Evangelism and Social Action: A Tale of Two Trajectories
Contemporary evangelicals are particularly susceptible to thinking that we, at last, have finally discovered some earth-shaking, paradigm-shifting truth that has been hidden beneath two thousand years of Christian ignorance. Conversely, some of us who prefer not to shoulder the burden of novelty present our agendas as a recovery of some truly ancient, even apostolic doctrine or practice. Yet even the most cursory stroll through the halls of history will often reveal these common claims of discovery and recovery to be ill-informed at best. It may be that what we thought was a brand new discovery has been articulated by scores of thoughtful Christians since Augustine, or was actually condemned as heresy sixteen centuries ago. It may be that what we’re calling a recovery doesn’t quite have the historical pedigree we hoped for, whether because historical precedent is scarce or because those who advocated our views aren’t exactly the guys we want in our corner in a theological debate. If Pelagius, Socinus, and Finney all agree with you, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re wrong, but it should make you uneasy.
One current group of evangelicals who are offering fairly constant claims of discovery and recovery are those who believe that the church’s mission includes social justice and caring for the poor, not merely evangelism and discipleship. While leading voices calling for renewed attention to social justice and the poor may not present their case in either of the admittedly extreme molds I outline above, they are quite self-consciously calling evangelicals to change, to recalibrate our mission—in other words, to either do something new or recover something old that we’ve lost. As such it is not irrelevant to ask, “Have we had this conversation before?”
SOCIAL ACTION AND THE CHURCH’S MISSION: WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE
One needn’t stroll too long through the halls of history in order to discover that we have. In fact, this debate was central to evangelical conversations about evangelism and the church’s mission in the 1960’s and 70’s, as Arthur Johnston’s book The Battle For World Evangelism (Tyndale, 1978) amply demonstrates.
In this work, Johnston, who was a missionary to France, founder of The Alliance of Independent Evangelical Churches in France, and later the chairman of the Division of World Mission and Evangelism at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, “focuses upon three main subjects” (17). First, he “attempts to show what is the evangelical message of the Gospel in contrast to the ‘social gospel’ of the earlier decades of this century, to the ‘larger evangelism’ of Madras…1938 and to the ‘holistic evangelism’ of this decade,” that is, the 1970’s (17). Second, Johnston argues that “the World Congress on Evangelism of 1966 held in Berlin represents a continuity in evangelism that has its roots in the New Testament as well” (18). In other words, Johnston believes that the initial evangelical response to the ecumenical movement’s evangelism conferences was both biblical and historically evangelical. Third, Johnston examines “the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization held at Lausanne, Switzerland.” Of particular concern to Johnston is “the new understanding of the mission of the church. Historically the mission of the church is evangelism alone…The author is concerned that the redefinition of the mission of the church will distract from historic evangelical evangelism and, thereby, diminish both world evangelism and the by-products of evangelism in social and political spheres of life in this world” (18-19).
Although Johnston lists these subjects as three discrete topics, one could accurately summarize his work in terms of two trajectories, one ecumenical and the other evangelical. The ecumenical agenda began in earnest, Johnston argues, at Edinburgh in 1910, and continued through the conferences sponsored by or affiliated with the World Council of Churches from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. The evangelical trajectory, on the other hand, emerged in force at the Berlin Congress on Evangelism in 1966 and extended through the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization at Lausanne, Switzerland and the ongoing work of the Lausanne Continuation Committee, which was later renamed the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization.
THE ECUMENICAL TRAJECTORY
Johnston argues that the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910 marked a serious departure from historic evangelical evangelism and initiated a trajectory which culminated not long after in the loss of the gospel itself. Johnston asserts that those who led Edinburgh 1910 had adopted a looser, more modern view of biblical inspiration, a more inclusive theological platform, and an openness “to progressive theology and syncretism” (46). And according to Johnston, over the next several decades, in various institutional manifestations, this ecumenical movement pursued a theological trajectory of “larger evangelism” and “holistic evangelism” which eventually led to a wholesale loss of the gospel. Over time, the ecumenical movement embraced an increasingly explicit universalism which resulted in understanding evangelism to be a proclamation of what is already true about every human person and in elevating social concern to a place of dominant importance in the mission of the church.
