In conservative evangelical circles, “social ministry” can sometimes sound like a four-letter word. Some view Christian activism and ministries of mercy among the poor as an impulse of theological liberalism. This isn’t altogether surprising, as theological liberals often promote social activism as part of the church’s primary purpose in the world. So when one finds a group of Christians passionate about social justice, helping the poor, and feeding the hungry, some may assume they must be theologically liberal or, at least, acting out the instincts of liberalism.
It’s worth noting that political and economic developments, especially in the 20th century, caused a net deflation in the value of Christian social ministry, as many advanced Western countries launched government-subsidized welfare programs to care for their neediest citizens. What some had once understood to be the responsibility of churches and charitable organizations (often founded by conservative evangelicals) was, by the early to mid-20th century, increasingly seen as the responsibility of the wider body politic, mediated through local and national taxation.
It’s at least plausible, then, that the twin developments of the rise of theological liberalism on the one hand and state subsidies on the other sapped conservative evangelicalism of what had been its characteristic zeal for mercy ministry.
Nonetheless, Charles Spurgeon should challenge us in this regard. If his social concern seems unusual today, perhaps it says more about us than about him.
Charles Spurgeon, Liberal?
Though “the Prince of Preachers” by no means championed a social gospel, he oversaw dozens of benevolent ministries in the heart of 19th-century London—organizing free schools for destitute children, advocating for American slaves, and caring for orphans and widows. But was Spurgeon’s social concern an evangelical anomaly, deviating from the Calvinistic tradition in which he was raised?
Was Spurgeon’s social concern some sort of evangelical anomaly?
Such a question betrays a contemporary consciousness shaped more by modern cultural debates than a serious reflection on the heritage of the Reformed and evangelical traditions. To properly understand Spurgeon’s commitment to social ministry, we must realize he saw care and concern for the needy as springing forth from his understanding of the Bible—as well as from the body of doctrine he’d received from his theological forebears. Without question, Spurgeon saw himself as living out the consistent social implications of Reformed and evangelical theology.
When one studies how many Protestants, beginning in the 16th century, prioritized care for the poor and needy, Spurgeon begins to look more like the norm. Meanwhile, many evangelicals today who are suspicious of social concern appear more like a departure from their historical and theological heritage.
Consider the Belgic Confession (1561), which requires that churches be properly ordered, in part, “so that also the poor and all the afflicted may be helped and comforted according to their need.” Or the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church (1571): “Every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.” Or the Second Helvetic Confession (1566): ministers should “commend the necessity of the poor to the church,” and the church should use its resources “especially for the succor and relief of the poor.” Or the Heidelberg Catechism’s (1563) question: “What is God’s will for you in the fourth commandment?” The answer in part is “to bring Christian offerings for the poor.”
A passage in John Knox’s First Book of Discipline (1560) is worth quoting at length:
We are not patrons for stubborn and idle beggars who, running from place to place, make a craft of their begging, whom the civil magistrate ought to [compel to work, or then] punish: but for the widow and fatherless, the aged, impotent, or lamed, who neither can nor may travail for their sustentation, we say, that God commands his people to be careful: and therefore, for such, as also for persons of honesty fallen into decay and poverty, ought such provision to be made, that of our abundance their indigence may be relieved.
In addition to what the Reformers confessed, consider what they did. Two of Spurgeon’s heroes, Martin Luther and John Calvin, gave significant attention to social ministry. Samuel Torvend ably expounds Luther’s understanding of the priority of benevolence and mercy ministry in his book Luther and the Hungry Poor. Likewise, Scott Manetsch has noted that in Calvin’s Geneva, pastors “defended the cause of helpless orphans, poor laborers, mistreated prisoners, despised refugees, and social misfits.” They also “worked to root out social and economic injustice” and were specially tasked to provide help and aid in times of plague.
Beyond the Reformation era, one may also look to the evangelical movement in Britain and America, the origins of which are typically located in the awakenings of the early 18th century. When the movement first emerged, it exploded with benevolent activity. The historian David Bebbington has famously identified activism as one of the leading traits of the evangelical tradition. In the century before Spurgeon’s birth, evangelicals committed themselves to social ministry on an unprecedented scale, spawning all kinds of social ministries, benevolent institutions, and charitable agencies.
In the century before Spurgeon’s birth, evangelicals committed themselves to social ministry on an unprecedented scale, spawning all kinds of social ministries, benevolent institutions, and charitable agencies.
The establishment of orphanages, such as the one founded by George Müller in Bristol, was representative of the evangelical impulse to serve society’s neediest members. The Clapham Society, a group of Anglican evangelicals led by William Wilberforce, was famous for its philanthropic efforts and advocacy for the poor and disenfranchised. Wilberforce once said, “If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow creatures and to be warmed with the desire of relieving their distresses, is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”
The Moravians, tremendously active in the arena of social ministry, articulated their own commitment to universal benevolence in their covenant: “Together with the universal Christian church, we have a concern for this world, opening our heart and hand to our neighbors with the message of the love of God, and being ever ready to minister of our substance to their necessities (Matt. 25:40).”
The evangelical impulse to do good on behalf of the needy reached its zenith in Victorian England during Spurgeon’s tenure in London. This was the heyday of street missions, schools for the destitute, and almshouses. This was the age of Lord Shaftesbury, England’s great philanthropist and Spurgeon’s close personal friend, who gave his life to social reform on behalf of factory workers, poor children, and England’s disenfranchised. This was the era of men such as William Booth of the Salvation Army, who launched missions to prostitutes, alcoholics, and orphans in London’s overcrowded East End.
It was also a time for women with unprecedented opportunities to participate in social ministry. The Anglican Josephine Butler, for example, fought against prostitution and human trafficking, and the Quaker Elizabeth Fry labored for reform in England’s prisons. Bebbington notes “a representative impulse to do good to the less fortunate members of society, a symptom of the large-hearted sense of mission that motivated evangelicals of the Victorian era.”
Simply put, Victorian evangelicals understood social ministry to be their God-given responsibility. Charity, benevolence, and philanthropy were seen as basic Christian duties and flowed naturally out of a belief in God’s unmerited grace and the call to neighbor love.
Charity, benevolence, and philanthropy were seen as basic Christian duties and flowed naturally out of a belief in God’s unmerited grace and the call to neighbor love.
In sum, Spurgeon understood his commitment to social ministry not as an aberration from his historical and theological heritage but as the consistent outworking of it. Only in later generations did some evangelicals start viewing social ministry as part of a program grounded in either theological liberalism or the primary responsibility of the state.
Could it be that the recession of evangelical efforts in the realm of social ministry is influenced more by a reaction to liberal theology or progressive government policies than by sound biblical exegesis and serious historical reflection? Could it be that widespread Western affluence has insulated us from the concerns of the poor and has thus enfeebled Christian benevolence? Could it be that some are turning their backs on what used to be a hallmark of the evangelical movement and one of its most attractive traits? And might Reformed evangelicals, who perhaps have faltered in this arena in recent decades, see within our own ranks a revival of practical concern for the poor and the afflicted?
A genuine recovery of evangelical social engagement requires neither adopting a social gospel nor endorsing a progressive political agenda. On the contrary, a thorough commitment to evangelical and Reformed theology was everything needed in times past to move Christians to compassion and care for the neediest members of fallen humanity. All the resources for a vibrant social ministry are found in the Reformed tradition. But more importantly, they’re found in the Scriptures themselves, which summon Christians to love their neighbors (Mark 12:31), to do good to all (Gal. 6:10), and to be a people zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).
Get a FREE eBook to strengthen your family discipleship!
The back-to-school season is stressful for moms and dads. New rhythms of school, sports, and other extracurricular activities can quickly fill up a family’s already busy calendar. Where do busy parents look for resources on discipling their family well? Aside from prioritizing church, what else can Christian parents do to instill healthy spiritual habits in their household?
Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin cover these questions and more in Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home through Time, Moments, and Milestones. And we’re excited to offer this book to you for FREE as an eBook today.
Click on the link below to get instant access to your FREE Family Discipleship eBook now!