What part do social justice and community welfare play in the church’s mission? Are they something different to the gospel, and not as important, or are they part of the gospel? There are several very different views on this.
Three different views
1. Getting people saved is supremely important
Evangelism has been critically important for evangelicals, at least in theory. The argument has two imperatives.
- From the Bible, we learn that Jesus commanded us to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23), and Paul asks the question: “how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14) The New Testament says evangelism is important.
- Then there is the logic of all this. Without Jesus, people are lost. If they stay lost, they are condemned to God’s wrath which leads to hell (it is said). If we love them, we MUST tell them the good news that they can be forgiven.
And so it is easy to come to the view that evangelism IS the gospel, and so much more important than anything else we could do.
Some proponents of this view conclude that social action is not important at all for the christian, but most would agree that caring for the poor and vulnerable is an important expression of the love of God and commanded in the Bible – but evangelism, which usually means verbal proclamation, is still the highest priority.
But this view does raise some questions, such as:
- If caring for others is commanded in the scriptures, can we really say it is less important?
- If evangelism is REALLY by far the most important thing, why are so many of us spending so much time earning a living, paying off a house, having expensive holidays and accumulating expensive possessions?
- Why did Jesus never command evangelism (at least as we understand it today), but instead commanded care for the poor, making disciples and loving God and neighbour? And when Jesus conversed with individuals, why so often did he care for them rather than evangelise?
- In the New Testament, the gospel (= the good news) was an announcement of a new king, and Jesus saw the kingdom of God as a matter of justice and restoration as well as salvation. Why do modern christians so often use the word gospel in a much narrower sense?
- Is it not possible that good works will be the means of evangelism?
2. The kingdom of God on earth?
New Testament scholars generally agree. Jesus’ main message was the coming of the kingdom of God – the rule of God on earth that would bring justice, peace and healing. And so some christians see the “gospel” as Jesus bringing political, social and ethical change – and our task is to do the same.
People of this view can point to passages like Matthew 25:31-46, which says God will judge us according to how we treated “the least of these”, and his insistence that if we loved God wholeheartedly and loved our neighbour (by which he meant whoever we come across in our daily lives), we would receive eternal life (Luke 10:27-28).
And so proponents of this view will tend to emphasise the importance of making a difference in life now, either because they think that is how we earn salvation, or even (for some) because they have little interest or even little belief in a life to come, or believe we will all gain eternal life in the end.
But again, this view raises some questions
- Why did Jesus say he came “to give his life as a ransom for many?” (Mark 10:45)
- If evangelism wasn’t important, why did the early church evangelise so enthusiastically, so that they soon filled the Roman world?
- It is right to give emphasis to what Jesus said, but how do we explain Paul’s teachings on the importance of repentance and salvation – and evangelism?
- Can justice and peace come without spiritual transformation?
3. The two wings of a bird; the two parts of a pair of scissors?
There is of course a middle view, that argues that both evangelism and social action are commanded and both are equally important, we shouldn’t try to prioritise one over the other. The “gospel” includes both of them. This view balances the two sets of teachings that form the basis of the previous two approaches
And this view too has its scriptures which support it. Jesus says people should see our good deeds and give glory to God (Matthew 5:16). Paul said his mission to the Gentiles was accomplished via what he said and did, and the power of signs and wonders (Romans 15:18-19), showing that evangelism can be more than verbal proclamation. Our behaviour can “make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Titus 2:10) – or presumably not if we behave badly!
Questions for this “middle” view
- How do we keep the balance right?
- Can our good deeds become “bribery” to pave the way for evangelism? Would this be a bad thing?
Some thoughts for the road
Faith in God is a work of the Holy Spirit
We know that faith is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8) and conviction of sin is a work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11). It is true that he usually uses people to share the good news, but this isn’t always the case. We all need to be careful not to claim any particular thing we do is essential to people entering the kingdom, and not to devalue anything that Jesus commands us to do.
It is also good to keep an eye open for how God is actually working in our postmodern day, and learn from that. The world around us is very different from when I was first a believer, and that probably means the Holy Spirit is working differently too.
God is doing something bigger than individual salvation
Jesus consistently said that he was bringing God’s kingdom on earth, and that meant freedom from oppression and captivity, restoration of sight and good news for the poor (Luke 4:18-19) His plan includes making all things new (Revelation 21:5), including a resurrected universe (Romans 8:20-22). We are called to be part of that kingdom.
Making converts, or, more accurately, making disciples, is part of his plan, but not the whole of it. Restoring and healing what is broken is also part of our mandate.
