Stott on the Relationship of Evangelism and Social Action

Tim Brister —  March 15, 2007 — 10 Comments

In his book, Christian Mission in the Modern World, John Stott addresses the relationship of evangelism and social reform.  He begins his little section by asking the question:

“What . . . should be the relation between evangelism and social action within our total Christian responsibility?”

Stott argues that there have been three positions in relating evangelism and social concern.  I will lay them out for you in this post.

1.  Stott argues that some people regard social action as a means to evangelism.  He writes:

“In this case evangelism and the winning of converts are the primary ends in view, but social action is a useful preliminary, an effective means to these ends.  In its most blatant form this makes social work (whether food, medicine, or education) the sugar on the pill, the bait on the hook, while in its best form it gives to the gospel a credibility it would lack otherwise lack.  In either case the smell of hypocrisy hangs round our philanthrophy.  A frankly ulterior motive impels us to engage in it.  And the result of making our social programme the means to another end is that we breed so-called ‘rice Christians.’  This is inevitable if we ourselves have been ‘rice evangelists.’  They caught the deception from us.” (26). 

2.  The second position argued regards social action not as a means to evangelism but as a manifestation of evangelism.  Stott adds:

“In this case philanthrophy is not attached to evangelism rather artificially from the outside, but grows out of it as its natural expression.  One might almost say that social action becomes the ‘sacrament’ of evangelism, for it makes the message significantly visible” (ibid.).

3.  The third position (which Stott believes to be “the truly Christian one”), is that social action is a partner of evangelism.   He explains:

“As partners the two belong to each other and yet are independent of each other.  Each stands on its own feet in its own right alongside each other.  Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other.  For each is and end in itself.  Both are expressions of unfeigned love” (27). 

Stott explained that the Apostle John helped him come to this conclusion when he wrote, “If any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?  Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17, 18). 

He concludes with a little caveat.

“This does not mean that words and works, evangelism and social action, are such inseparable partners that all of us must engage in both all the time.  Situations vary, and so do Christian callings.  As for situations, there will be times when a person’s eternal destiny is the most urgent consideration, for we must not forget that men without Christ are perishing.  But there will certainly be other times when a person’s material need is so pressing that he would not be able to hear the gospel if we shared it with him.  The man who fell among robbers needed above all else at that moment oil and bandages for his wounds, not evangelistic tracts in his pockets!  Similarly, in the words of a missionary in Nairobi quoted by Bishop John Taylor, ‘a hungry man has no ears’.  If our enemy is hungry, our biblical mandate is not to evangelize him but to feed him (Romans 12:20)!  Then too there is a diversity of Christian callings, and every Christian should be faithful to his own calling” (28). 

So what do you think?  Do you agree with Stott, that the relationship between evangelism and social reform is a partnership and not a means or manifestation?  I would be interested in any analysis or commentary you could provide.   

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  • TerryJ

    I agree with Stott. Too often we use social action or charitable deeds merely as the bait to lure people in then hit them with the gospel. This means our goal is not really to help them because they need help, but to help them so we can give them our “sales pitch.” It becomes transparent and can do harm to the cause of Christ. Glorifying and worshiping God, evangelism, mercy and compassion are all important parts of the Christian life – one is not merely a means to another.

  • I heard a sermon by Greg Beale today in which he said that John Stott doesn’t believe hell, but annihilation. Do you know anything about that?

  • Daniel,

    Beale is correct that Stott is an annihilationalist, though I am not sure that means he doesn’t believe in hell. Another of Stott’s weak points is his borderline inclusivism which would better be defined as an agnostic (where he holds that many people will be saved in the end but doesn’t know how). Stott is a theological giant in many ways, and we would doe well to learn from him (especially in his books The Cross of Christ, Basic Christianity, and Between Two Worlds. I have strong disagreements with him on his view of hell and the unevangelized and hope that they would change. However with that said, we should be grateful for the poweful exposition and commentary he has given on the cross, on preaching, and on the fundamentals of our faith and mission.

  • Hutch

    Mark Dever talked about this quote from Stott in a recent IX Marks interview of John Piper. Dever speaks positively of the first position and says that Stott rejects it because as an Anglican, Stott has no ecclesiology.

  • Hutch,

    I listened to that interview as well and was pleasantly surprised to hear this be the topic of part of the interview. I am curious, though, how not having an ecclesiology affects your position on the relationship of evangelism and social reform. I would be interested also in hearing how Dever responds to the critique by Stott on the first position. I think Stott’s analysis is fair and valid.

    Personally, I think we should evangelize every opportunity we get. However, I have a hard time telling someone that we will give them a shirt for their back and food for their stomach so long as they go to our church services or whatever hoop we make them jump through. The gospel is a free offer, and I am concerned that many times we put stipulations or attach strings to it, making our appeal to them appear disingenuous. So if social reform is a means to evangelism, I would like to know how that can be done without doing injustice to the integrity of the gospel and the clarity of our conscience. Do you know what I mean?

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  • You’ve written up an excellent summary. I’ve been doing some thinking about this recently (What is Evangelism) and appreciate your contribution to the discussion here.

    In some of the committees i’ve served on, social action is considered evangelism, without ever an explanation of the gospel. I believe, however, that we still need to explain the gospel with words.

    Pastor Chris

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  • I am very excited to read the points Stott explained about the relationship, between the ministry of evangelism and social actions in christian mission today. I agreed with him because it is the key opportunity to bring the lost souls back to God who is the creator, and it is the duty of the church to help the people, as Jesus said to Peter to feed His lambs, care for His Sheep etc.Evangelism helps people to repent from their sins and obtain salvation, while social actions is dealing with the needy of the people. without evangelism social action can’t work, and without socail work poverty would increase both of them are twins. Most of our churches is suffering today because some church leaders negleted the social action, and dealed with spirituality(evangelism). But they let people keep on begging, and others are dealing with social actions without evangelism letting people dead in spirit. I Suggested that there is no division between evangelism and social actons.