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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 the church.

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?


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.

2. Evangelism 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.

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.

3. Evangelism 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.

4. Evangelism 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 Christian action.

However, vigorous 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.

5. Evangelism 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 compassion.

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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