A Theology for Uniting Evangelism and Social MinistryBy Scott Allen
One of the most destructive, yet least understood mindsets affecting evangelical Christianity generally, and evangelical missions in particular, has been Gnostic dualism. The Bible affirms that God is creator of both spiritual and physical realms. Gnostic dualism takes this basic truth and categorizes these two realms as higher and lower, more important and less important—with the spiritual realm coming out on top. Like a virus run wild, it has infected churches and institutions of Christian learning worldwide with destructive consequences. In the arena of global missions, it has resulted in the pitting of evangelism and social ministry. I've worked with Food for the Hungry for over 15 years and can't count the number of times I've been asked which is more important— evangelism or social ministry. The very premise is rooted in an unbiblical set of assumptions about reality.
A good way to understand the assumptions that undergird a particular project is to examine what gets measured. In evangelical missions, the basics have centered on number of conversions and number of churches planted. In a very real respect, this project has been incredibly successful. We live in a time of phenomenal church growth—particularly in the developing world. Churches have been planted worldwide and countless people have come to faith in Christ. For this, we rejoice. And yet something is wrong. Well-known British Bible scholar John Stott observed: "[The Church in many parts of the world today is] characterized by superficiality. [The situation] is strange, tragic and possessing a disturbing paradox. In some places, the Church is growing strongly, but even there, the problem is that the growth is without depth."1 Dr. Van de Poll, a prominent African theologian commented in a similar vein:
Because the Gospel was not brought to the people as a new totally encompassing life view, which would take the place of an equally comprehensive traditional life view, the deepest core of the African culture remains untouched… The convert in Africa did not see the Gospel as sufficient for his whole life and especially for the deepest issues of life.2
The upshot is that there are churches all over the world today, but tragically, little corresponding evidence of social and cultural transformation. The reason is quite simple: For many Christians, social ministry is less important than evangelism. This fallen world is passing away so why bother trying to reform it? These assumptions are symptoms of the virus of Gnostic dualism.
Yet by God's grace this is changing. Fresh winds are blowing, and the fortress of mental dualism is falling around the world with breathtaking speed. There is ever-increasing evidence that God is leading his bride back to a comprehensive, undivided understanding of reality. Increasingly, Christians are rejecting Gnostic assumptions in favor of a thoroughly biblical worldview—one that unites evangelism and social ministry as essential elements in a larger purpose—the advance of God's kingdom "on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). Let's focus on four areas where Gnostic assumptions are being challenged and replaced.
View of God
Let's begin with the basic view of God and of reality. There is increasing awareness that God not only created both physical and spiritual realms--he declared both to be good! Genesis 1:31 makes this point emphatically: "God saw all that He had made, and it was very good." The prioritizing of the spiritual as more important than the physical comes not from scripture, but from ancient Greek thought propounded by Plato and others. The Bible is explicit. God is Lord over all. He created the spiritual and the physical realms and cares for both equally. He seeks to be glorified not only in church buildings, but also in homes, schools, the companies, courthouses and the houses of government. "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it" (Psalm 24:1).
View of People
Gnostic thinking tends towards compartmentalization and wants to prioritize some things as more or less important. When applied to one's view of human nature, this view will prioritize the soul over the physical body and spiritual need over physical need. But increasingly, Christians are rejecting this view for a view more consistent with scripture--one that sees people not as disembodied souls, but as a wholistic integration of spirit, body and mind living in the context of a series of social relationships. And this wholistic view of people is what is driving the ever-increasing interest in wholistic ministry.
View of God's Redemptive Agenda
A simple yet foundational question reveals how deeply Gnostic thinking has infected the evangelical church's view of God's redemptive purposes: Why did Jesus die on the cross? Pose this question to a group of Bible school or seminary students and the answers are likely: "He shed his blood to forgive my sins." Or "He shed his blood to save my soul and open the door of eternal life in heaven." While these answers are gloriously correct on one hand, they are also woefully incomplete. For a broader perspective, consider Colossians 1:19-20:
"For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross."
The phrase Paul uses to describe the scope of God's redemptive agenda is "all things." This makes perfect sense when you realize that God created "all things" and declares them good. If this is the scope of God's redemptive agenda, it certainly ought to be the scope of our ministry. Do we see spiritually lost people heading to a Christless eternity? Do we see disease, poverty, hunger, social alienation, injustice and environmental destruction? Our redemptive agenda should encompass all areas of brokenness. We are God's agents of comprehensive healing—ambassadors of his full kingdom intentions. In the words of missionary evangelist Francis Schaeffer, we should be working "on the basis of the finished work of Christ… [for] substantial healing now in every area where there are divisions because of the Fall."3 We are to believe that such healing can be a reality on the basis of the finished work of Christ. This healing will not be perfect or complete on this side of Christ's return, yet it can be real, evident and substantial.
View of the Great Commission
A Gnostic mindset limits the mandate of the Great Commission to personal evangelism. A biblical mindset sees it as far more comprehensive, namely, the discipleship of ethane--nations! Central to this is personal evangelism, but here's the difference: Evangelism (and by extension church planting) is not seen as an end, but rather as a means, to a larger end of community and even national transformation that effects every sphere of society. This transformation results in a blessing to the nations in line with God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:2 "… all peoples [nations] on earth will be blessed through you."
How does this agenda get accomplished? Certainly, it is a process, and it is one that must include evangelism, for unless fallen people are born again, no hope of kingdom advancement is possible. But equally critical is Christ's imperative to "teach [the nations] to obey everything I have commanded" (Matthew 28:20). It may be helpful to recall what Christ taught. One important element was to love others--to be compassionate and tenderhearted towards the poor and broken and to help them. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus said "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37). But how many Christians incorporate Christ's imperative to compassionately serve their poor, broken neighbors into their understanding of the Great Commission?
Jesus, Our Example
Matthew 4:23 provides a concise description of Christ's ministry: "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people." Note the distinct parts: (1) teaching; (2) preaching the good news of the kingdom; and (3) healing. Now note their seamless integration. There is no higher or lower, no "more important" and "less important." While they are distinct and functionally separate, in relationship to Christ's overall ministry, they are inseparable. The preaching and teaching were backed up by real-life demonstrations of healing power.
Much of the excitement I feel today comes from seeing the church worldwide cast off the yoke of Gnostic dualism and embrace an all-encompassing biblical worldview—one that unites proclamation and demonstration in the broader redemptive agenda of the healing of "all things." When churches get this, and begin to organize their ministries accordingly, they become unstoppable agents of social and cultural transformation. Let's keep all of our zeal for evangelism—in fact, let's be more passionate about it. But let's remember that it is part of a broader agenda, and not an end in itself.
- Stott, John. Quoted by Rhonda Oosterhoff, "Discipleship Conference Addresses ‘Superficiality’ in Worldwide Church," World Pulse. Nov. 5, 1999, p. 1.
- Van de Poll. Quoted by Dick Day in lecture "The Truth for Youth," Forum 2004, Pattaya, Thailand, Oct. 2004.
- Schaeffer, Francis. 1970. Pollution and the Death of Man. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers. p. 68.
Scott Allen is Operations Director for Disciple Nations Alliance.