“Proclamation” isn’t always necessary
Many people come to believe in God without anyone “proclaiming the “gospel” to them. In recent years, many Muslims and people of other religions have seen visions or had dreams of Jesus that led them to faith (see Visions of Jesus?). And I have heard of non-believers in post-christian societies who find that God reveals himself to them with little input from christians.
Love in action
Sometimes, actions are louder than words.
- Jesus said that the greatest commandments were to love God and love our neighbours (Luke 10:27-28),and if we lived up to this, our good works would lead people to see God and praise him (Matthew 5:16).
- Paul says love must be completely sincere (Romans 12:9).
- John warns us not to love in words only, but also in action (1 John 3:18).
- Jesus says outsiders will know we are his followers by our love for each other (John 13:35), but he also tells us we must also love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).
So we can see that our sincere love, shown in practical actions, is one of the ways that non-believers see God, and turn to him. And Paul warns us that if we live unworthily “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles” (Romans 2:24). So if we say to an unbeliever that God loves them, and we haven’t shown that by loving actions, our evangelism may be useless, or even harmful.
How we live reflects on God’s name. This is serious stuff.
A time to speak and a time to listen
Enthusiastic evangelists press us to tell others about Jesus “in season and out of season”, but this doesn’t seem to be the Jesus way. He said we should be wary of speaking out to people who don’t want to hear, or are not ready for it (that’s my understanding of Matthew 7:6). He often spoke in stories and cryptic sayings that were nothing like a “proclamation of the gospel”, but provoked his hearers to think. Sometimes the time isn’t right.
But on other occasions, the time is right, and Peter urges us to always be ready to give the reasons for our hope in God (1 Peter 3:15), but to do it with gentleness and respect, otherwise God’s name may be blasphemed.
Direct proclamation is more likely to be necessary in “missionary” situations, while in post christian cultures people have heard it all before (or think they have), and a less direct approach may be more useful.
So how do we know when to speak and when to listen or serve? We pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us. It’s not that simple, of course, but that is still the way to go.
People want to see we are genuine
Evangelising without loving is a contradiction in terms, and a travesty. And it is unlikely to be effective. Tim Keller says (talking about the parable of the Good Samaritan):
“You have to evangelise your neighbour, but on the other hand, you have to love your neighbour whether they respond to your evangelism or not. You have to show commitment to that person’s needs – they’re lying in the road, they’ve got a need, you don’t evangelise them, you pick them up. Unless the people of the community see you laying yourself out for them in deeds of justice and mercy, caring about the neighbourhood and the good of your neighbours, they’re not going to believe your evangelism is anything other than recruitment, an accrual of power – they’re going to just see it as tribalism.”
Try before you buy
Many people these days are wary. They’ve been told things before that were not true. They’ve been ripped off. They’re not sure they can trust christians, or the church. They are wary particularly of being caught up in something that turns out to be something different than what they were told.
So many people want to see what this following Jesus looks like before they take it on for themselves. If they like what they see, and the experience is good, then they may cautiously take another step. And how we act, the love that we show, or don’t show, for each other and for the world, may well be a determining factor in their choice.
Like our father?
The gospel is holistic good news. The Bible says God loves us, cares for us, came to earth for us, and wants us to receive his love. He cares for the poor and oppressed, the widows and the orphans, and wants us to do the same. And in doing this, we will change the world and individual lives.
And he calls us to be like him in these ways (Matthew 5:43-48). Really, no more needs to be said.
Let’s stop arguing about the gospel, and get on with living it and speaking it as the Holy Spirit guides us. Each of us has different gifts and different situations, and therefore each of us will have different ministry tasks.
Nothing we do in the Lord’s service is without value (1 Corinthians 15:58).
- Evangelism as strong priority: Reclaiming the lost priority of evangelism (Charisma Magazine).
- A balance that favours evangelism: Social involvement and evangelism (Part I): Two strong cases, Social involvement and evangelism (Part II): How they relate and We must focus on the Christian poor, all in The Briefing.
- Balancing evangelism and justice: Social justice vs evangelism (Relevant), The Gospel of Jesus IS a Social Justice Gospel (Patheos), Eight Reasons Why Social Justice is Necessary (Christianity.com).
- Social justice emphasis: Top 7 Bible Verses About Helping The Poor (Patheos), and The Truth About the Church and Social Justice.
- A humanist approach: 9 Quotes From Jesus On Why We Must Help The Poor (Borgen Magazine).
Photo: Seeking restoration of God’s broken creation. Climate march, Sydney, 2015.