Throughout history, amidst famines, plagues and persecution, the church has been faced with many challenges. Especially when it came to managing two things, the proclamation of the gospel and helping the needy of society. These challenges in missions and ministry are not new. When the door of ministry opened to the gentiles in the book of Acts, things became even more complicated after Paul and Barnabas turned their focus to the gentiles in their mission work. It is generally true that when crossing the cultural divide, there will be challenges in Gospel proclamation and, for some, in identifying the details of the role of the church regarding societal problems and contextualization. There is no shortage of lost or suffering people around us so that certainly has not changed today.

If anything, the problem has only been compounded over the centuries as different cultural contexts continue to be penetrated with the light of the Gospel. It is beautiful and inspiring to know that the Gospel is being taken to the darkest and hardest of places, but these are real challenges to confront, along with ever-growing needs, especially when working with the poor. It can be difficult work, and in some ways it is easier to just preach than to actually get your hands dirty in serving the helpless in society on the front lines and out of your comfort zone. But not everyone’s conscience will allow them to be speakers of the Word alone when coming face to face with such great needs of fellow imagebearers. And questions about what exactly missionaries should or should not be doing have repeatedly come into the arena of debate. Therefore, this is a controversy that certainly sticks out to me. It is the seemingly never-ending debate between what is known as prioritism and holism.

Defining the terms

We must admit that the church has not always done very well at nuancing things in the past. Especially when developing a theology that properly allows for both sides of an issue such as this one. But before delving deeper into the matter at hand, perhaps we should take some time to define the terms a little better. Depending on who you talk to, people have different ideas when using the same words. What exactly is prioritism and what is holism? Are those the only two options? 

In an article from the Judson Center, Jay Flinn summarizes the history of the evangelical holistic mission debate. He writes, “In the ensuing decades, much has been written on the topic of holistic mission. Most of what has been written can be summarized into three primary positions related to the relationship of evangelism and social action in mission. One position retains the emphasis on evangelism and church planting with little regard to social action. A second position follows Stott’s model of evangelism as the primary mission with Christian social action a secondary partner. The third position considers social action as mission equally with evangelism. While there are variants to these positions and different terms may be used to describe them, the variants are ultimately defined by the relative priority and relationship of evangelism and social action to one another.”[1]

Understanding Prioritism

On one side of the issue there are those who say that the Gospel (and some include church planting with it) should always be the main thing. And they are right, it very well should be. A classic statement on prioritism by Donald McGarvan states:

“A multitude of excellent enterprises lie around us. So great is the number and so urgent the calls, that Christians can easily lose their way among them, seeing them all equally as mission. But in doing good, they can fail of the best. In winning the preliminaries, they can lose the main game. They can be treating a troublesome itch, while the patient dies of cholera. The question of priorities cannot be avoided.”[2]

He makes a valid point. Those that hold to prioritism fear that some who hold to a more holistic approach have made the Gospel a secondary matter. Although we must acknowledge this is true of some, we also must beware of overgeneralizing. Much of the confusion is due to the reinventing words to mean things other than what they originally meant. This only muddies the theological waters, causing confusion rather than bringing clarity to the issue. These days, many words like evangelism, gospel and mission can mean different things than they used to. So it is important that we examine these terms biblically, otherwise they have no limits in how they are used and can therefore lose all real meaning.

This most likely is a result, over time, of what is referred to as “mission drift.” The CEO of Edify said,

“It’s the exception that an organization stays true to its mission. The natural course- the unfortunate natural evolution of many originally Christcentered missions– is to drift.”[3]

