The gospel and social actionIntroduction
It is difficult to determine priorities between social care and evangelism. As a Christian, where do my responsibilities lie? Should I care first for a person's spiritual needs or for their physical needs? The problem is further confused when we attempt to define the relationship between social care and evangelism. Are they independent, interrelated, or even the same?
The philosophical issue
In liberal Christian circles it is held that there is an interdependence between social action and gospel proclamation. The gospel is viewed as a living truth expressed and apprehended in action. It concerns the establishment of the just society. Naturally, those who maintain such a position hold varying degrees of interrelationship: e.g. ...
Both go hand in hand. Proclaiming and doing go together. If you are going to preach you must be involved in social action.
Preaching is validated by social action. I have the right to preach because I am involved in social action.
Doing is preaching. The gospel is proclaimed in deeds just as much as by words. In fact, social action is more valid than just words.
It may well be that a Christian will arrive at a view of interdependence simply out of a feeling of compassion for humanity, although it is more likely that they have been influenced by a philosophical world-view. The Enlightenment has greatly influenced Christian thought such that we often now accept the view that the problems of this world lie with evil systems rather than with evil people. The next step is to believe that changed/just systems/structures will inevitably produce changed/just people. The gospel is easily influenced by this world view. The message then concerns the intervention of Christ in history to usher in the just society - heaven on earth. The new age is then viewed in socio/political terms, and thus the Christian is bound not just to announce its dawning, but to actively establish it in reality. In the end the doing becomes the proclaiming.
The trouble is such a view does not sit well with the scriptures. We are called to follow Jesus, and yet we do not see out Master involved in any form of political action, nor the development of any form of welfare programme. In fact in our first encounter with Jesus in Mark's gospel, we see him virtually walking away from the sick to go to the next town that, as he puts it," I may preach there also, for this is why I came out", Mk.1:38.
"Jesus came.... preaching the gospel of God, and saying, 'the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel'", Mk.1:14-15. Clearly Jesus made it his prime responsibility to preach the good news that it was now possible to enter into an intimate relationship with the Father - blessed by his presence and touched by his power. It would be on the basis of Jesus' death and resurrection that the message had the power in itself to achieve its desired end, namely reconciliation with God for all those who believe. Rom.1:16.
Christians are obligated to get the gospel out into the world, but this obligation does not somehow negate the responsibility for social care. We are all of us part of God's creation, made in his image. To care for our fellow man is a duty laid on every human. To close our heart of compassion towards the needy is to deny our God-givenness. God is one who makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. Compassion is expected of all who are created in his image. For a child of God, undergoing the process of renewal by the Spirit, to stifle compassion would be to stifle Christ-likeness.
To this end the Bible exhorts us to " do good to all men", Gal.6:10. Although it rightly adds "as we have opportunity". Life is filled with conflicting responsibilities, and so on many occasions we are bound to have to make choices. In the same verse, Paul actually indicates that the Christian brotherhood has a prior claim to our compassion over those of the World, cf. 1Pet.2:17. Similarly our immediate family would have a prior claim to our compassion over the brotherhood.
Caring is a human duty. Evangelizing is a Christian duty. Very rarely would they come into conflict. If they do, then the gospel takes priority.
Is there any link between evangelism and social action?
Although it is obvious that Jesus was a caring person and sought to meet people at their point of need, it is also clear that the practical meeting of those needs was of another order. His miracles were not just social-care bandaids. The 5000 were certainly hungry the day Jesus fed them, but this was not intended to provide scriptural warrant for the establishment of soup kitchens.
These acts of Jesus are described in the gospel as works of power. John, in his gospel, defines their special quality. He often calls them "signs", something full of meaning that point beyond themselves. They are displays of spiritual truth, effectual, powerful, and therefore serve to promote belief, Jn.2.23; 20.30ff. Sometimes he calls them "works" - distinctive, 15:24, revolutionary, 5:36, 10:25, 15:22-24, works of God, 14:10, that can be a valid basis for belief, 10:37-38. The individual miracles of Jesus fall into this category, but more particularly his sacrificial death on the cross is the " work" without equal, 5:19-23.
