I’ve written on this elsewhere. I’m guessing it’ll provoke a response. Some have suggested that with this distinction we’re creating a problem that doesn’t need to be there. But I think that’s naive. We live with competing calls on our time. We can’t do everything. We can only do some things. And the things that we do we don’t do for the same amount of time and with the same degree of commitment. When it comes to social activism and gospel proclamation it operates in the same way. In other words, what am I going to do every Saturday? Do I play sport and combine my love of exercise and competition with opportunties to speak of Christ, or do I sign up for a Friday night stint with the Balham Street Pastors and rule out any activity on Saturday except sleeping?The answer to that’ll depend on who we are and what we’re suited for. If you’re pants at rugby, steer well clear of rugby clubs. All you’ll do is bring Christians into disrepute!
The relationship between social activism and gospel proclamation is an important one but my rule of thumb is to try and remember the following four things
1.They are two necessary activities
God’s word instructs us to be involved in both evangelstic proclamation and practical demonstarations of compassionate care. Social activism is urged upon us in Galatians 6:10, 1 Thessalonians 3:12, Luke 10:25-37. They’re both part and parcel of being holy. And so God will recognise and commend us at the future judgement for our engagement in both. This is not to say that we’re saved by our works. We’re saved by faith in Christ crucified. But though our works will not save us they will accompany us as evidence of true saving faith. Some object that social action is a waste of time because this world and all that’s in it will be destroyed. So to invest energy in social action is like polishing the brass on the Titanic. But to think like that is to ignore the plain teaching of God in His word. Others say that it’s a misuse of resources because we’re facing a never ending black hole of need. Why pour money that could be used to support gospel ministry down the drain? It’s true that social activism will drain us of our resources both personally and corporately as we engage in it. But that’s true of most things that we do. How much we commit to this activity is a matter of wisdom. To devote all our resources to social activism would be to neglect evangelistic priorities but to give all our resources to gospel ministry would also be to neglect God’s clear command. If those extremes are at either end of the spectrum, we’ll need to be soemwhere in the middle! Don’t ask me where because that’ll depend on who we are and the gifts and opportunities that God has given us. But God commands us to be engaged in gospel proclamation but also social compassion, cultural engagement and political involvement as we have opportunity.
2.They are two distinct activities
Explaining the gospel and engaging in social activism are different things. They’re both good and worthwhile activities but they’re not the same thing. Social action is not our gospel, believe it or not we have something much more significant to offer than the temporal improvement of living conditions; we have the eternal salvation that the gospel proclaims. Our social action is not conditional on the engagement with the gospel. In other words we don’t do it simply if it will opportunity to talk about the gospel. Nevertheless it can be motivated by gospel intentionality. In other words it’s not wrong to want one to lead to the other.
3.They are two unequal activities
Gospel proclamation has eternal significance and social action has temporal significance. I am not yet convinced that the Bible gives support to the idea that what we do know will persist into the New Creation. The attitude and motives that led to our social activism willl be rewarded but the soup kitchen, social housing project or health care provision we established won’t. Therefore there’s urgency and a centrality to gospel proclamation. Both social action and gospel proclamation matter but gospel proclamation is more important because the consequences of not doing it are so much more serious. But some object that social action is a distraction from gospel ministry because preserving people’s bodies won’t save them from the wrath of God in hell. That’s true. But we find time to do all sorts of other things that are not directly evangelistic. We watched the rugby this afternoon as a family but evangelism remains my priority but that doesn’t mean that I have to be doing it all the time otherwise I’d never eat, sleep or rest.
4.They are two complementary activities
They strengthen and interpret one another. And so, though they may be distinguished from each other they should never be separated from one another. Our godly deeds without accompanying words will be misunderstood and our words without accompanying deeds of love will appear insincere. Therefore, loving social action is the context and motive for our loving gospel proclamation. Our deeds are never a softening up tactic. They may have that effect but that’s not why we do them. They’re worthwhile activities in themselves because they bring glory to God.