Ever since Walter Rauschenbusch popularized the social gospel in America, Fundamentalists have been struggling with how Christians should relate to the multitude of social problems. Criticism has been leveled against Fundamentalists for dropping out of the social arena in the early part of the twentieth century. Some have called this the “Great Reversal.” Perhaps “Great Takeover” would be a better title. Through the influence of evolution, socialism, and religious liberalism, governmental agencies began to take over social, psychological, and welfare programs and to require certification in order to perform services, greatly limiting Christians’ ministering with a Biblical philosophy. Fundamentalists had to withdraw from such situations, and in reaction to the liberal social gospel they also withdrew from social activity that would require theological compromise.
The accusation that Fundamentalists in the early twentieth century deserted social service is often overstated. There is evidence that Fundamentalists were still involved socially. They were hindered, however, because they were busy rebuilding church congregations, buildings, and ministries after losing the battles over theological liberalism in the major denominations. Carl Henry leveled this accusation in his book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, published in 1947. Henry emphasized the absolute necessity of Biblical redemption as the keynote in all social service, but since he gave very little direction and safeguard, he left the door open for the development of social programs that easily developed into ministries that strayed from Biblical principles and were often without evangelism at all.
Social programs for both saints and sinners have never died in Fundamentalism. Fundamentalists have been involved in rescue missions, prison ministries, sports leagues, medical missions, addiction counseling, adoption ministries, disaster relief, and many others, some of which have been around for many years. Most Fundamentalists would agree on the following: in the course of preaching the whole counsel of God, pastors should preach on a wide range of social topics; individual Christians should use their positions, influence, and talents to Biblically and evangelistically confront social problems; and churches should compassionately meet the social needs of Christians.
The main disagreement is over the legitimacy of a having social programs for the purpose of evangelism. Several writers have voiced their opinions. The FBFI has mentioned many social problems in its past resolutions and has recommended actions to be taken. Although emphasizing the role of the individual Christian, some of these resolutions imply that the local church should be involved.
The important question is, “What does the Bible have to say about churches being involved in social evangelistic programs?” The Book of Proverbs provides wisdom even for us today. Proverbs emphasizes the importance of helping the poor, and no distinction is made about who the poor are.
• “He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker: but he that honoureth him hath mercy on the poor” (14:31).
• “Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard” (21:13).
• “He that giveth unto the poor shall not lack: but he that hideth his eyes shall have many a curse” (28:27).
• “The righteous considereth the cause of the poor: but the wicked regardeth not to know it” (29:7).
• “Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (31:9).
Is it possible for a church to use such verses to lead to a program to help the poor in order to reach them for Christ?
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven (Matt. 5:13–16).
This can very easily be interpreted to mean that Christians, whether singly or corporately, can do good things before or for the unsaved world in order to bring them to a right relationship to the Father.
In Matthew 5:44–48, Jesus said,
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
Here is a command to do good, even to our enemies. Can exegesis limit this to individual Christians? It seems that it would not be wrong for a church to use this passage to lead into a ministry to social groups that hate Christians (radical Muslims, homosexuals). The same conclusion can be argued from the parable of the Samaritan recorded in Luke 10:30–37.
In Matthew 15:32, the Scripture records, “Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way.” The primary purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to confirm that He was Messiah, but His compassion for people, both Jews and Gentiles, is specifically noted as another motive. (See also Matt. 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 5:19; 6:34.) Could it be that the demonstration of compassion could be used by Fundamental churches to lead people to the compassionate Savior?
Paul argues that the goodness of God leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Is it wrong for a church to demonstrate the goodness of God through social programs such as prison ministries, rescue missions, crisis counseling, and so on in order to bring the unsaved to repentance? Indeed Paul testifies that, “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). We could argue that this applies to individual Christians only, but it would be an argument from silence. Paul’s attitude was, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). It seems implausible that this should be interpreted to apply only to the individual Christian and not also to a planned action by a body of believers.
