Evangelism vs. Social Action: A Brief History (1/4)

Evangelism vs. Social Action: A Brief History (1/4)

[In these series of posts, doctoral candidate, Jay Flinn, underscores the the history of the evangelical holistic mission debate.]


Holistic mission is one of those ideas and terms that can mean different things to different people. Likewise, the definition, nature, and objectives of holistic mission have been debated for many years. The nature of the issue can best be described as the debate about the relationship in mission between evangelism and social action and the relative priority that each is given. Bosch (1929-1992)[1] commented that “The relationship between the evangelistic and societal dimensions of the Christian mission constitute one of the thorniest areas in the theology and practice of mission.”[2] In this four-part series we will review select evangelical history to identify the origin and key factors that led to divergent views of holistic mission and the historical attempts to reconcile these views. In the process, several historical and contemporary thought leaders will be noted, and their respective positions summarized. This essay is not intended to be an exhaustive study, rather a selective review of those key factors that caused thought leaders to diverge in their opinions and definitions of holistic mission, specifically the relationship between evangelism and social action.

The Early Church

This debate is a relatively recent development in church history. Edward L. Smither, associate professor of Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University, Columbia, remarks that “unlike today, there was little debate [in the early church] over the relationship between proclamation and social action. Indeed, the bifurcation of the two areas and the response by way of the holism-prioritism debate are truly reflections of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century developments in the church in the West.”[3]

The Book of Acts supports that there was no dichotomous view in the church of the first century. There is no doubt that proclamation was taking place in the first-century church. However, so too were acts of compassion. Acts chapter six provides the example of seven men chosen to serve and provide for widows in the community and chapter eleven illustrates the church in Antioch providing relief funding for Judean famine victims.

Evidence exists that the early church cared for those outside the Christian faith as well. The apostate Emperor Julian is quoted as having noted “Atheism [i.e. Christian faith] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers… the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.”[4]

William Carey, a more recent example. is often described as a pioneer missionary and evangelist to India. Ruth and Vishal Mangalwadi studied and researched Carey’s life and work and they point out that Carey’s influence on culture and society in India far exceeded this description calling him a “central character in the story of the modernization of India.”[5] Carey advocated for many of India’s societal issues including the saving banks system, medical humanitarianism, agriculture, and indigenous industry among others. Carey’s missionary activities were holistic, not by some predetermined strategic design, rather by his desire to glorify God and advance God’s Kingdom to India. As a holistic minister, Carey was “an evangelist who used every available medium to illuminate the dark facets of India with the light of truth.”[6]

Missionaries have always had some sort of social component to their evangelism and church planting ministries. Stan Guthrie, editor Evangelical Missions Quarterly and associate news editor Christianity Today, points out that “down through the first two millennia, missionaries have built hospitals and schools. They have brought food and water. They have ministered not only to the spiritual needs, but to every wound common to humanity.”[7] These early missionaries generally had no discussion or debate about definition of their mission and there was no duality between evangelism and social service. Both were natural and integral activities to the church’s mission.[8]


[1]David Bosch was a noted missiologist and theologian and best known for his work Transforming Mission (1991), completed before his untimely death in an auto accident.

[2]David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 20th Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 410.

[3]Edward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church: Themes and Reflections (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014), 146.

[4]As quoted in Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Mission: The Penguin History of the Church 6 (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 37.

[5]Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi, The Legacy of William Carey: A Model for the Transformation of a Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 1999), 25.

[6]Mangalwadi and Mangalwadi, The Legacy of William Carey, 25.

[7]Stan Guthrie, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, revised & expanded edition (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2014), 153.

[8]John Mark Terry and Robert L. Gallagher, Encountering the History of Missions: From the Early Church to Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017), 10.

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