The following by Dr. Gary Gilley, pastor of Southern View Chapel, is republished at Apprising Ministries with permission:

(December 2011/January 2012 – Volume 17, Issue 6)

In the first part of this study, we examined  together the history of the social gospel as it presented itself in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and then documented a resurgence of the  social gospel agenda as found at the present time.

The original social gospel movement began as  an appendage to the emerging liberalism that started in Germany and ultimately  swept through the Western church.  As the  growing liberal movement matured, it left behind most doctrinal distinctives  held by earlier Protestants and eventually came to be defined by social  action.  Today a new wave of social  involvement, as a major tenant of church ministry, is flowing through  evangelical churches, changing the very nature of church dynamics and  outreach.  The issue at hand is not  whether Christians should be involved with their culture, but to what extent  attempting to solve the injustices and problems of the culture is the mission  of the church.  This has become one of  the more hotly debated concerns (some believe the hottest) within evangelism  today.  Has the church been commissioned  to proclaim the gospel of redemption and to disciple converts, or has the  church been called to improve society, or both?  Liberalism would almost exclusively emphasize social causes.  For example, the National Council of Churches  states, “The central moral imperative of our time is the care for earth as  God’s Creation.”[1]Postmodern liberalism, as found in the emergent movement, would agree. Emergent  leader Brian McLaren believes that Jesus’ message has everything to do with  “poverty, slavery, and a social agenda – it is not about justification from sin.”[2]

Fundamentalism has historically stressed evangelism  and discipleship, while a growing number, if not the vast majority, of those  within the middle camp of evangelicalism would claim that the church has been  given a two-prong mandate containing both spiritual and social marching  orders.  Read almost any issue of Christianity Today and you will discover  that the focus of evangelicalism has shifted.  Social concerns are rapidly swallowing up spiritual concerns.  Let’s briefly examine the rationale behind the latter view and then take a careful look at Scripture.

Support  for a Two-prong Mandate

Those who back the concept that the church  has been called to both disciple men and women for Christ and improve social conditions on earth do so on the basis of three primary arguments:

Old Testament Israel

When attempting to provide a biblical  foundation for social involvement of the church, supporters most often turn to  the teaching found in the Old Testament directed to Israel. There are numerous  commands and admonishments given to Israel under the Old Covenant that have  social implications.  For example, we find God’s concern for:

Justice: “Woe to those who enact evil  statutes and to those who constantly record unjust decisions.  So as to deprive    the needy of justice” (Isa 10:1-2a).  The Lord made provision for fair and impartial courts of law, not just  for the poor but for all: “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not  be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your  neighbor fairly” (Lev 19:15).

The poor: “Woe to those who enact evil  statutes and to those who constantly record unjust decisions.  So as to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of My people of their rights” (Isa 10:1-2b).

The Lord provided several means to help the  poor in Israel.  One method was to  provide the Jewish people with a “Kinsman-redeemer” who was a close relative  designated to alleviate their relative’s troubles, including poverty.  The book of Ruth supplies the best  illustration of how this system worked, but in Leviticus 25:25 we read, “If a  fellow countryman of yours becomes so poor he has to sell part of his property,  then his nearest kinsman is to come and buy back what his relative sold.”  In Deuteronomy 15:11 the Lord tells Israel,  “For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you,  saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’”

Widows and orphans: Quoting again from  Isaiah 10:1-2 the Lord tells His people, “Woe to those who enact evil statutes  and to those who constantly record unjust decisions.  So as to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of My people of their rights, so that widows may be their spoil and that they may plunder the orphans.”  There is a special place in the heart of God for orphans and widows.

The hungry: One of the characteristics the Lord  gives of the fool is “to keep the hungry person unsatisfied and to withhold  drink from the thirsty” (Isa 32:6).  Proverbs  calls for the Jews to feed even their enemies: “If your enemy is hungry, give  him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink” (25:21).  And the Lord gives this promise, “If you give  yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light  will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday” (Isa 58:10).  Regarding the hungry, the Lord made unique  provisions demanding the farmers to leave a bit of their harvest in the fields  for the poor to glean: “When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you  shall not reap the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien.  I am the Lord your God” (Lev 23:22).

