We do not approach the subject of evangelism and social action impartially, but with political, demographic, and religious experience preconceptions and bias. Opening up a conversation to re-assess the nature of evangelism is difficult, especially when social action and issues of poverty are injected into the conversation. The intent of this volume is not to debate the subject, or review the history of the various positions regarding evangelism and social action, but to offer an exegetical and biblical theological approach for answering the question, can social action be evangelism? It is important, nonetheless, to recognize there are barriers that can militate against an open discussion on the subject of evangelism and social action.
For many, the meaning of evangelism is self-evident because its etymological roots are related to “proclamation” activities (e.g., preaching, proclaiming, witnessing, etc.). Evangelism’s relationship to the term “good news” (i.e., the evangel) can box one into defining evangelistic activity as the passing on of information, that is, to tell or preach or share the news of Jesus Christ—that is, to evangelize. Defining evangelism any other way, for many conservative evangelical Christians, causes the gospel (i.e., the news) to loss its meaning, robs the world of this important information, and diminishes the work of salvation in Jesus Christ. Evangelism’s strong association to the news of the gospel suggests to some that anything outside verbal, cognitive-based activities is a threat to the fundamentals of the faith.
Additionally, those who have the highest interest in evangelism are usually those least interested and least skilled in critical, theological reflection. Since evangelism is a self-evident activity, rarely is the subject examined exegetically or evaluated through the lens of biblical theological, but is usually consigned to matters of practical theology, missions, outreach ministry, preaching, personal witness, church programs, and church growth. (Application, thus, determines meaning.) This, then, does not promote biblically relevant criteria to precede the discussion and, thus, limits the possibility of new, creative, or even potentially biblically sound understandings of evangelism.
Within evangelicals circles, it is often a challenge to advocate that social action can be evangelism, for such subjects as poverty and the poor are relegated to the private arena and anything associated with the public arena of rights, laws, and taxes or challenging social or government systems on behalf of the poor are too often associated with the social gospel and the theologically liberal church. Although historically the church was deeply involved with issues of poverty, a “great reversal” took place between 1900 and about 1930. Evangelical fundamentalists had turned away from their social responsibilities as a reaction against the social gospel, which was viewed to be aligned with liberalism, to diminish Bible infallibility and inspiration, and lower biblical views of sin, hell, salvation, and the deity of Jesus. When civic and political social concerns became suspect by evangelical academics and popular revivalists, activities toward social responsibilities took on minor role for much of the evangelical church (Marsden 86). Anything that was associated with the social gospel was considered a distraction and, to some, a betrayal to the fundamental essence of the gospel (i.e., the information, that is, the news of Jesus Christ). This history spells over into any contemporary discussion on evangelism and social action.
There are also demographic barriers to an open discussion on the association between evangelism and social action. Over the last six decades, people have moved out of urban-centers and to the suburbs, so obviously have Christians and churches. The twin demographic forces of urban flight and suburban sprawl contribute to the evangelical disassociation with issues of poverty and the poor and, as a result, help to form the Christian community’s understanding of a one dimensional gospel and, thus, the nature of evangelism. Suburbanization of American society has moved much of the evangelical communities of faith outside populations affected by poverty. Rather than church communities promoting forms of social action on behalf of poorer communities, the (upward) mobility of American families toward the suburbs demand that suburban churches serve a socializing and stabilizing function. Not a very likely set of social forces that will generate social change on behalf of the economically vulnerable hidden outside their neighborhoods and unknown within their circles of friends and acquaintances.
The barriers reviewed here are limited to those most relevant to the arguments and conclusions of the following studies [in my forthcoming book on evangelism and social Action, printed by Resource Publications an imprint of Wipf & Stock.]. To overcome these barriers, the goal, then, is to turn our attention to the text of scripture as a basis for discussing the biblical relationship between evangelism and social action.
I am developing a paper for the November 2013 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society—the subject is the issue of “inerrancy and the young new atheist,” so I am gather information, doing some research, and developing my thoughts. I awoke this morning with this though:
There are two issues at the heart of the debate between young new atheists and the Christian faith: The issue of authority (the basis for knowing anything) and time (at what time is truth finally unveiled).
