Posts Tagged ‘social action’

Barth on why social action is not preaching

February 18, 2010

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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More than one kind of privatism

July 8, 2009

Most Western cultures view religion as belonging to a “private sphere” rather than the “public sphere”. I’m not convinced this is the right way to divide up the world into spheres of life anyway, but I’ll concede it forms part of our thinking as modern Westerners. There are dangers with privatism in Christianity, but the biggest danger is not that the Christian voice is not heard in political life, but that we shirk our evangelistic responsibility. John Piper, summarising Jonathan Edwards (no apologies at all for the Americanocentrisms; God has called Piper to pastor a church in Minnesota!):

If there is a problem today with privatistic religion, the worst form of it is not with pietistic evangelicals who don’t care about block clubs and social justice and structural sin. The worst form is with evangelicals who think they are publicly- and socially-minded when they have no passion for millions of perishing people without the gospel that alone can give them eternal life, and without a saving knowledge of the Light who can transform their culture.
So the first message of Jonathan Edwards to modern evangelicals about our public lives is: Don’t limit your passion for justice and peace to such a limitied concern as the church-saturated landscape of American culture. Lift up your eyes to the real crisis of our day: namely,
several thousand cultures still unpenetrated by the gospel, who can’t dream of the blessings we want to restore. That is his first message.
John Piper, God’s Passion For His Glory (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1998) pp.102-103.