Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

1 Apr 2014

Evangelical Social Engagement: A Reprise


Last week in this blog post, I suggested that if the current surge of evangelical social attentiveness shares identity with surges that preceded it (as Joel Carpenter has affirmed), then we should look to history to accurately predict the course and end of the current surge of evangelical social action. I am no prophet (I’m a cessationist, after all), but there is a discernible pattern in play. So what is the historical pattern that emerges and what steps can we take to avoid it? Here goes:

  • First, in order to maintain “unity” and otherwise keep contribution levels high, the evangelical para-church social networks will feel an increasing need to make concessions. Some of these concessions will be confessional in nature, others socio-political, and others ethical. Last week we discovered through the World Vision fiasco that the evangelical majority was not yet ready for the homosexual concession (though a sizable evangelical minority certainly leaped up to applaud), but this line in the sand will eventually erode.
  • Next, there will be increasing tolerance of Arminianism and ultimately of Pelagianism. This is because, at its heart, organized evangelical social action, even when perpetuated by Calvinists (whether Henry, Mouw, or Piper), is evangelical—it either starts as or eventually becomes a pan-ecclesiastical, gospel-promoting effort. The social action at first paves the way for the gospel message, then morphs into an efficacious means of the gospel, and eventually replaces the gospel entirely as an end unto itself. Slippery slope? Perhaps, but I prefer to call this a cyclical pattern that we’ve seen time and again. Evangelicalisms of very age tend to revert to type.
  • As the ethical and confessional compromises mount, the conservatives will begin to peel away, one by one, from these compromised social networks until enough of them accumulate for another evangelical social surge in about thirty years or so. The machinery of the existing social initiatives, however, will remain in the hands of those who have long since lost sight of the gospel.

So what’s the corrective that might be implemented to keep this cycle from repeating and to prove me a false prophet? One suggestion is that we create smaller, more local, and more self-consciously confessional organizations for ecclesiastical social action, then police these ideals aggressively. Historically, such measures tend to give such initiatives a little bit longer shelf-life, but they do not stop the progression entirely.

I would suggest a solution that is far more radical, namely this: Churches need to excise evangelical social action from their institutional mission. Note well that I did not recommend that Christians stop being neighborly or to stop participating in and/or contributing toward social/civic enterprises. But such participation should be (1) the actions of individual believers living out their faith in the civil sphere and (2) actions that are non-evangelical in intent (i.e., not practiced as a means to gospel success, but as a result of God’s sanctifying work in our lives).

In a sentence (well, two of them), we need to resurrect what Presbyterians have long called the doctrine of the spirituality of the church and what Baptists have traditionally meant by the separation of church and state. But in order to do this, we first need to shake free from the relentless grip of evangelical Neo-Kuyperianism, which, based on the perceived presence of the future, requires that evangelism and social action be regarded as two sides of the church’s greater mandate of advancing Christ’s (singular) kingdom.

4 Responses

  1. There is an old saying, “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” I think that unity in social engagement should be confessionally based, which would bring it back into more of the church model, or at least a denominational model.

    Being salt and light requires us to be socially engaged at both the institutional and individual levels. However, many times too much emphasis is put on institutional engagement to the detriment of individual engagement. There is a financial power in the combining of resources, and that should not be ignored; but the Scripture also tells us the the Lord will provide the grace necessary so that the individual will have an abundance for every good deed (II Corinthians 9:7-8). I think that there is greater power and opportunity for the gospel, when the one on one occurs.

  2. Steve Thomas

    Mark, for what it is worth, I think that both your analysis and recommendation are spot on. I would also suggest that the “cyclical pattern” you describe is unbreakable, compelled by two influences. First, those who embrace social action merely as an evangelistic strategy inevitably experience a philosophical tension caused by an obvious inconsistency: a utilitarian view of human need is inescapably dehumanizing. The only resolution to this tension (other than getting out of the business of social action) is to elevate social action to the status of a biblical mandate. Second, churches will follow this pattern until our final salvation eradicates the last vestige of the materialism that still resides in each of us. Until then, material accomplishments will tend to generate more enthusiasm than spiritual victories. For this reason, churches following the pattern you describe increasingly measure ministry success by deeds that yield the satisfaction that comes from tangible results.

  3. I think your observation about the cycle is probably historically accurate. I also agree with your recommendation that “churches” need to excise social action from their institutional mission.

    The confusion comes in when we begin to assume that because churches are not focused in a such a way that the Church proper should not. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the function of the particular churches is:

    1) The preaching and teaching of God’s Word (this includes evangelism)

    2) The proper administration of the ordinances

    3) The exercise of spiritual discipline (positive/discipleship & negative/correction)

    Would not faithful churches be cultivating a culture of Christian social engagement as an application of #1?

    If our people are being transformed by the Spirit through the Word of God then their work is by extension the work of the Church broadly speaking is it not?

    I think the distinction between the role of the local church in the culture and the impact of the universal church on a culture often remain ambiguous in these conversations leading to confusion about what exactly is being advocated.