by Samuel Escobar
The fact that a congress on evangelism has on its agenda the subject of the social responsibility of the church is a sign of Christian maturity. It indicates a healthy change of attitude in evangelical ranks.
The fact that a congress on evangelism has on its agenda the subject of the social responsibility of the church is a sign of Christian maturity. It indicates a healthy change of attitude in evangelical ranks. It calls for an examination of conscience that cannot be postponed if we are really to fulfill the mission, committed to us by our Lord, in a world convulsing with hunger, demographic explosion, flagrant social injustices, administrative corruption and violence of every sort. The subject is vast and its facets are multiple, but we must limit ourselves because of the time allotted to us and the nature of this congress. Therefore, two things need to be clarified as far as this paper is concerned.
In the first place, we want to give clear testimony to an evangelical and biblical faith. I would like to underline the fact that I work in an interdenominational movement which holds to a statement of faith that includes the fundamental doctrines of the evangelical faith. Thus far in Latin America there has been a tendency to identify social concern with theological liberalism or with spiritual coldness when it comes to the evangelistic task. We should once and for all put an end to such unfortunate confusion. There are sufficiently solid grounds in the history of the church and in the teachings of the Word of God to emphatically affirm that concern for the social dimension of our evangelical testimony in the world is not an abandonment of the fundamental truths of the gospel. Rather, it is the carrying out of the teachings about God, Jesus Christ, man and the world, which form the basis of this gospel to their logical conclusions. This thesis we will attempt to develop in the present paper.
In the second place, we have endeavored to present the subject within the context of evangelism and its related areas. Because of this, we will only be able to sketch a few of the fundamental problems and aspects. It is important nevertheless to note that among evangelicals there is the common misunderstanding that evangelism and social action contradict each other, as if the one excluded the other. We maintain that any evangelism which does not take into consideration social problems and which does not proclaim the salvation and lordship of Christ within the context in which those who listen live, is a deficient evangelism which is traitor to biblical teaching and does not follow the example set forth by Christ, who sends us forth as evangels.
I. BRIEF HISTORICAL REFERENCE
Evangelical negligence when it comes to social responsibility can be explained historically. Most of our churches are the result of Anglo-Saxon missions which sprang up during the last century, especially after World War I. In some cases, the theology, or better still the pietistic attitude of these missions resulted in the concept that Christian life is completely separate from the world. The hostility of a catholic or semi-pagan environment made this "separation" even more acute. Thus, many areas of the daily life of the believer were completely disassociated from his faith. On the other hand, his rejection of the world also meant his separation from important aspects of his national culture.1
But perhaps what affected our attitude the most was the polemic between fundamentalism and modernism since the turn of the century, and the rejection and failure of the "social gospel."2 Any concern for social and political issues came to be identified as an attempt to introduce a "social gospel" and finally came to the point where lack of compassion and obedience were excused by an attitude of "defending the faith." As Carl F.H. Henry has pointed out, this was a corruption of the evangelical struggle for orthodoxy, a dangerous distortion of its original purpose. One quotation is enough to prove this.
In the last volume of the famous collection of books, The Fundamentals – books that have played a very important role in the battle against modernism – Prof. Charles Erdman says: "The Gospel of grace cannot be separated from the Gospel of good works. Christian doctrine cannot be divorced from Christian duty. With the same clarity in which we define the relation between Christ and the believers, the New Testament defines the relation between the believer and the members of his family, the neighbors of his community, and the citizens of his country. We need to place a renewed emphasis, today, on the social teachings of the Gospel and we ourselves who accept the whole Gospel must do so and nod allow these teachings to be interpreted and applied only by those who deny the essentials of Christianity."
To this he added farther on: "There are those who feel very complacent by what they consider to be orthodox preaching even though they know well that their own wealth comes from dishonest businesses and the oppression of the people. The alleged orthodoxy of such preaching is undoubtedly deficient in its affirmations concerning the social teachings of the Gospel. One might be a bandit or a social pirate and still believe in the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus Christ."3 These words were written about 1911 by an irenic figure in the early days of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.
Thus, our historical background explains our negligence, and it also demands of us a re-examination of our conscience with its resultant corrective measures. But there is another sense in which a look at our history will help us. When it comes to the social dimension of our Christian testimony, there has been a retrogression paralleling the growth of the church. Now, evangelical observers who try to interpret our presence in Latin America have pointed out that evangelicals initially made a strong social impact.4 They were, for example, at the vanguard of the agrarian reform in Bolivia; of medical assistance in various parts of the Andes; of the public school systems of Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Cuba; of civil rights and especially religious liberty; of the fight for the rights of the Indians; and many other causes.
