Social Is Ihe Gospel?
by Elmer L. Towns
| F |
undamentalists are taking stands along the spectrum of a heated debate as to which has priority—preaching the gospel or involvement in social service programs. Some maintain that preaching is the sole aim of the church, and any type of social action is outside the realm of church responsibility. Perhaps these Fundamentalists are reacting to Liberals who push the social gospel so strongly that they destroy any fervor for evangelism. On the other hand, some Fundamentalists are opening their hearts and digging into their pockets to become their brothers' keepers, as they recognize the agonizing needs of people in their neighborhoods, their nation, and their world. The Bible gives clear examples of these two extremes. The Good Samaritan bound up the wounds of a victimized stranger, but we do not read that he preached the gospel to him. On the other hand, Philip preached to the Ethiopian eunuch but did nothing about his social needs. When is it time to feed the hungry, and when is it time to preach the gospel?
Historically, the church has been instrumental in the dynamics of social
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Ihe "social gospel"
was something quite
different from the
change. During the Great Awakening in North America, the revival under the Wesleys in England, and the pietistic movement in Germany, the gospel was preached to the masses. Out of those evangelistic sweeps came improvements in society and education, and help for the poor, suffering, and morally depraved. There were advancements in
the rights of individuals and minorities, a growth in respect for civil authorities, and improvement in the working conditions of the laboring class. The influence of the great revivals brought about change in the economic and political systems, resulting in decreasing poverty and less economic oppression. During this time William Wilbur-force was applying his Christian faith as he worked in the political scene toward the abolition of slavery. Lord Anthony Shaftesbury was doing the same as he tried to improve the working conditions in the factories and coal mines of England.
Today, popular phrases such as "social responsibility," "social ministries," "social service," "social action," and "social justice" all have a positive connotation. Unfortunately, "social gospel," first employed by liberal theologians around the end of the nineteenth century, carries negative associations. Most Fundamentalists rejected the term because of the Liberals' position that there was no distinction between spiritual redemption and social restoration. Because of the Liberals' interpretation, many Fundamentalists
repudiated their social thrust and committed themselves to evangelism only. As a result, Fundamentalists have remained suspicious of the phrase "social gospel," and rightly so. It was a perversion of the true gospel and something quite different from the saving gospel.
There are four basic attitudes toward social work. Many believe that social service should grow out of evangelism. Our first duty is to bring the gospel to the lost, get them saved, and baptize them in a local church. But the Bible teaches that Christ gave Himself not only to redeem us but also to "purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works" (Titus 2:14). Therefore we are obligated to perform good works (Eph. 2:10), and they are an indispensable token of our salvation (James 2:14-26). If we do not have good works, we are probably not saved. After offering salvation, we should want to feed the hungry in our congregation, care for the needy in our community, provide medical services, orphanages, and homes for unwed mothers. This is an outgrowth of the gospel (James 2:18) and leaves little room for criticism.
Others think that social service can be a bridge to evangelism. Not all social work is a doorway to win souls, but when we minister to the physical needs of people we break down their prejudice and suspicion against us and the gospel.
To those who think we should always preach the gospel first, we must restate the old African saying, "An empty belly has no ears." Nor could the Israelites listen to the message of Moses because of "anguish of spirit and for cruel bondage" (Exod. 6:9). Many urban missions have won men to the gospel by providing them a hot meal and a place to sleep. Some have criticized this approach, calling it a bribe to get people to listen to the gospel. If good works are done out of a sincere heart of gratitude to Christ, then good works become a bridge rather than a bribe. If the church closes its heart to the needs of people, the people will turn a deaf ear to the gospel.
Some believe social service and the gospel happen together. Sometimes social work may be a bridge; other times it is a full partner. Just as a bird must have two wings to fly, so at times the missionary must preach the gospel and heal the sick simultaneously. This approach has raised concerns that to accomplish one objection the other must be lessened.
'hristians ore obligated to evangelism
and social action because God wil[ judge that which is right and just. *
Still others pursue social action for the cause of justice. Social action seeks to remove the causes of human deprivation—changing unfair housing laws, working through economic situations, trying to enact righteous laws, or changing the structures of society.
Until recently Christians in America could easily hide behind the First Amendment and leave social action to others because this nation was committed to righteous laws that protected the church, the individual, and the innocent. But that situation is changing. Unrighteous laws allow the unborn and the imperfect to be killed, protect the vile, and are invading the church. While some believe that Christ has called us to offer service to individuals through both evangelistic and social programs, they are reluctant to become involved in programs of reform. But is it Christian to remain quiet when clear issues of right and wrong are at stake? The church in Germany neglected to oppose the rise of Nazism, and later it was immune to the slaughter of the Jews. However one man, Bonhoffer, did speak out against the Nazis. Ultimately, he was sent to prison and died.
