Social action v Evangelism

Would you rather? (Evangelism vs Social Justice)

“It would be good to give to World Vision. But as my funds are limited, I’m only going to give money to evangelism. Anyone can get behind aid and development, but if Christians don’t support the spread the gospel then who will?”

“Our church recognises the physical needs in the community, but our priority must be evangelism. And since our resources are limited, we must limit ourselves to those priorities.”

“We cannot afford to take resources away from evangelism to put into addressing social needs – there is always going to be more need, and we’ll just be trying to top up a leaky bucket.”

Social action v EvangelismUntil 2004 I had never really come across the “evangelism vs social justice” question. I just assumed that loving our neighbours and spreading the gospel were two vital parts of discipleship. Having to choose between the two of them sounded like one of those silly hypothetical games (a bit like “would you rather leave the house without your pants or without your shirt?”).

Then I started getting involved in advocacy in churches through a Christian non-profit and I learned that it is a live question in a few circles within Sydney evangelicalism. And more recently, a few different people have raised this question with me again, so I thought I’d put some of my thoughts into writing.

Our mission is evangelism, not social justice.

I take it that the mission of the church is summed up pretty well in Matthew 28:18-20.

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

So if this is our mission, is there any room for doing other good things in the world as well? Absolutely…

Because after baptism comes obedience.

Saying “I’m not going to love my neighbour because I’m focusing on evangelism” makes about as much sense as “I’m not going to honour my parents because I’m focusing on evangelism” or “I don’t have time to address my porn habit because I’m too busy evangelising”.

Loving our neighbours is not optional. It is part of what obedience looks like. Churches which fail to teach on this or encourage each other in this are failing their mission – they are making converts but not disciples.

But who is my neighbour?

Loving your neighbour has always been there, and it has always included caring for the needs of the poor – including those excluded in society. Even in ancient Israel, Moses made clear that love for neighbour included love for the marginalized. This is based on nothing less than God’s own character:

18 He [God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you [Israel] are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

When he was quizzed on this (Luke 10), Jesus confirmed that attempts to limit the class of people who we owe love to are contrary to the intention of the law. Do you remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Realising that the needs around us are overwhelming, and that our resources are limited, an expert Bible teacher asked Jesus to give a sensible limit to who we should try to love – “who is my neighbour?” he asked. But Jesus wouldn’t give him an answer – instead he turned it around and effectively asked, “if you were mugged and left lying in a pool of blood by a roadside, then who would you want your neighbour to be?” (Answer: the next bloomin person to come around the corner!!!)

Now, it’s true that we are human. We are limited in who we can help. But Jesus teaches that we shouldn’t therefore set a boundary around love, deciding in advance who we will think about helping. As opportunity presents itself, we should just do what we can to love whoever we come across.

Especially those of the household of faith

Paul has a nice little summary of this principle:

Gal. 6:10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

There is an idiosyncratic argument I’ve heard, however, that this verse should be translated “specifically” instead of “especially”. So Paul is saying: “we should do good to everyone … oh, but of course I mean specifically Christians, not those nasty pagans, don’t lift a finger to help them.”

I find this hard to swallow. For a few reasons:

  1. See the story of the Good Samaritan.
  2. None of my Greek dictionaries list “specifically” (in the restrictive sense) as a possible translation of the Greek word μάλιστα (malista). Malista is a superlative form of the adverb mala, giving the sense of intensifying something, not restricting something. Possible translations that capture this idea are listed as: “to an unusual degree”, “most of all”, “above all”, “especially”, “particularly”, “very greatly”. (The dictionaries I consulted are the standard ones for this period of literature: A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed (BDAG), A Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains (Louw&Nida), Thayer, and Mounce)
  3. Even if a restrictive “specifically” were a possible meaning of the word, the sentence is a very particular turn of phrase – “something + malista de + something”. In the New Testament (as well as a host of other ancient documents from Homer’s Iliad on) this phrase only ever means “but especially” in the superlative sense: see Phil 4:22 and 2Pet 2:9.
  4. Accordingly, none of the translations I checked go with a restrictive sense (NIV, Holman, ESV, KJV, ASV, NET, NRSV). And none of the commentators I checked even consider it as a possibility (John Calvin, John Stott, Longenecker).

God gives us our limits, as well as our opportunities

The phrase of “as we have opportunity” in Galatians 6:10 is laden with theological significance. The word is καιρὸν (kairon) – meaning time – is tied up in a bunch of places with eschatology: God’s divine schedule for the world. Paul is:

highlighting through his use of the noun καιρός the divinely given and strategic nature of opportunities set before the Christian for doing good. (Longenecker, Galatians)

So yes, we are limited. But so are the opportunities which God puts in front of us. Our job is to take those opportunities to do good.

Commenting on this passage, Calvin says that while there are “duties which we owe to all men arising out of a common nature”, we should have a particular concern for other believers because of our “sacred relationship” with them as members of one spiritual family. It makes sense that we will have opportunity to help them more often, because of our human proximity. Not everyone is able to help the members of my Bible Study group in the way that I am.

Some pragmatic questions

None of this is to dispute that there are some very real pragmatic questions about what form this should all take. Here are some of my current thoughts which you may want to discuss further:

  • I don’t think that individual churches as churches can or should start massive social welfare programs. Most of the time the scale of problems requires specialised skills and broader networks of policy coordination and support. But we should encourage people with the right gifts to go out and join para-church groups with strong links to the church (for example: Anglicare runs an emergency relief program on the site where my church meets, employing one gifted congregation member and coordinating several volunteers from the church).
  • An exception to the above, I think, might be local programs which spring out of particular needs in an area. So at Barneys we have a “Love Your Neighbour” team. They have found particular opportunities to help people on the same street as our church. I think that’s fantastic.
  • I don’t think that a focus on discipling people to love their neighbours diminishes the gospel focus. Certainly, our experience at Barneys for the last 150 years has been the opposite: for example RBS Hammond was a rector here during the depression who not only started some amazing social initiatives but also saw 4400 men come to follow Christ.
  • And I don’t think it’s always a zero sum game in terms of resources (some fear that if we put resources into helping the poor there will be less resources to spread the gospel). The people who get behind projects like our Love Your Neighbour program are rarely stopping doing evangelism in order to make time for it. In fact, the opposite. More gospel opportunities seem to arise for more people more often. More people find the place where their gifts can be used. Good discipleship in this area seems to be a good thing all around.

2 thoughts on “Would you rather? (Evangelism vs Social Justice)

  1. I was at Jibla Baptist Hospital in Yemen on the morning of 30 Dec 2002 when 3 of our senior American staff were shot dead. Their assailant knew the mission was closing the hospital next day, but he didn’t know this was because SB executives in the US disdained 30+ years of faithful work was “only” pre-evangelism.

  2. I have been active in our local Refugee Support group in both advocacy and hospitality to asylum seekers. Yes, that is very much social justice. Yet, as well, our activities bring us into relationship with people of other religions and every year we hold an authentically Christian service during Refugee Week that reaches several non-Christians. Further, we are often “doing good to those of the household of faith” who have fled terrible circumstances.

    When gardening with my hedge clippers I like to think of the two quite different blades with different roles as a reminder of how we need both evangelism and social action to work together..

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