What is the relationship between the gospel and social action? Or how do evangelism and feeding the poor relate? Does the gospel necessitate social justice? Does social justice necessitate the gospel for it to be valuable?
These are just some of the questions that the church is wrestling with—and arguing over—these days. And they are quite crucial to the church’s witness. A few years ago, a church I attended in Ohio was thinking of starting a food pantry, and the issues surrounding the decision largely had to do with the relationship between the gospel and social action. In order to think through the issue, I asked the question: If no poor people get saved as a result of the food pantry in, say, 10 years, then would you still consider this ministry a success?
How one answers that question really reveals how you believe social action and the gospel relate. If you say no—that the food pantry would only be a success if people are getting saved—then you believe that social action is a means to an end. It is only valuable if it leads to conversion. But it doesn’t have an inherent value in itself. After all, if people aren’t getting saved, then aren’t we just fattening up lambs for the slaughter? (I hate that analogy, by the way, but it’s commonly used by those who hold this view.)
But if you say yes—that the food pantry is a success even if people are not getting saved—then you believe that social action has an inherent value. It is in itself a manifestation of the gospel.
I’m not sure if my church ended up starting a food pantry. I left shortly after to take a job at EBC! But I often come back to that question when I think through the relation between the gospel and social action. While I lean toward the second response—that social action has an inherent value and shouldn’t be seen as a stepping-stone to conversion—I still wrestle with the church’s role in all of this. I’ve swung from the “if you’re feeding the poor you’re probably a liberal” position to the “if your not feeding the poor you’re probably not a Christian” position, and now I think I’m somewhere in between (though more towards the latter). The one thing I see in Scripture is that in most cases where there is a mandate to give to the needy, to love on the poor, to feed the hungry and take care of the marginalized, in most cases these mandates are referring to fellow believers, not every random poor person.
Take Matt 25, for instance, the manifesto for social action. In 25:31-46, Jesus makes social action (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.) the criterion for who inherits eternal life. Pretty tough words for us Americans! This passage, however, is often cited without much thought in order to urge Christians to volunteer at a homeless shelter, serve at a soup kitchen, or adopt a child from Zimbabwe. All of these have an inherent value, to my mind, but I don’t think this is what Jesus was talking about here. In Matt 25:40, He said “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” In Matthew, the phrase “my brothers” always refers to either biological siblings or followers of Jesus. And the latter is in view in this passage. In other words, Jesus is talking about social action toward poor people within the church and not every poor person you encounter. And this seems to be the pattern in most “reaching out to the poor” passages in the NT (see 2 Cor 8-9; Gal 2:10; James 2:14-17). There are a few exceptions, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). But in most cases, Jesus and the Apostles were commanding the church to devote a good chunk of its financial resources to care for the poor within the body of faith.
But this, in no way, gets the church off the hook, since most Christians (statistically) live outside of America, many of whom survive on less than 2 dollars a day (40% of Africa, for instance, is Christian.) So I think the church needs to create relationships with these impoverished third world churches in order to best live out Jesus’ words in Matt 25.