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Evangelism - Myers Mott Maggay          

The task of the church
Melba Maggay


     After almost two decades of debate, social concern is now entrenched as a part of the church’s agenda. However, there are at least two errors which occasionally surface when attempts are made to define the relationship between the two. The first error is to confuse evangelism for social action, and social action for evangelism.

Evangelism is social action

     This mistake is made by those who argue that the surest way to change society is to change the people in it through the transforming power of the gospel. Sinful structures are made by sinful men and, therefore, our task is to strike at the root of social problems, which is sin. Hence, the slogan: ‘Change people, change society’.
     Although a case could be made for the liberating power of authentic Christianity in people who live the faith, experience shows that having more Christians does not necessarily ensure a just society. For the past decade and a half, for instance, there has been tremendous growth in ‘born-againism’ in the Philippines, but so far this has not resulted injustice and righteousness in that society.
     There are at least two possible reasons for this failure. One is that people may experience saving faith, but may not necessarily move towards the far-reaching social implications of that faith, either due to lack of understanding or to a failure to obey. One’s Christianity may be so undeveloped that it has little influence in the places where it should matter and where it should bear witness sociologically.
      Another reason is that society is complex and does not lend itself easily to facile generalizations on how to change it. Would that justice were merely a matter of personal obedience. Unfortunately, there are entrenched powers and monstrous structures we need to address and contend with. There is such a thing as organized injustice, which calls for thoughtful social analysis and complex solutions. You may have an army of bleeding hearts tending the sorrowful and the hungry, and yet not see an end to the causes of the hunger and the thirst. Unjust social structures require more than the presence of changed individuals. Evangelism is not a cure-all, and cannot substitute for concrete redemptive action in our political and social life.

Social action is evangelism

      This mistake is made by those who say that the struggle for justice and human dignity is evangelism in itself. To denounce all that hinders human wholeness is to proclaim the work of Christ, which is the liberation of people and the world from every force, power or structure that oppresses and dehumanizes. This rightly recovers for us the cosmic dimensions of what we mean by witness and salvation; things that, for so long, have been understood in subjectivist and pietistic terms. It tends, however, to lose sight of the proclamation aspect of the gospel, the fact that it is news, a thing you shout from the housetops or send a town crier for. It also tends to gloss over the equally important demand for personal repentance and righteousness.
     The second error is to dichotomize, that is, to make unbiblical distinctions between what is ‘secular’ and what is ‘holy’, or between what belongs to the realm of ‘nature’ and what belongs to the realm of ‘grace’. Social action, for instance, is said to belong to the realm of the temporal and the physical, and evangelism to the realm of the spiritual and the eternal. Understood in this way, evangelism naturally takes priority over social action in the minds of many Christians. Helping the poor, while part of our duty, is secondary to the task of discipling the nations. Meeting temporal needs is something that all people can do. Evangelism is something that only Christians can do. The one is good for this world only, the other is significant even for the world to come.
       In this there is, clearly, an inability to see life as a whole, to see all of life as being subject to the lordship and the redeeming power of Jesus. The work of Christ is seen either in purely political terms as in some variants of liberation theologies, or in purely personal terms, as in mostly evangelical church communities. There is no longer any sense that all of life, when lived in the presence of God, is sacred: the very ordinary and prosaic act of giving a cup of water can become a sacrament, a touching deed that will always be remembered, on par with obviously supernatural acts such as the casting out of demons (Mark 9:38—41).
      In this work, we shall try to steer clear of the tendency either to polarize or to wed in an unholy synthesis evangelism and social action. At the same time, we would like to push further the often repeated thesis that while the two are distinct, both are parts of our Christian duty. We would like to go so far as to say that the gospel not only has ‘social implications’, but that its very substance has a social character. Social action is not just an implication, an addendum to the gospel; it is an intrinsic part of the gospel. Preaching the gospel is more than a verbal exercise; it is an engagement, a living among men and women that serves notice of the kingdom that has come.