Fundamentalists are becoming more aware of and taking stands on crucial issues. But many questions remain: Is it biblical to be silent on an unpopular issue? When should the individual Christian take a stand on an issue about which the church is unwilling to speak out?
The basis of social justice is the law of God. Every man is made in the image of God, no matter what his race, color, culture, sex, or age. God is the judge of all men, therefore one of our
motives for preaching the gospel is "knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men" (2 Cor. 5:11). Men will be judged not only for their rejection of Christ but also for their opposition to and transgression against the law of God. The wicked will be judged out of the Book of Life (salvation) and the Book of Works (social responsibility). Therefore Christians are obligated to evangelism, but they cannot neglect social action. Why? Because God will judge concerning that which is right and just.
How should we approach social work? In all things we should pray. Paul admonishes us, "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty" (1 Tim. 2:1-3). We must have peace on earth if the gospel is to be preached. Peace is also important because men should live predictively, as they will in the future. A peaceful society reflects God who made it. Christians must pray for decisions concerning peace, whether it is for the peace of the unborn, or regarding nuclear disarmament and terrorist activities.
We are also to witness our convictions. Paul told the Ephesian elders, "For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). The whole counsel of God includes more than salvation; it includes all the laws of God. Again he reminds them, "I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you" (Acts 20:20). This included the preaching of the gospel and the edification of the saints, as well as rebuking evil and injustice in every form.
Likewise, the church must help people discern which moral and social issues of the day are concerned with injustice. We cannot keep quiet. Should a pastor understand the issues and not say anything, he is not fulfilling the biblical role model suggested by Paul. When people continue to be helpless victims in their society, or laws continue to allow the slaughter of the unborn, the pastor who has not spoken to these issues may be ignorant, spineless, or unfaithful, but he cannot be blameless.
By witnessing to these issues, we raise the consciousness level of those who are not aware of their ramifications. Only if a great body of people speak out will an issue be changed. We cannot afford to be silent.
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We must also bring the church to awareness. Changing the opinion of a church is difficult. An issue must be evaluated to determine its biblical, theological, and ethical position. The pastor has a duty to help the congregation develop a Christian mindset concerning justice and biblical principles, even though the issues involved are controversial.
If the church cannot come to a concensus of agreement, the church cannot make a pronouncement, and the issue cannot be dealt with in the name of the church. However, individuals certainly can become involved in extra-church organizations to help with the issue.
Although a church should not become involved in partisan politics, a church can stand for God's justice, biblical principles, and the preaching of the gospel. It can speak to a party when a party has taken a nonbiblical stand in its platform. It can address a candidate concerning his position on an issue such as abortion. It can speak to a law, particularly regarding its relationship or opposition to biblical principles.
We must become involved outside
he pastor who has not spoken to these issues
may be ignorant, spineless, or unfaithful,
but he cannot be blameless,
the church. Christians are called to evangelism and service, but our activities outside the church must focus on issues of justice and biblical principles. Obviously the Christian's service in the church is primary, and his involvement in serving the Lord through groups in
his church is automatic. On the other hand, the needs of the community will determine the extent of the Christian's obligation to and involvement in issues outside the local church.
Does the Christian's involvement in social action hurt the preaching of the gospel? Suppose a church opposes homosexuality and the community opposes the church's position. At this place the church must determine if its evangelism will be temporarily blunted by opposing the unjust laws, or permanently barred in the future if they do not take a stand. Such questions are difficult, but often they cannot be avoided.
To effectively witness for Christ the church must follow three priorities. First, we must preach the gospel at all times, realizing that the priority of the church is evangelism. Second, we must teach biblical principles to all who have been converted, so they can witness to others. Third, we must stand for God's laws and God's justice in the world, doing good works, testifying to society as to the nature of God. To do one at the expense of the other will be harmful to the cause of Christ. ■
Man Cannot Live by Bread Alone
by Helen Steiner Rice
He lived in a palace
on a mountain of gold, Surrounded by riches
and wealth untold, Priceless possessions
and treasures of art, But he died alone
of a "HUNGRY HEART"! For man cannot live
by bread alone, No matter what
he may have or own ... For though he reaches
his earthly goal He'll waste away
with a "starving soul"! But he who eats
of HOLY BREAD Will always find
his spirit fed, And even the poorest
of men can afford To feast at the table
prepared by the Lord.
■ Reprinted from Loving Promises ©1975 Fleming H. Revell Company. Used by permission.
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