Fundamentalism and Social Action

A segment of professing Fundamentalists is increasingly expressing discontent with Fundamentalism. Among their many complaints, one commonly heard regards Fundamentalism’s social action (or more precisely, its lack thereof). Fundamentalism has often been charged (and rightly so in some cases) with isolationism. In its attempt to separate from the world, it has retreated and become “other-worldly,” according to critics. This in turn has caused its evangelism to stagnate, according to this line of thinking. I want to examine this charge along four lines.

The History of Evangelicalism’s Social Program
First, this charge is not a new one. Carl F. H. Henry lodged this same complaint in 1947, with his short book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. His argument is exactly as outlined above: Fundamentalism, with its insistence upon ecclesiastical separation from unbelief and its personal separation from the world, had become increasingly isolated from the world that it intended to reach with the Gospel. Henry, one of the first faculty members at the Fuller Theological Seminary, felt that Fundamentalism had to change or become obsolete: “Some of my evangelical friends have expressed the opinion that nobody should ‘perform surgery’ on Fundamentalism just now, thinking it wiser to wait until the religious scene is characterized by less tension. I do not share this view that it is wiser to wait, for several reasons” (p. xv).

In light of Fundamentalism’s failure in this regard, Henry gives his solution: “But even beyond this, I voice my concern because we have not applied the genius of our position constructively to those problems which press most for solution in a social way. Unless we do this, I am unsure that we shall get another world hearing for the Gospel” (p. xvii).

Henry clearly views social action as a necessary part of evangelization. Realizing the danger of his less conservative position, he affirms several times that he is in no way advocating a departure from Gospel proclamation in favor of the social gospel. However, the message is clear: Fundamentalism must incorporate a social dimension to its message in order to survive. It cannot cocoon itself from the world. It must address the great social needs of the world. In Henry’s words, “If the Bible-believing Christian is on the wrong side of social problems such as war, race, class, labor, liquor, imperialism, etc., it is time to get over the fence to the right side. The church needs a progressive Fundamentalism with a social message” (p. xx).

A few years later, the “new evangelicalism” was born, focusing, among other things, on social action. In his famous press release of December 8, 1957, Harold John Ockenga (the first president of Fuller Seminary) said, “Fundamentalism abdicated leadership and responsibility in the societal realm.” Furthermore, he added that the New Evangelicalism “differs from Fundamentalism in its willingness to handle the social problems which the Fundamentalists avoided.”

In all fairness, I am not labeling all who are calling for increased social concern today the “new-new evangelicals.” However, those who are raising questions would do well to realize these questions have already been asked and answered.

Social Action and Evangelism
Henry’s charge that Fundamentalism would fade because of its lack of social concern demonstrates a thinking I would like to briefly discuss. In his words, “If historic Christianity is again to compete as a vital world ideology, evangelicalism must project a solution for the most pressing world problems” (p. 65). A similar line of reasoning says that if we as Christians are too “weird,” then no one will listen to us and no one will be saved.

In this way, social action becomes a sort of “pre-evangelism.” It renders a sinner who was hostile toward God as somewhat neutral, more easily persuaded by the Gospel. However, the Scripture is clear that God regenerates sinners and effectively calls them to salvation in spite of the messengers who proclaim the message, not because of them. In this way, God receives all the glory in salvation (1 Cor 1:18–31). I am in no way condemning doing good for an opportunity to give the Gospel; rather, I am saying that the Gospel has no need of our social work to enhance or insure its effectiveness. There is a difference between a missionary using medical work to enter an otherwise closed country and going for the express purpose of doing medical work.

Social Action and Dispensationalism
Another hindrance to Henry’s call for social action was the generally-held dispensationalism of Fundamentalism. The early Fundamentalism was a very broad coalition, but generally speaking, the majority held to a dispensational hermeneutic; that is, they made a fundamental distinction between Israel and the Church.

Since the Old Testament nation of Israel was a theocracy, that is, a kingdom ruled by God, the Law is filled with civil and social laws and commands. For example, we find commands
regarding the poor and disenfranchised throughout the Old Testament. However, the Church is fundamentally distinct from Israel. It is not a civil or ethnic group, but a spiritual organism. Therefore, we cannot import these social and civil laws from Old Testament Israel into the New Testament Church.

The New Evangelicalism, with its initial stated desire to increase social activism, has always despised dispensational theology. Dispensationalism, which teaches that the world will grow worse and worse until Jesus Christ raptures the Church, is “too pessimistic” to support the Church’s engagement in large-scale social efforts.

Just as the Old Testament theocracy included a distinct civil and social aspect, Jesus’ teaching regarding the Kingdom of God in the Gospels has even broader social implications (e.g., healing the sick and feeding the crowds). If the Church is the Kingdom of God, or even if the Kingdom of God is in effect in some form today, then there is a basis for the Church’s involvement in social concerns.

