August 21, 2016

The flawed theory of “social” missions

by Joel James

Image result for social missionsLast week I explained the importance of understanding that for missions to truly succeed, it must be built on the foundation of strong ecclesiology. I then wrote a critique of the approach to missions that focus on social action. Today I want to expand on that post, and describe what exactly my concerns are with this approach to missions.

There are at least eight biblical problems with the social action model of missions.  Of course, not all social-action advocates exhibit all eight of these problems, but naturally, since this is a survey, I need to paint with a broad brush.

Problem 1:  A redefinition of the gospel.

Many social justice advocates argue that the incarnation was, at least in part, about bringing shalom, human flourishing, or general well-being to the human race.  Therefore, they say that any Christian effort which increases human flourishing (such as digging a well or starting a medical clinic) is gospel ministry.  Although this may initially seem compelling, it is a very dangerous one because it involves a significant redefinition of the gospel.

As D. A. Carson points out, any such redefinition of the gospel is categorically wrong.  He writes, “[The gospel is] the good news of what God has done, not a description of what [Christians] ought to do in consequence …. One cannot too forcefully insist on the distinction between the gospel and its entailments.”[i]  In other words, by definition, digging a well is not the gospel, because the gospel is about what God has done in Jesus Christ, not anything we do.  How did we forget that?

Furthermore, to represent the gospel of Jesus Christ as being about the general upliftment of unbelieving society is, in fact, to misrepresent the gospel.  John MacArthur writes:

I recently mentioned to a friend that I was working on a book dealing with sin and our culture’s declining moral climate.  He immediately said:

Be sure you urge Christians to get actively involved in reclaiming society.  The main problem is that Christians haven’t acquired enough influence in politics, art, and the entertainment industry to turn things around for good.’  That, I acknowledge, is a common view held by many Christians.  But I’m afraid I don’t agree …. God’s purpose in this world—and the church’s only legitimate commission—is the proclamation of the message of sin and salvation to individuals.[ii]

Problem 2:  An inexplicable preference for indirect gospel ministry over direct gospel ministry.

In most social action mission efforts the actual gospel ministry is quite limited—more of a hoped-for byproduct than the overt goal.  For example, school teachers and doctors naturally have to spend the majority of their day teaching arithmetic and peering into ears and down throats.  A church planter, on the other hand, spends his entire day doing direct gospel ministry.  Based on the book of Acts, I would argue that the gospel is not merely a hoped-for byproduct of missions.  The gospel is the mission.  An indirect approach might be necessary in Islamic countries where Christians need secular employment to get into the country.  However, there is no need to adopt indirect strategies when reaching open countries.

Often lurking behind this preference for expensive, roundabout, indirect-gospel ministry is the notion that the church must first portray the gospel by means of social action before it can preach the gospel.  I find no basis for this in Acts or the Epistles.  In fact, missions efforts in which the preaching of the Word and the proclamation of the gospel are an afterthought or a hoped-for byproduct bear no resemblance to the missions efforts of the apostles in the book of Acts.

Problem 3:  The new pragmatism.

John MacArthur has said that one of the key crippling weaknesses of the evangelical church in our era is “a spiraling loss of confidence in the power of Scripture.”[iii]  I often see this reflected in the social action movement.  The argument is, once the church’s social relief programs make unbelievers amiable toward us, then we can nudge them toward Christ.  It’s a new expression of the old notion that the gospel needs an enticing lead-in because it will never succeed by itself.

