No hidden agenda

The relationship between evangelism and social action.

Rex D. Edwards, D.Min., is director of ministerial continuing education for the General Conference Ministerial Association.

Martin Luther suggested that the city of Wittenberg ought to be divided into four or five sections, each with a minister and several deacons. He wanted to charge them with the responsibility of preaching, visiting the sick, and serving the needy. However, he concluded that sufficient spiritual servants were not available and "there fore I do not trust to start it [the ministry program] until our Lord makes Christians." 1

Christianity advocates the concomitance of words and works. "The religion of Christ is to be interwoven with all that [we] do and say." 2 Speech and action are partners. As such, the two belong to each other, and yet are independent of each other. Neither is a means to the other, nor even a manifestation of the other. Each is actually an end in itself.

John the apostle wrote: "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth" (1 John 3:17,18, NIV). Apparently, love in action springs from a twofold situation: first, seeing a brother in need, and second, having resources to meet the need. Those who do not relate what they have to what they see cannot claim to be indwelt by the love of God. Further, this principle applies whatever the nature of the recognized need. I may see spiritual need (sin, guilt, lostness) and have the gospel knowledge to meet it. Or the need I see may be disease or ignorance or bad housing, and I may have the medical, educational, or social connections to relieve it. To see need and to possess the remedy compels love to act, and whether the action will be evangelistic or social depends on what we see and what we have.

While the church need not have a formulated philosophy on the relation ship between word and deed, she will meet human need even as Jesus did in His ministry. Unfortunately, there is always the temptation for us to emphasize one thing to the neglect of another. And so the criticism goes: "If the church talks too much, it also does too little. It has a big mouth, but shrunken hands. Let those garrulous clergy climb down from their pulpits, roll up their sleeves, and do something!"

In response, the question must be asked: Are deeds above words?

Deeds and words

The loudest, clearest language that God ever "spoke" was when the Word became flesh and lived among us. De creasing words and increasing deeds is not the answer.

How does witnessing actually take place? We must realize that the key work in witnessing is not action, but interaction. Therefore, trying to help another person through pantomime is as futile as trying to make the Word known without words.

Donald Lloyd divides Americans into two varieties, the loudmouth and the quiet mouth, describing the latter as per sons who are friendly, helpful, and even chatty but never disclose what they re ally think. "Perhaps it [the practice of keeping one's thoughts and convictions private] has its origin in English religious dissent, when ordinary people kept their Bibles and their thoughts well hid den and met the world with bland and noncommittal faces. Perhaps it began in the American Colonies; as religious sectarians settled and mingled, persons sick of harassment in Europe found peace in common silence. Avoiding touchy is sues, one could do business." 3

Leighton Ford of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association told a congress on evangelism in Minneapolis that "evangelism must be love with flesh on," and pointed to William Wilberforce as an example of a Christian into whose heart God had put a burning passion to abolish the slave trade. "Wilberforce went on a campaign to wipe out the evil, not only by preaching the gospel but by fierce debate and political action." Ford commented that "such activity should not be confused with evangelism, neither should it be separated from it." 4

Christians disagree about the precise relationship between social service and evangelistic mission. W. A. Visser 't Hooft says: "Unfortunately, the Christian churches have given and are often given the impression that diakonia is in fact an auxiliary activity and an incentive for their evangelistic or missionary expansion. A good deal of a great misunderstanding between the church and the modern world has arisen precisely at this point. The world finds it hard to believe that Christians can render truly disinterested service and have a concern about man as man, not merely as potential church members." 5

Means or manifestation?

The relation between word (evangelism) and deed (social action) has been defined in two ways. First, some regard social action as a means to evangelism. In this view, evangelism and the winning of converts is the primary goal, but social action is a useful preliminary, an effective means to the end. In its most blatant form, this makes social work (whether food, medicine, or education) the sugar on the pill, the bait on the hook. While in its best form social action gives to the gospel a credibility it would otherwise lack, the smell of hypocrisy hangs around such philanthropy. The result of having such a frankly ulterior motive is the breeding of so-called rice Christians. We should expect this if we ourselves have been rice evangelists. No wonder Gandhi observed: "I hold that proselytizing under the cloak of humanitarian work is, to say the least, unhealthy. . . . Why should I change my religion be cause a doctor, who professes Christianity as his religion, has cured me of some disease?"

Second, others regard social action not as a means but as a manifestation of evangelism, or at least of the gospel that is being proclaimed. In this case, philanthropy is not attached to evangelism from the outside but grows out of it as its natural expression. One might also say that social action becomes the sacrament of evangelism, for it makes the message significantly visible.

It is argued that medicine and education are a legitimate and necessary means of creating an opportunity for preaching. But when these services are motivated by Christian compassion, they cease to be simply preparation for evangelism and actually become preaching. I concur with this concept so far as it goes; there is a strong precedent for it in the ministry of Jesus. His words and deeds belonged to each other the words interpreting the deeds and the deeds embodying the words. Not only did He announce the good news of the kingdom but He per formed visible signs of the kingdom. And because people would not believe His words, He said, then let them believe Him for the sake of the works them selves (see John 14:11, NKJV).

I am left with some unease with this argument, however, for it makes service a subdivision of evangelism, only an aspect of the preaching. Now, I do not deny that good works of love did have an evidential value when performed by Jesus, and also do when done by us (see Matt. 5:16). But I cannot accept that this is their only or even major justification.

Social action a partnership

As already noted, my view is that social action is a partner of evangelism. This does not mean that words and works, evangelism and social action are so in separable that all of us must engage in both all the time. Situations vary, and so do Christian callings. As for situations, there will be times when a person's eternal destiny is the most urgent consideration. We must not forget that people without Christ are perishing. But there will certainly be other times when mate rial needs are so pressing that the victims will not be able to hear the gospel if we shared it with them. The man who fell among robbers needed above all else, at that moment, oil and bandages for his wounds, not evangelistic tracts in his "pockets"! Similarly, in the words of a retired missionary, "a hungry man has no ears." If our enemy is hungry, our biblical mandate is, not to evangelize him, but to feed him (Rom. 12:20)! Then, too, there is a diversity of Christian callings, and every Christian should be faithful to his own calling. A doctor must not neglect the practice of medicine for evangelism, nor should the evangelist be distracted from the minis try of the Word by the ministry of tables, as the apostles quickly discovered (see Acts 6:1-7).

Christians, who live in a dying world with a hope that points forward in confident expectancy, should serve without a hidden agenda. Moreover, evangelism is not primarily a matter of words or deeds but a matter of presence the presence of the people of God in the midst of humanity and the presence of God in the midst of His people.

1 "Darum traue ich's nicht anzufangen,
solange, bis unser Herr Gott Christen macht"
(Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart[Y9Q6], i).

2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1948), vol. 9, p. 21. (Italics supplied.)

3 Donald Lloyd, "The Quietmouth American,"
The Peace Corp Reader (Washington,D.C., 1968),
p. 121.

4 Leighton Ford, "The Church and Evangelism
in a Day of Revolution," Gospel Herald, vol.
LXII (Dec. 23, 1969), p. 1091.

5 W. A. Visser 't Hooft, The Pressure of Our
Common Calling (New York: Doubleday, 1959),
p. 55.

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Rex D. Edwards, D.Min., is director of ministerial continuing education for the General Conference Ministerial Association.

October 1993

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