Yesterday I said that there were at least eight biblical objections to viewing “social action” as a form of missions. In that post, I explained what three of those were, and I’d encourage you to read that post first. But having noted those three, here are the rest of those eight objections:
Problem 4: An overly realized eschatology, or wanting the kingdom now.
An idealistic desire to bring the kingdom now often plays a role in the social-action vision of missions. Social action advocates argue that Christ came to banish the results of the Fall; therefore, “kingdom work” includes anything that diminishes or reverses those results and promotes the general betterment of society. However, this “common-grace” approach to the Great Commission is a thoroughly inadequate one—a kind of closet postmillennialism that attempts to create transformation that only Christ’s return can bring.
Problem 5: Defective hermeneutics.
The arguments used to promote social action missions are often based on transparently deficient hermeneutics. The result is arguments that are rhetorically compelling, but biblically suspect. For example, I often find that NT passages about mercy within the church are interpreted as if they referred to missions projects outside the church. Among many others, a typical example is the widow care in Acts 6. To put it plainly, the seven men appointed in Acts 6 were ministers to the church, not missionaries to the world. An army of examples of this kind of error could be marshalled. Once you keep your eyes open for it you’ll see it frequently: the apples argument of mercy within the church used to promote the oranges conclusion of social reform efforts targeted at the world.
Problem 6: Confusing what the church-corporate does with what individual Christians do.
Much of the confusion in this debate lies right here. We have confused Jesus’ call to love our neighbour with the church-corporate’s missions program: both are important, but they aren’t the same thing. It is not at all wrong for Christians to be involved in orphanages, health care, and so on. But what individual Christians do and what the church-corporate organises itself to do in missions are not the same thing.
Let me illustrate. As a Christian, you would gladly stop and help an injured motorist by the side of the road, just as the Good Samaritan did—that’s loving your neighbour. However, does the story of the Good Samaritan mean that your church should put a line-item in its annual budget to purchase patrol vehicles, train staff, and fund a freeway patrol program designed to help stranded or injured motorists on freeways that run near your church? To ask the question is to answer it. What a Christian does because he loves his neighbour, and what the church-corporate does as its missions program are not necessarily the same thing.
In the same way, if the husband of the woman next door died, my wife and I would gladly help her with childcare, reorganising life, financial assistance if necessary, and so on. That’s what Christians do, just because we’re Christians. However, does that mean that my church should start a Pretoria Widows’ Relief Fund to care for all the widows of the city of Pretoria? What individual Christians do and what the church corporate mobilises itself to do to fulfil the Great Commission is not the same thing. In summary, whatever individual Christians did in loving their neighbor, in Acts, the church-corporate’s missions programs focused entirely on proclamation, not social action.
Problem 7: A misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry and miracles.
Those who want social action and gospel proclamation to be equal partners in missions often claim that they are imitating Jesus’ ministry. In Matthew 26:9 and John 13:29, the Gospels imply that Jesus and His disciples did give money to the poor; however, it is also clear in the Gospels that Jesus started no orphanages, established no poverty relief funds, no low-cost housing schemes, no well-digging programs, and so on. Nor did He instruct His disciples to do so.
“But what about Jesus’ miracles?” you ask. “Don’t they show that the church should be working to eradicate hunger and disease?” Interestingly, Jesus’ miracles are never elevated in the NT as motivation for the church to focus on social action—as if the church is to continue Jesus’ program of miraculous social relief by non-miraculous means. In fact, Jesus repeatedly said that the purpose of His miracles was to prove that He was the Messiah (e.g., John 10:24-25). To construe Jesus’ miracles as a reason to make social action central to the church’s mission is to use His miracles in a way the NT doesn’t.
In fact, Jesus frequently found that His preaching was hindered by people’s relentless demands for yet more miraculous social intervention. As you recall, this led Him to instruct those He healed not to spread the word about His power (Mark 1:44-45; 5:43; Matt 8:4; 9:30-31). Jesus understood all too well that social relief swallows up time and energy that should be dedicated to evangelism, preaching, and discipleship.
Problem 8: A willful blindness to how the apostles fulfilled the Great Commission.
John Stott has written this about the Great Commission: “… not only the consequences of the commission but the actual commission itself must be understood to include social as well as evangelistic responsibility” (emphasis added).[i]
In spite of Stott’s assertion, neither Jesus’ commission in Matthew 28 nor Luke 24 contain the smallest mention of social action. In fact, they both focus exclusively on evangelism and teaching. Stott attempts to circumvent this silence by assigning a unique interpretation to Jesus’ declaration to the disciples in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Stott says this is a veiled reference to the content of the disciples’ mission: they were to do social relief, just like Jesus did. Unfortunately, this is a clear case of eisegesis. When Jesus said, “I send you as the Father sent Me,” His focus was on His divine authority to send them (and on their implied willingness to obey Him).
In fact, if Jesus was giving the disciples a veiled instruction to make evangelism and social relief equal partners in their missions efforts, then they clearly failed to understand Him. Several times in Acts the apostles summarized in their own words Christ’s commission; for example, Peter said, “He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge …” (Acts 10:42; see also 26:16-20).
The truth is, the apostles never mention social action when discussing Christ’s commission, nor does Acts record social action projects as a means of uplifting or evangelizing the world. In fact, the notion that social action and gospel proclamation are “two wings of the same bird” is indefensible when your read Luke’s report of the early church.
Tomorrow I will conclude this series by looking at some practical applications of how Acts should influence our approach to missions.
[i] John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975, 2008), 23.