Evangelism vs. Social Action: A Brief History (2/4)

Evangelism vs. Social Action: A Brief History (2/4)

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

Roots of the Dichotomous Views

Paul G. Hiebert (1932-2007)[1] and Monte B. Cox, Dean of the College of Bible and Ministry at Harding University, suggest that the roots of the dichotomous view go back to medieval Europe where “The Worldview of the Middle Ages… divided reality between the Creator and the creation,” which led to a “distinction between religious and science, or between eternal and earthly needs.” This separation they suggest, has led to the view that evangelism and social responsibility are “two separate entities that need to be integrated.”[2]

The industrial revolution changed the structure of society. Machines were being developed to allow mass production of goods and the steam engine revolutionized transportation. Bosch suggests that the industrial revolution, rather than liberating humans has further enslaved them, “First the machine replaced the human slave, then humans were turned into slaves of the machine.”[3] Many craftsmen were put out of work and people were forced to migrate to urban areas in search of wages. This phenomenon, while creating great wealth for some, also began to create new and noticeable poverty conditions that caught the attention of several Christian groups. It led Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)[4] to suggest that modern poverty “began when man for the first time in history began to escape from poverty.”[5]

In addition, significant changes to Western culture and thinking emerged from the enlightenment. The movement toward science, rationality, and individualism led to a changing view of the Bible. People were beginning to turn away from a belief in eternal damnation and to doubt the existence of a God who could predestine human beings to such damnation.[6] Mission for salvation was being replaced by missions of good works. “By the first decade of the twentieth century the transition from Reformed post-millenialism to the Social Gospel had been completed. Sin became identified with ignorance and it was believed that knowledge and compassion would produce uplift as people rose to meet their potential.”[7]

The social gospel was a reaction to the social and economic issues brought about by the societal changes. It was a call to expand the Christian mission beyond individual salvation into the work of reforming social injustices. Rauschenbusch, one of the champions of the social gospel, believed that the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism had created a social crisis and were a “crushing demonstration that the moral forces in humanity failed to keep pace with its intellectual and economic development. Men learned to make wealth much faster than they learned to distribute it justly.”[8]

On the surface, the social gospel was a movement to apply theology and Christianity to current social conditions and issues, a concept that would be theoretically embraced by all Christians. However, the social gospel leaders became known for liberalizing and modifying theology based on interpreting the gospel to meet the reforms that they wanted to achieve. They were not simply using theology to apply to current social conditions Visser ‘T Hooft (1900-1985)[9] explains, “they were also constantly re-considering their theoretical positions on the basis of social experience that they gather in doing so.”[10] Billy Graham describes this as a period when

theological changes were subtly infiltrating Christian youth movements causing some to weaken their ties to orthodox faith. The authority of evangelism began to shift from the Scriptures to the organized church. They focused attention on the materialistic salvation of the community rather than the individual. This became known as the “social gospel.” Emphasis turned to man “in this world,” rather than “in this and the next world.”[11]

Fundamentalist evangelicals resisted this change and, in what is known as “the Great Reversal,” responded by shifting away from outward displays of support for social action.[12] This position hardened as Christian social action became inextricably linked with theological liberalism, ultimately making it impossible to be evangelical and support any tenants of the social gospel. Pointing to this as a “false dilemma,” David O. Moberg, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University, observes that “Christians became either evangelistic or socially involved, not both.”[13]


[1]Paul G. Hiebert was an American missiological anthropologist. He taught at the Fuller Theological Seminary and was Distinguished Professor of Mission and Anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

[2]Paul G. Heibert and Monte B. Cox, “Evangelism and Social Responsibility,“ Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Ed. A. Scott Moreau (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 344-45.

[3]Bosch, Transforming Mission, 363.

[4]Walter Rauschenbusch was a New York pastor that served in a depressed area known as Hell’s Kitchen and a faculty member of Rochester Theological Seminary. He was a champion of the Social Gospel and his book Christianity and the Social Crisis was the primary thesis of the movement.

[5]Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis (London: The Macmillan Company, 1914), 214.

[6]Bosch, Transforming Mission, devotes a lengthy chapter to the enlightenment and its impact on the Christian faith and Christian mission, 268-353.

[7]Bosch, Transforming Mission, 290.

[8]Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis , 218.

[9]William A. Visser ‘T Hooft was a Dutch theologian who became the first secretary general of the World Council of Churches in 1948.

[10]Visser ‘T Hooft, The Background of the Social Gospel in America (St Louis, MO: Bethany, 1928), 16.

[11]Billy Graham. “Why Lausanne? “ in Let the Earth Hear His Voice. Ed. J.D. Douglas (Minneapolis, MN: World Wide Publications, 1975), 26. (emphasis original).

[12]David O. Moberg, The Great Reversal: Reconciling Evangelism and Social Concern (Eugene: OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 30. Moberg gives ccredit for the term “the Great Reversal “to noted evangelical historian Timothy L. Smith (1924-1997).

[13]Moberg, The Great Reversal, 34.

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