Evangelism and social responsibility

How should Christians relate to society at large? To what extent should we be involved in social and political action? Evangelicals are divided on the issue. This article by John Woodhouse is taken from a longer paper that first appeared in Explorations 3: Christians in Society.

It is important to remember that this debate is—at least in evangelical circles—not about whether Christians should be concerned for the poor and the needy of this world, nor is it about whether Christians should be concerned for evangelism. It is a caricature of either side of the debate to suggest that either of these responsibilities is being denied. A representative whom I would regard as close to one extremity of the debate is Ronald Sider. His argument, however, is that “evangelism and social action are equally important, but quite distinct aspects of the total mission of the church”. At the other extreme, I would locate a writer like Gary Meadors who has written a brief critique of John Stott’s position. In it he insists:

Jesus did not call Paul or present day Christians to a primary task of changing the world-system, but to evangelize individuals, to teach them all things He commanded, and to recognize that Satan is the ‘god of this world’ and that our only hope for ultimate political correction is Jesus’ second advent.

But he says with clarity:

We do not disagree that we should have compassion for starving people and for those who suffer from social injustice.

The significant disagreement among evangelicals has to do with the motivation that has been advanced for our social concern. On the one side of the debate, a perceived neglect of social responsibilities is redressed by arguing that social action is more significant than evangelicals have hitherto acknowledged. It is a worthwhile question to ask whether in the supposed heyday of evangelical social action—last century—the kind of theological justification advanced today was present. My impression is that it was not. On the other side of the debate, it is acknowledged that to love one’s neighbour is a Christian duty. To “do good to all men” is a Christian obligation, and the apostolic qualification “especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10) in no way negates that. And who would deny that we have neglected our duties. It is right that we should be called again and again to care. But when that obligation is given the theological undergirding that belongs properly to the task of evangelism when the evangelistic task is no longer seen as unique in importance, when evangelistic responsibility is taken for granted, and our neglect of social action causes deeper remorse than our neglect of evangelism, then the cart has got before the horse, and is trying to grow legs.

Creation and redemption

The first question that the evangelism! social action debate raises for me is the question of the relationship between creation and redemption. The argument is often advanced that the twin responsibilities of social action and evangelism are based on the two ways in which God relates to the world. He is the Redeemer, and evangelicals at least will generally agree that he redeems through evangelism. But he is also the Creator, and his will as Creator matters, whether or not he is recognized as Redeemer. And so as Christians are called on to see the world in terms of these two relationships, our twin responsibilities are set before us: to call people to repentance and faith in Christ crucified, and to shape our society, and our world so as to better reflect the will of its Creator who loves justice and righteousness.

John Gladwin puts this argument forcefully:

It is because this is God’s world and he cared for it to the point of incarnation and crucifixion that we are inevitably committed to work for God’s justice in the face of oppression, for God’s truth in the face of lies and deceits, for service in the face of the abuse of power, for love in the face of selfishness, for co—operation in the face of destructive antagonism, and for reconciliation in the face of division and hostility. The motivating power is the love of Christ which has gripped our hearts and consciences. This love is what drives people to get immersed in the messy business of politics and social shaping.

Why is it, then, that we do not find the Bible arguing like this? I take it that, biblically, the creatorhood of God is firstly a motivation for evangelism, for the Creator is the judge. And it is God’s work of redemption that will renew the creation. Does the fact that God is the Creator motivate me to persuade or force my neighbour to act more righteously apart from the gospel? That my neighbour is God’s creature is reason to love him, and care for his welfare. But that must mean, above all else, bringing him the gospel. This does not exclude feeding him or healing him. And when that is neglected, we must be called on to recognize the demands of the parable of the Good Samaritan. But the Bible does not split ‘creation’ from ‘redemption’ so that each yields a different obligation.

The kingdom of God

The kingdom of God has become an important theme of the debate before us. Ronald Sider puts the often—made point concisely:

… what was the nature of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed? …. The kingdom comes wherever Jesus overcomes the power of evil. That happens most visibly in the church. But it also happens in society at large because Jesus is Lord of the world as well as the church … Although the church is the most visible manifestation of the kingdom, the church is not identical with the kingdom. The New Testament makes it very clear that the Risen Jesus is Lord of both the church and the world … Furthermore, Colossians teaches that Jesus’ death did more than accomplish atonement for believers. Jesus’ death was also a decisive victory over the disordered rebellious structures of our socio-historical existence.