But for our purposes, what is especially interesting about this ecumenical trajectory is not just how it got from Point A to Point B, but the specific language its proponents used to describe the gospel and the mission of the church. Consider what a group of Anglicans at the 1949 Study Conference on Evangelism at Bossey, Switzerland reportedly advocated:
What is envisaged is a real encounter with the cultural and social structure and situation of the world, in give, but certainly also in take, evolving in this encounter a new idiom for expressing the Christian faith, a prophetic witness of the biblical interpretation of history, of the meaning of human life, and of the Church as community. . . . The aim has to be more to win men for the ‘obedience in the world’ than to win them for the Church. The Church has to enter in such a way in the life of the world that it becomes incarnated in it. (101-102)
Despite the archaic language, this sounds more than a little like current missional thinking about the church, except that the report goes on to say how these Anglicans found little room for evangelism as defined by verbal proclamation of the gospel, preferring instead to gives answers “to the burning questions of the world” (102).
A defining feature of this trajectory of ecumenical evangelism is the desire for a “larger” evangelism, a “holistic” evangelism that addresses not merely men’s souls, but their bodies, not merely individual men but the structures of society. This “larger” and “holistic” evangelism construed salvation not merely in terms of eternal life in heaven, but in terms of “shalom upon the earth” (117). Thus “mission” was to be understood not merely as proclamation but also as “presence” (176); according to the new “larger” evangelism, therefore, the church’s mission was to address structural injustice, care for the poor, and bring God’s shalom to bear on society every bit as much as it was to preach the gospel and make disciples.
Yet the gospel the ecumenicals preached barely resembled the biblical gospel. According to Johnston, this new ecumenical theology of evangelism and mission was built upon a low view of biblical inspiration and a Barth-inspired incarnational universalism which taught that all people have already been reconciled to God and will finally be saved. Evangelism, then, was merely inviting people to experience and realize what they already possess. Man’s state of lostness, far from being a state of condemnation under God, was redefined as a “lack of involvement in his earthly inheritance” (117).
The ecumenical trajectory in a nutshell? It departed from understanding the church’s mission as strictly evangelism and discipleship and elevated social concern as an equally constitutive component of the church’s mission; and, it moved from affirming the good news about Christ to preaching an eviscerated, universalistic imposter of the biblical gospel.
THE EVANGELICAL TRAJECTORY
The evangelical trajectory emerged as a response to these developments in the ecumenical movement. Once the International Missionary Council (whose theology is described above) was officially integrated into the World Council of Churches at New Delhi in 1961, evangelicals began to make plans to offer a unified answer to this now thoroughly compromised ecumenical evangelistic agenda. After several years of planning, the World Congress on Evangelism held in Berlin in 1966 presented to the world a unified evangelical vision of missions in explicit contrast with the ecumenical agenda. The presenters at the Berlin Congress articulated solidly evangelical views on the authority of Scripture, the nature of evangelism as verbal proclamation of the good news about Christ, the reality of God’s judgment against sinners, and the need for people to repent and believe in Christ in order to be saved.
Yet there was one crucial topic which the Berlin Congress failed to adequately address: the World Council of Churches’ redefinition of mission. Johnston writes, “Berlin 1966 also struggled . . . with the redefinition of the word ‘mission’ by the WCC theologians. . . . The ‘mission’ became primarily the restructuring of society and ‘evangelism’ became primarily the means toward this accomplishment” (176). While several presenters at the Berlin Congress engaged this issue, the Congress as a whole did not articulate a unified and decisive response to it. Hence, “Lausanne 1974 would address itself again to this issue and attempt to reconcile the ‘insights’ of nonevangelicals into the theology of evangelicalism. The regional Minneapolis 1969 Congress, caught in the midst of the Vietnam conflict and in racial and economic inequities, failed to discern the WCC redefinition of mission because of Berlin’s lacuna in this area” (176).
Enter John Stott. Stott delivered the opening Bible Study address at Lausanne 1974, was the lead author of its covenant, and generally charted the course of Lausanne’s response to the WCC redefinition of mission. Back at Berlin in 1966, Stott exhorted evangelicals to love, serve, and identify with those whom they evangelized, yet he believed that such deeds of love were not “an integral partner with evangelism in the mission of the church” (302). Rather, “at Berlin 1966 he argued that the cumulative emphasis of the Great Commission texts was on preaching, witnessing, and making disciples,” such that “one could conclude from his exposition that the mission of the church is ‘exclusively a preaching, converting and teaching mission'” (301-302).
