[10]   Society (1): Social Responsibility

Background:

Before the 20th century, the Church has historically been active in providing social assistance to the powerless and the needy in the society. Many churches built schools and hospitals. Since the early 20th century, there was a “Great Reversal” when evangelical churches avoided social involvement. However, this mistaken avoidance has been slowly corrected in the last few decades.

46.  Do Christians have any social responsibility?

a.   Definition of social responsibility:

·         It is a moral (internal) concern with the injustice in the society, including poverty, discrimination, segregation, oppression.

·         Such concern is followed by (external) action in the form of social assistance or social service.

·         Social assistance is provided to help those in need (the oppressed, the underprivileged, the poor, handicapped and disabled persons, victims of family violence, new immigrants), through financial support or volunteer work

·         Examples: shelters for abused women, soup kitchens, food banks, crisis pregnancy centres, YMCA with activities and counselling services for youth, boy scouts and girl guides, services for seniors, addiction centres

·         Many such agencies are under the umbrella of the United Way. However, the United Way also includes some “pro-choice” agencies such as Planned Parenthood so it is more appropriate to direct the financial support selectively.

·         Social action is also founded on Christian social responsibility.

b.   It is clear from the Bible that Christians have social responsibility.

(1)  Old Testament teachings:

o        God cares about the poor and the oppressed (Dt 15:7-11; Ps 146:7-9), particularly widows and orphans (Isa 1:16-17; Ex 22:22-24)

o        God acts by devising programs to reduce increasing inequality between the rich and the poor, such as Jubilee year when everyone could return to their original land which might have been lost (Lev 25:10-17).

o        God denounces the rich and the powerful for oppressing the poor (Isa 3:14-15; Jer 5:26-29; Eze 16:49; Am 2:6-7; 5:11-12). Oppressing a poor man insults God (Pr 14:31; 17:5).

o        God encourages action by associating righteousness to one who promotes justice and acts fairly in society (Eze 18:5-9).

(2)  New Testament teachings:

o        The ministry of Jesus is a demonstration of evangelism and social assistance hand-in-hand. In Jesus’ public ministry, He went about teaching as well as helping the poor (Lk 18:22) and healing.

o        The social ministry of Jesus was followed by his disciples (Ac 3; 5).

o        Social assistance to fellow Christians is a priority (1Jn 3:17), but also to non-believers (Gal 6:10).

47.  What is the history of Christian social involvement?

a.   In the 18th and 19th century, many evangelical leaders encouraged social assistance and were active in social action.

·         Christians built many schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Food was provided to the hungry. This was particularly true in missionary areas such as China.

·         John Wesley was a preacher of the gospel as well as a prophet of social righteousness. Some historians have attributed to Wesley’s influence to explain why Britain was spared the horrors of a bloody revolution like France’s.

·         In Britain, William Wilberforce fought to achieve the emancipation of slaves in 1833. Evangelist Charles Finney fought against slavery in the US.

·         Other reforms in Britain under the Christian influence include penal reform, popular education, factory legislation.

b.   In the first two-thirds of the 20th century, many evangelical churches suddenly reversed their social involvement and tried to avoid participation in social assistance or even avoid any discussion about social issues. The reasons:

(1)  It was a reaction against “social gospel” which implies that human beings can establish the Kingdom of God through improving human society.

(2)  It was a reaction against theological liberalism and liberation theology which sometimes equate salvation with social improvement.

(3)  It was a result of dispensationalism which divides human history into different periods of time with completely different characteristics. For the present dispensation (age), the world will unavoidably and hopelessly deteriorate gradually until a new dispensation with the second coming of Jesus. Therefore, the welfare of the world is not the concern of Christians. A famous theologian even used Jn 12:8 to prove that Christians can never totally solve the problem of poverty in society, therefore should therefore not attempt to solve poverty and not support social welfare. However, he missed the origin of that verse from Dt 15:11.

c.   In the last 4 decades, there has been again another reversal of the evangelical position. Many Christian organizations return to providing social assistance (e.g. World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse) and involving in social action (e.g. Evangelical Fellowship of Canada). These kinds of work have been supported by most (though not all) evangelical churches.

·         In 1947, conservative theologian Carl Henry reminded Christians about our social responsibility. He criticized fundamentalists for their narrowness, otherworldliness, and unwillingness to apply their faith to culture and social concern.

·         In 1966, “Wheaton Declaration” of the American conference on world missions affirmed the primary importance of preaching the gospel as well as “evangelical social action”, to “stand openly and firmly for racial equality, human freedom, and all forms of social justice throughout the world.”

·         In the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization at Lusanne (led by Billy Graham and John Stott), the “Lusanne Covenant” affirms that “evangelism and sociopolitical involvement are both part of our Christian duty.”  They are not incompatible and are both important. These include both social assistance and social action.

·         A 1982 Grand Rapids (Michigan) conference under the above Congress produced a report that clarifies the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility.

(1)  Social assistance is both:

a natural consequence of evangelism (Jas 2:18), and

a bridge to evangelism.

(2)  “For the gospel is the root, of which both evangelism and social responsibility are the fruits.”
(3)  Evangelism has a logical or theoretical precedence as it is most important to save souls. But evangelism and social responsibility are two hands of the same gospel and should not be separated.

48.  How much social assistance should Christians participate in?

a.   Individual Christians can participate through financial support and volunteer work at social agencies, particularly Christian ones (such as the Union Mission or Crisis Pregnancy Centre).

b.   The local church is not a social agency and should limit its role in social assistance. However, it can participate by:

(1)  establishing Social Concern Committee to study overall strategy of social assistance

(2)  establishing Charity Fund to help the needy: first for church members and then for persons outside

(3)  allowing fund raising of Christian social agencies (such as World Vision) in church

(4)  encouraging participation of individual church members