On 7 May, 1867, a man called Alfred Nobel obtained patents for a very powerful and potentially very dangerous formula:
3 parts nitroglycerin—C3H5(NO3)3
+ one part diatomaceous earth
+ a small admixture of sodium carbonate—Na2CO3
This is the classic formula for dynamite. Used properly, it can move mountains. But unless it is handled with care, it can destroy lives.
Similarly, but far more seriously, there is another powerful and potentially dangerous formula:
A need in the world
+ an implication of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Used properly, this formula can achieve wonderful results for God's glory. I know a missionary doctor who has had many great opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with people in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, through the establishment of a maternity clinic. Many women in the vicinity of the clinic desperately need good maternity care. An implication of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that we should care for the vulnerable (e.g. Jas 1:27). This combination of a worldly need plus an implication of the gospel is positively powerful in this case. Women come to the clinic; they are helped and healed, and their children are born safely (which, of course, is immensely valuable in itself); and, even better, as they come to know the hospital staff, they are given explicit opportunities to hear about and respond to Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour.
But there is always a danger with this formula. The danger is that the particular implication of the gospel has the potential to claim centre stage and become a new gospel. The problem occurs when the worldly need is seen as so great—so urgent—so important—that everything else must be made to serve it. This hasn't happened in the example I mentioned above (praise God!). But it has happened at many times and in many places—especially over the last hundred years. The now-familiar ‘social gospel’, for example, is a deliberate attempt to take what should be an implication of the gospel and make it the centre of the gospel. The social gospel says that providing care and justice for the vulnerable is not merely a response to our salvation, it is the central concern of the gospel. According to the social gospel, the key task of Christians is to transform society in line with this end. The key concerns of the Bible—our sin against our creator, the personal judgement it deserves, Jesus' death as an atoning sacrifice, his resurrection, trust in him as the only way to be right before God, our future hope—drift away as irrelevant or at least not ‘central’ to the message.
I'm not going to go into detail here about the relationship between the gospel and social action here; many others have done this in more depth and detail than I can possibly cover here (see also this Briefing series). I do, however, want to make an observation about another, perhaps more recent, example of this formula. I want to speak about the possible dangers—not of the ‘social gospel’, but of what we might call the “community gospel”. In the interests of space, I'll talk about the community gospel in my next post.