Still thinking about social responsibility

I appreciate the two comments given to my last post. I agree that it would be good to have a solid biblical theology of ministering mercy. I doubt that I will be the one to write it!

Nevertheless, we do need to at least talk about the subject a good bit more. Fundamentalism is facing challenges of attrition today. Some are attempting to woo young fundamentalists to a new position. Some young fundamentalists are asking questions of fundamentalism that they think are new and probing (not realizing that they are the same questions that have been asked of fundamentalism for at least the last sixty years). The questions do need to be addressed, to some extent at least.

One of the areas where fundamentalism is being challenged is this topic of social responsibility. The charge is that funcamentalism has abandoned social responsibility. Whether this charge is true or not, I think most (all?) fundamentalists would agree that any Christian heart should be moved with compassion for those who are in dire need. We should care. But what should we do?

In our city, we have a number of people who live on the street. Some do so out of rebellion (mostly runaways), some are mentally deficient and our laws say they cannot be institutionalized against their will, some are hopelessly addicted to drugs and irresponsible living. Some Christians have attempted to minister to them. One of them is called the Mustard Seed Street Church, it is connected with the Baptist Union of Western Canada [a liberal group, although I have a conservative cousin who pastors one of their churches]. I met the pastor of this group after preaching a funeral for one of our older ladies. They have a food bank that is fairly well supported by our community (not just the Christians). They provide ‘back to school’ hampers for underprivileged children, a Christmas dinner, and have recently added a center to help addicts recover from their addictions (at a farm in a community about 45 minutes to an hour from town. In a recent newsletter, the pastor said about the ministry of the farm, “We are a Christian organization but the Christ-experience only comes by invitation and not force.”

I don’t offer this information to critique it, but as an example of what Christians are typically doing in the social responsibility area. I imagine most major cities have one or two ministries like this. Some of the things they do are surely helpful in some ways. The addiction recovery center is probably a vital ministry, although I am not sure what kind of Christian faith the “Christ-experience” (optional) will produce.

When it gets right down to it, when we think of responsibility to help the poor, this kind of ministry is usually what is meant. There are other avenues of social action (often far away) like disaster relief, the world AIDS crisis, famine in xxx country, etc. There are ministries like the crisis pregnancy centres. But when it gets right down to personal involvement in the needs of the local community, the ministry will take a form something like the Mustard Seed. Such a ministry, even if run by thoroughly orthodox believers, is frustrating, difficult, very very costly, and occasionally witnesses small signs of victory.

When you read the complaints of some against fundamentalism for our supposed lack of compassion, the question that lurks in my mind first is this: What are the complainers doing? What ministry of social concern are they personally involved with? Or are they just complaining? Second, what are they suggesting we should change? Should we join in support of existing programs, along with the feel-good liberals (and make no mistake, the leaders of the Mustard Seed are liberals)? Should we attempt to open ‘competing’ ministries?

These kinds of complaints, it seems to me, are what were behind the complaints of the new evangelicals as articulated by Harold Ockenga. I offer the quote from Sidwell that I offered before:

“Third, Ockenga also issued a ‘summons to social involvement’ and a ‘new emphasis upon the application of the gospel to the sociological, political, and economic areas of life.'”
Mark Sidwell, The Dividing Line, p. 117-118

While I am not accusing all of the complainants against fundamentalism of being closet new-evangelicals, I think some (perhaps many) of them are. Their complaints are political, not religious. They want to re-order the ‘polis’ of fundamentalism and remake it to fit a new paradigm. They don’t realize, I think, that the paradigm isn’t new anymore and that the emphasis on social do-goodism can and will become an all consuming effort that eventually loses the gospel in the process.

With all of that said, we do need to do what we can to help those whom the Lord puts before us and need help. It will be frustrating, costly, and often fail. But we should do what we can. And we should attempt to devise means that are truly centered in the gospel, that truly lift people beyond the ruts that they are in (usually by a series of bad personal choices).

I am going to do some reading on this, I put a couple of books on hold at our public Library. (One by Marvin Olasky, no less, in the liberal Victoria public library! I’m surprised.) I will write more on this later. There are more things to be said, even without the research. With any luck, the research will give further fruitful ideas for discussion.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3


  1. Kent Brandenburg says:

    Brother Don,

    I think that the social responsbility thing is mostly a sell-out to fit in with what society likes a church to be. I’m also in an urban area with tons of homeless. I do remember downtown Victoria when there last. Yours was bad; mine is slightly worse. SF Bay Area might be homeless capital of the U.S. at least, if not the world. Churches should follow the example of Christ and He did not run a gravy train. He didn’t provide perpetual free meals. He had no where to lay His head and that wasn’t of big concern. I think Satan would have us replace our evangelistic concerns with social ones.