Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Evangelism, Mission, Charity, Justice and the Gospel

I argued in a recent post, "Challenging the Sacred Cow of Holistic Mission" that it is not possible for social justice and personal evangelism both to be equal as the highest priorities of the Church. I also noted some difficulties with the concept of "social justice" as opposed to classical conceptions of justice that lie at the foundation of Western culture going back to Aristotle and the Old Testament. Now I want to attempt to articulate how we should understand the relationship between evangelism, mission, charity, justice and the Gospel.

In Matthew 28:18-20 we have the Great Commission of our Lord to His Church: our mission is defined by Jesus Christ Himself and is not really up for debate or ratification by us.
"Then Jesus came and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.'" (Matt. 28:18-20 NIV)
Here we have the locus classicus of the mission of the Church. There are two parts to the commission: (1) baptizing - which refers to preaching, evangelizing, converting and baptizing into the body of Christ, that is, to the work of making Christians, and (2) teaching - or better "making disciples," that is, teaching them what Christ has commanded so that they can become obedient, growing, witnessing Christians.

So we see here that the advocates of "holistic mission" are quite right when they say that the mission of the Church cannot be reduced to mere evangelism. Getting people to the point of conversion and baptism is not the entire mission of the Church. However, it is quite a jump from there to including working to end material poverty as equal in importance to preaching the Gospel. Let me make several observations about this text.

First, evangelism comes first both chronologically and logically. The mission of the Church is to make disciples, which involves preaching for conversion and teaching for obedience. But its ministry is directed towards individuals, not institutions. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a "social gospel." There is a personal Gospel with social implications, but that is a different thing entirely. The question is who is the target audience: nations, business enterprises and governments or people? It is people who need their sins forgiven and it is people who can be baptized.

Second, the other part of the mission of the Church - teaching them to obey - is also directed toward individuals, not institutions. Moreover, it presupposes baptism. We can't disciple the unbaptized; only those who confess faith in Jesus Christ can go on to the next step of learning obedience to Christ's teachings.

Third, when we investigate the teachings of Christ we find things like His great summary of the Law and the Prophets when asked which is the most important of the commandments:
"The most important one, answered Jesus, is this: 'Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:29-31 NIV)
Surely, when we think about what it means to teach them "to obey everything I have commanded you" this is the best place to start in asking what making disciples is all about. It is about teaching converts to keep these two great commandments and thus fulfill in our lives the intentions of the Law of God.

Fourth, "love of neighbor" surely includes working for justice for all. We need to oppose all forms of injustice and ensure that people are not oppressed by unjust laws or by anyone or any organization working unjustly. But justice is rendering to each one what is due to that person. Justice is not equality of income nor is it charity. We are commanded to "love" the neighbor so clearly justice is just a base line, not a sufficient objective.

Fifth, in order to love the neighbor we must first and of greatest importance share Christ with him. Nothing else is as important as doing this, the greatest of all acts of charity. Of course, in emergency situations it may well be appropriate to relieve hunger or rescue from flooded lands or whatever. You obviously don't try to preach instead of digging through the rubble from an earthquake in order to rescue victims.

But relief and development work are not an alternative to or a substitute for evangelism. Ideally, they flow out of evangelism as converted people learn that to follow Jesus is to love their neighbors and therefore become involved in relief and development out of obedience to Him.

Sixth, there is a necessary relationship between evangelism and good works of charity. Loving the neighbor is not an optional aspect of the Faith. As Paul teaches us clearly, we are saved by faith alone, not by works lest anyone boast (Eph. 2:8-9). However, as James teaches clearly, true saving faith in Jesus Christ will result in works and any so called faith that does not lead to visiting the fatherless and the orphan in their distress (Ja. 1:27) is dead (Ja. 2:14-17).

To play off James and Paul against each other is to opt for a non-canonical reading of Scripture that denies the authority of Scripture as a unified witness to Jesus Christ. They go together. But note well: faith precedes works. If faith without works is dead, works without faith are not specifically Christian and therefore not mission.


1. If by "holistic mission" we mean that evangelism and works of charity are both part of what Christians are called to do, then there could be no quarrel with the phrase. But this is not all that is meant in many instances.

2. In the mission of the Church evangelism has priority both logically and chronologically. It must come first if we are to make disciples and disciples cannot be made without it. Therefore it cannot be merely one of two equally important aspects of the Church's mission.

3. Social justice is a problematic term because it implies working for economic equality for society as a whole as a substitute for preaching the Gospel of sin and salvation to individuals. We must not bring the hope of heaven down to earth as simply the human project of reorganizing society in a better way by revolution and scientific social engineering. The Kingdom of God is a Divine work and our job is to witness to it not create it.

4. Wherever the Gospel has been preached with success and many baptisms have occurred, the society has been transformed as a result as people grow in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ and love their neighbors in a multitude of ways.

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