Cinnamon recently held its first theology symposium looking at the theology of social action. Three leaders of very different theological backgrounds presented papers on the theme (you can read them in a free ebook here), but what struck me was a question from one of the delegates after the third paper.
Explaining that she she worked as part of a social action programme, but that it wasn’t always possible or appropriate to talk about her faith with her clients, she asked, “Do I have to talk about Christianity to show the Gospel in action? Does it count?”
Each of the papers presented by the three theologians had clearly illustrated that, as Christians, we long to see all people find not just temporal warmth and shelter, but the eternal hope, forgiveness and life that only Christ can offer. Dr Dan Strange had quoted John Piper on this mission: “[Christians] exist to relieve all suffering, especially eternal suffering.”
So does the former count if it is not accompanied by the latter?
Dr Mark Bonnington, to whom the question had been addressed, had a two-fold answer.
In the discussion about his paper, he had already suggested that this was one of the roles of the Holy Spirit in us: “He enables us to discern if we should move the felt need out of the way before the person can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit.” Every case is different – even Jesus sometimes healed people’s physical ailments without, so far as is recorded, offering them forgiveness for their sins. Indeed, the ‘sheep and goats’ passage (Matthew 25:31-46) makes no mention even of feeding the hungry or clothing the stranger ‘in Jesus’ name’ (whatever that might mean). Act justly, love mercy, love your neighbour as yourself… None of these instructions is accompanied by a command to follow up your work of justice or act of love with a gospel presentation. Yet is it possible to truly love your neighbour without longing for him or her to hear about and receive eternal salvation?
Indeed, in a recent lecture, the Archbishop of Canterbury argued that: “the Church exists to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything else is decoration. Some of it may be very necessary, useful, or wonderful decoration – but it’s decoration.”
How do we square the circle?
Exhibit A: the local church.
In answer to the delegate’s question, Mark Bonnington suggested that this why the local church is vital: “We are put in communities with different gifts – those gifted in mercy ministries are in partnership with those more gifted in evangelism.” Neither of us is expected to do everything, but both of us are supposed to work alongside or in concert with each other in order that our neighbours’ spiritual needs as well as their physical needs – their ultimate needs as well as their felt needs – are met. Doing what God has called you to always counts for you, but it’s only when we’re all doing the things God has prepared for us that it will really count for the whole world.
Church leaders have a responsibility, Bonnington said, to nurture the full range of gifts in their congregations. He confessed that as a preacher/teacher, he has a tendency to raise up other preacher/teachers, and needs to be intentional about nurturing the other types of gifts in his church to avoid becoming a seriously unbalanced body.
We are the body of Christ, and we need to operate as one, each playing the part he or she has been designed to play, so that together we might fulfil the twofold commission to love our neighbours and to ‘go into all the world and make disciples’.
Image Credit: Hungry and Homeless by Kat N.L.M.