It is only until recently that some Evangelical Christians have begun questioning our group’s role in politics and issues of social justice. From where I sit, I have typically summed up the social involvement of Christians in today’s world by the following issues: banning abortion, supporting world missions, and writing checks to World Vision.
My narrow conception of Christian social involvement is radically different from the Christians in the Nineteenth Century. William Dyrness writes about work of Christians, especially in Great Britain, to provide orphanages, hospitals, and any other social service to meet whatever needs were found in society.
Personally, I don’t have a grid for that. I find myself asking, “Why bother with all of that, just preach the Gospel.” And that is just one example of how much the church has changed in 150 years. There has been an almost Gnostic disconnect of the spiritual from the physical Gospel message that I think many Evangelicals are struggling to fix. Even if I do something to help the poor or the prisoners, I still can’t say I quite understand why I’m doing it other than knowing Jesus did the same and it seems like a good idea.
I think Christians like the idea of helping the poor, but there is a gray ambiguity when we try to cram social action into a Gospel that leaves no place for God’s intervention in our current situation. We know we should be doing something about social justice and poverty, but where, how, why, when?
I want to dig deeper into this another time, but for now, I’ll end with the thoughts of Dyrness on this topic:
“The revivals of the early nineteenth century stimulated many evangelicals to become involved in social causes. Their efforts against slavery, child labor, and other injustices left a lasting mark on American culture. Later in the century the question of the Christian’s relation to culture was contested and in the first quarter of the twentieth century social and cultural concerns disappeared almost entirely from the evangelical consideration. In a few generations evangelical Christians in America went from being a dominant (and constructive) force, both in religion and politics, to being an often despised and culturally invisible minority. There were important historical reasons for this. Believing Christians were placed on the defensive by the challenges presented by Darwin, industrial unrest, immigration and the progressive social gospel this stimulated, and, especially, by the challenge to the authority of Scripture represented by the rise of higher criticism” (From William Dyrness, “Evangelical Theology and Culture,” The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology, 149).