Finally, would we say that James was referring to Christians only when he wrote, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Were local churches wrong for supporting the orphanages of George Mueller and Amy Carmichael, or for today sustaining the many orphanages operated and supported by Fundamental ministries in Eastern Europe, India, and so on? Just because there is no mandate, warrant, pattern, program, or agenda spelled out for the churches in the Scripture to be involved in evangelistic social programs does not mean that it is necessarily wrong to be involved in such programs, if the purpose is to win people to Christ and disciple them. We could just as well say that there is no mandate against such programs. When the Bible is silent, we should not be dogmatic.
Having said that, we must realize that there are dangers involved in such ministries: putting social needs before the gospel; becoming partakers of evil deeds (getting involved with Catholicism, the World Council of Churches, New Evangelicalism, etc.); creating “rice Christians”; and mismanagement of our limited ministry resources. We cannot afford to ignore the high percentage of good social programs that go wrong. Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to make the same mistakes. The evangelistic and discipleship ministry must always be in the forefront, the raison d’être.
Some disagreement will continue among Fundamentalists on this issue, but we can hope that the Baptist doctrines of individual soul liberty and the autonomy of the local church will prevail and that good men will allow other good men some latitude.
John Mincy was a church planter in Singapore and California and is now pastor emeritus of Heritage Baptist Church in Antioch, California.
(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)
- “Moberg contends, however, that ‘a great reversal’ took place between 1910 and the 1930’s in which the position of evangelicals on social action shifted” (quoted by James Singleton, “Fundamentalism: Past, Present, and Future Part VIII,” Tri-City Builder, February 1990). [↩]
- Rushdoony refers to a book written by Albert Jay Nock in 1935: “The state, as Albert Jay Nock saw, has become the new church of man.” R. J. Rushdoony, The Death of Meaning (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2002), p. 155. Specific influences would include John Dewey, Sigmund Freud, the Scopes trial, and the creation of social agencies (U.S. Children’s Bureau established by Congress in 1912, the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice founded in 1908, the Boston School for Social Work established in 1904, to name a few). “The meaning of the [Scopes] trial emerged through its interpretation of social and intellectual values” (http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/ scopes/evolut.htm, accessed 01/18/07). “[President Woodrow] Wilson [1913–21] argued that intellect—not Victorian traditions or religious precepts—should guide our social institutions” (http:// www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/finalword. html, accessed 01/18/07). [↩]
- Rolland McCune, Promise Unfulfilled (Greenville, SC: Ambassador International, 2004), pp. 235–36. [↩]
- Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003, 2nd ed. [↩]
- McCune, p. 268; L. Duane Brown, Confronting Today’s World: A Fundamentalist Looks at Social Issues (Schaumburg: Regular Baptist Press, 1986), p. 70. [↩]
- McCune (pp. 260–74) and Brown (pp. 63–71) strongly denounce local church social programs. At the end of his book, however, Brown says that social ministry is justified when it “gives opportunity for sharing the gospel. Some examples of this would be medical missions, city rescue missions, servicemen’s centers and possibly emergency funds for certain crises” (p. 170). David L. Burggraff gives a brief history of the issue and suggests that the future of Fundamentalism will probably involve more social programs, but stops short of condoning such (see http://seminary. cbs.edu/content/events/nlc/2006/papers/WE5-DBurggraff. pdf). James Singleton opts for recognition of both evangelism and social action without specifying what the social actions might look like (“Fundamentalism: Past, Present, Future, Part VIII,” Tri-City Builder, Feb. 1990. For the entire booklet see http://www. tricityministries.org/tcbc/resources/fundamentalism_booklet. pdf). For a recent blog discussion by Fundamentalists see http:// mytwocents.wordpress.com/2006/07/29/drying-out/ (accessed 9/15/2006). [↩]
- All past resolutions are on the FBFI website. See http://fbfi.org/resolutions/. [↩]