To posit that we are now a scientific people is to place faith in the time of that discovery. Why end now? Why isn’t it possible that at some latter time we discover that the scientific model results the potential of miracles—that miracles exist? Since we have theories on multi-dimensions, why isn’t it possible that the interaction of these multi-dimensions produce miracles? For miracles are only the reality of one dimension acting in another dimension. Funny, that’s exactly what we have revealed in the Bible. Miracles are not supernatural to God—the creator being outside the dimension we here exist within—they are natural. Miracles are, according to the Bible, the reality of one dimension being revealed in another dimension. So, why are we locked into what science tells us now? Again, we are back at the issue of authority . . .
“In the corpus christianum the different tasks of the community were distributed between state, society, family and church. As the corpus christianum decays, the congregation will again recollect the wealth of its own charismata and thrust forward to the total testimony of salvation which leaves no sphere of life without hope, from faith to politics, and from politics to economics.” ~Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit
Another portion of my introduction to my forthcoming book Wasted Evangelism:
The Wasted Evangelism thesis—social action can be evangelism
Chapters one through five of Wasted Evangelism were originally presented as papers at annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society between 2006 and 2012. At a very personal level I was attempting to formulate a biblical rationale for my own vocation and work in social action—and I wanted to do so publically and before my own evangelical community. The exercise was a journey through Mark’s Gospel that led me to conclude that social action can, indeed, be evangelism.
Many within the Christian community from all political stripes and church traditions advocate for ministry to the poor. This is nothing new. However there are basically two views on the matter: for some, a social concern is “a fruit of spiritual conversion” and used as a “means of evangelism” or pre-evangelism. For others, such as Ron Sider, who is one of the chief spokesmen for evangelical social action, “Evangelism and social concern are equally important but distinct aspects of the total mission of the church.” The studies in this series on Mark’s Gospel suggest that social action is not a separate, distinct responsibility for the church, but that that is evangelism ought to be intentional demonstrations of God’s kingdom in this world, thus social action can, indeed, be evangelism.
For many, the definition for evangelism is self-evident. Evangelism is the activity of proclaiming the evangel, that is, the “good news.” It is as simple as that. Everyone knows what the “good news” is—Jesus died and rose again for your salvation and mine, the forgiveness of our sins, so we may have entrance into heaven after death. This aspect of the gospel is true and important to proclaim; it is, nonetheless, a selective reading of the NT. For when one turns to the Gospel accounts, the “good news” is dynamically related to the kingdom of God that has arrived in the appearance of Jesus Christ. Any discussion on the topic of biblical evangelism must take into consideration how the “good news” relates to the “the kingdom of God.” The reign of God should be foundational in any discussion on the subject and will offer insights for both definition and potential outcomes for evangelism. As William Abraham points out, “Evangelism is at the very least a continuation of vital elements in the work of the early apostles, prophets, and martyrs who found themselves dramatically caught up in the reign of God in the world.” The following studies provide a model that takes seriously the role of the kingdom and, as well, the Gospel narrative for defining biblical evangelism in order determine what constitutes a legitimate range of evangelistic activities and what outcomes are relevant to measure biblical evangelism.
Four of the chapters were presented as papers for the Other Voices in Biblical Interpretation section of the Evangelical Theological Society and have also been graciously published by the Africanus Journal
: “‘Wasted Evangelism’ (Mark 4): The Task of Evangelism and Social Action Outcomes,” Africanus Journal
, Vol. 1, No. 2 (November 2009): 39–58; “Idolatry and Poverty: Social Action as Christian Apologetics, Africanus Journal
, Vol 2, No. 2 (November 2010): 24–43; “‘You Will Appear as Fishers’ (Mark 1:17): Disciples as Agents of Judgment,” Africanus Journal
, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring 2013): 21–36; A Prelude to Judgment: The Beelzebul Episode (Mk 3:22–28) and Its Significance for Evangelistic Social Action, Africanus Journal
, Vol 6, No. 2 (forthcoming November 2013).
