pattern of Jesus Christ, we may say more loudly than we intend that the awful contemporary situations of poverty, war, injustice or misery are of little consequence. Contrary to our intentions, we may appear insensitive or hard-hearted toward our fellowmen. We can see this misunderstanding in reverse in the advocates of the political gospel, who so stress the human aspect that the divine relationship appears irrelevant or missing. It is difficult to recognize the same exclusive tendency in ourselves in our insistence on the need of personal salvation. In taking our stand today within the biblical pattern, we must show the courage of a former generation of evangelicals, but refuse to follow their strategy. Too much was lost. Since we cannot escape this strain, we need to bring the Scriptures to bear on the subject for prayerful consideration.
Six biblical principles are applicable in any discussion of this subject. They do not provide a direct solution to the problem, but they do furnish a biblical perspective without which any answer is superficial.
1. Biblical Priorities. In the midst of a welter of opinions and convictions, the Christian life is nevertheless anchored in certain priorities. The Lord himself has give us his priorities: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness . . . What shall it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul? (Mt. 6:33; 16:26). These are not optional to a believer, nor can they be ignored without risk. At one time, however, in the life of an individual Christian a certain emphasis may be required in order to establish the will of God. Another time may require a different emphasis, but the basic priority stands. As Christ said, the most important issues of life do not exclude the lesser ones, but rather give them their proper place. When Paul puts prayer at the top of his list, he does not exclude evangelism or sharing (1 Tim. 2:1). Human temperament is such that we find it easier to go all out than to give proper attention to all that needs to be done. Yet in site of tie fact that such concentration may be necessary at times, and some believers will be called upon to be specialists, we cannot escape the Lord’s hierarchy of values.
2. Evangelistic Priority.There is another kind of biblical priority, this time in reference to the activity of the believer. The. Great Commission is very clear. Nothing given in Scripture supplants this directive except the close of the age. In the past two hundred years it has been the watchword of the greatest extension of Christianity that the world has ever known. As believers go into all parts of the world, they are to preach the gospel, baptize the converts into .groups of believers and pass on to them all the teaching of the Lord. This central thrust of missions, however, is far from simplistic. The biblical mandate is both complex and comprehensive.
3. Divine Activism. The Lard made it equally clear that only those who act can gain entrance into his kingdom. He explicitly excluded those who only were preachers, or performers, car listeners. The most awesome words of the Bible come from the lips of the Lord when he condemned to hell those who preached but did not carry out those simple acts of love so characteristic of the Savior (Lk. 13:25-27; Mt. 7:21-23.) His denunciation of hypocrisy rests party on this passage, and the later discussion of faith and works is predicated on it. It is akin to John the Baptist’s requirement that his converts produce works to demonstrate their repentance. No matter how we discuss the differences before us, we must remember that it is not a theoretical but a very practical matter. We will be evaluated by what we do and how we do it.
4. Political Authority. In Jewish-occupied territory of New Testament times and even in the Roman Empire, the seat of final political authority rested in a hereditary line, a group of king-makers, or in a special caste. There has been a complete reversal in modern times. Today authority rests ideally in the people – the voters. This is an undreamed-of development which has no real counterpart in the ancient world, even in Greece. Even in countries now dominated by dictators, the world atmosphere is such that they must make a constant appeal to the people, even though it may be phony. The consequence of this radical shift is that the responsibility which the Bible placed on kings, rulers and governors is now placed fundamentally upon the ordinary voter. This is such a thorough change of governmental concept that, for example, what Ezekiel 26 says about the ideal king is now the ideal for the voters. The sense of dominion, of responsibility, care and direction embodied in such an ideal now belongs to the voter to exercise for all the people. In addition, the voters are now responsible to see that "the people" are cared for and justice is administered. Because of this, the welfare of all people falls very heavily on the sensitized consciences of Christian men and women. The wrath of God’s judgment on rulers who tolerate injustice now falls on "a people" who are content to live with political and economic evils
5. Spiritual Values. In the great mass of political propaganda today, both for and against change, it is easy to drift into an attitude which regards the problems of the world as largely economic, social or political. There is scarcely a world voice being raised today against these materialistic assumptions, except perhaps Paul VI and Billy Graham. Unfortunately, solutions of a personal or spiritual nature do not now appear relevant or even possible. Yet the words of Christ provide insight into another and usually forgotten dimension: "Man shall not live by bread alone." And the words of Paul concerning the enemy of mankind and his church speak of principalities and powers in heavenly places. Of all religious books, the Bible never underestimates the difficulties of facing governments or the seriousness of hunger, the intensity of pain, or the evil of injustice; but the problem involves more than flesh and blood and vitamins and laws and dollars. There is more behind the agony of the world than can be statistically interpreted. This means that the weapons of our warfare include not only rationally accepted solutions, but preeminently something of another order (Eph. 6).