The significant powerful "works" of Jesus, evidenced in the miracles and in particular the cross, were a visible display of the reality of his message. They witnessed to it, although did not authenticate, or validate it. The message is self authenticating. In a sense the "signs" or "works" were themselves the message. As Jesus put it, "if I by the finger of God cast out demons then you know that the Kingdom of God has come close to you." The "signs" proclaimed the present reality of the Kingdom of God to those with eyes to see. Jesus had come to proclaim the wonderful news that God's Kingdom was bursting in upon the world, that the " year of the Lord's favour" was at hand. His miracles, as well as his words, proclaimed that message.
Jesus' miraculous works declared "the Kingdom is at hand". It was only to be expected that the Kingdom's reality could be seen and experienced. So naturally, that which was foretold was being fulfilled in the life of Jesus. The blind see, the lepers are cleansed. How could John the Baptist be sure that the time was now and that Jesus was the one to usher in the new age? Simple - " Go and tell John what you have seen and heard; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them", Lk.7:22. So without a doubt there is a relationship between the works of Jesus and the words of Jesus. The works of Jesus both express the reality of his message and give substance to it.
Jesus goes on to say that "He who believes on me, the works that I do shall he also do", Jn.14:12. It's clear then that we who are sent into the world as Jesus was sent into the world, Jn.20:21, to minister God's forgiveness to those who respond to the good news, Jn.20:23, are to both display the reality of the Kingdom in their lives and struggle to hasten its coming in power. When a Christian group is truly living as members of the Kingdom, experiencing the wonder working presence and power of Jesus in their midst, and working to hasten the coming of the Kingdom in power by breaking into the power structures of the Prince of this world, then there will be evidenced in those "works" an effectual witness of the gospel message.
The work (sign) that best displays the reality of the Kingdom of God in our midst is brotherly and sisterly love. "By this all men will know that you are my disciples", Jn.13:35. Of course these works cover a whole range of promises contained in the scriptures, eg. the intimacy of our relationship with Jesus through the Spirit, " they saw that the disciples had been with Jesus ". Some other present day "works" include: gifts of the Spirit, answer to prayer, healing, Jam.5:14-15, etc. Yet love, demonstrated in compassion, mercy, forgiveness, acceptance.. above all other signs, proclaims the gospel.
So the gospel we preach is witnessed in the gospel we live, both in the experience of its reality in our lives and in the substance of its intrusion in the world.
Who are the poor?
This paper has presented the view that Christ's mission was to primarily communicate the gospel of the Kingdom in both words and signs. Christ's miracles were not designed to meet people at the point of their physical needs, even though they did that. The miracles were visible sermons. Any Jew waiting for the coming of the Kingdom could recognize the significance of the miracles and see that the Kingdom was indeed at hand. There is a sense where we today can similarly communicate the gospel in "sign", and that primarily in the love of the brotherhood. None-the-less we would need to emphasize the power of a well communicated intelligent word over the often confused message of deeds.
Those who see social action itself as the true focus of Jesus' ministry, and therefore necessarily our own, will often argue that the focus of the mission was to the "poor", the "outcast". When we give the "poor" a drink of water, these least of God's broken humanity, we give it to Christ. The trouble is there is really no scriptural evidence that God's mission toward broken humanity is particularly focused on the materially poor or to social outcasts. The coming Kingdom of God is not really a redressing of social imbalances. The gospel is not about affirmative action, the rewarding of those who have no reward here on earth. The Kingdom is not for people with little of this worlds goods or power.
The "poor" are the "poor in spirit". Those who "hunger", "hunger and thirst for righteousness", Matt.5:3-10. The Kingdom is for those who are destitute in their relationship with God. They are "lost", separated from God. These broken ones before God cry out for mercy and receive it. They are the "meek", those who do not stand on their own righteousness before God. Such people may be materially wealthy or poor, what matters is the recognition of their poverty before God, and their reliance on his mercy freely given.
As for those who the disciple must care for, the "hungry", "thirsty", "stranger", "naked", "sick" and "prisoner", they are "the least of these brothers of mine", Matt.25:31-46. When we care for these "little ones" we do it to Jesus. Jesus is obviously speaking about disciples, rather than socially disadvantaged people. He is speaking about what it really means to "love one another." He is describing the love of the brotherhood.
So the gospel is for the poor, those who know their lostness in the sight of God and seek a home in his presence.
1. If social action is not where the Kingdom interacts with the world, what purpose does it serve?
2. In what way does the Kingdom confront the world?
3. Who are the poor, and how does the gospel make them rich?
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