These  concerns for the needy, which express the heart of God, must be taken seriously,  and many are contemplating such instructions afresh.  For example, Francis Chan, in his bestselling  book Crazy Love, sees Jesus’ words at  the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 25 as a continuation or application of the Old  Testament teachings.  Chan believes the  actions we take toward the poor have been set by our Lord as the paradigm to  determine the validity of our faith. He backs his understanding on verses 34-40 which read,

Then    the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed of my    Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you    gave Me something to drink; I was a    stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you    visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”  Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord,    when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see    You a stranger, and invite you in? or naked, and clothe You?  When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come    to You?”  The King will answer and say to    them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers    of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”

Chan writes, “Jesus is saying that we show  tangible love for God in how we care for the poor and the desperate as if they  were Christ himself.”[3]  By way of application Chan continues, “Much  of their (the poor) daily hardship and suffering could be relieved with access  to food, clean water, clothing, adequate shelter, or basic medical attention.  I believe that God wants His people, the church, to meet these needs.”

Jesus’ Salt and Light Metaphors

In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus tells his disciples  that they are the salt and light of the world.  John R. W. Stott is representative of how many people interpret these  verses when he writes, “[Jesus] emphasizes the influences Christians ought to  have on the non-Christian environment. The distinction between the two is  clear.  The world, he says, is like  rotting meat.  But you are to be the  world’s salt.  The world is like a dark  night, but you are to be the world’s light… Then he goes on from the  distinction to the influence.  Like salt  in putrefying meat, Christians are to hinder social decay.  Like light in the prevailing darkness,  Christians are to illumine society and show it a better way.”  Francis Chan writes, “Non-churchgoers tend to  see Christians as takers rather than givers. When Christians sacrifice and give  wildly to the poor, that is truly a light that glimmers.  The Bible teaches that the church is to be  that light, that sign of hope, in an increasingly dark and hopeless world.  Matthew 5:16 says, ‘Let your light shine  before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in  heaven.’”  The means by which believers are fulfilling  Jesus’ teaching to be salt and light in the world is increasingly seen by  evangelicals as being through social and political involvement.  As we mobilize the church to meet the needs  of the hungry, sick and poor and as we protect the environment and become  active in political reform, we are seen by many as living out our salt and light obligations.

The Cultural Mandate

Recently evangelicals have been turning to  what they call the “Cultural Mandate” to provide a biblical base for social action.  The idea is that the Lord has actually given  the church two overall and interrelated callings: The Great Commission (Matt  28:19-20) in which believers are to go into the whole world and make disciples  for Christ, and the Cultural Mandate in which the church is authorized to be  directly involved in physical and social issues related to the planet.  No true evangelical questions the Great  Commission, but the Cultural Mandate is not so clear.  The biblical teaching for the Cultural Mandate is drawn from Genesis 1:26, 28 which reads,

Then God said, “Let    Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the    fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all    the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”… God blessed    them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and    subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and    over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

From this pre-Fall text has been developed  the belief that the church retains the mandate given to Adam in the Garden to  subdue and rule over the earth.  Michael  Goheen and Craig Bartholomew wrote Living at the Crossroads to promote this thesis.  They write,

If redemption is, as  the Bible teaches, the restoration of the whole of creation, then our mission  is to embody this good news: every part of creational life, including the  public life of our culture, is being restored.  The good news will be evident in our care for the environment, in our  approach to international relations, economic justice, business, media,  scholarship, family, journalism, industry, and law. But if redemption were  merely about an otherworldly salvation, (as, for example, Moody believed), then  our mission would be reduced to the sort of evangelism that tries to get people into heaven.[7]

Nancy Pearcey virtually opens her award  winning book Total Truth by saying  that “Christians are to redeem entire cultures, not just individuals.”[8] Pearcey speaks often of the Cultural Mandate saying,

Our calling is not    just to “get to heaven” but also to cultivate the earth, not just to “save    souls” but also to serve God through our work.  For God Himself is engaged not only in the work of salvation (special    grace) but also in the work of preserving and developing His creation (common    grace).  When we obey the Cultural    Mandate, we participate in the work of God Himself, as agents of His common    grace.  This is the rich content that    should come to mind when we hear the word Redemption.  The term does not refer only to a one-time conversion    event.  It means entering upon a lifelong    quest to devote our skills and talents to building things that are beautiful    and useful, while fighting the forces of evil and sin that oppress and distort    the creation.[9]

