“Do you polish the brass on a sinking ship?”This metaphor was made famous, by the 1950s radio preacher J. Vernon McGee. He used this question and others similar, to scare Christians away from charity and social concern. He and other evangelical leaders argued that the Christian’s job is soul winning, and the winning of souls only. Any Christian with any social concern especially in the areas of education, politics, economics, family, business, charity, work, etc., were severely condemned.
The reason for this condemnation was the rise of the social gospel which had its roots in modernism. The social gospel teaches that we are primarily called to follow the ethic of Jesus and to therefore feed the hungry, educate the powerless, heal the sick and alleviate suffering, essentially to make the world a better place to live. The emphasis is not upon spiritual but rather physical, material and economic issues. There is little or no proclamation of repentance of sins and faith in Jesus Christ, and instead promotes a form of prideful self-sufficiency.
The knee-jerk reaction from many evangelicals to this “false” gospel was an either or approach. The two approaches were deemed mutually exclusive. You could not be involved in the one and faithful to the other. Many Christians became convinced that the task of the church is to save souls, not to change society, so they chose to separate the work of evangelism from any social concern.
David Moberg explains the troubling effects of this dilemma, “The question of how to deal with the poverty and the numerous other interrelated problems of our day has divided Christians into two camps. One of them builds a strong case for evangelism as the basic solution, while the other emphasizes direct social involvement. Each accuses the other of being untrue to the essential nature of Christianity. Each feels the other is hypocritical. Each charges the other with being a detriment to the Kingdom of God and the cause of Jesus Christ.”
In an attempt to address this sad situation that the Church found itself in, David Moberg published a book called The Great Reversal: Evangelism versus Social Concern. In his book he explains that at one point, (before 1972) evangelical Christians had a balanced view with regard to evangelism and social concern, “but a great reversal early in this century led to a lopsided emphasis upon evangelism and omission of most aspects of social involvement. Since that time their shortcomings in regard to the fulfilment of Christian social responsibility have been very apparent. Sociological analysis of evangelism can help to shed light on this complex subject. Cultural and religious impediment stand in the way of its solution, but a considerable body of evidence supports the conclusion that evangelism can be a motive for social welfare and can play an important role in social action to change society and deal with social sin.”
John Stott in his book, Christian Mission in the Modern World, asked the very important question, “What . . . should be the relation between evangelism and social action within our total Christian responsibility?” In an attempt to reconcile and unscramble the fear of evangelism and social concern,Stott identified, in the course of his ministry (even especially in India), three positions in relating evangelism and social concern.
Stott’s first argument is that some people regard social action as a means to evangelism which can ultimately be very damaging to the cause and credibility of Christianity. 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 otherwise lack. In either case the smell of hypocrisy hangs round our philanthropy. A frankly ulterior motive impels us to engage in it…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. No wonder Gandhi said in 1931: ‘I hold that proselytizing under the cloak of humanitarian work is, to say the least, unhealthy…why should I change my religion because a doctor who professes Christianity as his religion has cured me of some disease…?”
Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert comment on this position, “The reality is that people who make [this] mistake see evangelism as no more an act of compassion than the person who sees it as a way to put a notch in his [religious] belt; it’s just that they see the gospel as something they are trying to sell. Neither his good works nor his evangelism would be founded on care for the other person. His good works would be grounded on a desire to get to the evangelism, and the evangelism would be grounded in a desire to make himself look good. Love doesn’t figure in there at all…Christians, are to love the whole person, and therefore it makes perfect sense to love someone by giving him food and at the same time to love him in a different, higher way by giving him the gospel.”
The conclusion above leads to the second position that Stott recognised, regarding social action not as a means to evangelism but as a demonstration or manifestation of evangelism. Social Action no longer opposes the work of evangelism, but instead with a proper motivation, co-exists for the sake of the gospel. Stott explains; “In this case philanthropy 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”.
- Herman Bavinck agrees with this position, “Medicine and education are more than a legitimate and necessary means of creating an opportunity for preaching. For if these services are motivated by the proper love and compassion, then they cease to be simply preparation, and at that very moment become preaching.”
The third position Stott regards as “the truly Christian one”. Social action must be 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 the other. Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself. Both are expressions of unfeigned love.”
Stott explained that the Apostle John helped him come to this conclusion when he wrote, “If anyone 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 warning, “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”. 
Even if the ship (society) was sinking, out of our love for Christ and the lost and our moral, spiritual and ethical obligations, we should still do everything we can, not to polish the brass, but to repair the breach in the hull. “We should understand that God created the human race with the mission of filling the earth with worshippers [and] that it would be through worshipful obedience that the mission would be completed. Thus, morality and ethics—a life of just behaviour and Christ-like character—is part and parcel of the mission God has in mind for his people as a means to expanding the worship of his name.” In other words, it is through the gospel and through the fruit of the gospel—changed lives and involvement in society—that the world will be changed.
In the midst of all these debates, we should not allow our fear of the social gospel determine our method of evangelism and social concern or lack thereof. We must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Paul rejected legalism, but not the law (Romans 7:12; 1 Timothy 1:8). Similarly, we should reject the social gospel, but not turn a blind eye to social need.
“If we understand evangelism itself, though, as a deep and profound act of love for [Christ and] other people, we will do it more often, and we will do it with the right motives too (love for people, instead of regard for ourselves). In fact, if we are Christians whose love and compassion is aroused by spiritual needs, then sharing the gospel will always be in the forefronts of our minds. We will naturally and readily move toward it as we are loving other people.”
- Bavinck, J.H. An Introduction to the Science of Missions, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Holland, 1960
- DeYoung, K. and G. Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?, Crossway, USA, 2011
- Liederbach, M. and A. Reid, The Convergent Church, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids USA, 2009
- Moberg, D.O. The Great Reversal Evangelism versus Social Concern, Scripture Union, USA, 1972
- North, G. Rapture Fever: Why Dispensationalism is Paralyzed, Institute for Christian Economics, Tyler TX, 1993
- Stott, J. Christian Mission in the Modern World, InterVarsity Press, USA, 1975
 David O. Moberg, The Great Reversal Evangelism versus Social Concern, Scripture Union, USA (1972), p.13
 David O. Moberg, The Great Reversal Evangelism versus Social Concern, Scripture Union, USA (1972), p.26
 John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World, InterVarsity Press, USA (1975), p.26
 Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?, Crossway, USA (2011), p.228
 John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World, InterVarsity Press, USA (1975), p.26
 J. Herman Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Holland (1960), p.113
 John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World, InterVarsity Press, USA (1975), p.27
 Ibid, p.28
Mark Liederbach and Alvin Reid, The Convergent Church, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids USA, (2009), p.206
 Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church?, Crossway, USA (2011), p.229