What is the relationship between evangelism and social justice? The question is difficult to avoid as voices from all points of view fill conference stages, blog rolls, and even the pages of magazines like Leadership Journal. One side believes social action was unjustifiably divorced from gospel mission a century ago during the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy. What God has joined together, they argue, we have wrongly put asunder.
Voices on the other side recognize the goodness of seeking peace and wholeness for the suffering, but not at the expense of eternal salvation. They believe social justice to be a byproduct of the gospel but not the essence of it. Failure to make such a distinction, they fear, leads the church astray.
As I encounter this debate, what surprises me is the lack of historical or global perspective. We seem to think this is a purely contemporary, and primarily American, question. And among my own generation of younger leaders, I sometimes detect a hint of smugness as we congratulate ourselves for rescuing social justice from an evangelical phantom zone where we assume it had been languishing until we came along.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The church has been addressing matters of mission and justice ever since Pentecost—the Book of Acts, after all, isn't just a list of evangelistic sermons. And the issue is repeatedly found among Patristic writings. But my own understanding of how evangelism and social justice intersect has been informed by a more recent church father—John Stott.
Stott, whose service to the Lord in this age ended last year, was neither American nor a Gen-Xer. He was English, Anglican, and a theological heavyweight of 20th century evangelicalism. Together with Billy Graham, he established the Lausanne Movement, and crafted one of the most respected and widely accepted modern statements of Christian faith and mission—the Lausanne Covenant.
But having witnessed the many horrors of the 20th century, Stott also wrestled with the question of evangelism and social action. And what he concluded has much to say to us in the 21st century. In short, Stott believed both sides of the controversy were in error.
In Christian Mission in the Modern World (IVP, 1975), Stott argues that most people try to make social justice either superior or subordinate to evangelism. The superior position diminishes the importance of calling people to be reconciled to God through Christ—something Stott found utterly incongruent with the New Testament. The subordinate position, however, he saw as equally untenable. It made social action into a PR device; a way to win favor in order to lead to conversions, a mere means to an end. Stott wrote: "In its most blatant form this makes social work the sugar on the pill, the bait on the hook, while in its best forms it gives the gospel credibility it would otherwise lack. In either case the smell of hypocrisy hangs round our philanthropy."
Stott recognized that forcing every facet of the Christian life to fit into a mission/evangelism framework was untenable, and asking whether evangelism or justice is more important was to miss the point entirely. Instead he concluded that social justice and evangelism "belong to each other and yet are independent of each other. Each stands on its own feet in its own right alongside the other. Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself."
Therefore, according to Stott, our participation in social action is not fueled by a missional imperative, evangelistic pragmatism, or even theological certitude, "but rather simple, uncomplicated compassion. Love has no need to justify itself."