Pearcey and company are not content with  merely influencing culture or attempting to mitigate injustices.  They are desirous of creating culture.  In one section Pearcey mentions the social  efforts of some Christians who minister to “the poor, the homeless, the  addicted” but laments that “none of them attempt to transform social or  cultural systems, but merely to alleviate some of the harm caused by the  existing system.”[10]  It becomes apparent that many leading  evangelicals see the Cultural Mandate as fully in force as it was when first  given to Adam and Eve.  Christians then  have a charge to change culture, transform culture, create culture and subdue  creation.  This is seen as a duty on par  with making disciples, and thus the Great Commission and the Cultural Mandate have joined hands as equal partners in fulfilling God’s mission on earth.

Biblical  Examination of the Two-prong Mandate

It is important that we directly critique the  three supporting arguments of this two-prong mandate that many now promote, in  order to get a comprehensive understanding and lay a foundation for the more positive examination of the New Testament Scriptures on the subject.

How Should God’s Commands to  Israel    Be Viewed for This Age?

We could ask two questions here: Are Jewish  civil laws still applicable to the New Testament church, and if they are how would they function in the church age?

First, we must recognize that the inspired  authors of the New Testament express the same concerns as we find in the Old  Testament. James 1:27 tells us that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight  of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress,  and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  The early church made provisions to feed orphans and widows in Acts 6:1-6  and later, as the church became more established, widows without other means of  support or resources were placed on a list to be given special care (1 Tim  5:11-16).  One of the primary reasons for Paul’s third missionary journey was to  collect from the western churches a relief offering to help the poor believers  in Jerusalem, “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a  contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.” And James calls for  justice for the poor: “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord  Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism…” (James 2:1ff).  Without question the social concerns of God in the Old Testament remain the same in the church age.

However, it is often overlooked that God’s  commands concerning social issues in the Old Testament were given almost  exclusively to Israel, and dealt almost entirely with the needs of those living  within the boundaries of geographical Israel and under direct authority of the  Mosaic Law.  Charles Ryrie notes that the  Old Testament “does not command the establishment of justice in the world, nor  the care of all the poor and oppressed in the world.  It is more ‘isolationist’ than the New  Testament.  But it does show God’s love for justice and holiness in personal living…”

Drawing strictly from the Old Testament  Scriptures yields a picture of a loving, concerned, caring God who nevertheless  focused attention, with almost no exceptions, on the poor and needy living in  Israel under the Theocratic kingdom and the Mosaic Law.  In the Old Testament no provisions were made  for the destitute living throughout the world.  No social outreach to surrounding nations can be found.  Therefore, to press into service the social  program found in the Old Testament as a pattern for today’s global outreach to  the needy is to go beyond what the Old Testament teaches. In as Israel cared  for the needs of her own poor, it was every poor person who was helped.  Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert encourage us  to “remember that the ‘poor’ in Scripture are usually the pious poor.  They are the righteous poor… The poor God  favors are not the slothful poor (Prov. 6:6-11; 2 Thess. 3:6-12) or the  disobedient poor (Prov. 30:9), but the humble poor who wait on God (Matt. 5:3;6:33).”[12]

The Meaning of Jesus’ Salt and Light Metaphors.

Jesus’ identification of His disciples as  salt and light in the world is straightforward and has been the source of much  contemplation throughout the years concerning what the followers of the Lord are  to be like.  Interpreting what Jesus said  in Matthew 5:13-16 in general is not difficult.  Most would agree with New Testament scholar William Hendriksen who  writes, “Salt, then, has especially a negative function.  It combats  deterioration.  Similarly Christians, by showing themselves to be  Christians indeed, are constantly combating moral and spiritual decay… Light, on the other hand, has a positive function and shines openly, publicly.”[13]

The specific application is where things get  sticky.  As noted above, many are  interpreting this text to mean that believers are to engage culture through  political involvement and social action.  Most commentators, who are simply addressing the text with no agenda to push, do not agree.  Hendriksen writes,

Now since it is the    business of the church to shine for Jesus, it should not permit itself to be    thrown off its course.  It is not the task of the church to specialize in    and deliver all kinds of pronouncements concerning economic, social, and    political problems… The primary duty of the church remains the spreading forth    of the message of salvation, that the lost may be found (Luke 15:4; 1 Cor 9:16,    22; 10:33), those found may be strengthened in the faith (Eph 4:15; 1 Thess    3:11-13; 1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 3:18), and God may be glorified (John 17:4; 1 Cor    10:31).[14]

