The Church and Social Action: Food for Thought

From Missions Mandate – a rather excellent site dedicated to world mission.

The relationship between the church and social action can be a complicated issue. Recently, three people have provided their perspectives on this issue that would be helpful in establishing a biblical philosophy.

Mark Snoeberger, Professor of Systematic Theology at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, in his series on the reasons for the continued existence of fundamentalism, provides clarification regarding the belief that the church has no social mandate.

Individual Christians can be neighborly and be involved in social action, but

the institutional church must resist adopting a programmatic social agenda as an end. The church has no responsibility to rescue babies from abortion (though its members may do so), no responsibility to build hospitals (though its members may do so), no responsibility to provide medical or dental services (though doctors and dentists within its membership may do so), etc…

In view of the extraordinary pressure exerted by culture for the church to become a social organization, it behooves us who are in church leadership to regularly remind the church that their responsibility to “those without” is not to transform their culture, but to evangelize them. May God help us to that end.

Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., did a recent workshop at the Sovereign Grace Pastor’s conference on “The Pastor and the Community: 35 somewhat overlapping statements as a pastor to pastors concerning the topic of the congregation’s responsibility for its wider community.” To give you a taste of what is included, here’s a few of the statements:

“We should have more passion for and compassion for God than for people”

“The Gospel’s main thrust is not the renewal of the fallen structures of this world, but rather the creation of a new community composed of those purchased by the blood of the Lamb”

“Scripture gives us no hope that society will be broadly and permanently transformed by the preaching of the Gospel.”

“Individual conversions can have profound effects for good on people, not only in eternity, but in this life, too.”

“We should have a desire to see non-Christians know the common blessings of God’s kindness in providence (e.g., food, water, family relations, jobs, good government, justice).”

“We should never mistake social action or mercy ministries (e.g., caring for the poor, soup kitchens, etc.) for evangelism (though it may be a means to it).”

“We must ask ourselves and others whether or not we are more excited by and about the Gospel, or other, secondary issues, and if others perceive this in our ministry”

“We must beware the popular “share the Gospel, and if necessary use words” mindset.”

Matt Harmon, Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace Theological Seminary, recently taught a 2-day course on the Kingdom of God and Social Justice, concluding the class by stating “Ten Theses for Further Discussion” that he shared in a 2 part series on his blog.

All ten theses are helpful starting points for discussion, but I think one that is often overlooked is:

We must recognize that evangelical engagement with these issues will take different forms within different political, cultural and social contexts. While it is increasingly popular to champion individuals like Abraham Kuyper and the goal of transforming culture, large numbers of believers simply do not have that option available.

Believers in the Middle East and parts of Asia (just to name a few) have little or no access to the various institutions of a culture to effect transformation. Believers in the United States, by contrast, often do. Thus a one size fits all approach to this issue simply cannot and does not work.

Read the ten items – Part 1 and Part 2 – as well as this follow-up post by Harmon on the topic “Should Evangelicals Use the Term Social Justice?“, which includes this example of the immense breadth in the use of the term “social justice”.

Update: Patrick Schreiner, seminary student at Southern BTS, posted a helpful quote on the topic of “social justice” from Marvin Olasky.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

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