Evangelism and social involvement

Would a stronger social agenda strengthen our evangelistic endeavors?

Earl P. Cameron, D. Min., is pastor of Mississauga Seventh-day Adventist Church, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada

The question of how to deal with issues of social justice has divided Christians into two camps. One argues that evangelism is the basic solution for common social dilemmas, while the other emphasizes direct social involvement as the true expression of the gospel.

David Moberg, observes: "Evangelicals are more inclined towards otherworldly perspectives, while theological liberals give greater attention to conditions and needs of men in con temporary society."1

How do we reconcile these two competing positions? This article will argue that both social justice and evangelism are biblically mandated, are seen in both the teachings of the Old Testament and in Jesus, and are involved in the final judgment of the nations.

The biblical mandate

The Bible has given to the Christian church two great mandates. The first one is cultural. Once a lawyer asked Jesus the question," 'Which is the great commandment in the law?' " Jesus responded: " 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets'" (Matt. 22:36-40).*

The second mandate is evangelistic, usually associated with the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20. This mandate is given to the new humanity in Christ, the church, which is commanded by the risen Lord to make disciples of all nations.

In a sense, the cultural mandate precedes the evangelistic mandate and both are equally applicable to Christian living today; neither has been rescinded. The Great Commission is our evangelistic mandate, and the Great Commandment is our cultural mandate, and the One who gave the Great Commission is the One who gave the Great Commandment.

Jesus spent much time expounding His theology of love. Love for neighbor is surpassed only by love for God. Nevertheless, the evidence of our love for God is the love we show to our neighbor. There is thus an inseparable connection between evangelism and ethics. Delos Miles, says, "It is a theological mistake to identify either the Great Commission or the Great Commandment exclusively with either evangelism or ethics."2

What is involved in loving God and loving one's neighbor? If we love God completely, without reservation, we cannot but share that consuming love with our neighbors. If we love our neighbors we will not only share with them the Bread of Life, which we have found in Jesus Christ, but we will also share our physical bread. We will minister to human need with both the "now" and the "hereafter" in mind.

One way in which the Great Com mission instructs us to make disciples is by "teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:20). Observing all things would include the Great Commandment of Matthew 22:38, 39. Love is the fundamental principle upon which evangelism is built. Love meets the total needs of an individual and cannot be limited to any one area—spiritual, physical, social, or emotional. As John Stott notes, "Our neighbour is neither a bodyless soul that we should love only his soul, nor a soul less body that we should care for its welfare alone; nor even a body-soul isolated from society." Indeed, Stott continues, "God created man, who is my neighbour a body-soul-in-community. Therefore if we love our neighbor as God made him, we must inevitably be concerned for his total welfare."3

"The Biblical evidence overwhelmingly states that the will of God is to love him in a way that leaves no room for idols," says John Perkins, "and to love our neighbor in a way that liberates him from poverty and oppression either spiritual or physical."4

No wonder the Bible ties together evangelism and social intervention.

The mission of the prophets

This tie-up is evident in the mission of the Old Testament prophets. God chose Moses as His liberator as well as His lawgiver. Moses went back to Egypt to both free his people from Pharaoh's oppression and establish them as a community where social justice would reign.

Amos was both a religious and social activist of his day. He cried out: "Let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream" (Amos 5:24). Amos was not quiet about the social order of the day. He was not afraid to thunder against the iniquities of the social system. He recognized he had an ethical and moral responsibility to ad dress the evils of his day. He proclaimed God as One who desires justice for all people.

Micah spoke passionately about the downtrodden and exploited people of Judah. He contrasted the injustice prevailing in Judah with the righteousness and justice Yahweh requires of His people. The prophet indicted Israel and Judah for specific sins, including oppression; bribery among judges, prophets, and priests; exploitation of the power less; covetousness; cheating; violence and pride:" 'Hear now, O heads of Jacob, and you rulers of the house of Israel: is it not for you to know justice?'" (Micah 3:1). Micah did not turn a blind eye to the social and political conditions in his society. To have done so would have been a disservice to God.

The prophetic message of the Old Testament carries a clarion call for social justice. Ritual and religion are of no value unless they result in tangible righteousness. Human freedom and human responsibility, human redemption and human restoration are inseparable. Stanley G. Evans summarizes the Old Testament concept of social responsibility in five points:

1. The service of God is ethical be fore it is ceremonial.

2. God is concerned with corporate morality.

3. A first moral duty is the demand of justice for the poor.

4. The purpose of God is national perfection.

5. There will be no national perfection, or even national survival, while the people forsake the ways of God.5

The same responsibility confronts us today as it did ancient Israel. Who will be a voice for the voiceless? Who will care for the less fortunate? Who will ensure that justice shall roll down like waters?

The mission of Jesus

When we turn to the mission of Jesus the focus is clear. The inaugural sermon in Nazareth sets the tone for justice and freedom." 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord'" (Luke 4:18,19).