Whenever someone attempts to define or redefine terms like “gospel” or “evangelism,” one must tread carefully for sacred ground is being disturbed and sacred pillars are being removed. I am fully aware that I have entered a debate on the subject of evangelism and social action that has had a history of polarizing positions, where relationships can become strained or, all too often, severed. I recognize that I have made conclusions in the following chapters that will make many within my conservative and evangelical Christian family uncomfortable. My hope, nonetheless, is that I will cause many to dig deeper into the text, specifically the Gospel of Mark, to hear what the Bible says about the relationship between the gospel, evangelism, and social action.
This book is not the typical review of Bible proof texts about the poor, poverty, and justice; nor, is it an argument from my experience in community action or for a political position regarding social concern for poor. The six studies contained in this volume are intensely exegetical in nature, seeking to hear Mark’s presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ (1:1)—and, as well, how those of us on this side of the Gospel should listen more effectively to the text. The studies do not so much promote a definition of evangelism as they are an attempt to be confronted by the depth of Mark’s understanding of the appearance of God’s Messiah-king and the in-breaking of his kingdom. After digging deeply and attempting to listen more attentively to Mark’s Gospel, it is inescapable to me that God’s concern for the poor and issues of justice are actually embedded with the definition and content of the gospel of God. As Christians, we must deal with this despite our own political leanings, our treasured church traditions, or our home address; and, then, obey accordingly.
In The Hole in Our Gospel, Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, reproves the believing community:
One of the disturbing things about Church history is the Church’s appalling track record of being on the wrong side of the great social issues of the day. If the Church is indeed a revolutionary kind of institution called to foment a social revolution by promoting justice, lifting up the sanctity of human life, fighting for the underdog, and challenging the prevailing value systems in our world, then it seems we should be out in front on social justice issues rather than bringing up the rear.
In almost the same breath, Stearns sustains the rebuke by turning to Martin Luther King, Jr., who, from a Birmingham jail, wrote to the sleepy, indifferent church of his day:
The contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
The church community, Stearns admonishes, loses its relevance in the world when it loses its voice for justice. One cannot walk away from a study of Mark’s Gospel narrative without hearing that the Good News of Jesus Christ is also an alarm set to awaken a church to its responsibilities as advocates on behalf of those who live with the effects of poverty.
The Gospel of Mark is not so much about re-ordering the world as it is about reorienting the Christian community toward the significance of what it actual means to believe and obey the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Mark wrote to a church that was losing its place in society and was being blamed for many of the ills of the empire, today the church in America, particularly the evangelical community, is losing its own place and power as a voice in political and cultural affairs. The Markan call is not to advocate for self-preservation, but to be truly with Jesus (3:14b) as he breaks his kingdom into a society whose people and structures have rebelled against God. The relevance needed is not for our sustainability as church communities, but a relevance that reflects becoming faithful agents of God’s kingdom that has been inaugurated with the appearance of Jesus, his Messiah-king.
A narrow, proclamation-centered definition of evangelism, based exclusively on word-studies and isolated proof-texts, does not match the narrative meaning of the gospel, particularly as Mark presents the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1:1). These studies demonstrate that a mere verbal and cognitive-based definition for evangelism solely related to the etymology of the word “evangelize” is too narrow and is void of the rich biblical content that Mark gives his Gospel narrative. The following six chapters are a long, in-depth, exegetically-based argument that seeks to demonstrate that Mark’s programmatic content of the gospel links together the gospel, evangelism, and social action.
The following is a part of my introduction to my forthcoming book, Wasted Evangelism: Social Action and the Church’s Task of Evangelism. This portion seeks to define what I mean by “Social Action.”
