In his 1972 work, A Plea for Evangelical Demonstration, Carl F.H. Henry asserted that “social critique is an authentic part of evangelical mission.” For Henry, professing Christians harmed their public witness not only by compromising the content of the gospel, but also by abdicating their influence in society. The church’s responsibility to confront injustice was profoundly theological, an incumbent duty for those who recognized that such injustice was both anti-human and anti-God.
In Henry’s words, “The Christian is morally bound to challenge all beliefs and ideologies that trample man’s personal dignity as a bearer of the divine image, all forms of political and economic practice that undercut the worth of human beings, all social structures that discriminate in matters of legal rights.”
But Henry’s prescription for an effective Christian social engagement doesn’t stop there. And neither should ours. As Henry explains, we need look no further than the early church.
Social Engagement in the Early Church
Consider how this minority religion turned the Greco-Roman world upside down within just a few centuries: They shared the gospel, they pursued holy lives, and they loved others.
Like the apostle Paul, the earliest Christians simply proclaimed Christ crucified for our sins and risen from the dead according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). That the gospel was “of first importance” did not preclude or contradict their social involvement and that they were the “light of the world” did not infer the presumption of political position (Matthew 5:14). Rather, the mission to make disciples and express one’s Christian discipleship included the active care for the wellbeing of others (1 John 3:18).
Though far from perfect, the earliest Christians recognized the priority of holiness and godliness for their public witness. Failing to provide for one’s family earned a status worse than an unbeliever. Winking at immorality scandalized both the faithful and the pagan.
Henry summarizes: “Never is the church more effective … than when she provides a living example in her own ranks of what new life in Christ implies, and never is she more impotent than when she imposes new standards on the world that she herself neglects.”
Known for Love
The early church was known for its self-giving acts of love. These believers risked their health, indeed their own lives, to care for sick pagans whose own families threw them out of their homes out of self-preservation. They elevated the status of women so much they were mocked. They rescued abandoned infants from trash heaps and streets on which they had been left to die by animals or the elements. They cared for women with unwanted pregnancies who would have otherwise obtained an herbal or surgical abortion.
They included and acknowledged as equals believers whose cultural and racial contexts differed from their own (Acts 10; 15; Ephesians 2:14; Galatians 2:11). Nothing less than the recognition of their discipleship was at stake by their persistent and sacrificial love.
Within the evangelical church, indeed within our denomination, we’re facing genuine and worthy questions on the intersection of theological faithfulness and social engagement. But as varied and challenging as they may be, they are nothing new. And neither are the elements of our discipleship that produce an effective public witness to a watching world.
Carl F. H. Henry, A Plea for Evangelical Demonstration (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1971), 15.
Rodney Stark, “Epidemics, Networks, and Conversion,” The Rise of Christianity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
Ibid., 118. Christianity valued women from its earliest days. The Christian faith drew so many women in ancient cultures that it became known as a women’s religion. Professor of Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary, Michael Kruger explains that, within the Early Church, women converted to the Christian faith disproportionate to the gender ratio of the Greco-Roman world, so much so that the pagan philosopher, Celsus, mocked the faith as a religion of women. See Michael Kruger, “Was Christianity Hostile to Women?” Canon Fodder, April 18, 2016, https://michaeljkruger.com/was-early-christianity-hostile-to-women/.
Stark, Rise of Christianity, 118.
George Grant, Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present (Brentwood: Wolgemuth &Hyatt, Publishers, Inc. 1991) 19-20. The Early Church Father, Basil of Caesarea, is a model of public witness and social engagement. In the 4th century, he discovered that a local business provided abortions then sold the unborn fetus to cosmetologists in Egypt who harvested the infant’s collagen. Basil not only vocally opposed through preaching and organizing public protest, but also mobilized his congregation to care for the physical needs of women facing unwanted pregnancies.