Barth on why social action is not preaching

Why does the Church do social action – that is, helping meet the needs of those around us, through soup runs, community projects, clothing collections, medical missions etc.? Sometimes it is said that this is done as a way to proclaim the gospel, or to “open doors” for the gospel. But is there a problem with this? Karl Barth seems to imply so – it turns it into “propaganda” and ignores the true motivation which is genuine Christian love for our fellow human beings, and above all, for God:

“But there are also other elements in the life of the Church in which what we say about God is addressed to our fellow-men but which cannot seek to be proclamation. To this group belongs a function which from the very first has in some form been recognised to be an integral element in the life of the Church, namely, the expression of helpful solidarity in the face of the external needs of human society. This, too, is a part of man’s response to God. When and because it is he response of real man, necessarily in terms of Mt. 5:14 it is a shining light to people among whom alone man is real man. If God exists for man, as the Church’s prayer, praise and confession declare in answer to the proclamation heard, then this man as the man for whom God exists must also exist for his fellow-men with whom alone he is real man. Yet the special utterance about God which consists in the action of this man is primarily and properly directed to God and not to men. It can neither try to enter in to quite superfluous competition with society’s necessary efforts at self-help in its straits, not can it seek, as the demonstration of distinctively Christian action, to proclaim how God helps. “That they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven,” that they may be a commentary on the proclamation of God’s help, is, of course, freely promised, but cannot be its set intention. Like prayer, praise and confession, especially in cases like Francis of Assisi and Bodelschwingh, it has always been spontaneous, unpremeditated, and in the final and best sense unpractical talk about God. …

If the social work of the Church as such were to try and be proclamation, it could only become propaganda, and not very worthy propaganda at that. Genuine Christian love must always start back at [turn away from] the thought of pretending to be a proclamation of the love of Christ with its only too human action.”

Church Dogmatics 1/1, p.50


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6 Responses to “Barth on why social action is not preaching”

  1. Chris Oldfield Says:

    what does “real man” mean? ive read that Barth compares esse with bene esse. Is this that? what’s it about?

    • Phil Whitehead Says:

      I’m not sure that this is the same distinction. It’s the first time in the Dogmatics that Barth uses the term, and he doesn’t define it directly, which means what I’m about to say may be wrong, but I think it is to do with humanity in Christ as restored.
      Barth has been talking in this section a lot about sanctification in Christ, and orientation away from idolatry to truth. As such, “true man” is the human being who is restored in Christ and who is fulfilling the vocation for which (s)he was created. The gist of what Barth is saying on p.50 is then that the Christian must also care for and show love to the rest of humanity, since God has shown care and love for them.

  2. Emily Says:

    Does Barth ever talk about Gospel proclamation as itself an act of human charity? I was going to say “the act of human charity”, but I guess this is not necessarily so, as the light both blinds and enlightens…

    • Phil Whitehead Says:

      I’ve not come across him referring to it that way, but I’ve got to admit to not having (yet?) read all of the Dogmatics.

      I think that I’d personally want to say that the gospel makes sense of Christian charity, and actually enables it, both on a volitional level (it makes me want to be loving to others) and on a philosophical level (it provides me with the reasons why I should be loving to others). The gospel is thus transformative when it is proclaimed and believed. So the link to social action is there, but it’s the opposite way round to the way 19th century liberalism imagined it.

  3. Paul P Says:

    I think the above is true but it is worth noting how often questions and interest comes about through social action. The love shown through poor ministires etc can often lead to proclomation and evangelism through word.

    I do agree however, it is very careful to not work for the poor with evangelism as an aim. As a happy consequence however, I see no problem.

    I feel this post is very badly worded but I’m too lazy to go back and change it! Sorry..

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