Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Fundamentalism Embraces Social Action

My case isn't that this is right, simply that it is. And yet sometimes social action is perceived to be an innovation of liberalism and/or neo-evangelicalism.

A recent sermon from fundamentalist evangelist Tom Farrell offers an example of the use of social action in missions. Speaking of a missions trip to Thailand with an optometrist, Farrell said that the work of the doctor "gives us an opportunity to share our faith."

My sense is that fundamentalists more consistently connect social action with the proclamation of the gospel message than folks in the neo-evangelical stream, but that's simply my perception based on no scientific data. I think that's the mission Farrell is describing here:
What God is allowing us to do with our ministry and with Operation Renewed Hope is touch the body to touch the soul. And we're convinced of this: If we can touch the body of these dear folks, they will be open to the presentation of the gospel.
Listen to his message, "Let's Be a Barney," here.


Bruce McKanna said...

Okay, Ben, you’ve lured me into your PaleoWorld-- I can’t help but comment on this post. I agree entirely that the good we do to others (in this case, to people outside of the church) must be connected to the Gospel. However, I believe your example in this post is not only simplistic but also inconsistent with a gospel of grace when good deeds are reduced to a promotional item that creates an opportunity to teach about forgiveness of sins through Jesus. How is this different than giving trinkets and toys to kids to get them to ride your bus to Sunday School? How is this different than buying somebody dinner in order to make your Amway pitch?

Need we go any further to defend “social justice” work than the second great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Remember that when Jesus was asked, “Who then is my neighbor?” he replied with the story of the Good Samaritan, someone who did good toward another simply because he was in need, when those who were covenant kinsmen to the wounded traveler passed right on by.

Can the appropriateness of our “social justice” work simply hinge on our motives? Liberals believe that their social work is bringing about the kingdom, and I believe mine reflects and anticipates the kingdom of Christ, as a foretaste of the perfection he will bring. Ours is relief work; Christ is the one who rescues (or to use biblical language, redeems, delivers, saves).

Someone is hungry? Feed him, and tell him that his hunger reflects something that is deeply wrong with this world. Tell him you serve a king that will not only bring about a reign in which there is no more hunger, but he suffered and died to break the power of sin in this world that caused all the hunger this world has known. Tell him that he is part of the problem of brokenness and wickedness in this world, and that Christ’s death can bring forgiveness and freedom to him through faith. Tell him that Christ’s resurrection is our hope of new life now and eternal life to come. Tell him to turn from his own ways to follow the best king this world will ever know. That’s how the Gospel fits with hunger, poverty, AIDS, illiteracy, etc. We need a vision not only of Jesus as Savior, but as King of kings and Lord of lords.


Ben said...


I'm extremely sympathetic to what you're advocating, even though I stop short of seeing what you're advocating as a mandate to the church as a corporate body. And perhaps you wouldn't see it as a mandate in that sense either.

My point in this post is not to hold up the statements cited as an example to be emulated, but simply as evidence to the fact that fundamentalists employ a strategy of addressing social concerns in order not only to create opportunities to spread the gospel, but also as some sort of pre-evangelism to prepare the soil of men's hearts.

In other words, sometimes fundamentalists want to criticize any form of social action as employing social gospel or neo-evangelical methodology (and implicitly, theology). But my point is that when they do so, they're also pointing a finger at some within their own camp, as well.

At the end of the day, I think your rationale for "social justice" work based on the second commandment is the best articulation I can imagine. Whether this is a formal church activity or conducted by individuals spontaneously is less important to me right now (and I'm definitely still sorting through these things) than the way you filter these things through a gospel-centered grid.

Long story short: I appreciate your thoughts. It's a helpful perspective. Don't be a stranger. And by all means feel free to join the ranks of fundamentalist evangelists.

Bruce McKanna said...

Even though I entered your site with guns blazin’, I hope that you understand my concern. I was not clear on your qualification at the outset of this post: “My case isn't that this is right, simply that it is.” I read that to mean that you were not taking a position on the merit of mercy ministry, simply showing that fundamentalists are doing it too. You also said Farrell (who I do not know at all) illustrated that fundamentalists “more consistently connect social action with the proclamation of the gospel message than folks in the neo-evangelical stream.” If by that you mean more frequently, well, I don’t know the answer to that. My post was to say that 1) mercy ministry is legitimate, and 2) I strongly believe that the example of Farrell is a poor way to “connect” it to the gospel, and I see fundamentalists and evangelicals using that reasoning all the time.

If I may continue my diatribe, I believe it undermines the authenticity of service to the needy when we use it as a carrot-and-stick approach. Frankly, I see this as another variation of good ol’ American megachurch felt-needs approach to evangelism. If we’re in suburban America, we offer people Starbucks and movie clips in hopes that they’ll listen to our gospel presentation. If we’re in Africa, we offer people clean drinking water and vaccinations in hopes that they’ll listen to our gospel presentation. Perhaps we could take comfort in the fact that we’re actually meeting a real need in Africa, but the exchange and motivation is the same. In fact, I think it may be ethically worse. At least if I were to offer free Starbucks at our church, and no one came, nobody would be any worse off for having missed out on the coffee. If I use food and medicine to entice a malnourished man to listen to my sermon, haven’t I used his desperate need to my advantage? There is a conflict of interest here. Why can’t we be cross-bearing disciples of Jesus in Africa and America in such a way that our joyful sacrifice and the hope we have in the face of suffering gives us an entre for the gospel, rather than manipulating people by their needs?

We fail to see a basic connection to the gospel in mercy ministry because we don’t appreciate the connection between disaster, disease, and poverty with sin: The Fall with the resulting pervasive human depravity and The Curse of God upon all creation, including our very bodies. Suffering and the alleviation of suffering do not merely give us an opportunity to preach, it is in C. S. Lewis' words the “megaphone of God” to say that something is wrong, and Christ is the answer. Here is an example of where both evangelicals and fundamentalists have adopted the paradigm of the mass evangelist who is out there trying to win large numbers of individuals for Christ. We have focused on conversion with a message that does not go beyond justification. Justification is absolutely critical! Conversion is necessary! Coming to the cross can be the great pivot-point of a person’s life, but it is also the great pivot-point of history. We need a gospel that preaches forgiveness of sins, but gives people the bigger picture that their individual life fits into. Their sin and suffering is just one piece of a larger spiritual war that is raging in this world, and God is beginning his reign through his insurgents (the Church) who will be ready to welcome the return of the true King when he comes to establish his reign. I think this is the way to be consistent in connecting our social work to gospel proclamation: “You’re thirsty? I have some water for you. My heart breaks for what sin is doing in this world, and I am entering into your suffering because I have a Master that ends all thirst. He suffered too, both to win my everlasting satisfaction and to give me an example of victory through suffering. He can satisfy the thirst of your heart now, and he will satisfy the physical thirst of all who await his kingdom by faith when he comes. He has secured his ultimate triumph through the cross and empty tomb, and I’m here as his ambassador and front-line soldier.” I think this is a New Covenant (post-Crucifixion/Resurrection/Pentecost) version of Jesus and the disciples’ ministry while he was on earth.

I’m still trying to figure out what this looks like in my life, and to what extent it is a corporate responsibility. We are both wary of churches that make social justice the center of their ministry so that they become a community service organization rather than a church. But I believe we also share a desire not to be reactionary toward abuses and end up with a polarized ministry that does not reflect the whole biblical picture. As in Acts 6, I think it is the pastor’s role to keep the work of ministry grounded in the Word and prayer while others in the church take the responsibility and leadership for meeting practical needs. Yes, the Acts passage is intra-church ministry, and I think that sort of ministry is an important reflection of the coming kingdom in that there should be no needy among the family of faith when it is in the power of the brethren to meet that need, even if it requires costly sacrifice.

But what do you make of these verses?
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43:48)
So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:10)
See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:15)
These seem to expand our vision, albeit in a measured way, to look beyond the brethren in our good deeds, which I see as part of the application of the Second Greatest Commandment and the Parable of the Good Samaritan I cited yesterday.

Are there certain mandates for the church as a whole? I would assume that a common answer would be the Great Commission, but what sets that apart from any other command, such as “love your enemies” as being corporate and not individual? Or should we say that all commands are corporate? I wonder if we need to be thinking in terms of application that is personal (I am responsible to obey this command) but not individualized (I do not do this separately from other gifted members of the Body, without the oversight of the God-ordained leaders of the Body). I fear that we are making a false distinction between Christians and the Church (as in laity and clergy) when we are simply trying to preserve the kind of priorities exemplified in Acts 6. Thus, in making the statement, “It’s not the church’s responsibility to do evangelism,” some mean to say, “It’s not the pastor’s job to evangelize; it’s everyone’s responsibility” while I would want to say, “It is the church’s responsibility to do evangelism” and mean "We all are to be doing evangelism, and God means for us to do it as the Church." So if we develop programs to do mercy ministry, we will have to think of them the same way we should think of evangelism, discipleship, Sunday School, or fellowship programs: they are legitimate, but they have limitations. They are practical means by which the leadership is trying to help everyone get active and intentional in these areas, but they do not function automatically or comprehensively. We all have to do it, and be engaged for the right reasons, from the heart, for the glory of God.

Thanks for letting me “think out loud” on your blog. I’m sure that the volume of my words is far more overwhelming than my arguments, so I’m not expecting you to respond to everything, nor will I count that as a personal “victory.” We’re in the same fight, on the same side.

Ben said...


Thanks for the lengthy thoughts. Interested in a guest article? I'm really wrestling through some of these things because I think they are going to be key points of questioning and potentially contention in fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism in coming decades, perhaps in particular because of the influence of the right-wing conservatives in the Emerging movement. I appreciate your thoughts. There is much that resonates. I need to think more, plus classes just started again and things are a little crazy. Thanks again for the helpful insight.