The Great Divide

The Great Divide

Roger Thurow was a longtime foreign correspondent in Africa and Europe for The Wall Street Journal and was also the co-author of ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. He visited with me several years ago as he was writing his book and doing interviews for other projects. His first question was, “Why is it just now that evangelicals like Rick Warren and others are getting engaged in social justice issues?” This was in 2007 – the 200th-year anniversary of the signing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act that ended the slave trade in the British colonies. That date seemed like a good place to start with a brief sketch of the history of evangelicals and social justice.
I told Roger that evangelicals have a long tradition and involvement in social justice and that this is not a recent phenomenon. And then I roughly outlined with pen and paper the development of evangelicals and social action for the last 200 years. I still have the sketch; it’s a mess but I think it is mostly right. In fact, tomorrow I am presenting it at a session on “Faith and Philanthropy” hosted by the Lake Institute in Indianapolis.
Throughout most of the 19th century evangelicals were focused on combining evangelism, preaching the Word and social action. During the Second Great Awakening and under the preaching of Charles Finney, the issues of prison reform, women’s rights, and abolition of slavery were not separated from personal salvation. However, in the latter part of that century there was a marked turn toward a primary interest in personal salvation and the influence of D.L. Moody’s passion to “rescue men from a drowning ship” skewed the balance.
It was the combination of Moody’s emphasis on personal salvation, the rise of fundamentalism and the perceived danger of Harry Emerson Fosdick‘s social gospel that pitched the evangelicals headlong into the theological underpinning of premillennial dispensationalism that became the distinguishing characteristic of evangelicals. But it was the founding of Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924 by Lewis Sperry Chafer that shaped the next 75 years of evangelical ministry and evangelical philanthropy. More than any other institution, DTS and dispensationalism became the theological pattern and motivation for missions and preaching – and the support of these by donors. The force and momentum of the words of Matthew 24:14 molded thousands of congregations, hundreds of parachurch groups and the earliest evangelical funders:
“The Good News about God’s kingdom will be preached in all the world to every nation. Then the end will come.”
There is no way to overemphasize how compelling that was as it gave a clear goal and methodology. Preach the word to every nation. Finish the task. Complete the Great Commission. Of course, the downside was the withering away of the longtime balance of social justice and evangelism. That was the beginning of the Great Divide.
Immediately after World War II there were hundreds of parachurch organizations formed by returning veterans. Ministries like the Billy Graham Association, Youth for Christ, Young Life, the Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ were all started within a short time and, more importantly, most of the leadership was shaped by dispensational beliefs. Time was short; the mission was clear; and the methods were tailor made for entrepreneurs. Funders were enthusiastic and generous, and within a generation a number of these ministries were some of the largest nonprofits in the country.
Not all evangelicals went that way but those who did not had trouble finding both theological and financial support for their mission. Those who took Luke 19:13 (“Occupy until I come”) could hardly muster the enthusiasm and drive of those bringing in the return of Christ. Groups like Evangelicals for Social Action, Christian Community Development Association, World Vision, World Relief and others found themselves struggling and feeling like step-children. If what really mattered was the eternal destiny of the soul and bringing in the Kingdom then why spend time and money on the here and now?
I actually heard someone say, “Why dig a well if they are going to hell?” This world and everything in it will end in flames and the only thing that matters is preaching the Word until everyone has heard.
There was a clear divide where once there had been none: social action or evangelism. This lasted for almost 50 years – a whole generation – until about 2000 when things began to change. Rick and Kay Warren were moved by what they saw in Africa with AIDS. President Bush gave legitimacy to young evangelicals through his initiatives in Africa. Gary Haugen founded International Justice Mission in 1997. Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian preached the combination of social justice and evangelism. Mercy Ships, CURE, Bono, Shane Claiborne and a growing number of “missional churches” were now part of a stream of a new generation of evangelicals.
As I look now at where we are, the questions for me are, “What will be the theology that will give the impetus, urgency and momentum provided for so long by dispensationalism? What can possibly replace ‘and then the end will come’ yet still provide a solid theological base that will keep foundations and a new generation of funders from drifting from their historical roots of balance for evangelism and social justice?” We don’t need another Great Divide.
When I was done with my drawing and explaining, Roger took a deep breath, closed his notebook and sat there for a moment. He probably wished he had not asked!


  1. Good historical reminder Fred. Dr. Howard Hendricks said that Christians are often confused by what he called “the peril of the pendulum” – We are either at one extreme or the other on issues. He also had another great line. “If you’re going to fly on a plane, which is more important, the right wing or the left wing?” I miss his famous one-liners.

    • Thank you, Tom. I share the same concern – but it seems that’s just the way things work.

  2. A minor typo (just in case anyone is trying to look up the verse): it should read Luke 19:13, “Occupy until I come.”

  3. Well, you’ve done it again, Fred: You’ve framed an issue for us combining a sense of historical perspective with a desire to remain faithful to the Gospel. Very helpful.

