To these readily recognizable evangelical organizations add the innumerable evangelical churches across America that in very quiet and unrecognized ways minister to the needs of the poor and suffering every day. In my own community a local evangelical church runs the oldest and largest homeless shelter in our county. Grace Gospel Fellowship in Pontiac, Michigan serves 127,000 meals a year, provides rehabilitation services and housing for drug addicts and single mothers, and creates jobs. It accomplishes its mission without one dime of government funding, and is “dedicated to recovery through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The Religious Left’s appeal for the Religious Right to “broaden its agenda” to include poverty, HIV/AIDS, and the environment ignores the fact that conservative evangelicals have always had a strong commitment to these issues. So if conservative evangelicals are already leading the efforts to relieve poverty and disease, what’s behind the call to “broaden the agenda”? Another agenda altogether.
What’s really happening here is an attempt by the Left to define evangelicalism down by moving it away from its emphasis on the power of the gospel to change lives. The church’s ability to affect social and cultural change, bringing relief to the poor and suffering, is rooted first and foremost in its commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and what the gospel says about the condition of man in sin which results in the symptoms of poverty and disease.
The Religious Left invalidates the conservative evangelical commitment to humanitarian relief because we are achieving our ends in the name of Jesus Christ through the gospel, without the assistance of government funding. The fundamental tenant of modern liberalism is that a government program funded by redistributed wealth is the preferred method of humanitarian relief rather than what the church is accomplishing by faith through compassionate hearts.
The new voices of the Religious Left – Rick Warren, Joel Hunter, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, et al – are defining down what it means to be an evangelical by making the symptoms of man’s sin (poverty, disease, etc.) a priority rather than addressing the cause of those symptoms (sin) and the cure found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The argument for this reprioritizing is a convincing one, suggesting the new priorities for evangelicals ought to be determined by asking, “How would Jesus respond to (fill in your favorite social cause here)?” The implied answer is that Jesus would be more concerned about the treatment of the poor (especially illegal immigrants) and, at best, neutral on the questions of abortion and homosexual marriage because Jesus never spoke against abortion or homosexual marriage.
These new voices of evangelicalism wear the label “red letter Christians,” but they are in reality “white space Christians,” determining Jesus’ view of abortion and homosexual marriage by focusing on what he didn’t say rather than on what he did say. In Matthew 5 Jesus upholds the standard of the Mosaic Law, which is clear in its call for punishing anyone responsible for killing a child in the womb (Exodus 21:22-25). When Jesus wanted to illustrate true greatness, he set a child in the midst of the disciples and said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). In Matthew 19 Jesus clearly affirmed that marriage is between one man and one woman by validating the story of Adam and Eve, holding it up as the standard for marriage. As for the question of how Jesus would respond to illegal immigrants, I’m pretty sure he would tell them to obey the law (cf. Matthew 22:21).
The new voices of evangelicalism sound eerily similar to the old voices of the social gospel movement who moved their churches away from the priority of the gospel in the early 20th Century, focusing instead on positive thinking and welfare as a solution to social ills. The result was empty pews and even emptier hearts. I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution, take a bow for the new revolution, then I’ll get down on my knees and pray we don’t get fooled again (with apologies to Pete Townshend).