In an issue of Evangelical Missions Quarterly there was a “symposium” published where five leaders were asked to articulate their views regarding the relationship between proclamation and social action, and only one presented a view approximating the prioritistic position.[4] (2012,264-271) This is quite unfortunate, considering that prior to the first Lausanne Congress in 1974, prioritism was the dominant view among evangelicals. To be sure, eternal matters take priority over temporal matters. The prioritists are correct in emphasizing the Gospel as the main focus of the mission. But for some on the far end of the spectrum (strict prioritists,) it has become pretty much the only thing. This is a gaping hole in their position. Due to a deficit in the theology of some, those who hold to prioritism are often accused of neglecting the commandment to love their neighbor in their attempt to be Gospelcentered. I agree that the Gospel is the priority and should be at the top of the list for all of us. Yet, ironically, many prioritists or of those who claim to be passionate about Christ can isolate themselves from the very communities they are trying to reach by showing little interest in their temporal human condition of suffering. This is interpreted by many as a lack of love, not only by the opposing perspective, but also by the lost community that is always watching. So we should not be so quick to completely dismiss the entire holistic approach to ministry. Some of the accusations toward strict prioritists are fair and should be addressed, always remembering that there do exist other, more balanced views between these two positions. Even John Stott eventually changed his views in favor of a more balanced, holistic approach to the Great Commission.

Understanding Holism

On the other side of the issue are those who do take a more holistic approach in their mission work. They claim to believe and preach the Gospel, too, which can make what they say seem contradictory.  C. Rene Padilla, who was very influential in convincing many to embrace a holistic approach to mission, said the following:

“Holistic mission is mission oriented towards the meeting of basic human needs, including the need of God, but also the need of food, love, housing, clothes, physical and mental health, and a sense of human dignity. Furthermore, this approach takes into account that people are spiritual, social, and bodily beings, made to live in relationship with God, with their neighbors, and with God’s creation. Consequently, it presupposes that it is not enough to take care of the spiritual well being of an individual without any regard for his or her personal relationships and position in society and in the world. As Jesus saw it, love for God is inseparable from love for our neighbor.”[5]

In my opinion, he isn’t wrong in saying that love for God is inseparable from love for our neighbor. Within this camp there are those who are accused of having another Gospel, a “social justice” gospel.  And to be sure, there are some in this camp who are not very Gospelcentered at all. In the worst of cases, they can be almost completely humanistic with little to no Gospel proclamation or sound Bible teaching. Some are distracted and are neglecting real biblical evangelism. However, there are some things that a strict prioritist can learn from them. They are usually very active in serving their communities, feeding the poor, defending the weak and the needy and doing good to their family of faith and their neighbors outside of the church. Although the gospel is an eternal and weightier matter, we must at least admit that these are good and important things that should not be ignored.  And not all who take a holistic approach to mission fit the description of “social justice warriors” or would not completely agree so rigidly on one category or the other. So as the debate goes on, the line continues to seem blurred for some as to how exactly these two things should fit together. 

An alternative?

We must be aware of and willing to admit the dangers of an extreme position on either side. This is simply one of the many areas of our theology, work, mission and ministry where we must learn to live in the tension and find a way to reconcile the two ideas, since both have biblical grounds. We certainly do not want to fall off either side of the horse divide. so to speak. To do so, I believe, would be to fall into one kind of error or another. We must find a more biblical balance, and this is where Carl F. H. Henry is extremely helpful.

His credentials

Carl Henry is most relevant when it comes to this for the following reasons. He himself said he was indeed a prioritist yet held to the necessity of social concern as well. Henry was one of the founding architects of the modern U.S. Evangelical movement, and has probably said and written more about the topic than anyone else, being extremely influential “calling evangelicals to differentiate themselves from separatist fundamentalism and claim a role in influencing the wider American culture. He was involved in the creation of numerous major evangelical organizations, including the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Theological Seminary, Evangelical Theological Society, Christianity Today magazine (of which he was the founding editor), and the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies. The Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity International University seek to carry on his legacy.”[6] His vision of the necessity of theological competence and cultural engagement remains among the more vibrant alternatives in our day. He was known for his commitment to theological rigors, his active engagement with the pressing social issues of our day, but also for having an unwavering commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His book “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism” (1947) was a response to the separatist fundamentalist movement that inadvertently became a hindrance to its own cause of reaching the lost with the Gospel.

Henry spoke eloquently about what has long been disputed by theologians and missiologists when it comes to  Henry himself had said that “these tensions now vex the church as never before in recent history.”[7]The issue has brought much division among evangelicals, especially since the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century.