    • Thanks, Todd. It sounds like you had an interesting time with Steve, Jay, and Mark recently.

  4. Thanks, Fred, for this informative timeline. It perhaps is worth noting that this blog post depicts the history of discourse in US mainstream evangelicalism but not of the global church nor that of many minority-culture churches in the US. Long before 2007, many Evangelicals in the Majority World were decrying the absence of a more holistic understanding of the gospel, and in many ways this was the shaping issue of the original Lausanne Congress (1974) and Covenant. African-American churches were, of course, not only at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the US, but have never lost its sense of bringing a word-and-deed gospel into its communities. These are just two examples.
    Your timeline is nonetheless enlightening because US mainstream evangelicalism has had disproportionate sway in so many global forums, and we see its influence everywhere. Thank you, Fred, for helping us to reflect from a historical perspective on the issues that have such a potential to divide us, and how we can move forward together towards greater unity.

    • Thanks, Paul. Fortunately for me, he only asked about evangelicals in the US. Otherwise, I would have referred him immediately to others like Rene Padilla’s work.

  5. Fred,
    It is high time for you to expand on this theme in a book. Expanding on the rise and fall of these movements needs captured for future generations, especially young people who are looking for their future involvement. The rise of the “WallMart Church” as one Christian College President puts it would be a good lesson for main stream denominations who are losing their youth to ponder.

    • A book? I think I will stick with the simplicity of a blog! By the way, the Cincinnati reception for The Gathering will be either April 13 or 14 if you all are in town.

  6. With so much heart disease in my family, knowing eternity is only a heart beat away- or lack thereof – is what lights a fire under me as I go through my day. I wonder if the next generation isn’t watching for something that real from us old folks? If I die in two minutes, was I loving the person in front of me in a way that mattered? Is that too simple?

    • Probably not too simple, Kathy!

  7. The late Commissioner Andy Miller, National Commander of the Salvation Army said it best.
    He would clasp his two hands tightly together, hold them over his head and pull them back and forth.
    And he would say, “We put our social ministry and our evangelical ministry together as tightly as this, and when we do it right no one can tell where one starts and the other leaves off.”

  8. Fred, this is beautiful and brilliant. Thank you.
    I have just one genuine question on numbers.
    If you total up contributions to of Billy Graham, YoungLife, Navigators, and Cru they are completely dwarfed by the contributions to christian social justice orgs like World Vision, Compassion, Food for the Poor et al. is where I’m getting this data.
    Do you think the private giving to world evangelism could be an intentional attempt to balance the fact that social justice orgs receive the lions share of Christian resources? I mean no offense by this question, I’m searching.
    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I agree this should be a book. One of many I hope you publish…

  9. Wonderful stuff, Fred, and I love the timeline. If you run into Bill Enright at the Lake Institute tell him Joe & Steve said hello. He was Joe’s pastor for many years and performed the marriage service for Joe’s daughter and me. I think he handed over the reins a while back so maybe he’s not always around.

  10. Fred,
    There are some gaps in your Great Divide explanation. In every decade since the 50’s, mainstream evangelicalism in this country has been actively involved in cultural and social issues. In the 60’s there was a cultural revolution, in the 70’s a sexual revolution. The church was often the only voice crying fowl and warning of things to come. The 80’s gave rise to the pro-life movement, seeded by Francis Schaeffer’s “How Should We Then Live” (1978), and is, in my opinion the most important human rights movement because it’s victims have no voice and no ability to resist injustice. In the 90’s it was the Gay Rights movement, in the 2000’s it was the fight over traditional marriage and family (though this had been under assault since the 60’s). The 2010’s has yet to be written, but I would surmise it will be marked by struggles over religious liberty and possibly the pivot into religious persecution. In every case it has been the evangelicals pushing back against humanist incursions–for what else leads to injustice than a nation in rebellion to God? Just because evangelicals en masse did not engage in humanitarian efforts beyond our shores does not mean they weren’t practicing word-and-deed.
    It seems the criticism of American evangelicals in this regard only goes one way; do we apply the same standard to Christians in other parts of the world? Why aren’t African Christians picketing abortion clinics in the US? Is their faith dead? Certainly, there are factions in every group which distort the spirit of the law. But let’s use extreme caution when painting entire groups as one way or another. Remember who is the Accuser (Rev 12:10).
    I think the great advantage of the last decade is the building of infrastructure to respond to these humanitarian issues around the world. Modern technology plus visionary founders have enabled Christians in America to have much better access to needs of their brothers and sisters around the world, much more so than they did post-WWII. And in concert we have seen Christians respond. No nation on earth gives as much money, volunteers as much time, or donates as much blood per-capita as Americans, and of that group evangelicals are the largest constituency (Brooks, 2007. “Who Really Cares?”).


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