What does social action that is distinctly evangelical really look like? That’s the question Tim Chester sets out to answer in Good News to the Poor: Social Involvement and the Gospel. Chester is a pastor and seminary founder in the UK who self-identifies with the “Reformed, evangelical and missional” streams of the Christian faith. Previously, Chester worked for Tearfund, a Christian international development organization that does incredible work around the world.
Many readers of this blog will be sympathetic with the bulk of what Chester has to say in Good News to the Poor. The biblical and historical case for social action is well established, as Chester demonstrates quite well in the first chapter. From what we learn about the heart of God in Isaiah, to what we see in the life of Jesus, to the example of the early church in the book of Acts, the biblical record is clear that love for God is tightly knit to concern for the poor. The church fathers continued to emphasize this, as have Christians throughout history, including the “father of modern missions” himself, William Carey.
Having laid this biblical and historical groundwork, Chester goes on to explore a number of other topics, including the connection between social action and evangelism, how a biblical vision of the kingdom of God shapes our social action, and why the gospel is also good news to the rich. In the second half of the book, seeing poverty rooted in exclusion and powerlessness, Chester offers us a compelling vision of cross-shaped ministry that welcomes and empowers the least of these.
I was reminded of Tim Keller’s Generous Justice (reviewed here) when Chester suggests that those who have experienced the lavish grace of God can’t help but extend that grace to others, with grateful, overflowing hearts. He writes, “Our attitude to the poor, it seems, reveals a lot about our understanding of God’s grace.”
I love that Chester frames his argument around an understanding of outreach and social action called integral mission, first articulated by Christians from the Global South, including Samuel Escobar and René Padilla. He covers a lot of the same ground I did in the piece I wrote for RELEVANT last year. Chester gets even more cool points by echoing the Lausanne Covenant, writing, “Our evangelism should have social consequences as we call people to repentance.”
The whole book is informed by theology, which is of course essential for the kind of distinctly evangelical social action Chester is calling for. The gospel really is good news to the poor, and Christian social activists do no favors to themselves or others when they shy away from that good news. Neither does it make much sense when those most outspokenly “gospel-centered” speak and write as if social action were a threat to the gospel. This dichotomy is firmly established in many minds, but I’m convinced it’s for the most part unbiblical. The bottom line is that for better or worse, our theology will impact our posture towards those in need. If it seems strange to affirm that the gospel, in some special sense, is good news to the poor, it might be time to revisit the Gospels and the Prophets.
Chester isn’t just writing as a biblically literate pastor with half-baked thoughts on social action, however. He consistently cites leading practitioners and groundbreaking thinkers, showing he has clearly done his homework. Even better, he draws upon a wide swath of thinkers and practitioners, from Puritans to Anabaptists and all sorts of others in between (including, incidentally, back to back quotes at one point from John Owen and Jim Wallis, whose words rarely turn up in the same corners). But this is intentional, since Chester has no interest in simply preaching to the choir. His aim is far more important than that: “I want to urge conservatives not to marginalize those who uphold the cause of the oppressed and to urge social activists not to go down the blind alley of theological liberalism.” (Kudos to Crossway for publishing a book like this.)
As a pastor, Chester takes the local church seriously—something not all Christian advocates of social action do very well. Poverty, he writes, is a matter of broken relationships, and at its best the local church is a community of belonging and grace. For distinctly Christian development to take place, we need distinctly Christian communities. I love this way of marrying ecclesiology and social action.
If there was one part of the book I found problematic, it was his near-wholesale dismissal of “human rights” as a valid Christian concern. He regards the language of human rights as “an attempt to develop an ethic without God”—a very strong assertion. At the same time, he says we Christians can use the language even if we don’t believe in human rights as such. That strikes me as as interesting compromise, and ultimately an unconvincing one. Having read all sorts of thoughtful Christian discussions on human rights, from thinkers as diverse as Os Guinness and Nicholas Wolterstorff, I’m not as quick to dismiss human rights as incompatible with Christian faith. Rights language is complicated, yes, and depending on who’s speaking it can rest on a number of problematic presuppositions. But to cede the basis of “human rights” language to those outside the faith seems a foolish loss. Christians don’t have a monopoly on human rights, but neither should we remove ourselves from the conversation.
Nonetheless, this relatively minor argument is overshadowed by the helpfulness of the rest of the book. From start to finish, Chester demonstrates pastoral concern and theological depth, while drawing on some of the best thinking out there on social action and development.