Evangelism and Social Action
Dr. Stephen Charles Mott
GOOD NEWS, Summer 1974
A seminary student
once complained to me about some of one's fellow students: "If
they really had love, instead of spending their time trying to save
my soul, they would go down to the ghetto and care for the weak and
needy." This statement reflects a polarization both in the
student and in the Christians around him—the separation of
evangelism and social action, a dichotomy which extends throughout
What is the
relationship between social action and evangelism? Is one merely a
humble housemaid to the other? Are they two separate tasks of the
Christian without an integral relationship? Can we have the one
without the other?
BETWEEN EVANGELISM AND SOCIAL ACTION
1. Evangelism and
social action are different tasks.
During the 1950's and 1960's many evangelical leaders were engaged
in polemic with other church leaders over the definition of certain
key theological terms, resisting a tendency to use terms such as
"evangelism," "redemption," or
"mission" to describe the efforts of the church to
overcome social and political evils. The concern of the evangelicals
was warranted. No matter what labels we use, the church is
responsible for different tasks. Our terminology should preserve the
distinctions so that no task of the church is neglected through a
lack of precision in description—so that we are not deluded into
thinking that by doing one task, we are carrying out another.
Evangelism is the
communication of a message. The word comes from a Greek word meaning
to announce good news. Thus evangelism describes the activity of
John the Baptist and Jesus as they went about announcing that the
Reign of God had come near. Evangelism, through every medium of
communication, announces to all people that God has acted, making
provision through Christ to bring all people back to God.
Evangelism is not the
kind of news that informs, a daily report of the world to be
listened to while one goes on eating supper! Instead, it is an
emergency bulletin. Table talk stops. The fork clatters to the
plate. God has acted; God has provided; one must respond.
The Bible speaks of
what we call "social action" in terms of carrying out
justice and caring for the needs of the weak. Social action uses
materials which would be unlikely vehicles for communication: bread,
money, bricks, voting ballots. Evangelism is directed first at the
interior of the person—one’s will, one’s spirit, one’s
ability to respond to God through the Holy Spirit. Social action
aims at one’s external behavior—one’s body, one’s concept of
oneself in relation to others. Evangelism can only appeal to us in
our freedom by proclamation and persuasion; social action can use
power, law, and coercion to control people’s power over others.
Evangelism is carried out by Christians; Christian social activists
differs from their secular counterparts (who have learned Christian
justice in Western culture) primarily in terms of the source of
finding motivation in the Word of God. Evangelism can only be
addressed to the individual; social action can be carried out
against abstract collective behavior—even an economic system, a
body of government or legal constitution.
and social action have different commissions. In the Bible,
evangelism and social action have independent purposes. In their
primary intention they are not instrumental to each other. That is,
the basic impulse in witnessing is not to produce Christian
activists. And the core concern in executing social justice is not
to witness to Christian faith.
The most important
authorizations for evangelism are the charges given by our Lord
after his resurrection (see Matthew 28:16-20). The action which they
command is aimed at the deep loyalties of people, testifying to them
of Jesus, seeking to make them his disciples.
The basic Biblical
authorization for social action comes from the commands to do
justice in the Law, Prophets, and Wisdom Writings of the First
Testament. The people of God are commanded to establish justice in
the gate (Amos 5:15) that is, in the legal center of the community.
Jesus preserved the currency of these commands by stating that the
commands of justice and mercy belong to the more important
provisions of the First Testament (Matthew 23:23); they thus are
part of the just requirement of the Law that is to be fulfilled in
us (Romans 8:4).
When the Bible gives
further explanation as to why the people of God should obey the
command to do justice, the reasons are not normally because thus
people will turn to God, but simply because God is concerned for the
weak ("he executes justice for the fatherless and the
widow," Deuteronomy 10:18), because the people of God have
compassion on their needs ("you know the heart of a
stranger," Exodus 23:9), and because they themselves have
received justice from God ("for you were strangers in
Egypt," (Exodus 22:21).
Thus social action
cannot be subordinated to evangelism on grounds of the priority of
the ends over the means. Both are central charges to us from our
Lord, and we, as servants, are not to be so brash as to pick and
choose among what God commands any more than we can pick and choose
among the sins that God forbids. Even when it is not neglected, the
social action produced by this type of subordination can be weak. In
order to have one’s action visible, one may engage in simple,
direct activities that tend only to minister to symptoms of need.
But this sort of social action neglects action which is more
invisible to the recipient but which may actually do more to come to
terms with the legal and power roots of injustice.
THE BASIC UNITY
If evangelism and social action need to be distinguished in order to
preserve the Biblical integrity of each, in practice they belong
together and are mutually dependent.
and social action are subordinate to God’s purpose in history.
God’s great purpose in history is not merely to produce God’s
kind of a just society; nor is it merely to redeem a holy people.
Rather, the goal is the unity of both evangelism and social action.
