Social Action or Evangelism?

FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS

volume 16, number 15, April 13, 2017

“Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.” -Acts 8:4

Social Action or Evangelism?

David Bosch, a white South African from the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK) was a well known missiologist and a major player in the anti-apartheid movement in his country. His seminal book entitled Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission has a chapter, “Mission as Evangelism”, in which he addressed the issue of evangelism. Bosch gave this long definition. 

Evangelism is that dimension and activity of the church’s mission which, by word and deed and in the light of particular conditions and a particular context, offers every person and community, everywhere, a valid opportunity to be directly challenged to a radical reorientation of their lives, a reorientation which involves such things as deliverance from slavery to the world and its powers; embracing Christ as Savior and Lord; becoming a living member of his community, the church; being enlisted into his service of reconciliation, peace, and justice on earth; and being committed to God’s purpose of placing all things under the rule of Christ. [1]

In light of the church’s task to evangelize and disciple the nations, the clause, “the church; being enlisted into his service of reconciliation, peace, and justice on earth…” raises my concern. 

From July 16-25, 1974, 2300 evangelical leaders from 150 countries, called by Billy Graham, gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland for the International Conference on World Evangelization. The theme was “Let the Earth Hear His Voice.” Many consider this a monumental moment in Twentieth Century evangelicalism. Lausanne I, as it is now called, produced the Lausanne Covenant as a statement of faith which evangelical leaders world wide embraced. Generally speaking, the Lausanne Covenant was a good declaration of the importance of evangelizing all the peoples of the world. It did, however, open the door to what would come later at Lausanne II and III. Concerning Christian Social Responsibility, the Lausanne Covenant said,

Although reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. 

Lausanne II, meeting in Manila, the Philippines, from July 11-20, 1989, with 4300 participants from 173 countries had as its theme, “Proclaim Christ Until He Comes: Calling the Whole Church to Take the Whole Gospel to the Whole World.” One of the very beneficial “take-aways” from Manila was awareness of the 10-40 window of the “Resistant Belt” where the vast majority of unbelievers in the world live, mainly Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslims. Lausanne II built, upon the foundation of Lausanne I. The Manila Manifesto, with its twenty-one affirmations, was generally a very good statement which puts evangelism and discipleship at the forefront of the church’s mission while still addressing our need to speak to areas of injustice and persecution in the world. 

Lausanne III (4200 participants from 198 countries) in Cape Town, South Africa, October 16-25, 2010 addressed and developed further many of the same earlier themes on the church’s task to evangelize the world. However, The Cape Town Commitment, the official paper of Lausanne III, took a decidedly ominous turn in Part IIB, “Building the peace of Christ in our divided and broken world.” It says,  

Reconciliation to God and to one another is also the foundation and motivation for seeking justice that God requires, without which, God says, there can be no peace. True and lasting reconciliation requires acknowledgment of past and present sin, repentance before God, confession to the injured one, and the seeking and receiving of forgiveness. It also includes commitment by the Church to seeking justice or reparation, where appropriate, for those who have been harmed by violence and oppression.

My concern is with the clause, “. . . commitment by the Church to seeking justice or reparation, where appropriate, for those who have been harmed by violence and oppression.”

If by “the Church” Lausanne III means the body of Christ in general, all believers, then this call to seek justice individually, if possible, and through the courts is legitimate. Individual believers should surely care about their oppressed, persecuted, and disenfranchised brothers and sisters, the true “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). But if by “the Church” Lausanne III means the church as an institution or denominations or individual congregations, then no, that is not the purpose of the church. Jesus told us that we are to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). Peter told us to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into the marvelous light of the gospel (1 Peter 2:9). 

So now you know why the specific task of straight up, intentional evangelistic outreach and consequent discipling of believers has been slowly eroding in the western church. We have gradually, since at least the late 1960’s, been moving away from the task of evangelism and discipleship in the church into social action, and in some cases, a decidedly leftist ideology and practice. It is quite easy to understand how this has been happening. The world applauds anyone who helps the poor and oppressed, but the world is suspect of evangelism. Ask yourself this question, “What title is more applauded in our world-Advocate for the Poor or Evangelist?” Seldom is anyone thrown into prison for feeding the poor, but evangelists face this all the time. 

But what did the early church do? When a few Galileans were unjustly treated by Pilate, the Roman Governor, who murdered them and had their blood mingled with their pagan sacrifices, did Jesus or His disciples demand justice? Did they seek for reparations for the family members left behind? When the tower in Siloam fell and killed eighteen construction workers (Luke 13:1-5), did Jesus demand an updated Occupational Health and Safety Act? When the believers were driven from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria due to a severe persecution by Saul of Tarsus and others, did they demand that Pilate seek fair treatment from the Jewish religious leaders? No. They went about evangelizing in Judea and Samaria, something the Lord Jesus had earlier commanded them to do. 

Bottom line, my friends – the church is to disciple the nations, beginning with evangelism. The church is not the avenue for social justice or legislation of any kind. Yes, of course, the individual believer, as salt and light, is to serve the poor and needy, to seek reconciliation, and to labor for Biblical justice; but the individual believer is still to give evangelism and discipleship the preeminence. Anything less is a distraction coming from the evil one. 

_______________________

1. David Bosch’s Definition of Evangelism, <www.petebrookshaw.com> August 31, 2011.

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