Respected preacher  Martin Lloyd-Jones states, “The great hope for society today is in an  increasing number of individual Christians.  Let the church of God concentrate  on that and not waste her time and energy on matters outside her providence.”[15]  A. W. Pink agrees, “Spiritually the world is  in darkness (2 Pet 1:19) and sits in the shadow of death (Matt 4:16)… By their [the  believers’] preaching ignorance is to be exposed, that their hearers may be‘turned from darkness to light’ (Acts 26:18).”[16] And commentator R. T. France adds,

It is only as this    distinctive lifestyle is visible to others that it can have its desired    effect.  But that effect is also now spelled out not as the improvement    and enlightenment of society as such, but rather as the glorifying of God by    those outside the disciple community.  The subject of this discourse, and    the aim of the discipleship which it promotes, is not so much the betterment of    life on earth as the implementation of the reign of God.  The goal of    disciples’ witness is not that others emulate their way of life, or applaud    their probity, but that they recognize the source of their distinctive lifestyle    in “your Father in heaven.”[17]

I  believe these commentators have interpreted and applied the words of Jesus  accurately.  In the salt and light  metaphors the Lord is not calling for His disciples to change society through  good deeds but to live in such a way as to glorify God (Matt 5:16). Such a  lifestyle will have a beneficial effect on society in many cases, but the goal is to magnify the Lord and draw people to Him.

To help us understand this better, it would  be good to observe what Jesus did while on earth (a much better question than  the popular “What would Jesus do?” is “What did Jesus do?”  The first  question leads to guesswork, the second to certainty).  Without doubt He often healed the sick, fed  great crowds at times, and ministered to the poor and despised of society.  Jesus had compassion on the hurting and  rejected and spent time with sinners.  But it should also be observed that Jesus spent much time with wealthy  people, such as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  He ate in the homes of well-to-do tax collectors such as Zacchaeus and powerful  Pharisees.  He spent time with notorious  sinners such as Mary Magdalene but also with religious leaders such as  Nicodemus.  The financial status and  social standing of people around Jesus did not seem to matter – He ministered  to everyone who would listen and challenged (and often condemned) those who  would not.  In short, Jesus was the  perfect embodiment of the command found in Leviticus: “You shall do no  injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly” (19:15).

It  is also instructive to note what Jesus    did not do.  He healed some sick, but  not all. He healed many in His immediate presence, but He established no  hospitals or clinics, nor did He eradicate sickness in Israel, or on earth, although  it was in His power to do so.  Jesus fed  up to 5000 people on occasion but He did not start a soup kitchen or  breadline.  He paid special attention to  the poor but He did not relieve their debt or set them up in small businesses  or give them loans. Jesus loved widows and orphans but did not establish a home  for either.  Whether Christian agencies  should be established for these concerns today is another matter, but it would  be going beyond both the instruction of Scripture and the example of Christ (or  His apostles later in the New Testament history) to claim that we are to do so today because of what Jesus did while on earth.  Jesus neither commanded us to do such things nor did He do them Himself.

Is the Cultural  Mandate Still in Effect?

Contrary to much common opinion, I do not  believe the Cultural Mandate is still in effect today for two reasons.  First, it was only given once in Scripture  and that before the fall of man.  In  Genesis 1:28 the Lord commanded Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply, and  fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the  birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”  At this stage in human history, mankind was  in harmony with creation.  They did not  battle the elements, weeds, insects or beasts.  There was no fear of the animals and the animals did not fear man – they  lived peacefully together.  Following the  Fall, however, both humans and creation were cursed and harmony between man and  the physical universe was lost.  Never  again are humans told to subdue the earth or rule over the animal kingdom, for  they are no longer capable of doing so.  While man is still the chief of God’s creations and able to control and  tame much of the animal kingdom (James 3:7), he is no longer able, due to sin  and the curse, to either subdue the earth nor rule over the animals.  The closest thing to the Cultural Mandate in  the remainder of Scripture is following the Flood when God commissions Noah and  his family.  In Genesis 9:1 a portion of  the original Mandate is given for Noah’s family to “be fruitful and multiply,  and fill the earth” (see also verse 7).  But rather than repeat the command to subdue and rule the Lord says,  “The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and  on every bird of the sky… Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for  you; I give it all to you, as I gave the green plant” (9:2-3).  Man is no longer living in harmony with the animal kingdom; rather animals will fear man and man will consume animals.

