3. Social action is a partner of evangelism. This, finally, is where Stott lands on the matter. He believes that social justice and evangelism “belong to each other and yet are independent of each other. Each stands on its own feet in its own right alongside the other. Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself.”
Here is where John Stott not only reveals his theological brilliance, but also his Christ-formed heart. He recognizes that forcing every facet of the Christian life to fit into a mission/evangelism framework is untenable, and insisting that social action somehow justify itself in relation to evangelism is to ask the wrong question. In other words, we are having the wrong debate. Rather than asking how justice fits into the mission of the church, we ought to be asking how justice fits into the life of every Christian. Stott goes on:
“The reason for our acceptance of social responsibility is not primarily in order to give the gospel either a visibility or a credibility it would otherwise lack, but rather simple, uncomplicated compassion. Love has no need to justify itself.”
For me, this is where the debates about social justice and the gospel go off track. Atonement-only advocates demand justice advocates justify their emphasis on social engagement rather than evangelism. And justice advocates demand atonement-only advocates justify their emphasis on evangelism rather than social activism. But, using Stott’s logic, if evangelism or social activism is flowing from a heart of love and compassion than neither must be justified. Love is it’s own justification.
How then are we to discern which to engage? According to Stott it depends upon one’s situation and calling. At times the situation calls us to love by seeking the reconciliation of people to God. Evangelism is the manifestation of love. In other situations the most pressing need is physical healing, social reform, or advocacy for the oppressed. Social justice becomes the vehicle of our love.
But calling must also be factored in. Sadly in much of evangelicalism we’ve lost a theology of calling, therefore the institutional church or influential leader’s fill the vacuum and seek to establish a one-size-fits-all hierarchy of Christian service. In other words, we impose from the outside what every Christian “should” do. But Stott recognizes that Christ is Lord, and he calls his servants to different tasks for his glory:
“Then too there is a diversity of Christian callings, and every Christian should be faithful to his own calling. The doctor must not neglect the practice of medicine for evangelism, nor should the evangelist be distracted from the ministry of the word by the ministry of tables, as the apostles quickly discovered (Acts 6).”
Without this humble, and biblical, theology of vocation we will continue to argue about what each Christian should be doing based upon our own limited understanding of God’s will, rather than affirming the place of the Holy Spirit in calling each servant according to his purposes. (A theology of vocation and how Christians are to engage the world as agents of God’s redemption is the subject of my book, Futureville.)
If John Stott’s perspective were more widely held, I wonder how a conversation between Jim Wallis and Al Mohler might be different. Rather than engaging the social justice/gospel issue through the lens of theological rightness, what if they saw it through the lens of calling? Might it be possible for Dr. Mohler to affirm and bless Wallis in his social activism as part of God’s good work in the world? And could Jim Wallis thank Al Mohler for his unwavering call to announce Christ’s invitation of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God? And could they both invite other Christians to commune deeply with God and seek his calling for their lives–blessing those called to evangelism and those called to social action? Does it have to be a winner-take-all theological battle with each side demanding the other justify its position?
I agree with John Stott. Love, whether manifested as evangelism or social action, is it’s own justification.
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