6. Starting Place.The biblical picture of the spiritual/ material world is a unity and gives a point of departure, a place to start in seeking to meet the needs of men. It contrasts sharply with secular thinking and is especially important to missions concerned with all levels of society. It is also at odds with the advocates of a political gospel. According to our Lord, the starting point is at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, with the outcasts. The gospel is nod confined to this level, but this, nevertheless, is the major area of its emphasis. In this view, the future of the church and of the society which it influences lies with its lowest, not the higher class. Our Lord teaches that it is the poor and the captives who are most receptive, and who embody the greatest potential. The rich and the wise are the minority by virtue of the needle’s eye. Only God could think of starting at the bottom. Only he can do anything creative at this level (cf. Mt. 9:13; Lk. 5:27-32; Mk. 2:13-17).
NO BIBLICAL DICHOTOMY
Taking off, then, from these biblical patterns and looking at certain passages in the life of Christ and the Epistles, we come to see that the dichotomy between evangelism and social action does not appear in the New Testament. Are we not expected to live in creative tension rather than division? This is in keeping with the historic evangelical spirit, which controls its faith and conduct by the authoritative Scriptures, and particularly by the example in the teaching and conduct of Jesus Christ.
In the first place, let us look at the preaching of John the Baptist, which prepared the climate of opinion into which the Lord came. His was a simple announcement of the fulfillment of Jewish hopes, and a call to prepare for it by repentance. John’s problem in an intensely religious culture was to try to make certain that there was spiritual reality in those who responded to the call. Times were so desperate, oppression so cruelly arbitrary, and ordinary life so chaotic that the excitement produced by any kind of prophet or messiah brought a willingness to do anything. The proud Jews were even ready to undergo the rite of baptism, which to the popular mind was reserved only for those entering Judaism from the outside. Such a demand was like asking an American-born citizen to be naturalized in order to prove his patriotism. Yet the response to such an unusual request was so great that John insisted that for the sake of the individual’s integrity and witness he needed more than a verbal repentance to show the reality of his decision. But John did not ask everyone to repent of the same sins. In spite of the poverty of most of his converts, he knew the selfishness and materialism that is bred in poverty, so he told them, "If you have two coats or extra food, give it to someone in need." He did not bear down on the same sin far the tax collectors, but told them rather, to prove their new faith by taking no more of a tax bite than was authorized. Such an unheard of thing would produce a startling witness for one in government service. To the soldiers of the military occupation he demanded that their repentance show itself in their behavior toward the conquered. Such behavior would tell their garrison and the whole countryside that a genuine change had come about.
Thus from John himself, who was declaring a simple message because the King was on his way, comes the requirement for a type of verification-in-action that had implications in the area of supply and distribution of the necessities of life, in government revenue, in economic matters, and in the just and honest use of police power. John’s gift was obviously that of a preacher. Apart from his austerity he was hardly an activist, but the demands which he made in his message were many. The people understood that his uncomplicated message had complex ramifications in their own lives. The simple basis of repentance hail socio-economic implications. If we classified John’s work according to the evangelistic vs. social action criteria, we would have to say that he had a multiple approach.
This same multiple approach in Christ’s work is illustrated on two occasions when he had opportunity to explain his task. In his first sermon in Nazareth he described his mission as including preaching the gospel to the poor, announcing freedom to captives, providing deliverance to the oppressed, and giving sight to the blind. In the light of this last item, it seems hard to say that all these activities were in the spiritual realm only. As with John, Jesus felt he was to do a number of different things, of which evangelism was one. Christ had a multiple ministry; or if it is better to say he had a single aim, then his approach was multiform (cf. Lk. 4:18, 19).
On another occasion when Jesus replied to John’s query from prison, he gave as evidence of his authenticity his acts of physical, medical and psychological healing (as well as his success over death), and that to the poor the gospel was proclaimed. This was the only evidence offered and John, knowing the prophets, was satisfied. Again the line of evidence from Christ’s example suggest his multiple approach to his mission (cf. Mt. 11:5; Lk. 7:18-35).