While there will be many other commands and  covenants that the Lord gives people as found in Scripture, never does He  repeat the Cultural Mandate after the Fall.  When we examine the New Testament for God’s directives to the church we  do not find anything remotely in common with the instructions given to Adam and Eve; instead the Great Commission to make disciples of Christ is central.

A second reason I reject the Cultural Mandate  as incumbent on mankind today is because of the details of the Mandate  itself.  Adam and Eve are called to  “subdue” something.  The Hebrew word for  “subdue” requires an object.  To subdue  implies that something needed to be conquered or put in its place.  The question in Genesis 1:28 is what needed  to be subdued prior to the Fall, since sin had not yet corrupted the human race  nor any of physical creation.  The only  possibility seems to be Satan and the fallen angels, who were at war with God  and apparently desired to rule earth.  If  this is the case, then part of man’s mission was to win the struggle for the  earth over demonic creatures.  When Adam  failed, because he chose to sin, Satan temporarily won this war and has been  promoted to the “god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), a role he certainly did not  have prior to the Fall.  Man, in his fallen  state, has no ability to subdue either demonic forces or the earth, both of  which will be subdued by the New Adam.  The day will come when Christ will create a new heaven and earth (2 Pet  3:13); until then creation groans under the curse of sin (Rom 8:22).  The Lord will ultimately subdue and conquer  the devil and his followers (Rev 20:10); until that time man is no longer  called to subdue demons (he is told to resist – James 4:7) or rule over the  animal kingdom.  We are called to be  light and salt in the world (Matt 5:13) and to fulfill the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20).

The  Church and Social Action

The general drift in evangelicalism, as we  have seen, is toward adding the social action agenda to the Great Commission as  the two-prong mission of the church.  N. T. Wright is certain that

the call of the    gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world through      suffering love… God’s ultimate purpose… is to rid the world of evil    altogether and to establish his new creation of justice, beauty and peace.  And it’s clear from the start that this was    not intended simply as a distant goal for which one was compelled to wait in    passive expectation.  God’s future has    already broken into the present in Jesus, and the church’s task consisted not    least of implementing that    achievement and thus anticipating that future.[18]

Yet some of the best thinkers within the conservative  Christianity disagree.  Here is a sampling:

D. A. Carson writes, “It is hard to ignore  the many injunctions of Scripture to do good, to be concerned with matters of  justice to show mercy, to care for the poor, to be concerned with matters of  justice. [Yet] If all such responsibilities belong to the church as a church, to the church as an institution, then surely the leaders  of the church… should take responsibility for them and direct them.  But what we find in the New Testament is that  the initial leaders, the apostles, were careful to carve out for themselves the primacy of teaching the Word of God and prayer (Acts 6:2).”[19]

Michael Horton is insightful when he writes,  “Terrorism, global warming, and AIDS are problems we need to address as  responsible human beings together with non-Christians in our common life  together… However, the Great Commission is not the Great Cultural Mandate… If  we could resolve our top ten crises in the world today, we would still have the  devil on our back, sin mastering our heart, and everlasting death as the penalty for our mutiny.”[20]

David Wells agrees, “Churches that actually  do influence the culture – here is the paradox – distance themselves from it in  their internal life.  They do not offer what can already be had on secular terms in the culture.  They are an alternative to it.”[21]  Wells calls for the church to be sola Scriptura as opposed to sola cultura.[22]

Charles Ryrie writes, “The Christian’s  primary responsibilities are evangelism and godly living.  Through witnessing he changes people; through  godly living he does affect society; and through private and public obedience he honors God.”[23]

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert in their newly  released book What Is the Mission of the    Church? are concerned “that in all our passion for renewing the city or  tackling social problems, we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that  makes Christian mission Christian: namely, making disciples of Jesus Christ.”[24]  They maintain the mission of the church is  found in the Great Commission passages, “We believe the church is sent into the  world to witness to Jesus by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations.  This is our task.  This is our unique and central calling.”[25]

And John MacArthur adds, “When people look to  the church to end poverty, halt human trafficking, bring drinking water to  Africa, or cure AIDS, they are looking in the wrong place.  The church is not commissioned to do any of these tasks.”[26]

If the above men have understood the New  Testament correctly, and I believe they have, what has the church been commissioned to do?