Yet at Lausanne in 1974, Stott’s theology of evangelism took a drastic new turn. In his opening address “The Biblical Basis of Evangelism,” Stott explained his new views in contrast to what he espoused at Berlin:
Today, however, I would express myself differently. It is not just that the commission includes a duty to teach converts everything Jesus had previously commanded (Matthew 28:20), (sic) and that social responsibility is among the things which Jesus commanded. I now see more clearly that not only the consequences of the commission but the actual commission itself must be understood to include social as well as evangelistic responsibility, unless we are to be guilty of distorting the words of Jesus. (302)
Stott would express himself similarly in his book Christian Mission in the Modern World, which was published the following year by IVP:
This brings me to the third way of stating the relation between evangelism and social action, which I believe to be the truly Christian one, namely that social action is a partner of evangelism. As partners the two 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. Both are expressions of unfeigned love. As the National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Keele put it in 1967 ‘Evangelism and compassionate service belong together in the mission of God.’ (para. 2.20). (27)
If this sounds like the definition of mission advanced by the ecumenical movement, that’s because it is. Throughout his address Stott cites the various statements produced by the recent ecumenical congresses as the sources for his new way of thinking. He also explicitly recognizes that this definition of mission is a new “development” brought about by the WCC movement, yet he sees “no reason why we should resist” it (301).
In other words, Stott took the ecumenical definition of mission, which derived from a universalistic theology, and attempted to transplant it into evangelical soil. It should be noted that Stott presented his views as a synthesis of the entrenched evangelical and ecumenical extremes (see his Christian Mission in the Modern World, 15-21). Yet in elevating social action to the status of an equal partner with evangelism, he adopted the essential premises of the position the ecumenicals had articulated for several decades.
The Lausanne covenant bears some marks of Stott’s redefinition of mission, though it stops short of asserting that evangelism and social action are equal partners in the church’s mission. For example, in point six, “The Church and Evangelism,” the Covenant reads, “In the church’s mission of sacrificial service evangelism is primary” (373). Here the covenant appears to split the difference between the historic evangelical understanding of the church’s mission and Stott’s redefinition of the same. Evangelism is still “primary,” but the church’s mission is construed as “sacrificial service,” which, following Stott’s interpretation of the mission of Jesus as one of “service” to the whole man, embraces social action and caring for the poor (302).
While the Lausanne Covenant doesn’t explicitly embrace Stott’s redefinition of mission, the Lausanne Continuation Committee did: “The Committee voted that its basis would be the newly defined mission of the Church as evangelism and social responsibility” (344). Thus, through the ongoing efforts of the Lausanne Continuation Committee (later renamed the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization), the concrete legacy of Lausanne has been the pursuit of a “holistic evangelism” that replicates the practical agenda of the ecumenical movement (347-350).
THE TRAJECTORIES CONVERGE
And so the two trajectories converged. The new, larger, holistic evangelism became not just the watchword of ecumenicals, but the collective understanding and commitment of a unified global coalition of evangelicals.
To be sure, the two movements remained theologically opposed to each other: while the ecumenicals rejected Scripture’s inerrancy and relativized its authority, the evangelicals held firm to both; while the ecumenicals universalized away the gospel, the evangelicals, by and large, defended and proclaimed the biblical good news about Christ and the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation.
Yet mission is not so easily sealed off from theology. Consider, for example, what John Stott writes in his Christian Mission in the Modern World:
As for situations, there will be times when a person’s eternal destiny is the most urgent consideration, for we must not forget that men without Christ are perishing. But there will certainly be other times when a person’s material need is so pressing that he would not be able to hear the gospel if we shared it with him. (28)
Clearly Stott’s main point here is that people’s physical needs demand our compassionate consideration. But does he really mean to say that there are times when a person’s material need is more urgent than his need to be reconciled to God? If so, I would propose that Stott has adopted a diagnosis of the human problem that materially differs from Scripture’s. This example suggests that one does not adopt a new view of the church’s mission without first adopting a new assessment of man’s problem and God’s solution to that problem. That is to say, one does not adopt a new definition of mission without also necessarily adopting, at least on some level, a new theology.
Through John Stott’s leadership, Lausanne certainly reasserted several foundational evangelical doctrines, but insofar as it adopted the ecumenical redefinition of mission, it inserted an alien, inconsistent element into evangelical theology. On the crucial question of the church’s mission, the trajectories converged, and the echoes of that convergence continue to reverberate through evangelicalism:
“Incarnational ministry.” “Holistic evangelism.” “Proclaiming the whole gospel to the whole person.” “Doing justice and preaching grace.” “Bringing God’s shalom to the earth.”
We’ve heard these definitions of the church’s mission before. But have we seen where they’re from, where they lead, and what theology drives them?
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks.
1Reflecting on the definition of mission developed by ecumenicals and adopted by some evangelicals in the Lausanne movement, David Hesselgrave draws a similar conclusion: “In sum, there are obvious parallels between ecumenism at the beginning of the twentieth century and evangelicalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century” (David J. Hesselgrave, “Will We Correct the Edinburgh Error? Future Mission in Historical Perspective” in Southwestern Journal of Theology, Vol. 49, No. 2, : 134).
2 For more on the danger of diagnosing the human problem in a way that differs from Scripture, see Jonathan Leeman’s article in the present eJournal.