A working definition of biblical social action
The basic dictionary definition for social action is “individual or group behavior that involves interaction with other individuals or groups, especially organized action toward social reform.” Within sociology the concept is associated with the work of Max Weber, who understood social action as the relationships people have between social structures and the individuals whose actions create them. Weber forms more of a sociology of knowledge definition, asserting that social action is the “the rational consideration of alternative means to the end, of the relations of the end to secondary consequences and finally of the relative importance of different possible end states.” Peter Hovath underscores the importance of seeking and implementing necessary change on behalf of others who do not have access to power for needed change and, thus, defines social action as “participation in social issues to influence their outcome for the benefit of people and the community. Social action can, under favorable circumstances, produce actual empowerment, impact, or social change.” Within the welfare arena social action is often used to simply mean efforts to improve social conditions, or to address the needs of a particular group within a social setting or societal structure. Social action, therefore, can be understood as attempts to improve human welfare and develop commitment to each other, advocating for and/or making changes in social structures (whether it is at the individual, community, or legislative levels) for the betterment of community life for all.
Social action, therefore, is principally the means (i.e., an action) by which one group offers alterative means to a different end for another group, the formation of action and/or policy for dealing with social issues and community life. Within the context of poverty, social action, therefore, is not simply charity, alms-giving, or the transfer of wealth. The Bible speaks of what we call “social action” in terms of carrying out justice and caring for the needs of the weak. Social action is, then, associated with actions taken by individuals or groups on behalf of others, and, in particular, advocating on behalf of the marginalized or powerless individuals or groups whose access to the systems of power are prohibitive or unavailable.
What, then, is evangelistic social action? Throughout these studies I reference Mark’s programmatic use of OT contexts regarding the economically vulnerable and the land (e.g., Exod 21–23; Mal 3:1–5; Amos 4:1–2; etc.), which, for Mark, informs his understanding of the gospel (cf. Mark 1:1-3) and which supports the importance of considering the poor in relationship to the Christian community’s social context. I point out that the Exodus land-laws were operating behind Mark’s programmatic gospel theme. The land-laws were given to ensure that the economically vulnerable (i.e., the land-less) were full participants in the benefits of living in the land. In light of Mark’s association of the kingdom with the gospel and the gospel’s programmatic association with the Exodus land-laws biblical social action is a means to ensure that the blessings and benefits of living in society reach to the poor. Mae Cannon, in her book Social Justice Handbook, affirms a similar understanding for the biblical concept of social justice:
“The resources that God provides were made available to his people from the very beginning. Justice is expressed when God’s resources are made available to all humans, which is what God intended. Biblical justice is the scriptural mandate to manifest the kingdom of God on earth by making God’s blessings available to all.”
In order for social action evangelistic activity to be relevant and legitimate, as the following studies demonstrate, biblical social action ought to promote outcomes that indicate the presence of God’s rule and reign over creation, particularly on behalf of the economically vulnerable and those who are living with the effects of poverty.
“When a thousand people are walking to the edge of an abyss, the one who is seen walking in the opposite direction is taunted for not following the mob. We must be humble to bear up under these reproaches and dare to be right when the majority is wrong.” ~Bishop Fulton Sheen
“Evangelism is not the kind of news that informs, a daily report of the world to be listened to while one goes on eating supper! Instead, it is an emergency bulletin. Table talk stops. The fork clatters to the plate. God has acted; God has provided; one must respond” ~Dr. Stephen Charles Mott
“Do not allow yourself to be pushed off your story, how you are known in God’s love and purpose, by any diminishing ‘script’ that is out there: whether it is offered by family, ‘friends’ or by acquaintances. To be sure, you will be surrounded by all sorts of other narratives and definitions of self. Do not buy into them or give them credibility. Know yourself in Christ as the beloved of God in all things. This part of the truth will set you free” ~Kenneth J. Collins, Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism
Significance: Determine Authoritative and Analogous Obedience
The narrative and programmatic significance of “preaching” indicates that the content of the to preach (v. 14c) component of the Mark 3 commission is, indeed, the authority to cast out demons (v. 15).This is grammatically and syntactically allowable and is also demonstrated by how Mark crafted the narrative. Reading the commission in this way challenges a narrowly defined, verbal and cognitive-based understanding of evangelistic activities. Thus, as fisher-followers, the church’s paradigm for evangelism should include activities that confront Satan’s dominion over the realms of humankind and reorient those realms to reflect the inaugural presence of God’s kingdom. The task of “casting” corresponds to any analogous obedience (i.e., application) that demonstrates how God’s rule affects the realms of humankind.
