It is reported of Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister, that after hearing an evangelical preacher he remarked: “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is permitted to interfere with the affairs of private life”. Others have felt equally perturbed when it interferes with public life. There are those within the Church who feel that Christianity only speaks to the private life. The message is to be kept personal and individual. Yet others within the Church seem to act and speak as if the Christian’s only concern is to reform society’s public life or sort out its ills. The message, in their judgment, is to focus on the social, political and corporate.
It is strange how difficult we find it to hold the two concerns together. Yet surely they do belong together if a rounded Christian witness is to be brought forth in any situation. For if you have the social Gospel without the personal Gospel of Salvation in Christ, you have a body without a spirit — i.e. a corpse. And if you have the personal without the social, you have a spirit without a body — i.e. a ghost. But the Gospel is to be neither a corpse nor a ghost. It is to be a “living body” of witness and action, with the concerns of spirit and body properly balanced in a vital interplay and living harmony. Life and lip, work and word are together the proper partners of historic Christianity.
Nor can it be denied that our Judeo-Christian heritage calls for a proper unity of these two poles of concern if we are to be true to our forefathers.
It is indeed to the lasting glory of the Hebrew people that for so many centuries they produced the greatest preachers and prophets who were also the first known champions of social justice. Moses, the mighty man of God, the great devotional soul, the preacher of salvation, also says to the oppressive Pharaoh: “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1). Isaiah, the mighty visionary writes: “‘Of what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me?’ says the Lord… ‘Bring no more vain offerings to me… cease to do evil: learn to do good: seek justice’” (Isaiah 1:11-17). Amos, told by God: “Go, prophesy” (Amos 7:15), also cries out, “let justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24). Other Old Testament exhortations bring us up equally sharply: “‘What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?’ says the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 3:15). “Thus says the Lord, ‘Do justice and righteousness and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien” (Jeremiah 2:3).
Nor is this balance less evident in the deeper teachings of the New Testament. Dr Shirwood Wirt, once editor of Billy Graham’s Decision magazine noted: “In general it can be said that Jesus evaluated an individual’s spiritual life in terms not of religious exercises, but of ethical and social derivatives.” Church history is also full of men like William Wilberforce, John Newton and Lord Shaftesbury who preached an evangelical message, yet passionately laboured on behalf of the oppressed. Wrote Wirt of the pioneers of the modern evangelical missionary movement: “All possessed two things in common: evangelistic fervour and an active social conscience.”
In this land the need for a rounded witness is greater now than ever. For we will only meet the challenges of the hour when Christians demonstrate the rounded message that souls need saving, minds need liberating and bodies need food and clothing. Salvation, freedom, justice, dignity- surely these are the promised components of the Angelic Word: “Peace on Earth, good will towards men” (Luke 2:14).