Evangelism or Social Action: What’s the Priority?

Religion

Jesus Saves Photograph by Lisa Jayne Konopka

Throughout the last century Evangelicals were known much more for their emphasis on personal piety than for their social action. This is fortunately beginning to change. Pioneers like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo and Ron Sider have for decades been trying to get Evangelicals to see that the Bible mandates that followers of Jesus care for those who are oppressed by injustice, and it seems their message is starting to be heard. Our job is not simply to be individually righteous. We’re supposed to conduits of social transformation.

I enthusiastically applaud this development. As I in my book The Myth of a Christian Religion, Jesus’ revolted against every aspect of society that oppressed people, and our job is to be like him. At the same time, however, I have two concerns about this development.

First, I worry that some (not all) leaders of this movement are defining Christian social activism largely in political terms. Jesus never did this. He was all about radical social action, as his life demonstrates. But he never thought it his job to get government to do the right thing or to motivate his followers to influence government in certain ways. Jesus just manifested the Kingdom in ways that impacted individuals as well as the broader culture, and he inspired others to do the same.

Second, I sometimes sense that some of those emphasizing the social dimension of the Kingdom are somewhat over-reacting against the earlier, more individualistic, understanding of Christian piety. It seems that some are myopically focusing on social action the way some earlier evangelicals myopically focused on individual piety.

In my view, the Kingdom encompasses both equally. As I see it, the main difference between Kingdom social action and secular humanitarian social action is not so much in what we do, but in why we do it. Unlike secular humanitarian social action, Kingdom social action is rooted in, and flows out of, the life-giving relationship individuals have with God through Christ. Hence the scope of our social action does not stop with providing for the physical needs of people, as good as this is, in and of itself. It goes further in seeking to transform the lives of people by inviting them into the Kingdom that Jesus unleashed into the world.

It’s not that providing for the physical needs of people is merely a means to an end, the end being verbal evangelism. Rather, evangelism includes providing for the physical needs of people. From a Kingdom perspective, these aren’t two separate things. Yet, social action only becomes a form of evangelism when it’s rooted in, and flows out of, a life-giving relationship that the individuals involved in social action have with Christ.

Kingdom social action isn’t really something Kingdom people do. Rather, it’s simply a corollary of who we are.   And who we are is rooted in the fact that we are individually, and therefore collectively, becoming rightly related to God, and therefore to each other and the world, through Jesus Christ. Kingdom life, in other words, is centered on the relationship we have with God that overflows out toward others and into society.

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