Evangelicals and social action
After a trip to South Africa, megachurch pastor Rick Warren began to re-examine Scripture with new eyes. What he found surprised him. “I found those 2,000 verses on the poor. How did I miss that? I went to Bible college, two seminaries, and I got a doctorate. How did I miss God’s compassion for the poor?” Warren is not alone.
In his upcoming book Consuming Jesus, Paul Metzger argues that historical influences have led evangelicals to an antipathy toward social engagement. Once again, he uses D.L. Moody as an example of someone who has influenced evangelicalism.
Moody saw social activism just as he saw theological debate: as a distraction from evangelism. Moody cared for the poor early in his ministry. Later on, he grew frustrated that people seemed more interested in having their physical needs met. “If I had a Bible in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other,” the wrote, “the people always looked first at the loaf; and that was just the contrary of the order laid down in the Gospel.”
Moody still cared for the poor, but he believed that evangelism was the most effective way to address social concerns. Metzger calls this “trickle-down social ethics” – that “by changing hearts we will eventually be able to change the world.” Metzger calls this view well-intentioned but “shortsighted and problematical.”
While we should not discount the necessary role evangelism and regeneration play in the transformation of lives and societies, Moody’s emphasis – especially when combined with hypermoralism (the “don’t drink, don’t chew, don’t date girls who do” kind of thinking) – fails to engage social inequities adequately. Contemporary evangelicalism’s nearly solitary emphasis in many quarters on the “miracle motif” (evangelism and conversion) betrays a fundamental blindness to the immoral structural realities that oppress the poor and keep them poor…[Moody’s] views on social engagement may owe as much to American culture’s influence on his thinking as they do to his reading of the Bible and his regard for “Christian” values. The same may be said about many evangelicals in present-day American culture.
Metzger identifies another factor that has led to evangelical antipathy toward social engagement: fear of falling victim to “guilt by association.” In other words, “one could easily be charged with going down the path of liberalism by showing signs of a social consciousness and conscience” via the slippery-slope claim that “social action leads to liberalism.” Metzger concludes:
The fundamentalist reaction to the social gospel movement overshadowed and overwhelmed the classic evangelical understanding of the gospel, which involved spiritual renewal and social reform. Although “social gospels” that reduce Christian faith to social action by making faith a predicate of activism are clearly problematical, so are those versions of the Christian faith that fail to see the gospel as social. The good news of Jesus Christ orders and reorders the whole of life.
I find the same concerns expressed, by the way, in Carl Henry’s 1947 book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. “Fundamentalism [at the time the same as evangelicalism] is wondering,” he wrote, “just how it is that a world-changing message narrowed its scope to the changing of isolated individuals.”
I’ve often wondered why evangelicals have often been wary of social engagement. This is still going on today, except the “slippery slope” that evangelicals talk about is now probably toward the emerging church, not liberalism. But as Carl Henry wrote 60 years ago, “The redemptive message has implications for all of life; a truncated life results from a truncated message…The cries of suffering humanity today are many. No evangelicalism which ignores the totality of man’s condition dares respond in the name of Christianity.”