And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, "Why this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor." But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her." (Matthew 26:6-13)
I have noticed during my nearly 37 years in the ministry, that when a denomination or Christian organization departs from the central message of the Bible – the redemption of lost souls through faith in the Person and atoning sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ – they inevitably turn to social concerns and “humanitarian” efforts. Whole bureaucracies within the denomination are formed for such endeavors as “world relief” and “human rights advocacy”.
This shift in ministry emphasis in America began in 19th-century and led to the coining of the term “Social Gospel”. Seeing the misery very evident around them, Christians sought to relieve the effects of poverty and disease while maintaining their primary evangelistic mission. Protestant denominations who held firmly to the Bible and its message of personal salvation believed that only spiritual regeneration through faith in Christ could make a lasting difference in society as a whole. These used social relief efforts as a means of sharing the gospel. Hospitals, clinics, schools, and rescue missions were formed with the intention of saving lost souls by means of their physical needs. The problem is that if churches and Christian missions do not constantly renew their commitment to their Scriptural mission, the “felt needs,” the earthly ills, become the primary focus, and the evangelical mission is lost.
No denomination is immune to this phenomenon. The pastor and seminary professor who holds the title “The Father of the Social Gospel in America” was Baptist pastor Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). His books included, Christianizing the Social Order and A Theology for the Social Gospel. Baptists who held firm to the gospel of personal salvation would eventually separate from the liberal groups and form their own fellowships. The same trends were played out – and are still being played out – among Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed churches, Lutherans, and other denominations.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me say that Christians must never be callous to suffering and need. Our willingness to do what we can to help others is a demonstration of our faith in Christ (James 2:14-17) and our love of God (1 John 3:17). A mission agency with whom I had the privilege of serving for twenty years operates a hospital in Bangladesh. The ministry of that hospital has resulted in scores of conversions to Christ and the founding of a local church. Reports from that field always put the emphasis on the spiritual results, not how many patients were seen. When a devastating tsunami hit Bangladesh in 2004, that mission set up an emergency relief fund and called for volunteers to help administer food and other material needs and to help rebuild the thousands of homes that were destroyed. God’s people responded, homes were rebuilt, and every penny of the money donated went directly to the relief needs – not to administrative costs! That mission, and others like it, have kept their focus on the biblical gospel while responding to immediate needs as they arose – all without forming a new department of “world relief”!
When that faithful lady in the home of Simon the Leper (!) poured that fragrant oil on the head of our Savior, Jesus’ own disciples protested: “Why this waste?” They still didn’t believe or understand the real mission of our Lord. “For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body,” Jesus said, “she did it for My burial.” She understood that Jesus had to die for our sins, be buried, and rise again that we might have eternal life and a new heart. That is the gospel.
Should we not pour out our most precious resources to spread the fragrance of Christ’s gospel of eternal life to a lost world? Waste? How many millions of Christian dollars are poured into political action committees and social activist activities? How much fragrant oil is being wasted on social bandages, while spiritual lepers are eaten away by sin and pass into an eternity in hell?