The gospel of the kingdom

      What is the relationship between evangelism and social action? Our answer to this question depends largely on our answer to the question: what is the gospel? If evangelism is telling the good news, what is the news? What was the new thing Jesus sent his disciples to tell?
      The answer is clear enough: ‘Preach as you go, saying, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons’ (Matthew 10:7—8). The news is that the long-awaited kingdom, its reign of peace, justice and righteousness, has finally come. The Messiah, he who is to come, dwells among us.
      ‘Kingdom’ is a political term, and Jesus’ messiahship was understood by himself and by his hearers as having to do with more than just the ‘soul’. When Mary heard of the good and joyful tidings that the Lord himself was to grow in her womb, she immediately rejoiced that here was one who would bring down the mighty from their thrones, who would fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty (Luke 1:46—55). When Jesus announced his messianic career, he put it in unmistakably social terms: it would bring ‘good news’ to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and liberty to those who were oppressed (Luke 4:16—21). His coming marked ‘the year of the Lord’ to the Jews of his day, a reference to the Jubilee Year when debts were cancelled and property was redistributed according to the old tribal allotments.1
     There is an obvious political and social element in Jesus’ personality and work. The idea that he is king is a provocative one. It is natural that it should serve as an occasion for suspicion (2)as to his political intentions. Contrary to the notion that his is a purely spiritual kingdom, scripture is clear that he is not just king over the human heart, but that he is king over the Jews, a nation seething restlessly under the yoke of Roman rule.3 He never said that his kingship was not in the world. It was simply not of the world (John 18:36). 
     This social element, quite strangely, has been lost in present-day preaching. Jesus’ lordship has been subjectivized, confined to the narrow boundaries of one’s personal life. It is rarely understood that because he is king over all of life, we may have confidence to make every human institution subject to his will and purposes. The powers that be have been defeated. When we say ‘Jesus is Lord’, it is not just a confession, it is a cosmic and social fact.4
     The process of conversion has likewise been unduly spiritualized. Repentance is described as merely a turning from one’s personal sins, and occurring mostly in the individual’s subjective consciousness. A dichotomy has been made between faith and works, such that it is now possible to speak of becoming a Christian without becoming a disciple, and of justification as merely an abstract legal status.
     This split is alien to scripture. As has been pointed out, justification is not just a legal abstraction, it is a social reality. To be ‘justified’ is to be ‘set right’ in one’s relationships; it is a ‘making peace’, a breaking down of the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile: ~... the relationship between divine justification and the reconciliation of men to one another is not a sequential relationship. It is not that "faith" occurs first as an inner existential leap of the individual.., and then God operates a change in him which enables him to love his brethren... These two cannot be distinguished in Paul’ .~ Alternatively, conversion does not take place in two moves—first, a conversion to Christ, and then a ‘second conversion’ from Christ to the world.6 Both occur in a single act.
     Clearly, it is inaccurate to speak of social concern as a ‘product’ of the new birth, an indirect result’ of gospel proclamation. It is part and parcel of the Christian message. The gospel is intrinsically prophetic. T. S. Eliot is right when he argues that ‘The church’s message to the world must be expanded to mean "the church’s business to interfere with the world".’7 The gospel when faithfully preached always turns the world upside down.
     To speak of Jesus as Lord is to demand subjection of personal and social life under his kingly rule. To call for repentance is to ask people to turn away, not simply from their individual vices, but from participation in the collective guilt of organized injustice. To invite people to come in faith is to challenge them to walk in trusting obedience, to know God in the agony of commitment and concrete engagement in the life of the world.
     Truly, the gospel is more than a set of things to believe about Christ. It is a radical call to come under the discipline of the kingdom, bidding a rich young man to sell all that he has to give to the poor, or a corrupt tax collector to go and repay all he had robbed. After all, Jesus tells us, what will separate the sheep from the goats is not their ability to spout pious doctrine. It is their constant readiness to visit the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty (Matthew 25:35—36).
     It should be noted that when Jesus sent out the disciples, his instructions had two components. One was propositional: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. The other was experiential: ‘Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons’. There is a verbal as well as a visual aspect to this kind of witness. The proposition does not stand alone, it is backed up by realities. It is not enough to say that the kingdom has come; such things as the healing of the sick must stand as proof (see Luke 11:20).
     It seems clear from this that evangelism is more than something we say; it is also something we do. To speak of Jesus is not only to say things about him. We also need to show what his character and power are like.
     Evangelism as ‘show and tell’ clears up much of the fog in heated debates over the subject. Some who see it as a purely verbal activity tend to isolate it into a sideshow by itself, simply a matter of preaching and listening. Some who see it from its purely social aspect tend to reduce it into mere social work. In contrast, there is a fullness, a holistic quality to the growing awareness that ‘evangelism is not just a testimony to God’s acts in Christ, but a participation in those acts’ .~
     That we need to see it this way springs from the recognition that evangelism needs a context, a setting in which the things we say about Jesus become truly incarnate. The Word must take flesh; it does not and was not meant to stand above the world and its need. The saving power of God needs to be made visible, otherwise it is only empty words.
     Context is something the preacher alone cannot provide. For the Word to have a body, the church and its entire gamut of gifts are needed. The whole body of Christ is to stand as a sign, a visual aid to the kingdom that has come. It is important to grasp that this body which makes the Word visible is not limited to the local church. The ecclesia visibilis is God’s people making the presence of the kingdom felt in all areas of life, the leaven which permeates all of human activity. It is the church in academia, the church in politics, the church in the market-place.
     It is precisely because the church has retreated from the world that the gospel now lacks a context. We have allowed the world to become secularized, and the church’s influence to be narrowed within the four paltry walls of the local church. In the process, the Word has become ghostly, a pale shadow of the Logos who, as John describes, has been seen with the eye, has been looked upon and touched with the hands.
     The lack of a caring community that incarnates the Word makes us more and more incapable of being heard. The world no longer sees the big, strong hands that once healed, broke bread, touched wounds and aches lodging in the human heart.
     This is not to say that we must take social action to make the faith more credible. It is simply to recognize that we are, as C. S. Lewis puts it, ‘impure spirits’—people whose appreciation of things spiritual has to be mediated through things material: a sign, a sacrament, a body that needs to be fed before it can begin to focus on things that are above.
     We must always remember that we are not talking to disembodied spirits. We are talking to human beings who cannot hear us with a rumbling stomach. That is why we must take care to put people in a situation where they can respond in a responsible way to the preaching of the gospel. It is our duty to locate people in an economic setting that makes the hearing of the gospel possible. Otherwise, Ellul warns us, we might simply be throwing pearls to the pigs. (10)
     It is clear from all this that social action is not an option; it does not simply follow the proclamation of the gospel. It needs to be done if the gospel is to be heard at all, especially in Third World settings. It is part of the process we call ‘evangelism’.
     It may be claimed that the term evangelism has a specifically ‘heralding’ aspect which becomes obscured if we say that everything that the church does is evangelism. For this reason we prefer to use the term witness to denote all that the church does to make itself shine like a city upon a hill. The word carries with it the need to have ‘presence’ as well as ‘proclamation’ in our preaching of the kingdom.
     Social action would correspond to the ‘presence’ aspect, and evangelism to the ‘proclamation’ aspect in its narrower sense of ‘chattering’ or ‘announcing’ the gospel. The relationship could be illustrated this way:

evangelism = PROCLAMATION

social action = PRESENCE

kingdom witness = GOSPEL

     In summary, while evangelism and social action are distinct, both are essential parts of our witness to the fact that the kingdom has come. The proclamation of the kingdom has a verbal as well as a visual aspect. For this reason, the church must be both a herald and a sign. It must serve as a context in which the saving power of God is made visible. Witness to the kingdom requires more than preachers; it demands the whole body of Christ to be visibly present in all areas of human life. In doing so, the gospel is wholly preached, and men and women are enabled to adequately respond to the prophetic demands of the gospel.

1 See John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1972, pp. 37ff.
2 Yoder makes a case to the effect that Jesus would not have been subject to suspicion if the claims of the kingdom had not clearly overlapped with the claims of Caesar. The Caesar question simply pushed to the forefront the conflict of loyalty implicit in the two claims.
3 When actually ordered to confirm if he really was king of the Jews or not, Jesus answered, You have said so’ (Matthew 27:11).
4 The proclamation "Jesus is Lord" is a social and structural fact, and constitutes a challenge to the Powers... it follows that its claims are not limited to the individuals who accept it, nor is its significance limited to those who listen to
4 Yoder, Politics, p. 160.
5 See Justification by Faith’ in Yoder, Politics.
6 Emilio Castro, as quoted by SCAN, Partnership in Mission.
7 T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society.
8 Alfred Krass, as quoted by SCAN, Partnership in Mission.
9 Taylor, The Christian Philosophy of Law, Politics and the State, Free University Press.
10 Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, Seabury, New York, 1967, 1948, p.141.

Chapter One from Transforming Society by Melba Maggay, Regnum, 1994. Approved for Website by Regnum Books, P. O. Box 70, Oxford,OX2 6HB. England and by Melba Maggay.

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