On the one hand, certain missions had a keen interest in social work establishing, for example, schools whose reputation and influence are now part of the educational tradition of certain countries. We should guard against the temptation of throwing the first stone when it comes to judging these early efforts. On the other hand, it can be observed, that missions which did not have any social interest ended up establishing service institutions brought about by the urgency of the problems they confronted. To the point that it could be said at times, even of the most conservative missions, that missionaries at the turn of the century evidenced great sensitivity to human needs. One might think that the growth of churches and denominations might have concentrated their efforts on ecclesiastic machinery itself, shutting their eyes to the needs of the world, and fulfilling their compassion in a typical bourgeois fashion.
One further aspect of the social impact of the Gospel is the rising standard of living. Often one can note that starting with the lowest strata of society, in the course of one to two generations, the gospel has produced a social mobility upward. This is how the son of illiterate evangelical parents can reach a university level thanks to the change that Christ brought about in his father’s conversion. How much have our churches been aware of this fact? The fact is, the teaching of the principle "to whom much is given, much is expected," has not been adequately developed in its application to the Christian’s social responsibility.
This precise moment in Latin American history is one of revolution, of rapid social changes and of transformation. The social pressures of the masses on the fringes of society who find their interpreters in the intellectuals and students, cannot be silenced either by military or police forces. It is here that political agitation finds a fertile ground for every kind of extremism. The economic and political solutions contained in the beliefs of our Anglo-Saxon brethren do not work in this explosive situation. This hour takes us by surprise with questions for which we do not have answers, even though we should have thought about them a long time ago. The generation gap which plagues the older churches is clear proof that we do not have answers to today’s questions and our choice young people are looking for them elsewhere.
Even though just a caricature, we believe that the synthesis of the situation made by an evangelical youth is very eloquent. "In the past, they told us not to worry about changing society because what we need is to change men. New men will change society. But when the new men begin to worry about changing society, they are told not to worry, that the world has always been bad, that we await new heavens and a new earth and that this world is condemned to destruction. Why try to make it better? What’s even worse is that those who teach this are the ones who enjoy all the advantages that this passing world offers and they passionately defend them whenever they are endangered."
II. THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH AND ITS SOCIAL CONTEXT
Without a doubt in this congress voices of authority will point out various aspects of the evangelizing mission of the church, its urgency, and its results. Notwithstanding, at the risk of raising controversy although following an evangelical theology, we must affirm that evangelism is one of the church’s tasks, that it is not the only task of the church, and that it does not end in proclamation. Recognizing evangelism as the central task should not lead us into closing our eyes to other urgent tasks: the teaching of "the whole counsel of God" to help the believer’s progress toward a "maturity in Christ"; corporate worship as an expression of communion in Christ;. and the cultivation of that type of relation that makes the Christian community a visible expression of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of men that is, witness, fellowship and service. The church is more than an able proclaimer in the communication of intellectual precepts. It is the visible expression of the truth that it proclaims.
One of the most important contributions of the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin was precisely this vital link between the life of the church and evangelism. "In the New Testament, evangelism nowhere appears to be a `question to be debated.’ That is, we do not find the apostles urging, exhorting, criticizing, planning and organizing evangelistic programs. In the apostolic Church, evangelism was an accepted fact and it was carried out without any great program on the part of the Christian community, just like the sun rises and sets. It was automatic, spontaneous, continuous, contagious . . . Paul didn’t suddenly exhort the churches to enlist in the propagation of the faith. He was much more interested in explaining what the faith was, and how to practice it and keep it . . ."5 It is evident how artificial it is to teach techniques on how to communicate the message entirely apart from a primary emphasis on the Christian life and the united testimony of the Christian community. That testimony of the Christian community is not simply tossed to the wind, it is given to the world, in specific neighborhoods, in specific cities, in specific social structures. It is not given to abstract men, but to men of flesh and blood who live in specific social structures, who suffer, who rejoice, who are subject to error and disillusion, who struggle and hope. As we study the New Testament in the light of its social context, we discover how the apostolic authors are perfectly aware of the world in which they live and are very precise in their teaching as to how to live by faith within the realities and institutions of this world. The didactic passages of the New Testament, when not occupied with theological exposition, are occupied to a great extent with the obligations and social relations of believers. They devote much less time, for example, to religious duties or the exercise of piety.6
As our thoughts center around the theme of evangelism, at the same time we can examine the pattern for carrying out our social responsibility. Our pattern is Christ, who is also our gospel, the power and wisdom of God in us, He who through the Holy Spirit is with us here and now, in this agitated 1969 in Latin America.
