How to care about social justice (without losing the gospel)
We need to stop pretending that Jesus does not call his churches to act on behalf of the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless, the vulnerable, the hungry, the sex-trafficked, the unborn.
Some evangelicals talk as though personal evangelism and public justice are contradictory concerns, or, at least, that one is part of the mission of the church and the other isn’t. I think otherwise, and I think the issue is one of the most important facing the church these days.
First of all, the mission of the church is the mission of Jesus. This mission doesn’t start with the giving of the Great Commission or at Pentecost. The Great Commission is when Jesus sends the church to the world with the authority he already has (Matt 28:18), and Pentecost is when he bestows the power to carry this commission out (Acts 1:8).
The content of this mission is not just personal regeneration but disciple-making (Matt 28:19). It is not just teaching, but teaching “them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20).
This mission is not inconsistent with what we have seen already in the life of Jesus. His mission is defined by Old Testament expectation (for instance, Ps 72), and in the gospel accounts in terms of redemptive love for the whole person, both body and soul. From the literally embryonic moments of the Incarnation, such terms are present in Mary’s prayer about the coming of her Messiah (Luke 1:46-55), and then in Jesus’ own inaugural words about his kingdom’s arrival (Luke 4:18-19).
This mission is summed up in the gospel as a message of reconciliation that is both vertical and horizontal, establishing peace with both God and neighbor. The Scripture tells us to love neighbor “as yourself” (Luke 10:27-28). This is not simply a “spiritual” ministry, as the example Jesus gives us is of a holistic caring for physical and economic needs of a wounded person, not to mention the transcending of steep ethnic hostilities.
Of course, Jesus’ ministry would be about such things. After all, the Bible shows us, from the beginning, that the scope of the curse is holistic in its destruction – personal, cosmic, social, vocational (Gen 3-11) and that the gospel is holistic in its restoration – personal, cosmic, social, vocational (Rev 21-22).
So how does the church “balance” a concern for evangelism with a concern for justice? A church does so in the same way it “balances” the gospel with personal morality. Sure, there have been churches that have emphasized public justice without the call to personal conversion. Such churches have abandoned the gospel.
But there are also churches that have emphasized personal righteousness (sexual morality, for instance) without a clear emphasis on the gospel. And there are churches that have taught personal morality as a means of earning favor with God. Such also contradicts the gospel.
We do not, though, counteract legalism in the realm of personal morality with an antinomianism. And we do not react to the persistent “social gospels” (of both Left and Right) by pretending that Jesus does not call his churches to act on behalf of the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless, the vulnerable, the hungry, the sex-trafficked, the unborn. We act in the framework of the gospel, never apart from it, either in verbal proclamation or in active demonstration.
The short answer to how churches should “balance” such things is simple: follow Jesus. We are Christians. This means that as we grow in Christ-likeness, we are concerned about the things that concern him. Jesus is the king of his kingdom, and he loves whole persons, bodies as well as souls.