Let me illustrate.  The following description of a social-action church plant in the Baltimore, Maryland area, comes from a book on urban missions written by graduates of Westminster Seminary.  This quote, which is fully representative of the book, provides a rather bare-faced example of doubting the power of the gospel and of the medium becoming the message:

Without a holistic faith, there is no gospel in Sandtown.  Living out the gospel in this context has meant building a collaborative network of church- and community-based institutions that focus on housing, job development, education and health care.  In 2001, the full-time staff numbered over eighty ….  Seeking the shalom of Sandtown means a concentrated effort to eliminate vacant and substandard housing, a K-8 school … a job placement center that links over one hundred residents a year to employment, and a family health center …. Simply ‘preaching the gospel’ would have failed.[iv]

According to that author, the gospel in Sandtown includes housing reform, job development, quality education, and health care.  In fact, it appears that about the only thing that the gospel in Sandtown does not include is Jesus Christ crucified for sinners.  Jesus as Savior from substandard housing and unemployment is highly visible.  Jesus as Savior from sin and hell is nowhere to be found, and frankly, isn’t even necessary to most of what is being done.  The power of the gospel is openly doubted (imagine if eighty full-time church planters had been sent there!), and the medium—social reform—has become the message.

In the end, the new pragmatism leads one very far from book-of-Acts kind of missions.

[i] D.A. Carson, “The Hole in the Gospel” ( article/

the_hole_in_the_gospel).  Accessed 31 January, 2014, emphasis original.

[ii] John MacArthur, Jr., The Vanishing Conscience: Drawing the Line in a No-Fault, Guilt-Free World (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994), 12.

[iii] John MacArthur, Jr., Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1993, 2010), 23.

[iv] Mark R. Gornik, “Doing the Word:  Biblical Holism and Urban Ministry,” in The Urban Face of Missions, eds. Manuel Ortiz and Susan S. Baker (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 194.

Joel James


Joel is the pastor-teacher of Grace Fellowship in Pretoria, South Africa, where he has served since 1995. Joel has his D. Min. from The Master's Seminary.
  • Josh


    I have studied this a little bit and I agree in principal with your article. I do agree with the problem of the category error of speaking about the gospel. We do not do the gospel. However, is not part of that Good News that Christ is reconciling all things to Himself? And that as changed people, we are participating in that reconciliation? The creation mandate? It seems like John MacAurthur is ignoring that. I don’t think it is the local church’s job to reclaim society but it’s a worthy goal for Christians to do as they do their job. What else are they supposed to do?
    I have never read Doing the Word so I won’t comment on that. However, do you think it is helpful when you witness to a community that can see that you care about them? I affirm whole heartedly the sufficiency of Scripture and again, agree with this article in principal. But what the church does effects how people hear us. Interested in your thoughts as im aure you have put more research into the topic than I have.


    • Josh

      Sorry. Joel not Jesse.

    • Jason

      The reconciliation of the cross has nothing to do with making God more acceptable to people. The work done on the cross is that sinners were made acceptable to God.

      To be sure, we should only minister to others gently, and with great care for the person. That will undoubtedly take the form of bearing the burdens they may have. However, I question if that’s actually what we’re doing when we facilitate social programs.

      Some of the same people who feel most neglected by society receive the most aid (both from government and community programs). Programs are impersonal, and I think we do a poor job of showing we care by instituting them instead of simply taking the time to care for someone.

      God offers eternal life free of sin and it’s burdens. We need to be careful not to malign that in our conduct, but such a promise certainly doesn’t need any window dressing!

      • Ira Pistos


        This is a quote from the emperor Julian the apostate:
        “Why do we not observe that it is their [the Christians’] benevolence to
        strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended
        holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism
        [unbelief of the pagan gods]? For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew
        ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not
        only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack
        aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public
        service of this sort.”

        This isn’t about the mission work of spreading the gospel though. That message must not be diluted, it stands alone.
        When that good news takes root in hearts it will insinuate itself into the social structure by those who have been saved. Those efforts can then certainly receive our aid but I agree that it should never be allowed to dull the keen edge of the gospel.

