The Danger of Mission Creep in the Church

Dear Church Family,

In the sermon this past Sunday morning, we examined the Apostle Paul’s “Continuing Gospel Ministry” in Galatia from Acts 14. There we saw what Paul didn’t do: he didn’t seek the miraculous or the spectacular, he didn’t seek to establish himself, and he didn’t seek to transform the government or the culture (vv 8-19). But, we also saw what he did do. In Paul’s continuing gospel ministry, he preached (v 21), he strengthened and encouraged their faith through teaching (v 22), and he commended the believers to the Lord by appointing elders and praying for them (v 23).

About a year and a half ago, I read a book entitled The New Evangelical Social Gospel by Roger and Diane Smalling. You may read this ebook online (or download to your Kindle) here: http://www.smallings.com/english/books/social.htm. I found the book very insightful and helpful and since I somewhat knew the authors (they are PCA missionaries whom my former church supported and whom I had met when they visited), I emailed Roger to just express my thanks for his and his wife’s work. That email eventually led to my being asked by the online magazine, The Aquila Report, to write a book review for them.

In light of the sermon this past Sunday and understanding the biblical nature of gospel ministry in the church, I encourage you to read the Smalling’s book. If that’s not enough incentive to read the book (or if you just don’t have time), you might be interested to read my review of the book, the text of which I’ve included below. This review is available online here: http://theaquilareport.com/the-danger-of-mission-creep-in-the-church/.

[By the way, just as an aside, The Aquila Report bills itself as “Your independent source of news and commentary from and about conservative, orthodox evangelicals in the Reformed and Presbyterian family of churches.” It’s an excellent source for keeping abreast of contemporary discussions and news items in Reformed churches.]

The Danger of Mission Creep in the Church

In the Preface of their book, The New Evangelical Social Gospel, Roger and Diane Smalling assert that “a version of the social gospel is being revived under the guise of a new emphasis on mercy ministry and social justice. This is a new form that far transcends a call to more involvement with the needs of society. It is a theological system of its own, a worldview that redefines the mission of the church, the kingdom of God, Christian living and even the content of the word ‘gospel’ itself.” Indeed, the title of this book seems a bit oxymoronic. How in the world can the social gospel be considered evangelical? That’s what this book is all about.

Whether or not you have noticed this theological trend among evangelicalism and the Reformed tradition, the Smallings have done a great service to the church. Pastors and lay people alike will benefit from this book, which is probably best described as a timely primer and critical analysis of a theological drift that is affecting the church today, particularly in America. Actually, ‘theological drift’ is probably too weak of a descriptor. The Smallings use stronger language: “A brush fire is sweeping through evangelical circles, scorching the fine edges of the words ‘gospel’ and ‘gospel ministry.’ Couched in appealing language and ambiguous slogans, it finds kindling in a new generation steeped in a popular liberal mindset, ungrounded in sound New Testament theology. It is gathering droves of Christians who see it as a balanced approach to ministry” (also from the Preface).

The New Evangelical Social Gospel is comprised of 18 chapters; however, each chapter is less than five pages making it very readable and to the point. I was able to read it in one evening; I couldn’t put it down – or turn it off, as the case may be with an ebook. Also, each chapter concludes with a helpful bullet-point summary, appropriately labeled, “From this chapter we learn…”

The main point of this book is summarized in the conclusion of the book: “Mercy ministry is plainly taught in the Bible as a gift of the Spirit and a necessary outworking of local church life. Zealous efforts to help the poor are wonderful. When such enthusiasm impinges on the meaning of the gospel or the mission of the church, we have an obligation to become alarmed. Imposing mandates Christ never decreed, grieves the Spirit, diverts the church from its calling and extinguishes the power of the gospel…It [the gospel] is sufficient in itself to advance the kingdom of God, for it alone is ‘the power of God for salvation.’”

Unique Contributions of The New Evangelical Social Gospel

There is no shortage of books and articles which one could read concerning the relationship between the church and mercy ministry or social justice. Without using technical jargon or inflammatory rhetoric, the Smallings succinctly and decisively make the case for the view known as ‘the spirituality of the church’ (though they never use the phrase). That is to say, through the clear teaching of God’s Word they show that the sole mission of the Church is to make disciples through the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, baptizing and teaching to obey all that He commanded. Many authors have wrestled with these issues and the debates are arguably well known; however, The New Evangelical Social Gospel makes at least seven unique contributions to this discussion.

1. Credibility of the authors. The Smallings write as seasoned PCA missionaries who have served faithfully in Europe and Latin America for over thirty years. They write with a passion for both the promulgation of the gospel, as well as a compassion for the poor. They write as evangelists and church planters who understand the work of the church, as well as the needs of the poor.