In order to appropriately move from text to application, there should be a strong correspondence between the meaning of the text, the significance of the text to the readers/listeners, and the action taken that indicates obedience to the text. For those of us on this side of the text, the significance of the Mark 3 commission is our alignment with and commitment to the mission of Jesus (1:14–15) and to exercise Jesus’ authority through action that demonstrates, concretely and evidently, God’s rule and reign has enter time and space. Certainly, as the whole of the NT indicates, evangelism includes simple proclamation (i.e., cognitive-based activities of communication to present information), announcing and explaining that the kingdom is near. Yet, such proclamation is not the end of evangelism, a simple a set of words, for, as Mark’s Gospel narrative as a whole and the Mark 3 commission indicate, there is a resultant consequence of the announcement, another viable mode of language, namely deed-parables. As parables revealed the mysteries of the kingdom of God, deed-parables demonstrate visibly and tangibly the ruin of the reign of Satan’s power over the affairs of humankind (cf. Mark 3:27) and, as a result, reorients the world back toward God’s rightful dominion (an underlying significance of the Mark 4 parable of the mustard seed, vv. 30-32).
The Mark 3 commission, as I have demonstrated in chapter three (“You Will Appear as Fishers”) is the inaugural fulfillment and premiere “application” of the fisher-promise made in Mark 1:17. The fisher role is related to God’s judgment on people and structures that distort God’s creation from his design and reign, which includes the realm of social action that seeks to advocate for those affected by the issues of poverty and injustice. Therefore, it is “appropriate for applications, activities, and outcomes of social action and justice” to be within the realm of evangelism, which is thefisher-follower’s task. This implies that the Mark 3 commission (3:14–15), at least to some extent, should be associated with social action, which is legitimate obedience for following Jesus Christ and for being faithful to the gospel.
Evangelism is the spread of the gospel, the seed being sown, the word to be increased (Mark 4), which according to Mark’s narrative is dynamically linked to the end of Satan’s dominion and the inauguration of God’s rule and reign. This is what church evangelism looks like: As Jesus’ “casting” action demonstrated the end of the strongman-Satan’s kingdom and the arrival of God’s kingdom—visible, tangible, and evidential acts that indicate the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand (1:15a; cf. 3:27)—thus, for the church in front of the text, the significance of the “casting” of the Mark 3 commission is the continuation of Jesus’ mission to confront the powers that oppose God’s dominion, which, as indicated by the fisher-promise link to OT contexts and illustrated by the poor widow vs. the duplicitous scribes episode (12:38–44; cf. 13:1–3), includes advocating for those affected by the causes of poverty. As fisher-followers, the church is obedient to the Mark 3 commission when it demonstrates the end of Satan’s reign and indicates the presence the Stronger Man’s kingdom through evangelistic activities that include and promote social action outcomes. This also makes redemptive-historical sense of the authority to cast out demons as a display of the arrival of God’s kingdom: God in Jesus Christ has reconciled all things to Himself (Col 1:20) and with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth (Eph 1:10).
The obedience (or application) and the desired outcomes analogous to the purpose and indent of commission to have authority to cast are those which demonstrate God’s reign and rule. This allows evangelism, that is, the spread of the gospel/word, to also include the realm of social action, which demonstrates God’s rule and dominion in over the realms of society and people who impact the poor and economically vulnerable. This is supported by antecedent OT material related to the economically vulnerable associated with the OT judgment role of fisher-followers. Walter Pink reminds us that as a community of believers we “are not commissioned to create a new society; indeed, we are scarcely competent to do so. What the church can do best, though it does so all too seldom, is to delegitimate an unjust system and to create a spiritual counterculture.”
This is the evangelistic task of fisher-followers.
“Throughout the entire history of Christianity, holy women and men of God have shown their inner spiritual lives by active engagement in social justice in defense of the poor and oppressed” ~by Mae Elise Cannon in Justice Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action, p. 1.)