According to Isaiah 61:11, "As a garden causes what is sown in
it to spring up so the Lord God will cause justice and praise to
spring forth before all nations." It is this total objective
which is the mission of the Church, not either one or the other.
When Jesus sent out the twelve disciples (Matthew 10), they were the
prototype church in the prototype mission. He sent them, not just to
announce the approach of the Reign of God, but also to "heal
the sick, raise up the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out
demons" (v. 8). In Hebrews 13 we are commanded to go outside
the camp and perform the sacrifices not only of praise to God
but also of benevolence and sharing.
Social action and
evangelism thus presuppose the same view of God. God is sovereign
over all and God seeks to fill with God's power and authority all
creation through the Church (Ephesians 1:23; Colossians 1:18-20).
Social action (by resisting evil in the external world), and
evangelism (by resisting evil in humanity’s inner loyalties) are
both channels of God in bringing into history the outposts of God's
total Reign. They are subordinate, not to each other, but to the
eschatological Reign of God.
and social action are interdependent. The Hebraic unity of
humanity, validated by modern psychology, makes obvious the
interdependence of evangelism and social action in Biblical thought.
Our physical and social well being can be disturbed by our basic
allegiances; meaninglessness in our bodily existence can shatter the
meaning of our life in general.
There would be no
Christian social action without evangelism because there would be no
Christians. The fruit of evangelism is a commitment to the
transcendent God, who provides the power and purpose for all
social action can be a boon to evangelism. One of the greatest
barriers to evangelism is the failure of Christians to have
significant relationships with non-Christians. Social action, by its
nature, places the Christian in the midst of non-believers who are
also struggling for justice in a setting where the question of one’s
motivation easily comes to the fore. This frequently has been the
case in projects connected with my courses. Social action and
evangelism are not exclusive options; a Christian should make
significant personal witness while working for justice. And while
witnessing, the Christian ought also to be working for justice.
Further, Jesus stated
that when people see our good works, they may glorify our Father in
heaven (Matthew 5:16). The ancient church historian, Eusebius,
reported that in the early fourth century, in the midst of severe
persecution of Christians, drought and famine and plague came upon
the populace. In places almost entire villages were wiped out, and
dogs preyed upon the emaciated. But the Christians stood out alone
in deeds of sympathy and benevolence. They buried the dead and
distributed bread to all who were wasted by the famine. As a result,
Eusebius notes, people glorfiied the God of the Christians and were
convinced that only the Christians were really devout (H.E. 9.8.14).
When social action is
missing, evangelism is thwarted and allegiance to Christ declines. I
have had many talks with men and women who have lost what would
seem. to have been a vibrant evangelical faith. More than any other
factor, the cause of offense was the perception of a lack of social
concern by conservative Christians. And the problem is not primarily
inactivity and complacency, but sometimes social attitudes and
actions which are only supportive of the middle or upper classes to
which these Christians belong. I remember the divinity school
student who agreed with evangelical theology but who had lost
concern for the church because an evangelical preacher had blessed
the war and expected the poor to help themselves.
and social action are grounded in love. The setting for the
prototype mission of the Twelve in Matthew 10 is important. In
Chapters 8 and 9 Matthew presents most of the miracles in his
gospel. They provide meaning for most of the setting of Matthew 10.
Jesus has been doing all this preaching and healing, yet still
before him are the harassed, helpless, and needy crowds. "When
he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them" (Matthew 9:36).
In response he expanded his ministry. He told his disciples to pray
for more laborers for the harvest, and then he sent them out to
proclaim and heal. We continue this ministry. And if it really is to
be the ministry of Jesus, then it must be grounded in his
My deep concern is
not for those who have a different picture from mine of the
President, the poverty program, or the war but for those who are not
moved by human suffering, by humanity’s loneliness, by one's
prospect of eternal death. How can one be a Christian if one does
not have a Christian heart, Christian emotions? How can love have
been poured into such a heartless heart?
As it was for God,
"who so loved the world," so for us true evangelism and
true social action begin in compassion for the needs of people. Over
a year ago God gave my wife and me a son. My basic prayer for him is
that he may grow up to be a strong, Christian man. But when he has
fallen and has hurt one's mouth and is standing with his eyes closed
and with tears streaming down, wiggling in pain, and holding out his
arms for his Daddy, why do I leap to him and catch him up? Is it
because by thus providing him with a loving fatherly image he later
could respond more easily to the love of the God, the Heavenly
Father? If that was my immediate and conscious motive, the reader
would rightly question the genuineness and spontaneity of my
fatherly love. No, it is because he is hurt. Because he needs me,
and I love him.
It is the same way in
society. We respond to the needs for justice of our fellow human
beings because they hurt, they need us, and we feel their need
within us. That is love’s unpremeditated response.
Because they need
God, we also respond spontaneously with the glad tidings of God's
provision. Both activities are love’s response to the need at hand
and not a calculation about another need.
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