Evangelicals and Social Action: from John Wesley to John Stott
Ian Shaw (2021)
Ian Shaw starts his book with a summary of the historical Christian position on social action. He notes that “the first 1600 years of the church give consistent theological argument and practical demonstration that social action should accompany Christian witness.” The early church was made up of a majority of people who were poor or very poor, for whom hunger was a daily reality and malnourishment was the status quo. Yet the church was known for its care for the poor, to the extent that many people became Christians because of what they saw. Attempts to reintroduce paganism failed in the face of the charity of the Christians. The early church was so committed to works of charity and support for the needy that this is what it was known for.
This continues until the 19th C, when “the tide began to turn against this integration of evangelism and social responsibility, introducing a significant discontinuity with what had gone before.” With pressures from Darwinism and biblical criticism, evangelicalism became more defensive and inwardly-focused. The rise of premillennialism saw the focus shift to saving as many souls as possible before the imminent return of Christ. And the increasing wealth of evangelicals meant a loss of connection with chronic and acute poverty, resulting in evangelicals losing awareness of the level of need. As the state – at the urging of previous evangelicals – took on more responsibility, more modern evangelicals thought that the need was now being met. If only that had been true!
There has always been a need to make sure that Christians do not start to think that their charity and good deeds earns them salvation. But at the same time, there is a need to ensure that Christians do not start to think that charity and justice have nothing to do with salvation. If we accept Jesus as our Lord and Master – if we are loyal to him and wish to bring honour to him as our patron – then we do what he says and what he does. If we do not do what he commands, then we cannot call ourselves his followers. Even the master of justification by faith, Luther himself, pointed out that “Christians are to be taught that to give to the poor or lend to the needy is a better work than the purchase of pardons.”
Gradually, from the 1960s and in particular the Lausanne Covenant of 1974, evangelicals began to rediscover the role of social action in the lives of Christians and in the Kingdom of God. Evangelicals began to recall that “because wealth already belonged to God, it also, in a sense, belonged to the poor.”
The main part of Ian Shaw’s book looks at the works of Christians across a wide range of areas from the 1800s onwards: disaster relief; poverty; unemployment; housing; healthcare; schools; the mentally ill and learning disabled; the sick and disabled; the elderly; street children; orphans; children at risk; slavery; prostitution; imprisonment; addiction; and racial equality. Across this multitude of areas, Christians discovered people trapped by poverty into situations of deprivation and suffering from which they could not hope to rescue themselves. There was a need for external help.
But in each of these areas, Christians working zealously for God, the gospel and the common good discovered that charity was not enough. And so “there was also a growing recognition that state involvement was necessary to address the vast problems of modern society”. It was not just that Christian charity did not have the resources to meet the level of need, but that there were many areas where effective action could only occur through legislation. Raising the age at which children could start to work, for example, was necessary to stop employers from profiteering off the back of child exploitation and to promote the good of the children. There were so many elderly people, even at the end of the 1800s, that charity could not meet the level of need; a state pension was needed. Prisons needed legal reform.
The ‘Great Reversal’ of the 1900s may have proved to be only a “temporary engagement of reverse gear rather than a wholesale shift away from the prevailing pattern”, but “the reversal’s legacy, however, remains.” The prevailing attitude amongst many evangelicals in the UK today, particularly amongst those of more right-wing political tendencies, seems to be that there is no poverty in the UK today; that to the extent that there is, the government meets that need; and to the extent that there is a responsibility upon Christians, it is met by the paying of tax. I have had fellow Christians say to me that they happily walk past a homeless person on the street, because they ‘know’ that the government provides for the homeless and so they do not need to act. The rather tart response that I did not make was the very presence of the homeless person on the street should have been enough to make it clear that the government was failing. If there is still poverty and need in the UK today – and there is – then the Christians still has a duty to act.
As someone who works in the fields of poverty and welfare, I only wish that evangelicals had rediscovered the need for social action to the depth and breadth seen in the first 1900 years of the church. I fear that many people will have been led to deny and blaspheme God, as they looked at middle class evangelicals telling themselves that ‘there is no poverty now’ and ‘good works are a Catholic heresy’ and wondered which was the real God: the one of middle-class modernity; or the one who rescued a stranger on the road to Jericho. Ian Shaw notes that social concern has often “been prompted by personal awareness of deep needs”. Christians today have no excuse for being unaware of the great levels of need in our own country, let alone other parts of the world.
Nevertheless, as Ian Shaw rightly points out in the conclusion to his book, “while a corrective may be needed to parts of evangelicalism where the practical outliving of the gospel is insufficiently emphasised”, some views “appear to take this too far”. Any suggestion of “Get the action and the experience right, and the correct doctrine will follow” “reverses the classic Protestant evangelical understanding that works acceptable to God grow as fruit from new life in Christ”. When Jesus chastised the Pharisees for their neglect of justice, mercy and faithfulness, he said that the Pharisees should have practiced these things as well as, not instead of or before, their observance of religious ritual and doctrine.
Historically, evangelicalism has been “a highly integrated expression of Christianity.” It seeks to proclaim the Word of God and to relieve suffering through both charity and (socio-economic) justice. It is a coherent, authentic faith that backs up its words and beliefs with its actions. It denies the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who thought that faith was summed up in religious ritual; and it rejects the hypocrisy of the wealthy elites, who cling to a belief in their own entitlement and reject the calls of the poor.
Instead, “when the theocentric vision is restored through salvation by God’s grace, anthropocentric activism flows as the fruit. Compassion so channelled to the glory of God means that social concern becomes truly doxological.” This is the thesis of my recent studies and writings.
Shaw concludes that “as those who place a strong emphasis on the authority, reliability and sufficiency of Scripture, evangelicals should be the most serious about acting upon the words of Jesus… if they do not, evangelicals are in danger of a functional liberalism, accepting only parts of Scripture.” May we all accept the call of God upon our lives, to defend the poor and needy and ensure justice for the afflicted.