The church is to disciple the nations, beginning with evangelism. The church is not the avenue for social justice or legislation of any kind. Yes, of course, the individual believer, as salt and light, is to serve the poor and needy, to seek reconciliation, and to labor for Biblical justice; but the individual believer is still to give evangelism and discipleship the preeminence.
“I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).
At the July 16-25, 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization (Lausanne I), called by Billy Graham, 2300 evangelical leaders from 150 countries gathered to pray and strategize on how to take the gospel to the entire world. The theme of the conference was “Let the Earth Hear His Voice.” John Stott spoke passionately at Lausanne I about the work of the gospel in the world. While he believed in the necessity of preaching the gospel he also believed that social action was part and parcel with preaching the gospel. Consequently, a clause on social action was added to the Lausanne Covenant. It reads:
Although reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty.
Those evangelical leaders from developing nations who identified with the World Council of Churches very much appreciated this emphasis on social action. Evangelical leaders from Europe and the United States as a whole did not. At a follow-up meeting in Mexico City in January 1975 Stott was convinced the American evangelicals led by Billy Graham and Peter Wagner were ignoring the Lausanne Covenant clause on social action. Stott consequently threatened to resign from the leadership of Lausanne I. This threw the leadership into a panic and the committee urged Wagner and Stott to hammer out a compromise. From there Billy Graham said that he deeply valued Stott’s friendship and would follow his lead. This proved fatal, in my estimation, to the progress of evangelism in the modern world. The wrong “fork in the road” was taken.
Lausanne II, meeting in Manila, the Philippines, from July 11-20, 1989, with 4300 participants from 173 countries, had as its theme, “Proclaim Christ Until He Comes: Calling the Whole Church to Take the Whole Gospel to the Whole World.” One of the very beneficial “take-aways” from Manila was awareness of the 10-40 window of the “Resistant Belt” where the vast majority of unbelievers in the world live, mainly Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslims. Lausanne II built upon the foundation of Lausanne I and carried forward the language of “social action.” The Manila Manifesto, with its twenty-one affirmations, was in some ways a good statement which puts evangelism and discipleship at the forefront of the church’s mission. However, the Manila Manifesto built on the idea of social action.
Lausanne III (4200 participants from 198 countries) in Cape Town, South Africa, October 16-25, 2010 addressed and more fully developed many of the same earlier themes on the church’s task to evangelize the world. However, The Cape Town Commitment, the official paper of Lausanne III, took a decidedly ominous turn in Part IIB, “Building the peace of Christ in our divided and broken world.” It says,
Reconciliation to God and to one another is also the foundation and motivation for seeking justice that God requires, without which, God says, there can be no peace. True and lasting reconciliation requires acknowledgment of past and present sin, repentance before God, confession to the injured one, and the seeking and receiving of forgiveness. It also includes commitment by the Church to seeking justice or reparation, where appropriate, for those who have been harmed by violence and oppression.
My concern is with the clause, “. . . commitment by the Church to seeking justice or reparation, where appropriate, for those who have been harmed by violence and oppression.”
If by “the Church” Lausanne III means the body of Christ in general, all believers, then this call to seek justice individually, if possible, and through the courts is legitimate. Individual believers should surely care about their oppressed, persecuted, and disenfranchised brothers and sisters, the true “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). But if by “the Church” Lausanne III means the church as an institution or denominations or individual congregations, then no, that is not the purpose of the church. Jesus told us that we are to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). The one command in the text is disciple, introduced by one and then followed with two participles which explain how this command is to be carried out-by going, baptizing (evangelism must occur before we baptize), and teaching. There is nothing in the Great Commission about social action by the church. Peter told us to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into the marvelous light of the gospel (1 Peter 2:9). Nothing there either by Peter on social action. Paul says that he had one thing in mind when he came to Corinth, to preach Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor.2:2). He told the Romans that he was not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation. It is not necessarily the power of political might. There is nothing in the Great Commission mandate about reparations. Paul told the Thessalonians that his gospel did not come in word only but in power and by the Spirit and with much conviction (1 These.1:5). He told the Corinthians, “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel,” (1 Cor.9:16). Nothing there, either, about social action.
So now you know why the specific task of straight up, intentional evangelistic outreach and consequent discipling of believers has been slowly eroding in the western church. We have gradually, since at least the mid 1970’s, been moving away from the task of evangelism and discipleship in the church into social action, and in some cases, a decidedly leftist ideology and practice to go along with it. It is quite easy to understand how this has been happening. The world applauds anyone who helps the poor and oppressed, but the world is suspect of evangelism. Ask yourself this question, “What title is more applauded in our world-Advocate for the Poor or Evangelist, Advocate for Jesus Christ?” When walking through the Atlanta airport I often see very gifted violinists playing as I come up the escalator to the various concourses. People throw loose change into their violin cases and sometimes even applaud them. I always enjoy hearing them. Everyone loves it. But what would happen if I or some other evangelist stood there and preached the gospel? Seldom is anyone thrown into prison for feeding the poor or for giving a free, public violin concert, but evangelists are regularly mocked, attacked, and arrested for preaching Jesus.
But here’s the million-dollar question for today’s church in today’s world-what did the early church do? When a few Galileans were unjustly treated by Pilate, the Roman Governor, who murdered them and had their blood mingled with their pagan sacrifices, did Jesus or His disciples demand justice? Did they seek for reparations for the family members left behind? When the tower in Siloam fell and killed eighteen construction workers (Luke 13:1-5), did Jesus demand an updated Occupational Health and Safety Act? When the believers were driven from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria due to a severe persecution by Saul of Tarsus and others, did they demand that Pilate seek fair treatment from the Jewish religious leaders? No. They went about evangelizing in Judea and Samaria, something the Lord Jesus had earlier commanded them to do.
Bottom line, the church is to disciple the nations, beginning with evangelism. The church is not the avenue for social justice or legislation of any kind. Yes, of course, the individual believer, as salt and light, is to serve the poor and needy, to seek reconciliation, and to labor for Biblical justice; but the individual believer is still to give evangelism and discipleship the preeminence. Anything less is a distraction coming from the evil one. After all, what good does it do to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide reparations for the oppressed if they remain unsaved and go to hell? Only the believer, armed with the gospel, has the words of eternal life. This is the church’s one, true mission.
Al Baker a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is an Evangelistic Revival Preacher with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship.