Previous | Next

Fall 1987 · Vol. 16 No. 2 · pp. 62–70 

The Evangelical Church and Social Change: Toward a Broader Perspective

Herbert Giesbrecht

Societal change and crisis have always constituted a significant element in both the personal and collective experience of humankind. Sometimes change has been welcome; at other times it has evoked something less than a positive response. However, changes now appear to be intruding upon us with an ever-increasing, and sometimes altogether frightening, tempo and force. Of course the Christian Church also moves and has its being in the midst of such social crises and cannot long evade their impact. Reginald E. O. White’s description of the post-Reformation and Renaissance world of western Europe applies also to us:

Meanwhile, the world changed almost beyond recognition with the coming of industrialization, scientific inventiveness, materialist, humanist, and secularist fashions of thought, and social revolution. New problems constantly challenged old principles, and found scripture inadequate, tradition confused, and the Christian conscience unprepared (1981:214). {63}

We are not at all surprised when evangelical Christians in our day become quite perplexed and are disposed to pray ardently with the hymn writer Henry F. Lyte: “Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.”

. . . concrete social changes are both necessary and possible.

And yet the evangelical Church knows, almost intuitively, that not all social crises and changes are morally injurious. Indeed, Christians are generally aware that at least some of these changes have brought many social, economic, and political benefits. Many of the freedoms of our time (to express our opinions, to work, to vote, to believe) as well as more liberal attitudes in respect to such issues as slavery, social and racial discrimination, mass education, and the worth and dignity of women are the positive (if often indirect) outcomes of the courageous, faith-inspired, and persistent endeavors of Christian reformers who dared to believe that specific and concrete social changes were both necessary and possible.

Nevertheless, many evangelical Christians have become anxious and disconcerted about the way in which the Church ought to cope with increasingly complex societal crises. As Reginald White has summarized the dilemma: Precisely how is the Christian Church to change in outlook and practice and “so continue to be relevant, while remaining the same (at the core), so continuing to be Christian” (1981:9)?

This dilemma suggests the practical need for some larger perspective on the dynamic relationship between enduring ideals and changing situations. Such a perspective will need to provide a more legitimate freedom for Christians to express both their conservatism and their liberalism—in the sense defined by David O. Moberg:

The Christian ideally is both a conservative who tries to conserve all that is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and gracious (Phil. 4:8) in society and a liberal who tries to liberate mankind by changing the conditions of society that violate those criteria of excellence (1965:94).

Such a broader perspective will need to take realistic account of the doctrinal and ethical development which in fact occurred within the Apostolic Church itself and since the Apostolic period, even while it holds devoutly to the inherited faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” I will set forth six specific dimensions which such an overarching perspective will contain in order to inspire and sustain further moral reform and spiritual transformation within our world. {64}

1. The “cosmos” (to use the NT term) in the midst of which the Church resides and ministers possesses and reflects both morally negative and positive dimensions. Human societies are God’s gift to humankind, and all (Christians included) may make grateful and creative use of a given culture and may contribute positively to it. At the same time, human cultures have become infected with sin at different levels and in varying degrees. The “mystery of evil” appears, repeatedly and inevitably, in the fabric of social life and interaction. Our present “social structures and relationships, art forms and laws often reflect our violence, our sense of lostness and our loss of coherent moral values” (Consultation 25).

Often enough, as Stephen C. Mott convincingly shows, “vicious circles” develop in the systems of society. “Hopeless economic, social, and political pattern formations . . . drive life toward death,” and every attempt at solution only creates further problems at other points. Mott also reminds us that Satanic evil can only “thwart,” neither create nor finally destroy, what God has created. The opponents of God “must start with the materials, powers and designs made by God” (13-15). “The light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Such a recognition of the double-sided nature of human society and its culture can help the evangelical Church avoid the errors of both utopian optimism and cynical (or apathetic) pessimism. It can prompt Christians to discern more carefully the precise character of specific evils in society, and it can energize those social and moral actions which do not drive a wedge between “evangelism” and “social service” but view them as inseparable and complementary components within all authentic Christian witness and influence in society.

2. The way the Apostolic Church adjusted and deepened its own teaching and practice in response to specific social issues provides a model for our own reflection and action. While it remains true that the life and teaching of the historical Christ was the basis for all Christian ethics, the progress of the Christian society within and beyond Judaism created new moral situations and called forth new loyalties and duties. Reginald White offers suggestive hints about the actual process which may have underlain such ethical development within the Apostolic Church: {65}

We can, for example, almost overhear the controversies between inexperienced disciples and Judaist critics on issues like the obligation of fasting, the observance of the Sabbath, the essence of the law, the Pharisaic requirement of ritual washings, and almsgiving, and on the true significance of the temple and its worship. What is striking here is the speed with which the church seems to have grasped the great radical principles which governed the thought of Jesus: fasting is right when it truly expresses a pious sorrow—not otherwise; the Sabbath is a divine gift and privilege, not an obligation; all the law is in love; only what comes out of a man’s heart and mind can truly defile him; not the place or the form but only the spirit and truth of worship determine its acceptance (1979: 125).

When the Apostle Paul confronted Jewish legalism, the political helplessness of early Christians, and Hellenistic sexual corruption, he moved beyond initial catechetical instructions and elaborated the demands of Christian discipleship in increasing depth and detail.

3. Much wisdom can be gained from a study of the way the Church has responded to social ills and crises through the centuries. Such a study also uncovers instances of uncertainty in approach, of misguided effort (sometimes in utter withdrawal from society and at other times in religious persecution or militant crusade), and of unwholesome moral compromise with existing political or ecclesiastical centers of power. But it also discloses striking instances of morally venturesome and transforming action in the very midst of fearful crises or oppressive evils, action which was grounded in a firm grasp of the essentials of the Christian faith and sustained by the living Spirit of Christ.

Reginald White includes many such instances in his impressive survey of the historical development of Christian ethics (Christian Ethics: The Historical Development). He pauses to indicate, along the way, how or why the Christian Church and its prophetic leaders arrived at certain doctrinal and ethical views and what they learned, or failed to learn, at given junctures in history, from earlier teaching or practice. He describes how the early church appealed to both the Old Testament and to “nature” (or at least to natural condition) in dealing with the issues of economics and justice and charity. {66} He discusses both the achievements and failures of the great Protestant reformers. And he shows that Pietists overcame the temptation of withdrawal from the world to initiate far-reaching social reforms.

White also points to the lessons which contemporary evangelicals can learn from the remarkable achievements (and sometimes failures) of our spiritual forebears. Their wisdom can illuminate our own search for ways to cope with specific crises and changes.

4. While we seek answers to specific ethical problems and issues, we must honestly recognize that the interpretation of individual texts of Scripture is always a more open and variable matter than the Biblical canon itself. This can easily be misunderstood, even stoutly resisted, by evangelicals who fear that to tolerate variations in the interpretation and application of Biblical texts which support traditional positions is to question and undermine the very authority of the Scriptures themselves. But to recognize hermeneutical difficulties in the process of interpreting given texts is not necessarily a sign of unbelief. As the 1983 Wheaton Statement (already referred to as “Consultation”) says, a “local church always lives on the edge of compromise with its context (Romans 12:3-18),” and is prone to view and apply Biblical texts in ways which are excessively influenced by its own inherited traditions or by its own social expectations and aspirations. John H. Yoder is surely on the right track when he asserts:

In short, there are genuinely difficult exegetical issues which cannot be glossed over by saying that, if we both love the Lord and believe the Scriptures, they will become unimportant. There are hard ecumenical issues laid upon us by our separate historical identities. There are perplexing apologetic issues laid upon us by our differing responses to the challenges of unbelief. Pietistic anti-intellectualism and primitive forms of rationalism, which both deny any real complexity to being faithful, must be overcome in the discovery that the theological task in ethics is both a genuine necessity and raises tough problems. (1985: 28-31).

White’s reiterated contention (in Christian Ethics) is a valid one: one wholesome outcome of the Christian Church’s {67} continuing struggle with the meaning and import of certain Biblical texts has been a more flexible conception of revelation and inspiration, a conception which recognizes the possibility of some variation and some progression in the understanding and application of Biblical truth to new situations and in different times.

5. We must solicit the assistance of Christian (and perhaps non-Christian) professionals whose daily experience of specific problems can help us to understand them better. Both the “Word” (of God) and the “world” (of society) must be exegeted, as several writers on Christian social ethics have put it, if the Church is to offer valid and truly effectual counsel and assistance.

A recent and promising effort to do this had its origin in the vision of John R. W. Stott (of London, England) who recognized, after decades of responsible and insightful Bible exposition, that something more was in fact needed for our time. The establishment of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (which has itself inspired the initiation of other similar groups) and the issuance of the periodical Transformation: An International Dialogue on Evangelical Social Ethics, are but two very hopeful outcomes of Stott’s vision. His own two-volume work, entitled Involvement (1984), is the direct fruit of such consultation with Christian professionals in a variety of fields. This work first probes the nature of the difficult task which faces the modern Church as it copes with very complex social changes and then deals incisively with very specific social, sexual, and global issues: work and unemployment, industrial relations, anti-Semitism and apartheid, poverty and wealth, roles of men and women, marriage and divorce, abortion, homosexual partnership, the nuclear threat, the ecological crisis, North-South economic inequality, and human rights.

Of course, the Church needs to avoid the error, in so far as this is possible, of allowing the world’s own agenda to skew Biblical truth and the essential spirit of Christ. Stott himself poses this particular danger:

Some Christians, anxious above all to be faithful to the revelation of God without compromise, ignore the challenges of the modern world and live in the past. Others, anxious to respond to the world around them, trim and {68} twist God’s revelation in their search for relevance. I have struggled to avoid both traps. For the Christian is at liberty to surrender neither to antiquity nor to modernity. Instead, I have sought with integrity to submit to the revelation of yesterday within the realities of today. It is not easy to combine loyalty to the past with sensitivity to the present. Yet this is our Christian calling: to live under the Word in the world (I. 14).

That contemporary evangelicals are already falling prey to this danger, more rapidly than they often realize, is the studied conclusion which James D. Hunter boldly asserts in his very recent (1987) and unsettling analysis, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation.

6. All true ethical discernment and action by the Church and its members must retain the centrality, authority and abiding influence of Jesus Christ and His Spirit within. Having pointed to the need for the honest and careful study of the process of interpreting and applying Scriptural texts to actual social situations and issues (as exemplified in the New Testament and in the course of the Church’s own practice across the centuries) and to the need for careful analyses of social situations and issues, I return to the crucial need for a lively fellowship with—and intimate knowledge of—Christ as the source of our wisdom and motivation for specific moral action and all genuine moral transformation within society. Even when certain crises and changes seem quite overwhelming, when certain social issues seem quite incapable of clear-cut analysis and resolution, and when certain texts in Scripture (evidently pertaining to such issues) seem quite resistant to our best exegetical endeavors (for the time being at any rate), we as evangelical Christians have the person, presence, and example of Christ, the Son of God, before us—in the Bible and in present experience—to both instruct and guide us.

And because this is so, we can and ought to remind ourselves that “the wisdom the Spirit inspires is practical rather than academic, and the possession of the faithful rather than the preserve of the elite” (Consultation: 23). It is faithfulness to Christ Himself, whether in the context of personal or corporate church life, which in the end becomes the “best equipment for evaluating the (Biblical) documents themselves” and {69} for evaluating societal situations and defining our proper ethical responses to them. It is the direct experience of the spirit of Christ by whom, after all, the “things of Christ” are mediated to us in our own time and in our own terms. And it is in our faithful adherence to, and reflection of the “mind of Christ” that “tensions between commitment to the past and openness to each changing situation in each new age” are actually resolved (White, 1981:376-377).

A concluding word. The final secret of evangelical Christianity’s universal moral appeal and power lies in the fact, surely, that the holy and redeeming person and life of Jesus Christ speak so compellingly to each generation and to every human tribe and nation. Jaroslav J. Pelikan ends his magnificent and inspiring study of the place of Christ in the general history of culture with a tribute to Christ which constitutes both a persuasive conclusion of his survey and a personal testimony:

For the unity and variety of the portraits of “Jesus through the centuries” has demonstrated that there is more in Him than is dreamt of in the philosophy and Christology of the theologians. Within the church, but also far beyond its walls, His person and message are, in the phrase of Augustine, a “beauty ever ancient, ever new,” and now He belongs to the world (1985: 232-33).


  • Consultation on a Christian Response to Human Need. “Social Transformation: The Church in Response to Human Need. Wheaton ‘83 Statement.” Transformation: An International Dialogue on Evangelical Social Ethics. 1:1(1984): 23-8.
  • Hunter, James D. Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987.
  • Marty, Martin E. A Nation of Behavers. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1976.
  • Moberg, David O. Inasmuch: Christian Social Responsibility in the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965.
  • ———. Wholistic Christianity: An Appeal for a Dynamic, Balanced Faith. Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1985.
  • Mott, Stephen Charles. Biblical Ethics and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
  • Nicholls, Bruce, ed. In Word and Deed: Evangelism and Social Responsibility. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.
  • Stott, John R. W. Involvement. Volume 1: Being a Responsible Christian in a Non-Christian Society. {70} Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming 11. Revell Company, 1984.
  • ———. Involvement. Volume II: Social and Sexual Relationships in the Modern World. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984.
  • White, Reginald E. O. Biblical Ethics. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1979.
  • ———. Christian Ethics: The Historical Development. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1981.
  • Wright, David F., ed. Essays in Evangelical Social Ethics. Exeter, Devonshire: Paternoster Press, 1978.
  • Yoder, John H. “A Critique of North American Evangelical Ethics.” Transformation: An International Dialogue on Evangelical Social Ethics. 2:1 (1985): 28-31.
Herbert Giesbrecht is an active minister in Winnipeg and is Librarian at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Previous | Next