by Marie Notcheva ©
“The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” – John the Baptist, Luke 3:11
“Feeding a man without sharing the Gospel with him is like giving a sandwich to a man on his way to the electric chair…it is, in essence, simply making him more comfortable on his way to hell.” – K.P. Yohannan, Founder, Gospel for Asia
Here in the United States, Protestantism has largely given way to a post-modern, liberal church where the “social gospel” is preached exhaustively. The term “born again” is usually taboo, as is evangelism (“the dreaded e-word”, as a church I once attended called it). The fund-raising pitches each Sunday often take longer than the feel-good humanistic messages, and week after week the flock is subjected to fund raisers and promotions of secular service projects. Before transferring to a Gospel-preaching evangelical church, I regularly witnessed Heifer Project, Habitat for Humanity and Crop Walk being pitched as “missions opportunities” or “outreach”.
This is my background with “social justice”, and why the very mention of the words has long made me cringe. It is not that helping those in need is wrong or not a part of the Bible; on the contrary, Scripture is clear that we should do all we can to help others. The problem comes in when churches get out of balance in their teaching. All the humanitarian aid in the world is of no use spiritually if the Gospel of salvation is not being preached. Additionally, the oft-heard argument that “a hungry man will not accept the Gospel” is a myth, as the ever-increasing numbers of destitute Asian converts attest.
Of course, it is equally possible to get out of balance in the other direction, too – when conservative evangelicals get so wrapped up in political agendas, church “fellowship” suppers and tract distribution that they forget God’s basic call to compassion. One pastor I know, who champions social programs and humanitarian aid projects under the label of “missions”, mentioned the polarization between the two extremes that needs to be balanced. “Traditionally, conservative evangelical churches have been criticized for not doing enough to help the poor…..feed the hungry, help the widow and orphan….while the liberal churches can be long on mercy but short on sound doctrine. Many in the ministry want to bring the two sides together to work in unity.” A noble goal, indeed. Another pastor, a charismatic whom I greatly respected, once made the comment: “You know….the liberal churches take a lot of flak for their stance on a lot of things, and rightly so – there’s much they’re doing wrong. However, there’s one thing they’re doing right, that we in the Pentecostal church have largely missed the boat on – helping the poor. Social action is a huge part of God’s heart.” While it is so common sense as to be a no-brainer, evangelism and works of mercy were never meant to be in competition – they are both important commands of God and are meant to complement each other.
Several years ago, I completed John Macarthur’s “James” study with my church. Quite by chance, I began digging into Isaiah in my personal study to dig out the eschatological references. The first week, as I transitioned from my “James” homework into reading the first couple chapters of Isaiah, I noticed something interesting — there are several very specific parallels in those two books. It seemed like God was taking advantage of my attention span to drive home a couple of points about social justice – the term that made me shudder back at the UCC church. Besides calling us to live out our faith by helping others, both books indicate this does not happen in a vacuum. In both books, the expectation of charity to the oppressed is prefaced by a call to personal holiness.
1) In Isaiah 1:11-20, God stresses the importance of moral purity (which leads to righteous action); NOT the empty religious ritual (which He hates). This is the passage where he tells rebellious Judah how He despises their endless sacrifices and New Moon festivals – not that there was anything wrong with the ordinances themselves; but the people were acting hypocritically and deceiving only themselves. Compare this passage with James 1:19-27…which ends, 25But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does. 26If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”
2) Isaiah 1:17 echoes James’ call throughout chapter one to social justice. God is concerned with how we treat one another as fellow believers. As mentioned above, ONLY focusing on social justice to the extent that the Gospel is neglected leaves the impression that one can work his way into heaven by volunteering enough and helping the “needy”. We do have a very real civic responsibility in this world, but a call to compassion doesn’t exclude evangelism. It goes above and beyond it. James gives a discourse on what the balance looks like. God, speaking through Isaiah, simply lays it on the line as a command: 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
We shouldn’t neglect the Word in the name of social justice, or vice-versa. What good is memorizing Scripture if we don’t have love for fellow believers? Isn’t this what Paul meant by “a clanging symbol”? We cannot conjure up the kind of love that motivates us to action on our own – only a deep-seated surrender to Christ and a yielded spirit will allow for this inner transformation. God knows this, and so the first step He’s given us is repenting of our…
3) PRIDE. The age-old problem…and the solution spelled out so clearly in both books. Repentance, purifying your heart, washing your hands – and humbling yourself before God is a MAJOR parallel theme.
Isaiah 2:11-18 speaks of the pride of man being brought low, while James has to say:
James 1:21: “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
All pride springs from the same root: thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to, and placing our value on superficial things. He continues all through chapter 2 to forbid favoritism, as humans have a tendency to think more highly of themselves and each other judging by materialistic standards. One woman in my Bible study shared how shamed she had been made to feel when using food stamps in a well-heeled community’s supermarket. This is exactly the type of odious pride James is talking about, and flies in the face of the Christ-like compassion God expects of His people. Expository preaching is important, but a humble heart should be the result.
Sometimes 2 Thessalonians 3:10 is misused to justify an attitude of indifference (or even disdain) towards those “taking advantage of the welfare state”:
“For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” Not only is such an attitude selfish, it is patently unbiblical. Verses cannot be wrenched out of context to justify our own carnal meanness, and Paul’s condemnation of idleness (v. 11), laziness and “mooching” (vs. 6-9) in no way negate a Christian’s responsibility towards the brother (or sister) in lowly circumstances through no fault of his own. (Interestingly, the founder of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Georgi Dimitrov, used the phrase “He who doesn’t work shall not eat” as his party’s motto. My Bulgarian in-laws were quite surprised to learn that it was plagiarized from the pages of the Bible.) Communism is an evil, godless ideology; and is not at all what Paul and James were promoting.
The concept of “noblesse oblige”, or moral obligation of the privileged charitably assisting the less fortunate, originated with Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. Today, while abuses of the welfare system have misconstrued the Biblical basis for this virtue in the minds of many, the American church remains head and shoulders above the rest of the world in this respect. The Gospel must be taken to the ends of the earth, and we in the West are indeed the ones with the burden of responsibility to make it happen. Our AWANA programs must be run, and we should be constantly in the Word in order to correctly divide and explain it (2 Timothy 2:15). However, this in no way lessens God’s call to relive suffering in the world. If we use our means to do so in His Name, we might find our tracts and evangelistic outreaches better received as well.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matt. 25:37-40)