Why Can’t We Have Our Cake and Eat It Too?

Over a century ago the world was in an upheaval. Modernism was on the march. The old established order was being threatened in every area of life— including religion. The forces unleashed with the Industrial Revolution, Darwinism and German Higher Criticism appeared to be rocking the very foundations of the church itself.

Much of the church, both Protestant and Catholic, reacted by circling their wagons. In America Evangelicals took two different paths. The conservatives, influenced by pre-millennialism (the belief that Jesus would return prior to his thousand-year reign on earth), focused inward and embraced Fundamentalism. With its emphasis on personal conversion, Fundamentalism drew a line in the sand: if you subscribed to a set of core beliefs, you were in; if not, you were out. Since things would only get worse before Christ’s return, saving souls is what mattered.

The liberals, by contrast, focused outward. Influenced by post-millennialism (the belief that Jesus would return following a thousand-year reign), they opposed the social impact of the Industrial Revolution and Social Darwinism by attacking issues such as poverty, child labor, alcoholism, and the rights of women. They believed in a Social Gospel, that Christians had a duty to transform society.

Over a century later the breach has still not been healed. Conservative and liberal Christians still hurl epithets at one another across a dividing wall, both accusing the other of distorting the gospel. And to some extent, they are both right.

What is wrong with this picture? Didn’t Jesus come to save souls? Yes indeed. Didn’t he also command us to care for the poor and oppressed. Without question. So what’s the problem? Why can’t we have it all? Why should we have to choose between evangelism and social concern, between a kind of gnostic personal faith devoid of social conscience, and social concern that lacks depth of conviction and spiritual power? Why should the baptism in the Holy Spirit lead us into navel gazing, instead of, what it was intended to do, leading us out into the world?

I fault American pastors who are so blinded by their own personal politics (both liberal and conservative) that they cannot see the whole gospel… or that there’ s a hole in theirs. Instead, we offer our flocks, not a holy gospel, but a holey one.

I’m grateful there’s a new generation of Christian leaders in this country, solid Evangelical pastors like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, who are speaking out passionately not only about poverty and oppression in this country, but also about more global issues, such as AIDS and other health crises in Africa, or global warming.

If the gospel is not good news for the poor, then it is not good news. If it is not personal and evangelistic, then if offers little. It must be life-transforming, both on the personal level and for society as well. That is what Jesus intended. He did not just save souls; he saved bodies as well, healing the whole person and restoring us to health, wholeness and community. True shalom.

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  1. It does seem like there is a growing number of leaders in the Church who are starting to appreciate that there is more to being a Christian than just hyping the usual political talking points. While Warren is still a little too conservative for me, I am gratified he is not James Dobson.

  2. Prior to the evangelism/social action split in the church in the US in the late 1800s/early 1900s, followers of Jesus did BOTH: preaching the Gospel and putting it into action. Remember the movie “Amazing Grace?” I think that the Civil War and its aftermath had already divided the church and that contributed to this schizophrenia — which is not, by the way, evident in the predominantly African-American Church, which does a very good job of both social action and evangelism.The Bible makes it clear that we are to do “BOTH/AND” not “EITHER/OR.” For instance, both the OT and Jesus call us to “love God AND love our neighbor.” Israel was commanded to set aside a set proportion of its tithe for the immigrant, the widow and the orphan (none of whom could own land, the main source of wealth). James tells us that true religion is feeding the widow and orphan and being righteous. Both/And. And on and on and on.I heard Rich Nathan preach on this at the last regional conference last summer. He said that his church had helped about 300 poor single pregnant women last year find housing, work, baby supplies, and so saved 300 babies from abortion. You can’t separate the two.Now I’m as pro-life as can be (that’s why we adopted), but speaking of this split, a really interesting perspective on how the Religious Right got started — and went so far into the abortion debate that it became THE overriding issue, just about to the exclusion of all else — is “Crazy for God” by Franky Shaeffer. It was very hard for me to read b/c I had always held Francis and Edith Shaeffer on a pedestal and what he says about his childhood is pretty shocking, but it is absolutely fascinating from a historical point of view.

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