“When a plane crashes and some die while others live, a skeptic calls into question God’s moral character, saying that he has chosen some to live and others to die on a whim; yet you say it is your moral right to choose whether the child within you should live or die. Does that not sound odd to you? When God decides who should live or die, he is immoral. When you decide who should live or die, it’s your moral right.” ~Ravi Zacharias
Talking about sermons, I recall one from the Noah story that made me think to myself, “This is not a children’s story.” My mind reviewed the contrast between the various children stories (books, Sunday school, pictures, Christian comics, etc.) that I recalled about Noah and the flood vs. the real thing right there in the text. I thought to myself, this is no children’s story. Noah and the flood aren’t about twosies and arkie-arkie, with all the nice animals filing in to the ark. This is serious stuff. More on the level of explaining child abuse or drunk-driven or serial killing, or even war—now we find that hard to do when explaining those subjects to children—but we find ways. The Noah and the flood story is certainly about courage and perseverance and faith. But it is also about judgment and worldwide destruction—God of the universe wiping out perhaps millions of people in a short period of time. That magnitude was brought home to us during a Vacation Bible School one summer.
The guest speaker at our closing was a dinosaur expert and believed in the universal flood (which I agree with—I know, silly, unscientific me, but the evidence for a universal flood does point to its probability). He explained and showed to us how the evidence (that many scientists do not like to make public, but which is there for all to see) indicates that there was a worldwide catastrophic event (i.e., a flood). That word is a hard sell for a children’s story—catastrophic. Other words come to mind: cataclysmic, disastrous, calamitous, dreadful, devastating, terrible, tragic. Even the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds showed it the way it was—there was that poignant scene of his little girl noticing hundreds of dead bodies floating down the river, one after and another and then the river filled with bodies—carnage was the word that came to my mind.
I think turning the flood story—as well as many of the other Bible narratives and accounts—into children stories with pictures dumbs-down and G-rates them, and does a disservice to the stories themselves and creates the potential to lessen the impact of them. Such dumbing down of judgment stories like Noah and the flood also shrink our understanding of the God of the Bible—it makes God smaller, basically it’s idolatry. Oh, of course the children-story-versions might keep their “moral to the fable” aspect, but that’s the problem. In Scripture they are not given as fable, but as history (e.g., the flood, David and Goliath, Daniel’s friends and the fire, the cross and death of Jesus). Turning these accounts into cute children stories might not be, in the end, a good idea. Additionally, the trivializing of the stories’ messages and their impact (e.g., God’s judgment on the wickedness of man) also means the trivializing of inspiration and truthfulness, and the points of these stories—that is, the inspiration of Scripture and the trustworthiness of the Bible’s own claims on our lives.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, we need to “smudge” ourselves with “the hard complexities of the world.” Jean Bethke Elshtain writes, “Bonhoeffer wrestles with the problem of ‘dirty hands.’ When we act in the world, we cannot control the consequences of our actions. People respond to our actions in ways that we can neither predict nor control. So, Bonhoeffer asks, do we remain in a position of purity, above the fray, where we can bask in our own virtuousness? Or do we enter the fray, knowing that it is likely to get us dirty? We cannot remain absolutely pure” (from her “Afterward” in Evangelicals in the Public Square by J. Budziszewski).
Bertrand Russell, the last generation’s premier anti-religious atheistic naturalist once said:
“While it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know” (Religion and Science, chapter IX, 1935).
Of course this conclusion is not based on science. This is not even a statement of science, so it must out of necessity—using Russell’s own login—be false.
The problem with all atheistic universal statements and ascertains about the universe and humankind is they are not science; they are metaphysical statements about the universe. And that’s the problem: they are using metaphysical language to debunk metaphysics—using their metaphysical claims about truth and the universe in order to discredit any metaphysical belief about our existence. So they are affirming what they are trying to disprove.
The limitations of science, as the Nobel laureate Peter Medawar has pointed out, cannot even answer the basic question of a child: “Why am I here?” “Where do I come from?” “What is the purpose of life?” Science has its limitations and does not explain everything.