The New Testament Instructions to the Individual Christian

As we have already  demonstrated, Jesus’ general description of the role of His disciples in the  world is to be salt and light (Matt 5:13-16).  The debate surrounds the details of how to accomplish this task.  In response, Jesus’ example is important and  often misunderstood.  Jesus showed  compassion to the poor and sick and disenfranchised.  He ate with these people, healed their  diseases and gave them the gospel (Matt 9:36-38). But it is important to  remember that Jesus healed people primarily as a sign pointing to who He was  (Matt 9:6; John 20:30). And while Jesus showed personal compassion to such  people, He also did not set up or authorize any campaigns dealing with  injustice, world hunger, orphanages, hospitals, anti-poverty programs, or the  like.  This was not because He presumably  did not care, but because these things were not His mission (Luke 19:10) and  could possibly be a distraction to His followers.  Later when Jesus commissioned His disciples,  He did not send them forth to heal the world’s problems but to make disciples  and to teach people to obey God (Matt 28:20).  But this begs the question as to what commandments the disciples were to  obey and teach.  The best approach to  discovering what these commandments are is to examine the examples of the early  Christians, especially as found in the book of Acts, and through study of the direct teachings primarily found in the epistles.

In the book of Acts  we find the believers coming together for instruction in the apostles’  teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer, and scattering to  evangelize (Acts 2:41-42).  A major task  of the early Christians was to establish churches (13:1-3), but there are no  examples of early Christians attempting to transform or create culture, or  influence the political system in a direct way.  Nor do we find them organizing programs to feed the hungry of the world  or to right social injustices.  Almost  all of their attention was on evangelizing the lost as well as the spiritual life and physical needs of the believing community.

The teachings drawn from  the epistles focus on establishing truth, combating error, correcting false  living and leading Christians into godliness. The subject of society is seldom  addressed, but when it is the emphasis is on being excellent representatives of  Christ to the world (salt and light) (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:11-15; Titus 3:1).  Specifically, Christians were taught to take  care of their (Christians’) poor (Acts 6:1-7; I Timothy 5:3-16; 1 John 3:17James 2:15-17), handle their own legal differences (1 Cor 6:1-8), and  discipline their rebellious people (1 Cor 5).  But they were not instructed to take care of society’s poor, handle its  legal issues or discipline its sinners.  In addition they were to treat their employees fairly (James 5:1-4).  Passages such as 1 John 3:17 and James  2:15-17 could have implications for the treatment of unbelievers, but since the  rest of the New Testament instruction is directed almost exclusively toward  treatment of believers, it seems best to apply these verses primarily to Christians as well.

Instructions to the Corporate Body—the Church

In the New Testament  we find the church as a body (an institution) coming together to worship God,  receive the instruction of the Word (2 Tim 3:16-17) and the Lord’s Supper (1  Cor 11:17-34), and participating in body life (1 Cor 12). The Scriptures are  clear that God’s people must do good, show mercy, care for the poor, and be  concerned with matters of justice in every aspect of society.  But there is never any indication that the  church as an institution is to see this as its task.  If it were to do so, then surely the leaders  of the church (elders/deacons) should take responsibility for them and direct  them. “But,” as Carson notes, “what we find in the New Testament is that the  initial leaders, the apostles, were careful to carve out for themselves the  primacy of  teaching the Word of God and  prayer (Acts 6:2).  Even matters of  justice within the congregation were in some measure handed over to other  Spirit-filled men (Acts 6:1-7).  When the  distinctive duties of elders are canvassed, the priority of the ministry of the Word and prayer is paramount,”[27] not organizing community and social outreaches.


What this brief  overview of the New Testament shows is that the church, as the church, is never  given the task of transforming or creating culture.  Its sole biblical mandate to the world was,  and is, to make disciples.  Christians as  individuals are to be salt and light in our world which may take many forms.  Individual believers may very well be  involved, alongside the unbeliever and within biblical parameters, in politics,  social action and protecting God’s creation. Much variety on the cultural level  is allowed by our Lord. But it must not be minimized that the New Testament  example and precept is that followers of Christ are to disciple people for Him which includes evangelism and training in obedience.

