Transforming the World Series (10) Evangelicals and Society: an on-off relationship

This is the last post of a series that I’ve been doing over at Jesus Creed on what is, I think, an important, and thought provoking, book. I’ve come away from this series with a deepened awareness that we need Christians who ‘know’ how money and modern economic systems work and can also critique them from a biblical and theological perspective for the wider church. See by coincidence Vinoth Ramachandra making a very similar point in a recent post. Anyway, to the post ….

Our final post on Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility (edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant) is on a chapter by David Smith, ‘Evangelicals and Society: the story of an on-off relationship’.

David, recently retired from International Christian College, is an adjunct teacher at Irish Bible Institute on our MA programme, has written extensively about evangelicalism and mission and is an all round good guy – this is a fascinating chapter.

Is one way to see the tensions surrounding emerging & missional church debates between an emphasis on a ‘world transformative’ gospel versus a more ‘spiritual gospel’? One stresses the social and ethical impact of the gospel to change a broken world. The other stresses the importance of evangelism, church planting and individual transformation. Are they not so much in contradiction as focusing on different aspects of the one gospel?

Anyway, one thing David Smith does very well in this chapter is to show that this sort of tension is not new.

Writing from Glasgow, he takes a nearby statue of John Knox as a starting point to root the discussion of evangelical social responsibility in its historical Reformation roots. Calvin’s preoccupation with glorifying God in the ‘here and now’ meant that he had a passionate concern for a world transformative Christianity, characterised by justice and the grace of God, and which served as a measure by which to reform unjust societal structures.

Following Calvin’s lead, in Scotland, John Knox had ‘a utopian vision of the transformation that the gospel might bring’.  Similar forms of ‘world transformative’ Christianity can be traced in Jan Hus and the later Puritans.

The revolutionary idea at work here was that social structures are not fixed by God (the medieval divine right of kings for example), but are imperfect human constructions ‘requiring modification and reform in the light of the revelation of the will of God given through the gospel of Jesus Christ.’

This was the soil in which evangelicalism emerged in the 18th century and the rest of the chapter traces the nature of the ‘on – off’ relationship evangelicals have had in terms of ‘transforming the world’. This Smith does well and I’m sketching his big points here:

The emergence of an 18th Century world transformative evangelicalism – fostered by a strongly optimistic eschatology that the triumph of the gospel would affect far-reaching social transformation. Think Jonathan Edwards and the optimistic ‘Puritan Hope’.

Then, during the 19th Century, this form of world transformative Christianity gradually gave way to what Smith calls an avertive type of evangelical faith. By avertive he means another-worldly and dualistic religion.

  • Growing social conservatism, partly inspired by fear of anarchy and chaos the French Revolution.
  • Increasing class divisions and social tensions within an industrialising and modernizing society. Evangelicals increasingly came to see their faith in terms of personal conversion ‘while refusing to entertain debate about socio-political change.’ p.253.

And the champion of the anti-slavery movement, William Wilberforce comes into the story here basically exhorting Christians in the upper classes to behave morally and so promote true religion. There was little or no emphasis on the Bible’s teaching on justice by the Clapham Society. Aristocratic philanthropists like Hannah Moore exemplified this new avertive form of evangelicalism. In her advice to the rural poor suffering from extreme poverty and even starvation, she simply stressed the sanctity of the class system and pointed to the comforts of heaven.

But there were increasing internal challenges to this sort of status quo evangelicalism, especially among non-conformist preachers working in inner city areas of extreme deprivation:

Famous names like Charles Wesley, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, William Booth, George Cadbury and many other not so famous but still significant figures.

And the 20th century continued to see this tension between world transformative and avertive forms of evangelicalism played out.

– Where ‘middle class evangelicalism’ turned inward into a search for the victorious spiritual life (early Keswick Convention in England).

– Where, especially in the USA, under the shadow of a developing fundamentalism, there was an increasing loss of a social conscience in the first half of the 20th century.

– Where many saw world transformative Christianity as a ‘Trojan horse’ for liberal theology, with subsequent inward focus on mission, evangelism and church planting and little to say about violence, injustice, exploitation, and global issues.

And so Smith gets briefly to the familiar territory of Lausanne 1974 and the recovery of an evangelical social conscience, reaffirmed and rearticulated in the 2010 Cape Town Commitment that Scot is posting his way through at the moment.

And Smith suggests that perhaps the biggest world transformative issue facing Christianity in the 21st century is that of global capitalism. What do you make of this closing quote?

“.. the cancerous growth of the ideology of the market might suggest that Christians today are facing the biggest challenge to faithfulness and obedience that our world has seen since John of Patmos caught sight of the Christ who rules over death and Hades (Rev 1:18). The social and economic polarizations which occurred in an industrialised society in nineteenth-century Britain are now writ large on a global scale with consequences in the lives of billions of people which almost defy analysis and comprehension. The world’s dismal shanty towns now house (if that word is adequate) a billion people and a staggering 72.8% of the urban populations in the cities of the Global South now live in such contexts. Statistics like these serve to highlight … that the economic system that now rules the world has become a form of ideology, even a culture in its own right, which must be challenged by the gospel which names Christ as Lord.” p.266-67

Are we blind to the big issues – as even Wilberforce was blind – living comfortably with the status quo of global capitalism? And what’s a gospel response look like?

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