III. THE ROAD TO INCARNATION
"As the Father bath sent me, so send I you." Commenting on the application of these verses in his biblical studies at the Berlin Congress, Dr. John Stott said: "I dare to assert that while these words represent the simplest form of the Great Commission, at the same time they express the most profound truth, words which powerfully condemn us and unfortunately, which are most forgotten. In these words, Jesus not only gave us command to evangelize (`the Father sent me, so send I you’), but also a model for evangelization . . . ( As the Father sent me, so send I you’). The Church’s mission in the world is to be like Christ in every way. Jesus Christ was the first missionary and our entire mission comes from Him."7
This is the marvelous truth of the incarnation. God made himself man. The Word was made flesh and lived among us. Jesus did not fulfill his mission from afar. We see him as a child that is born and grows, as a man who lives the lot of a member of an ill-favored social class in a country exploited by colonialism. We are not talking about God disguised, as man. John himself who emphasizes so strongly his diety, describes to us the reality of his humanity. His redemptive task would not have been possible without this identification, this living as a man in the midst of men. Friend of publicans and sinners, he accepts them, eats with them, without trying to defend himself against the inevitable accusations which came as a consequence. This is the Lord who sends us. And this is how he sends us.
Sent by him, we are also men in the midst of men. We live in a specific society, subject to human laws, to the contingencies and unforeseen fortunes to which all our earthly fellow-men are subject. Even though true, we have to admit that too often we have given in to the temptation of separating ourselves from society and not identifying ourselves with it. We do not have a Protestant monastery in Latin America as yet, but the attitude of a monastery does exist. There are those who dream of forming "evangelistic neighborhoods" or educational systems, where from the cradle to the grave, the sons of believers will be protected from the world. Dr. Stott said: "I personally believe that our failure to obey the implications of the mandate, `So send I you,’ constitutes the most tragic weakness of evangelical Christians in the field of evangelism today. We do not identify ourselves with them. We believe so strongly in proclamation (and rightly so), that we tend to proclaim our message at a distance. Sometimes we appear to be people who give advice to men who are drowning from the security of the shore. We do not dive into the water to help them. We are frightened at the thought of getting wet, and besides, this implies a great many dangers. We forget that Jesus Christ did not send his salvation from heaven. He visited us in great humility."8 Let us try, therefore, to outline some of the consequences of our Lord’s command which are related to our social responsibility.
1. The church is a social group. The fact that it is the people of God does not hinder it from being a group composed of human beings, who adopt forms of social conduct and structures related to the environment in which they live. As a result, churches may be converted into white congregations with a segregationalist theology, and middle class churches with bourgeois mentality and customs. They may be converted into pressure groups within society manipulated for political ends. They may be converted into a type of "cysts" which are foreign to the social organism in which they live, producing a culture, a way of dress, or a pattern of diversion which are foreign to their environment. This is a danger that is linked to the fact that we continue to be men among men. This is precisely what we must be conscious of in order to combat it. We must learn to distinguish between what is biblical and fundamental and that which is only a reflection of social and cultural reality. Precisely, the emphasis on what is essential to the calling and mission of the Church is the corrective to the sociological conditioning, but we must recognize that this does exist.
2. Latin American identification. For the historic reasons already mentioned, frequently our churches have lived within an Anglo-Saxon sub-culture. How often we have observed in our leaders and pastors a total ignorance of the literature, folklore, and history of Latin America. Keen observers have pointed out the phenomenon of imitation of the missionary which leads many to talk with the same linguistic defects or to hold the same opinions about economy and politics. We must learn to be men of our own country and our own generation. I’m not referring to a false nationalism, an exaggerated patriotism which utilizes the national flag to cover up egoistic ambitions. I’m speaking of being aware that God has placed us here and now.
In evangelization this means that we recognize that men and women who hear our message will not necessarily understand those discourses which have been copied from Spurgeon, Moody or Meyer. These great preachers were great precisely because they responded to the reality of their time. To slavishly copy their messages is to distort them. One who has read their illustrations carefully is surprised at the number of allusions to men like Lincoln, Franklin, Washington or the kings of England. For the evangelizer, digging into our own past and present culture is an urgent task, his social and evangelical responsibility. Speaking about the application of this principle to the missionary, Eugene Nida has said: "The identification needed is not one of imitation but of effective participation as a member of society. To participate effectively, it is not necessary to deny one’s own cultural heritage-something that is literally impossible even though one proposes to do so-but to use these cultural resources to benefit the whole community to which he belongs."9 And this takes us to a deeper level of identification.
