Evangelism and Social Action

An Excerpt from Playing God

Somewhere along the way, the intimate connection between idolatry and injustice was lost. We began to believe that one was a “religious” question, the other a “political” question. And the Christian world began to separate into two camps, sometimes pitched against one another—one stressing “evangelism,” the other “social action,” one pursuing religious conversion, the other pursuing social justice.

Or, to borrow terms the influential evangelical pastor John Piper used in an address to the Cape Town Congress in 2010, one group was concerned about present-day suffering while the other was concerned about “eternal suffering.”

The lines are not so hard and fast today as they were when modernist Protestants talked exclusively about a “social gospel” and fundamentalist Protestants devoted their lives to “saving souls.” There are scarcely any Christians today, from any tradition, who insist on maintaining a lopsided focus on justice without evangelism or evangelism without justice. Of course they still have their emphases and preferences—it is hard to weigh “present suffering” and “eternal suffering” on the same scale. “Eternal suffering,” being of infinite duration and depth, sounds vastly more consequential than the sufferings of this life, with obvious implications for where the church’s energies ought to be directed. But even this loaded language was used in the context of affirming that of course Christians care about relieving suffering here and now, an affirmation that once would have earned even the most evangelistically energetic preacher the suspicion of supporting the social gospel.

What both sides have gradually (and sometimes grudgingly) realized is that care for the poor and oppressed, and proclamation of the good news of salvation through Jesus, simply are both essential biblical themes.

But what has remained surprisingly muddy is the fundamental question of how social action and evangelism are related. Most often, perhaps, they are presented in terms of the two great commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. But this still leaves the question of why loving God and loving our neighbor are more than just two distantly related things that we are supposed to do. Why did Jesus single out those two commandments when asked to name the greatest commandment—singular? Why do the biblical writers from beginning to end seem to weave themes of justice and worship, injustice and idolatry, proclamation and demonstration?

But if the whole story is about restoring the image of God, filling the world with fruitful image bearers who represent the world’s Creator by cultivating and creating, then there is no gap at all between evangelism and doing justice, just as there is no gap between idolatry and injustice. Neither can exist in any serious way without the other. Both are about restoring the image.

Evangelism and Justice are not Ends

Evangelism is not an end in itself. It is the means to an end: restoring the image bearers’ capacity for relationship and worship, where the true Creator God is named, known and blessed. Evangelism gives us the name of the God who made us, the Son who redeemed us and the Spirit who empowers us to be reborn in the image of the Son. Without evangelism, Eve’s and Adam’s descendants after Eden will never know the full story; they will never know the identity of the true Image Bearer. Just as important, apart from the redeeming and empowering gift of salvation, they will never be fully able to bear the image themselves. They will remain captive to idols, false gods that can never deliver what they promise, rather than coming to know and imitate the true God who gives abundance and gave himself to fulfill his promises.

And doing justice is likewise the means to an end—shalom, that rich Hebrew word for peace, describing the conditions where every creature can be fully, truly, gloriously itself, most of all where God’s own image bearers bear that image in all its fullness, variety and capacity. The work of justice is to restore the conditions that make image bearing possible. Without justice, without the kind of restoration that reopens the way to dignified, delighted image bearing, it is much less likely that the good news about the true Image Bearer will be believed even if it is proclaimed. And even if Adam’s and Eve’s children have heard and believed the story of restored image bearing, without the work of justice they will not be able to participate in it. They will be prevented from the dominion and tending of the world they were made for. And the world, and their fellow image bearers, will continue to groan under exploitation and diminishment, defying the will of God for his own creation.

The result of both real evangelism and real doing of justice is the restoration of the image of the only true God in the world. The image cannot be restored without naming the name and telling the story of the one true Creator God; so all serious efforts for justice must be connected to evangelism. And that image cannot be restored without God’s own image bearers taking up their true identity and calling and having the capacity to fulfill that calling; so all evangelism must be connected to efforts to create the conditions where every image bearer can experience full dignity and agency.

Some who emphasize evangelism ask, Won’t the world always be full of broken, imperfect systems until Jesus returns? So what good is it to work for justice and shalom in this world, when we know any human efforts will fall short? Shouldn’t our greatest effort be devoted to giving people the hope of an eternal kingdom that will never pass away, rather than trying to improve conditions in this world that is passing away?

Of course, these faithful evangelists have no problem presenting the gospel to people knowing that only some will repent and turn to Christ in this life. We could equally ask, What good is it to evangelize when we know only some people will come to faith? The obvious answers are,

  1. that we cannot know ahead of time who may hear and respond;
  2. that even if only a few come to salvation they are still of infinite worth;
  3. that even those who will not respond deserve to hear that they are loved this deeply by God; and
  4. that we are not accountable ultimately for the results—only God can bring the fruit we seek—but for our faithfulness.

But all these are the reasons that we should work for justice, even knowing we will never see perfect shalom this side of the new Jerusalem. We cannot know ahead of time what efforts for justice, restoring the conditions that lead to image bearing, will bear astonishing fruit. In my own lifetime we have seen the sudden, peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa; the collapse of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union; and closer to my home, the election of an American of African descent to the highest office in the land. None of these could reasonably have been foreseen a generation before they happened. Each has been a victory for the restoration of image bearing. To be sure, there are still countless other places where injustice reigns, and in each of these situations the victories have been partial at best. But not to work for justice because of those hard realities would be as odd as refusing to evangelize because some will not believe.

