Something’s rotten in the state of Christendom. In the third century, Cyprian was bishop of Carthage. The church had recently survived the Decian persecutions and Cyprian controversially urged his congregants to welcome back into the body of Christ those who had denied their faith under duress. Then plague struck North Africa. As the collective personas non grata, Christians found themselves blamed for the devastation. In 257, Emperor Valerian opened new persecutions against Christians, including the execution of Pope Sixtus, the exile of Cyprian, and the ordered execution of all Christian leaders. In the midst of this chaos and persecution, Cyprian did the unthinkable: he ordered all Christians of Carthage to do what no one else in the city was willing to do. He ordered them to take on the suicide mission of caring for plague victims. These were people who actively supported the murder of Christians, and the believers faced nearly certain death by tending to the needs of the victims dying of plague. And yet under Cyprian’s leadership, they did so willingly.
The face of Christian charity in America is somewhat different. Today, we find ourselves embroiled in modern entanglements of post-Enlightenment theology and the ever-present problem of greed disguised as self-interest. When books like Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger find serious challenges from books like Successful Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulation, and a prominent Mormon with several daily talk shows on TV and radio instructs Christians in the theological legitimacy of social justice, Christians have strayed from the radical charity of the early church. While most thinking Christians thankfully dismiss both anti-biblical extremes, we still find ourselves drawn into a debate that bogs down radical actions of Christian charity. Humanitarian and theologian Christian Buckley argues
Just as the masses left Christ two thousand years ago when His call became difficult, His ways became unpopular, and His perspective became detested, we are being challenged to walk away from Christ’s humanitarianism.
We draw Christian charity battlelines and accuse each other from across no man’s land. We obsess over one question: Should we serve people in order to share the Gospel with them, or is service sharing the Gospel with people in need?
In Humanitarian Jesus: Social Justice and the Cross, authors Christian Buckley and Ryan Dobson present the answer to this modern quandary by examining the Body of Christ, both His physical incarnation and the actions of His followers. In the first half of the book, Buckley lays out the main points of both arguments, service for evangelism and evangelism as service. He marks the major turning points in each movement and presents biblical support for both and exposes the weaknesses of each approach. But the argument culminates in the obvious conclusion: you can’t have one without the other. Evangelism and charity must be united for either to be authentic.
Dobson and Buckley interviewed dozens of Christians who serve as exemplars of how to act on our Savior’s instructions. From missionaries to social workers, surfers to abolitionists, the interviewees make a compelling case for the futility of the false dichotomy of service versus evangelism. Jerry Wiles, president of Living Water International, says it best:
It is more effective, and, to paraphrase an African head of state, “You can’t minister to dead people. You can’t do health care to dead people. You can’t educate dead people. You’ve got to have them alive first.” The first thing is to bring physical life. It is true that if you just bring the water without the message, you just extend their physical life. It’s not a matter of either-or with us. It’s both – and in every case. It’s not a choice… I don’t think that’s ever the option – the gospel or good works. I don’t think we have to make that choice because God’s going to provide a way to bring the gospel when you engage people and meet their physical needs.
It’s hard to argue with a man who’s dedicated his life to ensuring access to safe drinking water for people around the world. It’s even harder to do so from a country that uses hundreds of millions of gallons of safe drinking water to fill our swimming pools. Interview after interview in the book comes to the same conclusion: There should be no division between evangelism and service.
During His ministry, Christ didn’t divide evangelism and service. Neither should we. Buckley and Dobson didn’t need to write a book to make this argument. This isn’t an argument that needs winning; it’s an argument that needs living. Being right isn’t enough. We must, as Saint Paul exonerated the church at Ephesus, “walk in a manner worthy of our calling.” As my priest, Father Matthew Weber says,
We cannot be whole Christians without both these things. We cannot be whole human beings without both these things.
Followers of Christ brave enough to dive into the trenches of radical Christian service understand that truth. Those of us who sit comfortably in the industrialized world continue to bicker. We need to sacrifice our greed on the altar of grace, take up our cross and follow Him, proclaiming His name all the way. We’ll then find then that there is no division between evangelism and service. We’ll find there is only Christ.