… the relationship between social justice and evangelism … the historical impetus for this discussion and its evolution into the social gospel in the late 19th century and early 20th century (further back than that missio dei movement but with some similarities).
Historical Convergence and Divergence
The distinction between social justice and evangelism might go back to Jonathan Edwards, who said that God’s work has two facets:
1) the converting and sanctifying of individuals, and
2) the grand design in creation, history, and providence.
Many of you know Edwards as one of the preeminent theologians of the church in the 18th century, a preacher used by God during the Great Awakening. But you might not know that he championed both of these mandates.
Between 1865 and 1900, however, attention to social and political deeds faded (though not entirely) among evangelicals. In a chapter in our forthcoming book (coming out this July), the late Ralph Winter says about this period:
This new Evangelicalism-of-the-masses… significantly boosted church attendance in the United States and created 157 Bible Institutes. However, it had little stake in politics or social action and tended to suspect as being “liberal” (which by then they often were) the smaller number of continuing, socially upscale college-educated Evangelicals…
Consequently, from about 1900 to 1925, nearly all progressive social concern garnered suspicion among evangelicals and therefore drastically waned. Winter continues:
As a result, the post-Moody Evangelicals in the non-college stratum tended to react against social schemes and even to banish the word “kingdom” from their vocabulary, thus tending to undergo their second type of reduction of the gospel to a theology of “this world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through,” producing an opposite pole from the other reduction to social action alone.
The expansive sweep of the participation in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Awakenings had shrunk to a narrow and socially uninvolved sectarianism. (Some of this view still prevails in certain church contexts around the world.)
But the tide began to turn once again.
The Rise of the Social Gospel
The Social Gospel movement was a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that was foremost in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially poverty, disparity, racial tensions, and the peril of war.
Theologically, the Social Gospel leaders were overwhelmingly post-millennialist because of a conviction the Second Coming would not happen until humankind purged itself of social evils by human endeavor. Social Gospel leaders were chiefly associated with the liberal wing of the Progressive Movement and most were theologically liberal. Important leaders included Richard T. Ely, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch.
In his Theology for the Social Gospel, Rauschenbusch asserted that the doctrine of the kingdom of God was in fact “itself the social gospel.” The fundamental idea of the new atmosphere was social evolution; the building of God’s kingdom became as much a matter of technique and program as religious piousness and dedication.
Consequently, in the Social Gospel movement, the traditional soteriological perspective of Jesus shifted. In one of his oft-quoted comments, Richard Niebuhr said, “Christ the Redeemer became Jesus the benevolent and wise teacher, or the spiritual genius in whom the religious capacities of humankind were fully developed.”
The Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) conference held in 1917 no longer looked to answer the primary question of “the evangelization of the world,” but instead asked, “Does Christ offer an adequate solution for the burning social and international questions of the day?”
Over time, Social Gospel advocates transferred emphasis on evangelism to social concerns, and consequently shifted the interest from individual to society. Bosch says that sin and evil according to Social Gospel advocates “reigned not only, and not even primarily, in the individual heart,” but rather in society’s corporate sins. Moreover, they believed that supernatural forces of evil were inherent in the capitalist system, warring against social, political, and economic egalitarianism.
Where to Now?
I think that just about everyone would agree that missional churches are concerned about societal transformation. But, how do we avoid the errors of forerunner movements who said they would do both and, ultimately, failed to be able to do so? It would be, in my opinion, the height of historical naivete to have the same conservations about the same issues and not consider the results of the last two times such conversations were had (the missio dei movement and Social Gospel both having struggled with similar issues as we do today).
So let me ask: Is there a “primary” concern in the mission of God? Is that evangelism, making disciples, societal transformation, or something else? Or, are they of equal value?
And, this may be the trickiest part, if they are of equal import (a growing view) how do we keep from losing one or the other? The easy answer is “both are important.” But, if so, how do we make that true “long term” in light of the consistent failure of our forefathers and mothers to be able to do so?