The social gospel is a legitimate child of evangelism


“I am so tired of hearing this social gospel held up as the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. The reason the Church pushes this social gospel is because by and large it doesn’t believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ which forgives, reconciles and changes people from within,” fumed ‘dannybhoy’ in yesterday’s comment thread. “Amen to that,” declared David. “AMEN!!!” yelped  ‘preacher’, before expounding: “Many Churches embrace the social gospel because the true one is too hard to handle, ministers are not preaching the Cross & the Blood as the only way that mankind can be redeemed. This diluting of the truth has resulted in Christians reaching a spiritual plateau with no direction or reason to go on. They feel there is more, but the leadership is poor, or often non existent so in frustration they turn to social good works, which in themselves are good but of no eternal value.”

This is a warped apprehension of the gospel, and a judgmental mistrust of Church leadership. The relationship between evangelism and social concern is evidenced throughout the history of the Church, though variously and sometimes conflictingly expressed. America’s ‘Great Awakening’, the Pietistic Movement in Germany and the Evangelical Revival under the Wesleys all proved a great stimulus to both strategies of evangelism and programmes of what we now term ‘social justice’. But defining the relationship between the two is complex: a disproportionate emphasis on social justice may indeed lead to what some term a ‘social gospel’, in which God’s kingdom on earth becomes a series of social programmes; and yet a narrow emphasis on evangelism may lead to a salvation consisting simply of a ticket to heaven, with little regard for earthly welfare or justice.

The 1974 Lausanne Conference suggested that “evangelism and social concern were equal but separate partners that together made up the mission of the church”. But tensions and ambiguities remained. Some argued that evangelism without a commitment to social concern would produce churches which were blind to social justice. Others argued that a commitment to social involvement as equal to evangelism would produce churches that were mostly social service agencies and thus distract from people’s most desperate need, namely to obtain the eternal salvation of their souls.

To attempt to define the nature of the relationship between the two, it is necessary to examine the themes throughout the Bible, from the Old Testament foundation of Shalom to the New Testament emphasis on the proclamation of the gospel bringing liberation for the poor.

The Church is called to declare salvation (Acts 20:24), which Bosch (in Transforming Mission p412) describes as “announcing that God, Creator and Lord of the universe, has personally intervened in human history and has done so supremely through the person and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth who is Lord of history, Saviour and Liberator.” If the work of Christ is accompanied by a declaration of the Kingdom of God, evangelism may be seen as spreading the good news that God is establishing a new order through Christ, calling people to repent and embrace restoration. Matthew records salvation in terms of liberation from burdens (Mt 11:28f), and Luke refers to it as ‘preaching peace by Jesus Christ’ (Acts 10:36). ‘Peace’ here echoes the many Old Testament promises that God would liberate his people from oppression, and create a community in which everyone contributes to the needs of all:

The messianic peace, Shalom, wrought by Jesus Christ, involves not only a new relationship to God but also a relationship between man and his neighbour. Shalom is not a gift that the Lord gives apart from himself; rather, he himself is Shalom (Eph2:14), and through his death he has brought all hostility among men to an end (Bosch, Transforming Mission, p412).

There is a particular emphasis on the poor, the broken-hearted, captives and prisoners, with notable examples of God rescuing his people from adverse conditions and giving them a new life. In many of the Psalms (eg 9:9; 140:12) those who wait for God’s salvation are the materially poor, the physically disabled, the persecuted and oppressed. To enter into salvation is to be liberated (Ps 145:14-20), not only from sin, but also from earthly oppression.

The basic meaning of the original is ‘to create spaciousness’ or, one might say, ‘room to live’. From this root, it comes to mean the people’s freedom from whatever confines or restricts their ability to flourish as God intends (Kirk What is Mission, p64).

Since poverty is relative, it is important to examine what Luke means by ‘the poor’. As previously expounded:

The peasants (eg Lk 6:20) who possessed little material wealth were not called ‘poor’ (πτωχός – ‘ptochos’) if they possessed what was sufficient (ie subsistence) – they were termed ‘penes’ (πένης). Jesus was concerned with the literal, physical needs of men (ie not just the spiritual [cf Acts 10:38]). When Luke was addressing the ‘poor’, he meant those who had no money – the oppressed, miserable, dependent, humiliated – and this is translated by ‘ptochos’, indicating ‘poverty-stricken…to cower down or hide oneself for fear’ – the need to beg. The ‘penes’ has to work, but the ‘ptochos’ has to beg. Those addressed by Jesus are the destitute beggars; not ‘penes’ or the general peasant audience of few possessions. This is (or ought to be) an important distinction for politicians and for the modern audience in a society where the threshold of poverty is defined by the non-possession of a television, a DVD player, and Nike trainers.