      • Josh

        “The reconciliation of the cross has nothing to do with making God more acceptable to people. The work done on the cross is that sinners were made acceptable to God.” Agree mostly. I never said that reconciliation makes God more acceptable to people. However, Christ is now reconciling all things to Himself. All that was broken is and will be made new. The cross accomplished that as well as payment for my sin. So I guess my problem is with macarthurs statement about Christians and reclaiming society. It seems to me that macarthur is mixing up the church as an institution and the church catholic. The church as an institution has no mandate to do social programs. As a people though, yes we do. God loves justice and as a Christian in the workforce, how can we not be working on reclaiming society? Will it work? Maybe not now but in the future all that is broken will be made new.

        • Jason

          Sorry if I misunderstood you. I just feel uncomfortable with the way I was reading the terminology “reconciled to Christ” in your post.

          If what you mean is that we ought to cultivate among believers society that is reconciled to Christ, I agree completely. If what you mean is that it’s our obligation to attempt to repair this world (or at least make it more comfortable), that is something else entirely.

          Creation is not a fixer upper, it is condemned. If not for death to self and new life in Christ, we would all still be in an irreparable state (we don’t work our old man toward godliness, we cast him off as an encumbrance to godly living! [Ephesians 4:22]).

          That certainly means being generous (and that doesn’t apply just to our dealings with fellow believers), but the goal of doing so should never be to win the affection of others (James 4:4) even if our motive is to “win their ear” for the gospel.

          • bs

            Jason, “Creation … is condemned”?? Ummm who by?

          • Zachary

            2 Peter 3:7

          • bs

            Zachary, you still have not said who condemns creation. And does the verse you referred to say anything about creation being condemned? Jason, how then has Zachary “nailed [it]”? And how does “refine” relate to “condemn”?


          • Jason

            Zachary nailed in in a verse, but the whole counsel of scripture speaks of renewal coming in the form of refining.

            Dross, chaff, and weeds are all words used to paint a picture of the concept that redemption comes by doing away with corruption.

            Even in the life of a believer, scripture speaks of only some of our works being allowed to remain (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

            My point is that Christ reconciling everything to himself takes refinement, not mixing more good into the bad in hopes that it will eventually get “good enough”.

    • Josh–good question. I remember in seminary I asked my Hebrew Exegesis prof (Dr. Barrick) if I could write on the creation mandate and how it affects missions. He told me “no, there’s not enough there for a paper.” So…I think in his mind (and I agree too) that the creation mandate is simple: go into the world, marry, and work. Missions is not about that. Its about advancing the gospel, and its the great comission mandate more than a creation one.

  • karolekay

    “They have to know that you care before they care what you know” is so deceptive. It completely eliminates the role of the Holy Spirit to lead us in sharing the gospel until we’ve invested time into a relationship. We don’t always get that. It also ignores the fact that God still works through divine appointments like that of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The great sermons of the NT were presented extemporaneously with no hint of previous relationships – except contentious ones. Not only is there no pattern set for the requirement of relationship as a prerequisite for evangelizing in the NT, countless souls were saved during the various stages of the Great Awakening through men of God who preached The Gospel according to the Word of God – not the bastardization of it as introduced in the late 19th Century. Perhaps a better term for the social promoters is “goodspel.”
    Should we do good works? Of course. That goes without saying.

    • Josh

      I get where you are going and the Holy Spirit can operate however He chooses. Extreme example but we typically don’t punch people in the face and then quote Scripture yelling them to repent. Our actions do matter and do get people to pay attention to what we say.

      • karolekay

        Actually (I’m ashamed to say), in my early days as a believer, I had some JW ladies stop to talk to me while I was outside my house in the country down a dirt road. They started trying to tell me “hell” isn’t in the Bible. Long story short, there was no punching, but by the time we finished our “discussion,” they were running for their car with me yelling that hell was real and that’s where they were going if they didn’t repent and accept Jesus as their Savior. I can still see the dust flying as they drove off. Probably NOT the best way to share the Good News, but on the other hand, they probably didn’t forget the encounter. 🙂 I pray they have made it out of that cult into eternal life with Christ.

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