Jesus deftly combined the evangelistic and the cultural mandates. He describes His work in terms of preaching, healing, and releasing prisoners. Some preachers talk profusely about the gospel and describe in detail its theological features, but in doing this they often offer only the priestly half of that gospel. They neglect the prophetic half, which is to become involved with the sufferings and needs of people. The church that exercises its prophetic ministry must put on its working clothes.

The "acceptable year of the Lord" (Isa. 61:2) is the year of jubilee. In He brew life and thought, the year of jubilee came every fifty years. Throughout the year, the Hebrew people sought to raise a bulwark against slavery and other social evils. Bells of freedom and justice rang throughout the land when the year of jubilee dawned.

Jesus came to proclaim the accept able year of the Lord. He came to pro claim the year of jubilee. His message was that people should be set free—not just from sin but from social injustice and oppression as well.

Jesus practiced what He preached. He showed compassion for the poor and hungry when He fed the five thou sand, healed the paralytic, cared for the widow, made the leper whole, gave sight to the blind, and life to the dead. His life was one clear testament of translating redemption from theory into meaningful, hands-on practice. The Sermon on the Mount was a charter for the kingdom people—an outline of what to believe and also what to do.

Two familiar parables of Jesus seem to provide a summary statement of a theology of active Christian compassion. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the latter was in dire need. The rich man showed no concern as he dined sumptuously. After his death, he found himself in a place of torment but Lazarus, when he died, found him self in a comfortable, secure place.

The rich man cried out to Father Abraham to send Lazarus to relieve him of his torment, but Abraham replied, "It is too late." He then requested Abraham to send Lazarus to his father's house to minister to his five brothers who were in need of escaping the place of torment. But Abraham answered: "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead" (Luke 16:31).

The rich man did not extend appropriate assistance to Lazarus because he did not heed the law and the prophets. The five brothers could not be evangelized unless they would hear and heed the law and the prophets. Neither Christian social involvement nor evangelism will occur unless people hear and heed the word of God. Delos Miles says, "Only our obedience to the word of the Lord will result in balanced evangelism and symmetrical Christian social involvement."6

The parable of the good Samaritan takes the point one step further. In this parable, Jesus shows that true love knows no boundaries. The Samaritan, with whom no Jew would have any social contact, showed what true love is. Unlike the priest and the Levite who passed by the wounded person, the Samaritan stopped to help. It did not matter that the wounded person was a Jew; all that mattered was that he was one of God's creation and that he was in desperate need. Jesus pictured the Samaritan as a man of ethical and social sensitivity, of mature spiritual stature.

At the heart of Jesus' teaching is the truth that if one fully loves God, one will show divine compassion and concern. Knowing the commandments is not enough. Saying we love God is not enough. We must love others as our selves—even at the risk of our life as the parable shows.

Finally, Jesus' parable of the judgment (Matt. 25:31-36) establishes clearly the connection between evangelism and Christian social ministries. The judgment takes into account not what one professes but what one does with that profession. Both those who did and did not do the deeds were surprised at the judgment. The Master summarized His discourse by saying: "Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matt. 25:40). Mark explains how Jesus describes the less fortunate in society: "the least of these My brethren." If we are unwilling to share with others those things which do not last, how shall we share that which is everlasting?

Evangelism: a total ministry

For some, evangelism may be an attempt to escape personal social involvement. For others, social concern and involvement may be an attempt to circumvent spiritual regeneration or build God's kingdom without God. But this kind of dichotomy need not be. Both evangelism and social concern go hand in hand. Neither is a substitute for, nor escape from, the other.

One evangelical writer says, "Reconciliation with man is not reconciliation with God ... Nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. ... When people receive Christ they are born again into His Kingdom and must seek not only to exhibit, but also to spread, righteousness in the midst of an unrighteous world. The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities."7

To be socially concerned is not the same as to embrace the tenets of the social gospel: Walter Rauchenbuch's social gospel is not the same as the biblical model of evangelism. In the biblical model, there is no separation between feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, ministering to people's social needs, and communicating the gospel. Good deeds must be coupled with the preaching of the Word if evangelism is to be complete.

A church that insulates itself from social involvement will do a poor job of communicating the gospel. Such a church says very little to the world about the virtue of Christianity. Most people will be willing to listen to a church that not only preaches salvation by grace, but is also actively identified with the out come of the gospel: ministering to all the needs and concerns of humanity.

*All Scripture passages in this article are from the New King James Version.

1. David Moberg, The Great Reversal (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1972), 47.

2. Delos Miles, Evangelism and Social Involvement (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1986), 28.

3. John Stott, "The Great Commandment . . . The Great Commission," World Evangelization, Information Bulletin No. 23, June 1981, 5.

4. John Perkins, A Quiet Revolution (Waco, Texas: Word Books Pub., 1976), 3.

5. Stanley G. Evans, The Social Hope of the Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965), 19.

6. Miles, 34.

7. Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden, eds., The Church in Response to Human Need (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1987), 175.

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Earl P. Cameron, D. Min., is pastor of Mississauga Seventh-day Adventist Church, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada

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