This drove the work of another Fuller professor, George Eldon Ladd, who wrote his famous book The Gospel of the Kingdom in 1959. Along these lines, the classic dispensational position of a future kingdom was almost unanimously rejected by the early New Evangelicals (see Henry, Uneasy Conscience, pp. 41–54; Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism, p. 81; Carnell, Case for Orthodox Theology, pp. 117–119). Relegating the kingdom to a future time simply cut the nerve of social activism.

The Place of Social Concern
Does this mean to say that a Christian should turn a deaf ear to those who need help? Certainly some would charge Fundamentalism with this. Are we not to demonstrate the love of God to the world? Of course we must. However, the place of social concern in the life of a Christian should be on the personal or individual level, rather than on the corporate church level. Two points should be made.

The Bible never commands the Church to be involved in social causes. An individual Christian, desiring to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ to others (Eph 5:2), can and should be involved in helping others. However, the Church is never commanded to be involved corporately in these social concerns. This is somewhat surprising, given the grave social problems of the first century world. If the social dimension is such a large part of the gospel, that command is conspicuous by its absence in the New Testament.

The Bible does command the Church to be involved in “social action” toward fellow
Many Scripture passages may seem to disprove the previous point. Upon examination, these passages do not deal with the Church’s involvement in the world or society at large; rather, they speak of the Church’s responsibility toward its own. While the New Testament clearly commands the Church to care for its members, the Church is not a “God-appointed watchdog” over the world’s social problems.

  • In Acts 4:32–35, the early Church put their goods together to share among the needy believers. This was not some form of communism, since the sharing was not commanded or legislated (cf. Acts 5:4); rather, it sprang from the willing generosity of believers. Those who had beyond their needs gave to those who had a need. Nowhere else in the New Testament is this practice recorded. Believers simply manifested the love of Christ to their brothers and sisters in the Lord and gave to meet their needs.
  • Acts 6:1–3 describes the “daily distribution” to the widows in the church. These elderly, widowed believers were supported financially by the church. The problem described here was a disparity between the care of the Hebrew-speaking and the Greek-speaking Christian women. The Church’s solution to this problem was to appoint the first deacons.
  • In Romans 12, Paul gives a list of commands for believers. One of these things is “contributing to the needs of the saints” (v. 13). This is juxtaposed with “seek to show hospitality.” This care for fellow believers is clearly commanded in Scripture.
  • Galatians 6:10 could be interpreted to argue for some sort of social activism. Paul says, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Two points should be noted: first, Paul’s appeal is not specifically for a corporate action but an individual activity. Paul even includes himself in this command. Second, while good works are commanded toward unbelievers, the focus is again on the family of God, that is, fellow believers.
  • 1 Timothy 5:3–16 describes in great detail the financial and material care of elderly Christian widows by the Church. This passage seems to be a systematic policy for the practice described in Acts 6:1–3. Notice again that these were to be godly, Christian women (vv. 5, 10), and the Church was commanded to care for them (v. 16).
  • James 2:15–16 speaks of the inevitability of good works accompanying genuine faith. But James limits the scope of this “social action” to a brother or sister. Again, the Church has a social responsibility to its members, but the New Testament does not command a broader scope to this activity.
  • 1 John 3:17 speaks of the love of God shining through a believer, resulting in a generous and helping spirit toward a brother. Some have argued that the word “brother” here refers to “fellow man,” but the context precludes this. Those who have been “born of God” should love one another since they are brothers (and sisters). John’s use of the word “brother” speaks of Christian benevolence toward other Christians.

At our church, people frequently drop by looking for a handout. They always have a story (or two), a tear, and of course, a request for a small amount of cash (usually for the baby or the sick wife). Upon learning that we have no immediate access to discretionary cash to give them, they quickly leave (perhaps heading for the next church) or get surly. One man went from crying, tears rolling down his face, to in my face calling me a hypocrite and a liar in the time it took me to say, “Our church does not give out cash gifts.”

Let’s be frank: these people are not looking for spiritual help. Giving them physical help does nothing to advance the Gospel; it simply makes our church an easy “mark.” Our deacons have a much more involved process with necessary built-in safeguards and involving as much contact as possible to try to give spiritual aid along with physical assistance. That said, we have never seen any spiritual fruit from this ministry.

Christians can and should be involved as much as possible in building relationships with unbelievers and modeling the love and holiness of God before them. Christians are commanded to be different than the world around them. The Gospel is still “the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). By being caring neighbors and model citizens (Rom 13:1–7), we may have opportunities to give a verbal testimony of God’s gracious salvation (1 Pet 4:1–10). The focus of the Church’s social concern, however, should be the care of its own.

November 2005


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