As for the question of why we should work for justice in a world that is passing away—well, the world is passing away.

Our work for justice should no more be based on the idea that humanity will somehow progress on its own merits to utopia than proclaiming the good news about eternal life should be based on the idea that someone who accepts Jesus into their heart will never die.

The Christian hope is not for a gradually improving world any more than it is for a fountain of youth. But Christian hope overcomes the forces of despair and decay in the midst of this world, and provides foretastes of the coming kingdom where anyone who will receive the Lamb’s sacrifice will be raised to life, and where the glory and honor of the nations will be presented as offerings to the King of kings. Hope for a life beyond this life, and a world of shalom beyond this world of injustice, is the greatest resource for the work of justice here and now. Christian hope for a world made new is not an alternative to doing justice—it is the most essential resource for it.

Proclaiming the Gospel is not Cool

But let me admit my true concern in taking this little excursion. These days I do not often meet Christians so passionate about evangelism that they question the need for doing justice. I am much more likely to meet Christians so passionate about justice that they question the need for evangelism.

Meeting the physical needs of the poor wins attention and affirmation from a watching world. Naming the spiritual poverty of a world enthralled to false gods provokes defensiveness and derision from those who do not even believe there is a god. Disaster relief and economic development seem like achievable goals that bring people together; religious claims to know the one true God seem like divisive mysteries that drive people apart. Our secular neighbors care, many like never before, about relieving human need—and more of them than ever before are indifferent or hostile to the idea that Jesus is the way, the truth, the life and the one who meets the deepest human need.

In short, working for justice is cool. Proclaiming the gospel is not.

Inevitably, then, as Christians recover a calling to justice and receive the affirmation of neighbors who do not believe in a world beyond this one, we can begin to wonder whether evangelism is really necessary after all. To put it another way, our vision of “justice” owes less and less to the rich biblical concept of shalom, interwoven as it is with the story of the Creator God and his yearning for restored relationship with his people. More and more it conforms to the necessary but thin language of human rights and international humanitarian efforts. Justice becomes simply a name for improving certain, often fairly superficial, social conditions, without probing very deeply into the roots of those conditions.

In short, we do not truly believe that the gods of the nations are idols. Our vision of justice has become secularized; we have lost the biblical conviction that God alone is good. In a sense, John Piper captures this thin conception of justice in his reduction of the work of justice to addressing “suffering.” You do not have to believe in the Creator God to want to alleviate suffering. But justice is about much more than relieving suffering—it is about a vision of human flourishing. And the audacious biblical claim is that even good things that seem to contribute to flourishing become idols when they become our ultimate ends. Even the laudable goals of economic development, political freedom and human rights are only ultimately good when they are put in the context of something more ultimate than themselves.

When we try to establish justice apart from worship of the true God, at best we will, simply replace one set of god players with another. What will never be addressed by these thin, secular conceptions of justice is the heart of the biblical understanding of justice: the restoration of the human capacity to bear the image in all its fullness.

Common Goals for Uncommon Reasons

This does not mean that Christians cannot work in secular societies to secure relatively limited forms of justice. Indeed, we can value the religious freedom and diversity that secular societies provide. Image bearing, from its very beginnings in the Garden of Genesis 2, included the capacity to turn away from the Creator. In some mysterious way this is part of the dignity that God grants Adam and Eve: the apparent absence of their Maker who only walks in the Garden “in the cool of the day” and leaves them to their tending, and their temptation, at other times. When we secure for our neighbors the right to worship other gods or to convince themselves that they believe in no god at all (something we, who know too well the human heart’s incurable bent toward god making and god playing, will never actually agree that they have managed to do), we are actually securing one of the fundamental freedoms of image bearers.

But Christians who truly want to seek justice cannot afford to let “justice” be reduced to the lowest common denominator we may be able to agree on with our neighbors. To do that would be to surrender to gods that are not real gods—to assent to the serpent’s promise that apart from relationship with God we can be like God, knowing good and evil. We can work for common goals for uncommon reasons. Because we believe every one of our neighbors is an image bearer, however broken their relationship with the One whose image they bear, we will find much common ground for working for justice and freedom. The things our neighbors seek are good; they are just not ultimate goods. We can work alongside them for the good while worshiping the One who alone is good.

Ultimately the reason for both the work of evangelism and the work of justice is not simply the relief of suffering, whether present or eternal. It is the restoration of God’s true image in the world, made known in the one true Image and Icon, Jesus Christ, and refracted and reflected in fruitful, multiplying image bearers set free by his death and resurrection to reclaim their true calling. Our mission is not primarily driven by a calculation of which suffering, present or eternal, we need to relieve most urgently; it is the fruit of glorious promises that call us into a new kingdom where the world is full of truth-bearing images.

No image bearer can fully return to their true calling without finding themselves rescued and redeemed by the true Image Bearer, so no serious Christian witness in the world can fail to call people to put their trust in Jesus and the true God he makes known. And no image bearer can bear full witness to the glory of the Creator without the conditions for flourishing that are summed up in the rich biblical conception of justice. “He comes to make his blessings flow / far as the curse is found.” Because idolatry and injustice are the twin fruits of the curse, the work of evangelism and the work of justice are one.


Taken from Playing God by Andy Crouch. Copyright (c) 2013 by Andy Crouch. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

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