2. Charitable, but clear, critique. The proponents of the ‘new social gospel’ are never demonized in this book. In fact, the authors are very clear: “None of the writers we quote in this book, apart from Rauschenbusch, are heretics” (chapter 2). Walter Rauschenbusch was a liberal theologian in the early part of the 20th century who taught and promoted the ‘old social gospel.’ Some of the notable, present day authors that are quoted as promulgators of the ‘new social gospel’ include: Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert of the Chalmers Institute, Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (Manhattan, NY), Richard Stearns, and Harvey Conn. Even as the book deals charitably with the proponents of the ‘new social gospel,’ the Smallings pull no punches in saying that the premises of the new social gospel are “junk theology bordering on heresy and will launch the church on a trajectory that is ultimately fruitless” (chapter 3).

3. Historical connections. The book clearly differentiates between the liberalism of the old social gospel of a hundred years ago and the conservatism of the ‘new social gospel’ of today. At the same time, the dangerous similarities between the old and the new are clearly enumerated. Though dressed in conservative clothing, the ‘new social gospel’ is not really new at all. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

4. Biblical perspective on important issues. The New Evangelical Social Gospel approaches each subtopic from the Scriptures. Some of the subtopics that relate to the ‘new social gospel’ include: the definition of the gospel, important hermeneutical principles that come into play, common grace, the kingdom of God, the creation/culture mandate, environmentalism, social justice, mercy ministry, and postmillennialism. The authors approach each particular issue from a careful exegesis of God’s word. In fact, chapters 15 & 16 are dedicated exclusively to a critical analysis of the interpretations of particular texts often cited by the ‘new social gospel’ proponents.

5. Warnings about theological newspeak. Oftentimes when unbiblical perspectives are introduced in the church, certain verbiage and slogans attend. It is no different with respect to the ‘new social gospel.’ Much of the misleading jargon of the modern movement is exposed throughout the book; however, chapter 17 gives insight into, and definition of, some particular buzz words: ‘word and deed,’ ‘preach the gospel, using words if necessary,’ ‘holistic ministry,’ and ‘whole gospel.’ To these, one could add such buzz words as: ‘heart for the city,’ ‘cultural transformation,’ ‘redeeming the culture,’ and ‘our church exists to serve the city.’ What all of these catch phrases and buzz words have in common is that they erroneously add mercy ministry, social justice, or cultural transformation as an essential element of the gospel – something that is both unbiblical and dangerous.

6. Helpful distinctions. Uncritical thinking leads to unbiblical assumptions. The New Evangelical Social Gospel brings clarity by making helpful distinctions. When considering how believers ought to think about mercy ministry and social justice, there are some key distinctions that must be upheld. Important distinctions that are addressed in this book include: the individual Christian and the institutional church, obligatory and permissible activities, gospel and mercy ministry, benevolence for church members and benevolence for non-church members, Old Testament commands that apply to theocratic Israel and New Testament commands that apply to the Church. If you haven’t thought through these distinctions before, you will as you read this book.

7. Concise summary. The final chapter of the book, “Chapter 18: Comparing Old, New, and the Bible,” is a concise summary of the issues addressed in this book. The three distinct views of the old social gospel, the new social gospel, and the Bible are contrasted with respect to eight important issues: (1) Service to Poor; (2) Creation Mandate; (3) Cultural Mandate; (4) Balancing Gospel Ministry; (5) Kingdom of God; (6) Social Justice; (7) Economic Equality; (8) Mission of Jesus.

Conclusion

Anyone who has been attentive to the latest theological trends of adding mercy ministry and social justice to gospel ministry in the Church, will find in this book a great help toward discerning the ‘mission creep’ that is the ultimate danger of ‘the new evangelical social gospel.’ Mercy ministry and social justice issues are important. The question is, though: What is the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ according to the Scripture? What happens when other (seemingly legitimate) missions begin to encroach on the biblical mandate of the Church to preach the gospel and make disciples through the ordinary means of grace (word, sacrament, and prayer)? Even worse, what happens when the Church assumes these seemingly legitimate tasks to be an essential part of the gospel ministry of the Church?

The New Evangelical Social Gospel by Roger and Diane Smalling is a wake-up call and a warning against the mission creep of the ‘new social gospel’ that has become so appealing in evangelicalism of late. Thus, it is appropriate to conclude this review with a quotation the book which, in my opinion, addresses the bottom line: By what standard do we measure the faithfulness and success of the Church of Jesus Christ?

“In Christ’s communiqué in the book of Revelation to the seven churches of Asia Minor, it is interesting to see what he does not mention as criteria for his praises or rebukes. Church growth strategy is never an issue, nor is appearing useful to the world. His criteria seem to be two things: Enduring persecution and faithfulness to His name. Social justice seems to be glaringly absent. By these criteria, a church faithfully preaching the word of God, attempting to reach the community with the gospel and caring for its own is success” (chapter 12).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch