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 ...