In a very different setting we find the same unity of proclamation and service. In speaking of the way in which he will base his judgments upon individuals at the last day, Christ condemned those who did not feed the hungry, help the sick or visit the prisoners. He refused their defense even though they had preached and worked miracles in his name. This passage has no meaning if there is a separation between evangelism and good works. It seems clear that preaching is not enough.
The same multi-approach is seen in the Great Commission. Taking all three synoptics, the command is to preach the gospel; to make disciples, which involves all the ramifications of the Christian life; to baptize, which carries with it all the concerns of faith, order and church discipline; followed by the command to teach everything he taught, which covers a vast field. Perhaps this really is but one job which may be called evangelization. If this is so, then it is a complex enterprise.
This brief outline indicates that in our Lord’s mind the modern dichotomy between evangelism and action in the social realm did not exist. It was not that Jesus had a confused idea of his mission. In announcing to men the way in which they might find salvation, he also needed to reveal to men the character of the God who provided so great a salvation. Judging from the minute rules of conduct developed by the Pharisees, they must have considered God the Great Lawyer or the Grand Bookkeeper. The Pharisees had forgotten that Jehovah was long-suffering, of tender mercy, patient and loving. It was God’s great love which made the gospel possible. Is there not a similar situation in the world today? The character of God needs to be correctly reestablished, just as in the first century. It is our privilege to do this with the same weapons Christ used nineteen centuries ago – this multiple approach.
In the epistles we see the same multi-pronged approach in the expansion of Christianity. There is first of all the fascinating practice of the Jerusalem church during its early years. The communal nature of their spiritual and material life was obviously one expression of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This particular collectivism made possible an extensive work of poor relief, although it does not seem to have been practiced in other New Testament churches. Yet the principle of mutual responsibility is a persistent strain which begins in the Gospels and runs through the subsequent story.
Paul treats in some detail two social action projects that are classified as good works. The first is the collection for the relief for the Jerusalem poor, which occupied so much of his time, energy and text. The other is his detailed instructions in I Timothy on the selection and care of widows. Such work required time, money and sacrifice. If this particular situation is taken, as is so often the case in Scripture, as a specific illustration of a general principle, then it may be deduced that Christians have a responsibility to help those who are in need. This is made more explicit in Galatians 6:10, where Paul commands the church to do good (this seems to imply more initiative than merely meeting a need) to all men, especially the saints.
It is not always an easy matter to apply biblical principles to specific situations. The New Testament refrains from making the needs and opportunities of the first century normative for the centuries that follow, but it does use a phrase, good works, which is very akin to what we call social action. Whether this biblical term includes political action, or of necessity leads to it, remains an open question. But there is no question that here we have a biblical requirement.
The medieval church debased good works until they meant little more than liturgical acts – novenas, pilgrimages, masses, fastings, rosaries, etc., tied closely with gaining merit. After the Reformation the evangelical movement, both in Germany and England, tended to emphasize dispensaries, hospitals, orphanages, education, prison relief and attacks on slavery. In the course of time evangelicals came face to face with the causes of these evils. In a similar manner the modern missionary movement for two centuries utilized both medicine and education as its chief tools of evangelism. These good works have been indispensable in many places for the preaching of the gospel. Today as governments are taking over increasing responsibility for social security and education, the types of good deeds suitable to the missionary movement are changing. Instead of schools and hospitals, they may take the form of literacy work, medical caravans, community development, food production, public health, and self-sustaining vocations.
So, after two thousand years, the same complexity and variety are still found in evangelization. Properly understood, therefore, there reed be no divisive tension between proclamation and action. This close connection gives a tremendous point to 2 Timothy 3:16, 17. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." This verse is normally used to summarize the Scripture’s claim to divine inspiration, but it is more than that. It implies that a purpose of the divine authorship of the Bible is to make the believer an expert in good works – every good work. It seems, then, that neither our Lord nor the apostles recognized the either/or dichotomy between evangelism and social action. Each is a part of and reinforces the other. As his disciples today missionaries need to maintain such a biblical perspective. They should not permit this tension to be divisive, but rather creative.
Such a creativity is not simply an adjustment between two different emphases. All the schemes for evangelism or the eradication of hunger have so far been inadequate. Even if we think only of material needs, they are greater than the combined resources of all professing Christians. Even more, the wealth of the world is not adequate to produce, let alone purchase, enough food or medicine to meet the needs of mankind.
In this impossible task we have a guide, our Lord himself, who in what he said and the way he went about doing good, exhibited the character of God to a people who had a distorted view. He demonstrated what God’s love is like to a love-starved world. He told them how each one could come into the family of God. After all he said, "I send you as He sent me."
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