It is crucial for the church to lay itself on the line in service to the world for Christ’s sake. He is honored when we care for our neighbors and for the created realm over which He has made us stewards. All this is crystal clear.
But we must keep something else clear as well.
We must never allow our activism to eclipse our verbal witness. This is a genuine danger, one that previous generations of Christians have not always avoided. The temptation to reduce the work of the church to the so-called “social gospel” is always before us. Why should that be so?
The perennial reason is that the Name of Jesus remains a scandal. He will always be a line in the sand, a stone of stumbling. Feed the poor, heal the sick, stand up for the oppressed and the world will often approve. But name the unique claims of Jesus Christ and it will often not be applause you hear. Jesus said so Himself.
And this perennial challenge is further complicated by our own cultural moment. We live in a generation that has lost confidence in the ability of language to bear the weight of truth. Truth claims of any sort are often resisted if not censured. In such an environment, proclaiming the powerful claims of the Gospel is especially challenging. Hence the temptation to allow social action to stand in for our verbal witness.
But this is a mistake. St. Francis famously exhorted, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” We know what this aphorism was designed to stress: the importance of the “adorning” role of our deeds (Titus 2:10). But if we were to press the saying literally, it would be false. The Gospel cannot be “preached” nonverbally. The Gospel is inherently a verbal thing. It requires verbal expression. Social activism can never take its place.
Remember that it is this proclaimed Gospel–not our social action–that is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16, NIV). Justice and compassion ministries buttress our Gospel witness, but they don’t replace it.