What then is the  mission of the church?  This is the  question at the root of current evangelical debates about social  engagement.  Is the mission of the church  to address all of the needs of all people, or is it more limited in scope?  It is currently popular to understand the  mission of the church as that of evangelization, discipleship, meeting the needs  of both believers and unbelievers and transforming society.  But when we draw our marching orders from the  New Testament rather than the culture (sola    Scriptura rather than sola cultura as Wells frames it), it becomes clear that the task of the church is to take  the gospel to the ends of the earth, making disciples of all who come to Christ  (Matt 28:18-20) and caring for the needy who become part of the body of Christ  (1 Tim 5:16; Gal 2:10).  Broader social  action is not expressly prohibited, and certainly should be of concern for all  God’s people as citizens of earth, but it should not be equated with these two essential obligations.

Historically, it has  proven almost impossible for the church to keep the biblical command of the  Great Commission in balance with the Cultural Mandate, once a cultural mandate  is accepted as part of the mission of the church.  We saw this in part one of this study when in  the late 1800s liberal theologians taught that it was imperative for the church  to step up and change the social and industrial conditions in the United  States. Charlie Sheldon’s bestselling book In    His Steps (1897) reduced Christianity to, “What would Jesus Do?” and was  one of the most popular and prominent books of the Social Gospel era. Walter  Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) became known as the father of the “Social Gospel”  movement.  He believed the church should  remedy societal ills as the temporary kingdom of God.[28] The Social Gospel of the 1800s swallowed up the church of that day and  ultimately gutted the evangelical church of the gospel, turning it into a  social agency.  Those following this  philosophy would abandon the Christ-given mission of making disciples for the  task of improving society.  Those  churches and Christians who saw the error of the Social Gospel continued to  center their lives and ministries on the Great Commission.  It is the descendents of these very churches  and believers who are now being influenced to widen their understanding of the  calling of Christ to include a social improving agenda.  Unless there is a return to the biblical  mandate given in the New Testament, the evangelical church is in danger of  repeating the same error of the 19th and 20th century church with predictable results.


[1] Quoted in Right Thinking in a World Gone Wrong p. 154.

[2]  Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, pp. 135,137.

[3] Francis  Chan, Crazy Love (    Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2008), p. 119.

[4] Ibid., p. 140.

[5]John R.  W. Stott, “Salt & Light,  Four  Ways Christians Can Influence the World,” Christianity Today, Oct. 2011; pp.  40-41.

[6] Francis Chan, p. 140.

[7] Michael  W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew, Living    at the Crossroads, (    Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2008), p. 66.

[8] Nancy  Pearcey, Total Truth (    Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), p. 17.

[9] Ibid., pp. 48-49 (emphasis hers).

[10] Ibid., p. 73.

[11] Charles  Ryrie, The Christian & Social Responsibility (Tyndale Seminary Press, 2008), p. 38.

[12] Kevin DeYoung and Great Gilbert, What Is the    Mission of the Church? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), p. 175.

[13] William  Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary,    Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (    Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), 1977, pp. 282.

[14] Ibid., pp. 283-284.

[15] D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Studied in the Sermon on the Mount Vol 1, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991),  p. 158.

[16] Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953). 48-49.

[17] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary of the New Testament, (    Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 177.

[18] N. T.  Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (    Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), pp 98, 102 (emphasis his).

[19] D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2008), p. 151.

[20] Michael  Horton, The Gospel-Driven Life (    Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), p. 164.

[21] David  Well, TheCourage to be Protestant  (    Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008),  pp. 224.

[22] Ibid., p. 4.

[23] Charles Ryrie, p. 69.

[24] Kevin DeYoung and Great Gilbert, p. 22.

[25] Ibid., p. 26.

[26] John  MacArthur, Right thinking in a World Gone Wrong (    Eugene,    Oregon: Harvest House, 2009), p. 213.

[27] D. A. Carson, p. 151.

[28] Christopher Cone, Gen. Ed., Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond, A Theological Collection in  Honor of Charles C. Ryrie, (Ft. Worth, Texas: Tyndale Seminary Press , 2008),  pp. 442-445.

This teaching appears in its original form here.

See also: