evangelism vs. social action: a brief history (3/4)

evangelism vs. social action: a brief history (3/4)

Section 3: Evolution of the Evangelical Position

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

In the aftermath of two world wars, and as technology began to bring the needs of the world into living rooms, Christians could no longer claim ignorance to the issues of the world. Evangelicals began questioning evangelism only mission and began to reach back into the Scriptures for biblical support for social action and its relationship to evangelism.

In the 1940s and 1950s, fundamentalist Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003)[1] was critical of the lack of social concern by evangelicals. He recognized the need to reject the non-evangelical liberalism, but he maintained that “the rejection of non-evangelical solutions does not involve—at least, logically—a loss of the social relevance of the Gospel.”[2] Henry insisted that it was the evangelicals’ task to, “explicitly sketch the social implications of its message for the non-Christian world.” Instead however, they had left the Christian social imperative “in the hands of those who understand it in sub-Christian terms.”[3]

Injustices caused by faulty social structures were brought directly into view by post-colonialism and the civil rights movement in the 1960s and continued to encourage a rethinking of the role of evangelicals in society. By 1974, when the International Congress of World Evangelism met in Lausanne, many evangelicals, particularly those from the Third World, were ready for renewed approaches to social action.[4]

John Stott (1921-2011)[5] was the primary facilitator at the Lausanne Congress and heavily influenced the drafting of the Lausanne Covenant.[6] Stott had previously argued that Great Commission mission was “exclusively a preaching, converting and teaching mission.”[7] However, in his work leading up to Lausanne and a book follow-up to the conference, Stott confessed that he had changed his views on the holistic nature and the application of the Great Commission. He wrote:

Today, however, I would express myself differently…. I now see more clearly that not only the consequences of the commission but the actual commission itself must be understood to include social as well as evangelistic responsibility.[8]

Stott’s personal work as well as the Lausanne Congress and its Covenant reflected a watershed mark in the attempt to reconcile the dichotomous relationship between evangelism and social action within evangelical mission. It prescribed a two-mandate approach to mission, evangelism, and social action. The priority of evangelism was upheld, and social action was deemed a partner to evangelism. This was not without its drawbacks however, as the debate then shifted to one of priority verses equality. As Bosch notes, an implication of the two-mandate approach is that “it is possible to have evangelism without a social dimension and Christian social involvement without an evangelistic dimension.” He goes on to write that “if one suggests that one component is primary and the other secondary, one implies that one is essential, the other part optional.”[9] C. René Padilla, South American theologian and former general secretary of the Latin American Theological Fraternity, suggests that the years following Lausanne showed that, “far from settling the matter, the Lausanne Congress had done little more than point to the need to deal with the role of social involvement for the sake of the integrity of the church and its mission.”[10]

In 1983, the World Evangelical Fellowship convened a consultation in Wheaton and pressed forward even more toward a fully symbiotic relationship between proclamation and social action. Stemming from its conference track devoted to “The Church in Response to Human Need,” paragraph 26 of the ensuing Wheaton ’83 Statement stated:

Evil is not only in the human heart but also in social structures… The mission of the church includes both the proclamation of the Gospel and its demonstration. We must therefore evangelize, respond to immediate human needs, and press for social transformation.[11]

As a result, Bosch asserted that “For the first time in an official statement emanating from an international evangelical conference the perennial dichotomy [between evangelism and social action] was overcome.”[12]


[1]Henry was founding editor of Christianity Today magazine. An American evangelical, Henry was critical of evangelicalism’s rigid position against social action. His work The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism in which he rejected liberalism, affirmed the Bible, and criticized rigid fundamentalism established him as a leading evangelical scholar.

[2]Carl F.H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 16.

[3]Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, 39.

[4]Bosch, Transforming Mission, 414.

[5]John Stott was an English Anglican priest with extensive influence in the worldwide evangelical movement. He was the principle framer of the Lausanne Congress in 1974 and has written extensively on a multitude of evangelical issues.

[6]See www.lausanne.org for all Lausanne documents and further information on the various Lausanne topics referenced in this paper.

[7]John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008), 25.

[8]Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World, 25.

[9]Bosch, Transforming Mission, 415.

[10]C. René Padilla. “Integral Mission and its Historical Development. “ in Justice, Mercy and Humility: Integral Mission and the Poor. Ed. Tim Chester (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2002), 47.

[11]Lausanne Movement, “Transformation: The Church in Response to Human Need. “ 12 June 1983. Lausanne Movement. Accessed July 21, 2018. <www.lausanne.org/content/statement/transformation-the-church-in-response-to-human-need>.

[12]Bosch, Transforming Mission, 417.

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