In an essay about Carl Henry and his “regenerational” model of evangelism and social concern, Jerry M. Ireland writes,

“Fundamentalism responded to the human-centered social agenda of liberal theology by mostly withdrawing from cultural engagement and social action, rather than developing a more biblically balanced response to the social issues. Unfortunately, fundamentalism tended to truncate the gospel’s temporal relevance in favor of an exclusive focus on eternal matters.”[8] It is my humble suggestion that we should always do both. 

His regenerational model

There is much to be learned from Henry. As Ireland points out, Henry associates these two tasks of the church in a similar way that C. H. Dodd does, distinguishing the word didache from kerygma. In Dodd’s teachings he points out that “kerygma represents the church’s unique message of salvation”,[9] the proclamation of gospel. While didache, “refers more to the church’s teachings and Scripture’s ethical demands.”[10]

Biblical warrant

The concern is a good one, to make and keep the Gospel as the priority.  However, with a quick look at the imperatives in Scripture, the life of Christ, and  the Apostle Paul’s example, one would have a difficult time presenting the case that concern for the suffering human condition of our neighbor and generosity towards them was optional. Jesus had “compassion on the multitudes.” Paul said he was “eager to help the poor,” and there are many other examples of why we should do good to the family of faith and to our neighbor. Below are just a few from the Old and New Testaments.

Old Testament Evidence

 Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor. (Proverbs 22.9)

Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him. (Proverbs 14.31)

 Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered. (Proverbs 21.13)

Proverbs 14.21 Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.

Proverbs 29.7 A righteous man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.

Proverbs 31.8-9 Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Ezekiel 16.49 Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

(Did you catch that? The guilt of Sodom was not aiding the poor and needy!)

New Testament Evidence

Acts 20.35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

Galatians 2.10  Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

Matthew 5.42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

1 John 3.17-18 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?

James 1.27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…

Luke 14.12-14 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

Luke 12.33-34 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Luke 3.11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”

We see the to need to bear the burden of the family of faith AND show love to our neighbor in word and in deed. The list of examples from Scripture can go on and on and on …

Historical Evidence

There is also the evidence from history to consider. The impact of the early church continues to be visible in Western civilization today. Historians note that “by the Middle Ages, Christianity transformed societies for the better and continue to influence culture wherever its teachings spread. The charity encouraged by biblical teachings (Luke 10.30-37) eventually led to the founding of hospitals, orphanages, homes for the elderly and care for the poor, the hungry and the homeless. Even many of the greatest and most prominent universities of our day were originally founded for “Christian” purposes.”[11] 

Throughout history, the tendency of the church to extend compassion to those suffering and in need around them , was simply the fruit of Christians living out a transformed, Spiritfilled life in obedience to the Scriptures. They imitated the example of Christ, motivated by love for the One who loved us first, and who sacrificially gave Himself for us. In what way would this at all be a bad thing? With Scripture and history attesting to the pattern of bold Gospel proclamation AND compassion and generosity to others, why would it be any different for the church today? 

There is no need to debate whether or not the church should be generous to the family of faith. But there are those who think that we should not be distracted by societal problems or invest too much time or money in showing compassion to imagebearers outside the church.  Henry certainly had a unique eloquence when it came to reconciling this issue. At times he spoke the language of both camps. He held to maintaining the Gospel as a priority yet maintaining social concern as something important and necessary.

It is important to note that even though Henry’s model held both views as necessary, it doesn’t mean that both were equal. Henry was critical of liberal and secular fallacies regarding the benevolence of God. In the book Controversies in Missions, Jerry M. Ireland writes that

“Henry finds a cause for concern among liberal and secular tendencies… and warns against confusing evangelism and social concern- or of reducing evangelism to merely attacking social or political evils. To do so is to commit the ultimate act of lovelessness, for it neglects humanity’s greatest need, namely personal redemption and supernatural regeneration.”[12]

Ireland also makes an important distinction when he says it is

“slightly off base to say that evangelism and social concern are two wings of the same bird, or two sides of the same coin. For even Scripture never equates these two things as in such an overtly parallel manner, even though Scripture upholds the necessity and importance of both.”[13] 

We must work out and live in the tension that exists there.