Sider seems to mean that every overthrow of injustice is a manifestation of the kingdom of God. This is not the way the New Testament sees it. The kingdom of God is virtually synonymous with the lordship of Christ. The kingdom of God comes where Christ is acknowledged as Lord. The kingdom is advanced by the proclamation of this gospel.

Does this contradict an obligation to love my neighbour? Of course not, for the King himself has given me that obligation.


I suspect that one of the factors which has brought about the changes in evangelical thinking which we have been considering is inadequate eschatology. I hear mention of the return of Christ, and in the Lausanne documents, this doctrine is affirmed as a corrective to any kind of utopianism in social programs. But I am not sure that the Christian hope penetrates our consciousness as it ought. And if we do not hold this hope clearly, then, of course, we will become impatient, even disillusioned, with evangelism.

Now the hope which the gospel brings does not undermine our duty to love our neighbour. But it will give that love a powerful evangelistic content.


Inadequate eschatology will bear an inadequate understanding of salvation, for salvation is ultimately eschatological. It is Jesus who saves us from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:10). Of course, those who know God must love their neighbour. But it is hardly a biblical way of thinking to suggest that this is, as far as the neighbour is concerned, in any sense a salvation experience. That some evangelicals feel comfortable using language associated in the Bible with salvation for social welfare work indicates a basic departure from biblical thought.

Ecclesiology and mission

Although Arthur Johnston states that “a strong ecclesiology permeated the (Lausanne) Congress”, he appears to mean that the Congress reflected a high view of the importance of the church, rather than a thorough understanding of the nature of the church. Indeed, after his review of the movement in evangelical thought through the congresses on evangelism, Utuk asks, “What precisely is evangelical ecclesiology? The (Lausanne) Congress never really confronted this question.”

Indeed, although I cannot here pursue the question at length, I believe that one of the greatest causes of confusion throughout this debate is that most participants accept uncritically the concept of ‘the mission of the church’. When the debate is reduced to the question of what this mission is, I doubt that it can be resolved. The New Testament does not contain this concept. The apostles are ‘sent’. And one may suppose that evangelists are ‘sent’. Perhaps in some sense all Christians are ‘sent’ (John 20:21). But the ‘church’ as the church is not ‘sent’. Individuals are given to the church—‘sent’ to the church, if you like (Eph 4:11) —and the church sends individuals (Acts 13:3). But we do not find the church with a mission. That is because the New Testament concept of ‘church’ is not of an institution. The church is those who have been called together by the gospel. All the ‘sending’ has the gathering of God’s people by the gospel as its goal. The gathering, the ‘church’, is not the means to some other goal.

Our discussions of social responsibility would be far more clear if we spoke simply in terms of our duty to love our neighbour, rather than in terms of the ‘mission of the church’.


I believe that it is correct to insist that we retain a ‘narrow’ definition of evangelism. It is a unique activity—uniquely important, uniquely powerful, uniquely urgent. I do not know that evangelism will always be good for society (in the sense that most people mean ‘good’). It may be that when evangelism is earnestly carried out that great numbers of Christians will be persecuted. It may be that our society will be a place of increased suffering as a result of evangelism. But “the love of Christ controls us”, and “knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (1 Cor 5:14, 11).

I hear evangelism being commended by evangelicals as a means to the end of a better society in this world. In the words of John Stott: “Evangelism should be seen as a necessary prelude to and foundation of social action”. No. Jesus ”opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ must suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations …’” (Luke 24:45—47). It must be done—no matter what the social consequences.


Finally, I want to say that this debate, like many others, has produced a great deal of careless use of the Bible.

It is often said that one position results from selective reading of the biblical texts. I do not really see it as selective reading, but, at times, careless reading, or rather a reading that finds what it is looking for whether or not it is there.

We all need to submit ourselves to the Scriptures, willing to be changed by them, and confident that those who thus seek the mind of God will not be disappointed. Scripture must not be used to bolster positions that the Bible itself does not advance.


John Woodhouse, ‘Evangelism and Social Responsibility’, in BG Webb (ed.), Explorations 3, Lancer Books Anzea Publishers, 1988, pp. 19-23. Used with permission.

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