Although rich and poor are Luke’s terms, their social and cultural meanings within Luke’s context remain a debated question. But the irruption of the poor remains a direct challenge to the mission of the Church, whether they be beggars or lowly-paid workers:

This new presence of the poor and oppressed is making itself felt in the popular struggles for liberation and in the historical consciousness arising from these struggles. It is also making itself felt within the church, for there the poor are increasingly making their voices heard and claiming openly their right to live and think the faith in their own terms (Gutiérrez, The Truth Shall Make You Free, p8).

If the πτωχός is deprived of the basic needs of life – food, water, shelter, clothing – the message of salvation demands the provision of the necessities to restore dignity. But for the πένης, whose life is manageable but manifestly subject to inequalities and deprivation, salvation also demands ‘human rights’ – an involvement in the democratic process, education, healthcare, and protection under the law. Gutiérrez (p9) sees both as a sort of death:

Death, in this case, is caused by hunger, sickness, or the oppressive methods used by those who see their privileges endangered by any and every effort to free the oppressed. It is physical death to which cultural death is added, because in a situation of oppression everything is destroyed that gives unity and strength to the dispossessed of this world.

While we might obsess about the causes of this “death” and thereafter dispense charity according to notions of worthiness, there is no indication that the Church should practice such discrimination. Thus the question of whether the poor are victims of their circumstances or have made their own poverty ceases to matter in the context of evangelism: Matthew’s ‘social contract’ (Mt 7:12) becomes the great leveller, and constitutes the Church’s foundational expression of social justice.

The Hebrew word for jubilee (יוֹבֵל – yôbêl) means ‘release’ (Ex 21:2-6 cf Lk4:18), thus, in a sense, justice is another word for liberation – the removal of the barriers which prevent human beings from participating fully in the benefits and responsibilities of the community. The legislation concerning the year of jubilee (Lev 25:8ff.) releases those who are denied the means of livelihood (land) and are, therefore forced to be dependent on others (25:39-41). Luke’s ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ (Lk 4:16-19) may be seen as a declaration that the time had come for the fulfilment of these laws, with Jesus declaring the purpose of his own mission and the future mission of the Church. Evangelism thus gives birth to a ‘jubilee’ community (not once every 49 years, but in its daily practice), in which social justice – or the ‘social gospel’ – may be defined as giving to each his or her due.

The social gospel is not the bastard progeny of evangelism: it is a legitimate child, born of love, compassion, mercy and justice. There are, however, tensions, distinctions and contradictions in the ‘relationship’ (for want of a better word):

i) Social justice – separate from evangelism
A ‘relationship’ between evangelism and social justice does not demand that they belong to each other; nor does it imply that they cannot exist independently. The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37) was moved to tend the wounds of the victim, and he did so without preaching. And Philip preached the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) without any interrogation of his needs. There are clearly occasions when it is legitimate to perform one or the other. It is also worth noting that the Church is called to be a charismatic community – some are gifted to be ‘evangelists’ (Eph 4:11), while others are called to ‘minister’ (Rom 12:7; 1Pt 4:11). While it is clear that particular situations and specialist vocations may legitimately lead to a separation of evangelistic and social responsibilities, the two may also be fused in a more intimate relationship.

ii) Social justice – a child of evangelism
If faith works by love (Gal 5:6), and the apostolic example was to ‘shew thee my faith by my works’ (Js2:18 cf 1Jn 3:16-18), then the evangelism which brings people to a new life of relationship with God should manifest itself in the service of others. Churches which have programmes of social involvement to meet specific needs are obedient to the demand to serve. Conversion is followed by commitment, and intrinsic to this is a social dimension (Titus 2:14). While good works cannot bring salvation, they are undeniably evidence of salvation (Js 2:14-26). In this model, social justice is a service rendered in and of itself; the actions constitute the testimony. There is no quid pro quo ‘acceptance of the Lord’: social justice is administered unconditionally, without crass expectations of conversion in return.

iii) Social justice – a door to evangelism
In their constant opening and closing, doors permit introduction and on-going communication, both of which are necessary for relationship. Social involvement can help to break down barriers of suspicion, and thereby open doors in hearts which may have been closed for years. Feeding the starving, tending the sick, running a youth club, or helping mothers look after young children may all lead to evangelistic opportunities for the hearing of the gospel message. Worship becomes inseparable from evangelism and social action in the community. The focus on social responsibility – helping in foodbank, picking up litter, decorating school toilets – becomes gospel seed-planting. Jesus did, after all, perform miracles of feeding and healing before proclaiming the Good News.

By seeking to serve people, it is possible to move from their ‘felt needs’ to their deeper need concerning their relationship with God… If we turn a blind eye to the suffering, the social oppression, the alienation and loneliness of people, let us not be surprised if they turn a deaf ear to our message of eternal salvation (Lausanne Movement).

iv) Social justice – a partner to evangelism
Rather than miracles preceding proclamation, they may be seen as simultaneous – Jesus’ words explain his actions, which in turn dramatise his words. The fusion of the message of God’s love in providing salvation, and his manifest concern for the needy, becomes a relationship of equal partners. Evangelism has social implications because it demands that people repent of social as well as personal sins, and to live a new life as a member of a Kingdom community. Social justice has evangelistic implications because acts of mercy and love are a demonstration of the gospel. Thus evangelism and social justice, while distinct from each other, are integrally related in the proclamation of and obedience to the gospel. The partnership may thereby seen as a marriage in which husband and wife not only belong to and depend on each other, but where one should also be able to see something of the one in the other. This means that there is an evangelistic dimension in all truly Christian social action, even when explicit evangelism does not take place. Likewise, there is a social dimension in all authentic evangelism, even where explicit social action does not occur.

iv) Social justice and evangelism – a marriage of unequals?
If the relationship is marriage, it assumes that they are of identical importance and possess equality of precedence. But the Lausanne Covenant affirms that “in the church’s mission of sacrificial service, evangelism is primary”. This is a simple matter of logic, since for the Church to be involved in social justice presupposes a community of socially responsible Christians, and it can only be by evangelism and discipleship that they have become such. If social justice is a progeny of evangelism, then evangelism must precede it, and so the optimal model is that of the legitimate child.

Evangelism is also primary in the sense that it offers eternal salvation. While an holistic approach to salvation does not limit its definition to simply ‘going to heaven’, it is undeniable, as the Lausanne Movement make clear, that “the supreme and ultimate need of all mankind is the saving grace of Jesus Christ, and that therefore a person’s eternal, spiritual salvation is of greater importance than temporal and material well-being” (cf 2Cor 4:16-18). In practice, the possibility is remote of being presented with a stark choice between feeding the starving or declaring the Good News. If the ear is to hear, it helps if the belly is full. Rather than competing with each other, social justice and evangelism mutually support and strengthen each other.

The Good Samaritan’s love in action challenges us to work for justice because the Church cannot remain passive or neutral when fellow men suffer from poverty. Equally, it is not only a question of ethics in the present, but also the proclamation of a hope that is future. Jesus blessed those who showed mercy, who worked for Shalom, who provided hospitality without any thought of reward (Mt 5:4-9; Lk6:30-36), and the poor themselves are blessed, for in the coming of the Kingdom there will be sufficient for all (Lk 6:20f). Thus the Church is not called simply to proclaim the gospel, but simultaneously to live out its evangelistic message – “Just as one cannot speak of the church without speaking of its mission, it (is) impossible to think of the church without thinking, in the same breath, of the world to which it is sent” (Bosch, p377). The message of salvation is not only the ‘law’ of alleviating material poverty in this world (our love for others), but also of the communication of the Good News for all mankind (that God loves us), regardless of social status.

If the Church is to proclaim with confidence that knowing God and entering the Kingdom is liberation from the bondage of sin, and also proclaim justice in action for the weak and oppressed, the gospel is social. Occasionally, but rarely, the word preached will be separate and distinct from the word witnessed. More frequently, the two will coexist because love is best preached by serving, caring and giving.