3. The gospel is not a middle-class ideology. If we examine carefully our Latin American social structure, we will note at once that there are certain strata that we are not reaching with the message of Jesus Christ: the aristocrat land owners, the elite industrial bourgeois, the intellectuals, organized labor, vast areas of university students and the rural masses. We are or we rapidly become middle class churches with a middle class mentality.10 I dare say that even churches which sociologically are not middle class, have developed a middle class mentality.
There was a time in Latin America when it was thought that the middle classes had a key role in the future. But in this sense the course of events has deceived us. On the one hand, the middle class is not a very large sector of the population: 13% in Bolivia, 15% in Brazil, 39.7% in Argentina, 31% in Uruguay. On the other hand, it has taken the path of mental and structural dependence upon the oligarchy to the point that one enthusiastic observer of another generation (1955) writes less than a decade later (1964) concerning the role of the middle classy "The middle class is less and less a factor of social change and is now becoming a part of the vast Latin American parasitology."11 It will lie other groups or social classes which will produce change. And they are precisely the ones who are not being reached by the Gospel. Why?
We preach a message that calls men to repentance and to a new life in Christ. Our sermons and writings call for the drunkard to leave his alcohol, for thieves and delinquents to leave their wicked paths, for disobedient children to respect their parents. We promise the neurotics that they will find spiritual peace and to the psychologically disturbed that they will find the fountain of tranquility. And what does our message have to say to the ones who exploit the Indians, to capitalist abusers, to corrupt law enforcers why accept bribery, and to dishonest politicians? Of what do "the good boys" (that is, the "rich youths") of our churches have to repent? Is it not sin or the manifestation of sin, this comfortable indifference toward the suffering of the masses in our continent or of other forgotten sectors? "Presidential breakfasts" and meetings with authorities are a popular thing today. Have evangelicals raised a prophetic voice in regard to these things? Are we not rather trying to gain the riches and privileges of unrepentant hearts of the powerful, guaranteeing them that the gospel will produce workers who will not strike, students who will sing choruses instead of painting walls with slogans on the social struggle, guardians of the peace at the price of injustice? We ought not think it strange then that those hearts sensitive to the pain of our people, to the misery, the injustice, instead of being agitated by the revolutionary message of Christ that changes even the blackest heart, go along with almost any popular ideology. We ought not be surprised then that in certain countries so many evangelical youths have become guerrillas and do not want to have anything to do with the church. Upon whom will their blood fall?
One more example of our lack of presence and incarnation in the whole of Latin American reality is our attitude toward the problem of the population. The hunger and the suffering are directly related to the terrifying growth of the population. But this is not the only cause, if we are to be honest. It is also caused by the unequal distribution of wealth and unjust social structures. Many evangelicals have enthusiastically begun to promote birth control as a form of social work. In my opinion this is highly commendable. But it would be good to see the same enthusiasm in the combatting of other causes of hunger. But we do not see them. I think the answer is simple. In birth control, it is the "lower classes" that are affected. And we are not too disturbed if they are mistreated. But when it comes to unjust distribution of wealth or of obsolete social structures, our actions and opinions will disturb the status quo of the "upper classes." We have talked and written about John Huss and John Wycliffe, evangelical forerunners of the Reformation. Have we not realized to what extent the evangelical work of these men was linked to that national movement (English and Bohemian) which fought against the imperialism of their day? Why did their message take root among the masses? It was not a gospel separated from flesh and blood.
Having said all this, we do not mean to imply that it is a sin to belong to the middle class. What we want to say is that the message of Christ cannot be reduced to the advantages, conveniences, and interests of the middle class. Our "incarnation" into the whole of Latin American society will make us feel the non-conformity of the students, the yearning for justice and bread of the rural peoples and the laborer, the antiAmericanism of the elite cultures. For all these Christ also died. Why can’t we admit that they are "sociologically predestined" not to hear the gospel?
4. The gospel is not a political and social program. It must be clearly understood that evangelical churches are not called upon to form a political platform or party in Latin America. This is not the church’s mission. The message of salvation must reach each one in his own circumstances showing him how sin affects every sphere of his life and human relations. The message should also show how the personal commitment to Jesus Christ will transform each life in such a way that the effects of conversion are visible to the society in which he lives. From what does Jesus want to save me and for what? This indeed evangelicals must preach clearly, in good Spanish, in understandable language, not in the unintelligible jargon of some secret sect.
When John the Baptist preached, (Luke 3:8-14) he asked for evidences of genuine repentance before baptism: "Act in such a way that a change in attitude can clearly be seen . . .", and then he was very concrete as to what each one should do. To some interested soldiers he said something that would sound very apropos to our time: "Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages." Our Lord Jesus was equally concrete in his demands to those whom he called. The epistles are also notably clear. James is very precise in his indications to that incipient middle class to whom he directed his epistle. How abstract our versions of the gospel sound at times!
