In the early part of the twentieth century, the movement known today as fundamentalism began– partially due to the theological shift within mainline denominations. As these denominations moved away from essential doctrines of historic Christianity (e.g. the inspiration of the Bible, the deity of Jesus Christ, salvation through Christ alone, and eternal judgment of all who reject Christ), many of their clergy were conscience bound to remove their associations — some at great loss in terms of retirement benefits. A good number of these men began to unite, finding common fellowship in adherence to the fundamental or essential beliefs of the Christian faith.
Meanwhile, in many denominational churches, shifts in belief led to a changes in ministry emphases. The physical and social needs of people took priority over spiritual needs. In the mainline churches, works of relief and community development took precedence over evangelism. Eternal needs (if they believed in them) took a backseat to physical and temporal needs.
Those who withdrew from the denominations viewed the change of emphasis as a reduction of the gospel to what became known as a “social gospel.” Fundamentalism began partly as a reactionary response to an abandonment of the spiritual priority of the gospel. Yet a primary goal of the original adherents of fundamentalism was not so much revolutionary as restorative — a desire and effort to get back to the basics of historic Christianity.
Unfortunately, however, in every reaction there is the temptation to overreact or to add too much to the list of concerns. In this case, the reaction didn’t limit itself to erroneous doctrinal beliefs; it included emphasis of ministry as well. Out of a desire to avoid all appearances of identification with the so-called social gospel, fundamentalists sometimes embraced an non-biblical view of social action — a view that itself departs from historic Christianity.
Throughout history, Christians took the lead in helping solve the social problems of their communities: medical care, trade unions, prison reform, abolition of slavery, establishment of orphanages, etc. … This wholesome approach to ministry grew out of the awareness that God made man a physical being with bodily needs, a social being with community needs, and a spiritual being in need of salvation. Therefore, a biblical approach to ministry will involve works of relief, development, and evangelism.
Yet according to the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles, the primary need of humanity is salvation — the need to be made right with God (Luke 12:4-5). Salvation, as one has said, “bind’s man’s will afresh to the Creator and Lord of life.” According to the biblical model, the gospel changes people, and changed people have a beneficial influence on society (as salt and light, Matthew 5:13-16).
In this order, it could be said that the regeneration of individuals within society proceeds and gives way to reformation of society. Any ministry that fails to respect this priority departs from historic Christianity. Yet, to ignore the physical and social needs of our neighbors is less than consistent with the love of God. The Apostle John wrote: “If anyone has material possessions, and sees his brother in need, but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (I John 3:17-18).
In the later part of the twentieth century and onset of the twenty-first, those who adhere to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity have become much more aggressive in social concern. Works of relief and development are much more emphasized among adherents of the essential teachings of historic Christianity. All of this serves to warn against the dangers of a reactionary posture. Sometimes in our desire for purity, we narrow ourselves more than necessary. We overly separate and we renounce more than required. We need minds and hearts saturated in God’s Word and full of godly wisdom. May God mercifully grant this great need to His people!