Dr. Neal Cushman, CGO Projects Coordinator
Jesus cared for the poor; the early church cared for the poor; you and I are instructed to care for the poor. End of discussion. Or is it the end of the discussion?
Since Walter Rauschenbusch (a Baptist preacher in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, 1861-1918) invented the “social gospel,” many churches and mission agencies have shifted their focus away from spiritual needs to the more pressing matter of physical needs. Rauschenbusch said that Jesus ministered to the whole man, so how can we neglect man’s need for food, clothing and medicine, and act like we care for his soul?
I think that most of us would agree with this, but Rauschenbusch took it one step further. He maintained that when you give of these physical necessities, you are giving the gospel.
This idea fit the spirit of the times quite well, as many pastors, churches and seminaries began to accept the Enlightenment mentality that said that man is autonomous, and that he can solve the entire human dilemma: sickness, hunger, crime, poverty, etc.
The Bible was rejected as God’s infallible word, the historical Jesus was lost, the nature of man became good, physical maladies became the problem that missions had to solve, and no spiritual conversion was necessary.
Thus, many mission boards followed this new social gospel, which of course was no gospel at all. In a way, it made sense, for if seminary teachers, pastors, and churches no longer held to the cardinal doctrines of the Bible, then they needed to preach some sort of gospel. But why preach a gospel of substitutionary atonement if you believe that man is essentially good anyway? If everyone will make it to heaven in the end (universalism), then why preach the necessity of faith in Christ and repentance from sin?
The only thing left to preach is that sin is hunger, sickness, lack of education, and social injustice; Jesus came to do away with these things, and to meet man’s needs. Grace is giving to man what he needs: a meal, a bed for the night, an education, etc.
Another turn in history deserves mention here, and may help explain our present situation. In the late 1940’s and the early 1950’s, fundamentalism experienced a departure from its ranks. After having battled liberalism in the late 19th century, and through World War II, some fundamentalists felt that the movement had retreated from the world too far. These more open-minded fundamentalists felt that they could interact with liberals and not be affected by liberal doctrine. They felt that they could join hands with those who denied the deity of Christ so as to have a greater hearing for the gospel.
Two representatives of this view, Harold Ockenga and Carl Henry, accused fundamentalists of not getting involved in social causes. To some extent their accusations were true, but the fundamentalist position was taken primarily because of the battles that it had engaged in with liberalism. It was not about to form friendships with liberals. And since liberals practiced the social gospel, fundamentalists rejected most forms of social helps.
I say this because we often have the tendency to “swing” our views like a pendulum. On the one side we decide that the church needs evangelistic fervor, so we design everything around winning souls. And then someone notices that the church is not being disciple-minded; people are not growing properly, so the church abandons its evangelistic outreach, and focuses on discipleship. I realize that this is an extreme example, but I think that it is often true.
When fundamentalism reacted against liberalism, and then later new evangelicalism (Henry and Ockenga), it gave up most everything that looked like a social cause. The pendulum had swung, for fundamentalists before had been involved in helping people, although not abandoning the gospel at all. So the point that I want to make here is that it is possible to meet people’s physical needs, and still give the gospel.
Now let’s examine some of the rationale for meeting people’s “whole” needs:
“Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
Jesus quotes Isaiah 35:4 to help John to see that His works clearly validate the fact that He is the Messiah. There is no explaining all of the phenomena any other way. So what is the point? Many of the things that Jesus did for people validated his Messianic office. These things proved that he was the long awaited for Messiah. So although I want to be like Jesus in the deepest way possible, there are some things that I simply either cannot do or are not instructed to do.
I need to make sure that the New Testament confirms that the activity in question is something that should be continued by all Christians for all time.
This is called “normativity.” Normativity has to do with what is normative for all believers to do. Are believers today supposed to greet one another with a holy kiss? Should women wear veils in our churches? Should all ministers work with their hands like Paul did? These questions, and many more, require the utmost care in one’s exegesis and theological formation.
Paul collected funds and gave to needy believers. I do not see anywhere where Paul raises money for the lost. Rather, when he visited churches, he felt an obligation to help the believers that had experienced a famine in Jerusalem.
There are many mission agencies that specialize in meeting people’s physical needs. Some do it because they believe that what they are doing is actually giving the gospel; in these instances the social gospel has replaced the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Faith and repentance are not preached, nor are the other orthodox doctrines of salvation, therefore we should have nothing to do with this “gospel.”
Others meet people’s physical needs as a primary mode of ministry because they feel that one must meet people’s “felt” needs before one can get to people’s “real” (spiritual) needs. Although this is obviously true to a certain extent, it sometimes occurs that the missionaries who follow this plan fail actually get to the gospel for one reason or another. They are so busy handing out food that they have little time to minister the Word to people’s hearts. Some of the largest Christian compassion mission agencies in the world seem to fall to this neglect.
In my opinion, we should help people with physical needs as strategically as we possibly can. I think that we should focus on areas of the world where the need is the greatest. For instance, in AIDS stricken parts of Africa, there are millions of orphaned children, with no hope of survival, unless someone steps in to help. The adult population is depleted; the parents are dead.
But would it not be better if the African church were able to do this, perhaps with our assistance? As much as possible, I like to see mission boards do things in the background, but let the national church take the lead. This is best for the church, and it is best for the mission agency.
In 1999, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey, killing over 17,000 people (some place the estimates closer to 40,000!). Many more were injured, their homes were destroyed, and businesses damaged beyond repair. About 600,000 people became homeless due to the quake. As you know, Turkey is a Muslim country, with the population being roughly 99% Muslim. The first person to come to Christ in this place did so in 1962, and the church has grown slowly since that time. By 1999 the church still had well under 500 converts, with small congregations in scattered places, but it immediately responded to the earthquake crisis with acts of compassion: food, water, shelter, digging through the rubble, etc. In fact, no one else reached out to the victims like the little church did.
This shocked the Muslim world on several levels. The Muslim victims were appreciative and showed their gratitude to the church, even though the Muslim world condemned the church. Second, these acts of kindness embarrassed the Muslim world to do something to help as well. Overall, the Lord used this disaster to let Turkey know that the Christian church existed in Turkey, and that it was all about love and compassion. And the church began to grow. That is the testimony that we must have.
 Rauschenbusch was orthodox in his theology early in his life, but after spending some time under the teaching at Rochester Theological Seminary, his faith was moved. He began to deny the substitutionary atonement of Christ, along with the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Rather, he found his inspiration in Charles Sheldon’s writings, In His Steps, and The Reform. These two classics have encouraged many believers to consider what Jesus might do in any situation in life, but Rauschenbusch took this to mean that Jesus is chiefly a moral example for us to follow. Soon afterwards he wrote his seminal work, Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: Abington, 1917).
The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.