Recently I have noticed the awakening social and political conscience in certain Argentine missionaries who went to the northern part of the country to live among the Indians in order to take them the message of Christ. They have not dedicated themselves to politics in the traditional sense of the word, but they have had to revise their thinking on civic education, to speak out boldly to the authorities, to preach against discrimination, and to start a small industry. My own congregation-in times past typically impervious to the social dimension of the gospel-has literally vibrated upon hearing what is happening. I think since then some have also understood the why of the social work of the British missionaries that for some time have worked in a nearby area, why they can’t just go, open a locale and start reciting texts in keeping with the best rules of hermeneutics.
So, if the church carries the example of Christ incarnate to its logical conclusion, it cannot do less than be very much aware of the social and political context in which those who hear the message live. It will preach a relevant message. It will cease to be a club of middle class happy people. It will cease to be a monastery or foreign culture cyst.
IV. THE ROAD TO THE CROSS: COMMITMENT AND SERVICE
"The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." The love of God is not known only in the incarnation of Christ, but in his corning to live among men. His work here ended on the cross, in his expiatory sacrifice to save sinners. This, too, is a central part of the gospel. The road of exaltation which gave to Christ his final lordship passed through humiliation and the sacrifice of the cross. There is a similar road for the disciple of Christ, for the one who is sent as Christ was sent.
"Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down His life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this world’s goods, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?" (1 John 3:16-17). Stott commented on this in Berlin: ". . . thus the vicarious death of Christ in its expiatory meaning was absolute and unique. Nevertheless, there is a secondary meaning in which we, too, are invited to die for the same people whom we want to serve. It is not until the grain dies that it bears fruit . . . We also are to be willing to offer our lives for the rest, not only as martyrs, but also in the service of sacrifice and self-denial . . ."12
It is interesting how the context in which Jesus defines his life as a mission of service which culminates in his death should be a context which refers to power and prestige. Some see the church as a political force, or they want to transform it into one. It is an ancient temptation and we should be on guard against it.
1. Political power and the spirit of service. The Kingdom of Christ is not of this world. It is not a kingdom that imposes political power upon men after they have been conquered. Basically, the Roman Church has done just that, i.e., yielded to the temptation of creating a "Christian Society" from above by conquering political powers. Latin America has a sad history of alliances between political power and religion, and there are many who suspect that behind the left wing of the "new Catholicism" there is, once again, the old temptation of promoting a revolution in order to ride in the saddle.
Evangelicals also fall in the same temptation via two different routes.13
First, there is the radical left of Latin American Protestantism which says that today it is not necessary to preach the gospel, that it is far more important to carry out the leftist revolution, that this is the Christian way today. Back of this position there are basic theological and political errors. Second, there are also those who affirm that as long as evangelicals are such a small minority, they can do very little in the social or political arena, and that this is why today we must dedicate ourselves to preaching until we become an evangelical majority-That is by the sheer number of votes. In both cases, there is simply a desire for power and without any thought of action apart from the acquisition of power.
This same temptation has sometimes caused evangelicals to "play the game" on the far right in support of oligarchy. In some countries the Roman Church has leftist segments that are very active. This has placed them in open opposition to conservative regimes, and in some cases has led to open rupture. These regimes in their desire to prove that they are "occidental and Christian" begin to court evangelicals, sending generals or public officials to their services, offering certain advantages to the one time disreputable Protestants. Evangelicals must not allow themselves to be caught in this type of political game. But sometimes ingenuity or the desire for prestige will lead them to rejoice in such "openings" indiscriminately. At other times, a naive anti-communism leads them to close their eyes to the misery and injustice, and to be suspicious of anything that speaks of change.
The pathway of Christ is the pathway of service. His death leads us also to death and to a new life (Romans 6:1-14; Colossians 2:9-23; Galatians 2:20). That new life means a new attitude toward God and toward our fellow-man, a new way of looking at things. The saved man has begun to live a new life which is no longer that of animal nature of man, egotistic and interested only in his own happiness, his own well-being, his own "salvation." We must go deeper into the total dimension of the change which Christ effects in us. Our gospel is false if it leads us to believe that after an encounter with Christ and conversion, the property owner continues to do whatever he feels lake doing with his property; the capitalist stops smoking or being an adulterer but goes on exploiting his workmen; the police distribute New Testaments in the prison but continue to torture their prisoners in order to secure their confessions; the young rebels are converted into good boys who finish their educational career to get married and tithe, so the church. can build a luxurious building with air conditioning, carpeting and velvet curtains.
Christ did not come to preach an