I’ve followed with interest the debate about social justice. We seem to struggle with a definition of what it is, much less agree on what to do to achieve it. The Lord Jesus issued two primary commandments to His followers: The Great Commission and The Great Commandment. Of course, the Great Commission is found in Matthew 28:18-20—
“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (NASB)
We find the Great Commandment in Matthew 2:36-39–
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’” (NASB).
We would all agree that these words from the mouth of our Savior have equal importance and authority. The problem comes when we try to obey both
simultaneously and equally.
Dr. Al Mohler spoke about this in this in his recent remarks in the Southern Seminary chapel. He spoke of conversionists and transformationists. The conversionists emphasize evangelism and missions, while the transformationists seek to do good to all people and transform society. Dr. David Hesselgrave wrote a great book on missions in 2005: “Paradigms in Conflict.” In chapter four of that book, he discussed the dilemma faced by foreign missionaries. Should they focus on evangelism and church planting or should they alleviate the physical suffering that they encounter in developing countries? In his book, Hesselgrave used the terms “holism” and “prioritism.” In the chapter, he wrote that though foreign missionaries have always sought to do ministry to social/physical needs, historically they have prioritized evangelism.
This debate is not a new development in church history. In the early years of the twentieth century, Walter Rauschenbusch and others founded a movement called “the Social Gospel Movement.” Faced with grinding poverty in America’s cities, they declared that it was not enough to offer salvation; churches should seek to minister to the whole person, alleviating suffering as best they could. The conservative churches reacted to the Social Gospel Movement and the influx of liberal theology into the USA by publishing “The Fundamentals,” a series of books on the basic beliefs of Christianity, written by conservative scholars. The conservative churches also published statements of faith, and our own Baptist Statement of Faith and Message (1925) was one such. The conflict between these opposing camps became fierce, and conservatives came to distrust any mention of the “social gospel.”
After World War II Carl F. H. Henry and other leaders, like Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga,
sought a middle way—a way that would display fidelity to the Bible and also address human needs. They called their movement the “Evangelical Movement.” In recent years many Evangelicals, especially younger ones, are calling for a more holistic approach to foreign missions and church ministry. For example, the amount of money donated for the alleviation of poverty overseas has increased tremendously in proportion to the amount given for evangelism and church planting. As a result, Evangelical missions agencies focus on holistic ministries in their fundraising.
What can we say about this? Certainly, we accept our obligation to make disciples of all nations and also to love our neighbor as ourselves. These are not contradictory commandments. Some Christians demonstrate a passion for missions, while others express their concern for “human needs ministry” (to use the IMB’s term). Surely, that is a good thing. We need plenty of both. In our churches, we recognize that some members have a passion for children’s ministry, and others serve as champions for ministry to shut-ins. Jesus Christ provides us with a way to resolve this dilemma. Jesus came preaching the good news of the Kingdom, but He also fed the hungry and healed the sick. Our foreign missionaries have always done this. Certainly, they have preached the gospel and planted churches. They have also established schools, founded hospitals, and built orphanages around the world. Properly done, human needs ministry opens the door for evangelism, and going about doing evangelism brings one into contact with those who have physical needs. I like to tell my students that one hand washes the other. They work together to bless people in every way.
In “Paradigms in Conflict” David Hesselgrave makes that very point. Missionaries should engage in both types of ministry: evangelism and human needs. In the end, though, he insists that evangelistic ministry must be our highest priority. Why so? Evangelistic efforts address humanity’s deepest need—the need for eternal salvation. Feeding, healing, educating, and freeing persons from oppression are important and needful. Those ministries deserve our attention and activity, but they meet temporal needs. In his final words to His disciples (Acts 1:8) Jesus commanded them to witness about Him in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the whole world. He did not speak of alleviating physical and social needs. This then is “prioritism.” It acknowledges responsibility Christians have to meet human needs, but it recognizes the greatest human need is reconciliation with God through Christ.