Playing the Whole Field

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

It is not unusual to hear statements which tend to pit social justice concerns against evangelistic concerns. Do we have to choose between “saving souls” and “saving society”? Evangelism, in this usage, is about the proclamation of the good news that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, sinful people can be forgiven and reconciled to God. Social action, in this usage, refers to the church’s cultural mandate to express God’s love practically through tangible acts of compassion and justice for the poor, the homeless, the sick and the disenfranchised.

Sometimes, though not always, the phrase “social action” vs. “social justice” is distinguished between those who focus on immediate needs (e.g. housing the homeless) and those who focus on larger structural evils and laws which mitigate against the poor (e.g. world bank policies, laws which inadvertently protect sex trafficking, etc.) Is there room in the church for both Mother Teresa and Billy Graham?

Most Christians agree that we must embrace both. The problem comes in the relationship between the two. To put it plainly, is social action a bridge to evangelism? Is social action a natural consequence of evangelism?  What, exactly, is the relationship?

The gospel embraces the in-breaking kingdom and the New Creation claims the whole sphere. Christians can’t simply choose to play in one small corner of the chessboard. We must work strategically on the whole board, or we will lose something precious in the gospel. The gospel must be embodied in a redeemed community and touch the whole of life. That is why the Wesley brothers set up class meetings, fed the poor, wrote books on physics, gave preachers a series of canonical sermons, catechized the young, preached at the brick yards, promoted prison reform, rode 250,000 miles on horseback, preached 40,000 sermons, superintended orphanages, were avid abolitionists, and wrote theologically-laden hymns for the church, etc.

You see, they were capturing every sphere with the gospel. The New Creation does not simply break into one little square on the chess-board—it crashes into the whole of life! If Wesley teaches us anything, it is that salvation is not something which is merely announced to us, it is something which God works in us—the forceful intrusion of his holiness into our history.

Another way of putting this is that in the New Testament there is a fundamental unity between word and deed. This is most seen in and through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

So, let’s not talk about either one being a bridge to the other, or about one being the natural consequence of the other. Let’s talk about a complementary unity whereby the church of Jesus Christ reflects the very incarnation itself.


  • Don Terry says:

    I appreciate the call to balance. It is a challenge to live inwardly holy and outwardly sacrificial lives. However, the calling is for all of us is clear. We receive so we may give. “To whom much is given, much is required.” Luke 12:48

  • Terry Powell says:

    I understand your point, but I see many acting out of a rational understanding rather than a transformed character. Wasn’t John Wesley’s point that people must be transformed in the image and likeness of Christ – and in so being they will act accordingly. Have we skipped over a transformed heart for ‘proper’ actions?

  • Emily says:

    I believe that the alpha and the omega of Christianity is learning to act, always, in a state of love.

    In the modern world, we quantify everything.

    Some things cannot be quantified (yet? Maybe in the world to come there is a metric for love?). Still, just because a thing cannot be quantified, this does not meant it is unimportant.

    Any sales guy worth his salt is going to complain if the quality of his food at the steakhouse is ‘poor’, but what does he mean by poor? Can he tell, in mathematical terms, what went wrong in the mashed potatoes that renders them inedible?

    So it is with love. If we are transformed by Christ’s love for us, everything we do will have a different flavor.

    Still, it is our inability to quantify this change, or to explain precisely how it occurs, that damages us in the eyes of skeptical, logic-driven people.