We should want more people to come to Christ. As a result of making disciples, more churches will eventually be planted. And historically, the church has been a means by which good naturally overflows to the world around it. It is a grace of God, a benefit of simply living in proximity to the people of God. Yet what happens in some churches over time is that the focus becomes much more inward, to what happens within the four walls of a building, and less time being salt and light to those around them. The evidence of this is seen in how little is designated for benevolence in the budgets of the average local church.  

Sadly, I personally know of missionaries who have realized the imbalance of the strict prioritist view and actually lost support from some churches, when due to an “uneasy conscience” of their own, as Henry would call it, they became more involved in helping meet the needs of those who they served in addition to the regular evangelism and preaching and teaching of the Word. They were rejected by some supporters who were strict prioritists when taking a more holisitic approach and becoming more involved in their communities. They were penalized for obeying God in loving their neighbor. 

When a missionary decides to obey the Scriptures in both areas in love for their neighbors, but then actually loses support from churches, this is not only tragic, it is madness! The Gospel must always remain the main thing, of course, but we must also learn to walk in the good works that we were prepared for us to do (Ephesians 2.10.) We are told to love, but not only in word, but in deed as well (1 John 3.18), and that our faith without works is dead. (James 2.26) 

Dare I say that when we justify our lack of compassion by saying that the greatest act of love is sharing the Gospel with people (which is indeed true), some may be attempting to hide some real laziness and apathy. May the Lord guard our hearts from such things and give us grace to do that which is most important without neglecting other necessary commands. 

Making evangelism a priority shouldn’t mean neglecting acts of compassion. Neither does a holistic approach have to mean the neglect of evangelism in any way.

Why not both?

The question is, why not both? Carl Henry considered himself a prioritist but clearly believed and taught that both were necessary tasks of the church. It is possible to preach a biblical Gospel, emphasizing evangelism, training leaders and discipleship, while also serving your community, showing compassion to those suffering whenever possible.  It is unfortunate when those who maintain a better balance are accused of a “social Gospel” when Gospel proclamation is not being neglected, but rather a biblical command that was missing in ministry is simply added. We are called to be salt and light, doing good works so that others may glorify our Father in heaven. After all, a genuine faith is not merely intellectual and passive, but an active working faith. And in light of the biblical and historical evidence, this does indeed seem to be a more balanced and accurate way for doing missions, and ministry in general.

Ireland makes a point worth remembering when discussing these issues. He says that

“it is important that we distinguish the Gospel itself from the demands of the Gospel and avoid equivocating the two if we are to be faithful to Scripture. When this is done, then we can advocate for both the priority of evangelism and for a robust Christian social concern.”[14]

He also uses a helpful illustration from everyday life to demonstrate this. He says, 

“Imagine if you had to go to a bank to make a deposit in order to pay your bills. Going to the bank would be the priority. Because if the paycheck is not deposited then the bills cannot be paid. Clearly one thing is a priority and must take place first, yet both remain necessary. I must deposit my check and I must pay my bills. The second thing depends on the first thing having taken place already and the priority of the first does not render the second as optional.”[15]

The same is true with evangelism and social concern, with loving your neighbor. And let us avoid seeking to justify ourselves by asking, “Who is my neighbor?”

Making evangelism a priority shouldn’t mean neglecting acts of compassion. Neither does a holistic approach mean the neglect of evangelism in any way. At this point, the terms prioritism and holism have taken on so much baggage and different meanings that they have almost been rendered useless, especially when it often cannot be agreed upon as to what they even mean. But when it comes to making Christ known through bold evangelism AND showing compassion and love to our neighbor, I say this is biblical New Testament Christianity.  So why not both?

Written by Antonio Salgado

Please pray for our BCMS workers serving faithfully in hard places. May the Gospel continue to go forth, to God be the glory.

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