The tricky balance between evangelism and social justice

Posted: August 25, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Ethics, Missional Thought, Social Issues

Matt Harmon of Grace Theological Seminary posted “ten theses for further discussion” from his talk about the relationship between the kingdom of God and social justice.  You can find them here and here.  This is something that I’m quite interested in.   Here are some that I thought were particularly well-said:

2. We must allow biblical and theological convictions to shape our engagement in social action. There are simply too many individuals and churches that jump into these issues out of compassion devoid of biblical and theological foundations. The responsibility for this rests primarily with the church to provide solid teaching on this area, but also for individual believers to ground themselves in Scripture. Compassion that is not rooted in the gospel will ultimately and inevitably lead to assuming and eventually even denying the gospel in the name of caring for people in this life.

3. We must not collapse the already/not-yet tension. However one puts this together, we need to be sure to recognize both. Emphasizing the already to the neglect of the not-yet results in people thinking that our efforts usher in the kingdom, or worse yet that the ultimate goal of God is to improve conditions in the [sic, I think think he means “this”] life. Emphasizing the not-yet to the neglect of the already results in people thinking that any engagement in social issues is a waste of time because it is all going to burn. Holding the two together holds the promise of engagement in social action while prioritizing eternal issues of heaven and hell….

5. We must prioritize proclamation of the gospel without neglecting social action. This is the point where our theology really surfaces. If we are convinced that heaven and hell are ultimate realities that each human being must face, then we will prioritize the communication of the gospel message. This does not mean that every kind deed must be accompanied by a gospel tract, but it does mean an intentional effort to share the gospel in the context of meeting physical needs or addressing social structures. Actions are not self-interpreting; there are plenty of nice moral people who do good things for the community and have no interest in Jesus Christ. If we are to distinguish our efforts from them (and at some level we MUST if we are to be faithful to Christ) there must be communication of the gospel. Faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), not by simple observation of good works.

6. We must realize that our actions are not self-interpreting. There is absolutely a place for being salt and light in a community through good deeds. But unless those deeds are given an interpretation, people will simply not know why we are doing them. There are plenty of groups who do good deeds in the community. Our actions will not truly adorn the gospel unless people are made aware that the actions flow out of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Again, faith comes by hearing, not simply doing good things before people and hoping they make the connection to Christ.

7. We must recognize the trend towards increasing social action and decreasing evangelism within the church. In many (if not most) evangelical churches today it is easier to recruit people to go do a neighborhood service project than it is to do evangelism. My concern is that a growing number of evangelicals assuage their guilt (if it even exists!) for not sharing the gospel by doing good deeds in the community. While I am not arguing a strict causation, it seems more than coincidental that at a time when evangelical participation in social action is rising rapidly active participation in evangelism falling rapidly.

8. We must think through and articulate the connection between specific social action and the gospel. One of the reasons that social and action and evangelism are hard to marry is that we have often failed to think through the relationship between specific physical needs and the gospel. When ministering to the hungry we can point them to the bread that truly satisfies. When ministering to those who are poor we can help them to see that their physical poverty is a window into the spiritual condition before God, and their need for spiritual riches that cannot be destroyed. When we think through these kinds of connections the relationship between social action and the verbal communication of the gospel seems much more natural.

Hat Tip: Justin Taylor

  1. i read the article and thought it was very insightful and clear. the eschatological tension of the already and not yet will impact one’s perspective in social engagement. i also concur with point #7 and have noticed an increased trend in “common grace” endeavors. i think there is a place for Christian communal “common grace” endeavors of simply loving neighbors in tangible ways that needn’t necessarily be attached with “evangelism”. having said that, i think the trend in evangelicalism is to equate common grace with evangelism. we are told that our good deeds in and of themselves can have a saving effect upon others at God’s visitation:

    1 Peter 2:11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.
    1 Peter 2:12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

    [1] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. Wheaton : Standard Bible Society, 2001

  2. Scott Kistler says:

    Rick, I’m glad that you cited the verse from 1 Peter. With the trend to equate the two, we probably need to think about more ways that we can work in intentional evangelism to counteract our bias toward excluding it. I know that I am terribly weak at speaking about the gospel in an impromptu situation. At the same time, I agree that there can be common grace activities as well that aren’t intentionally evangelistic.

    Perhaps with the common grace endeavors we can go in reminding ourselves that we should be ready to speak when asked: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (2 Peter 3:15 ESV).

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