Is social justice an essential part of the gospel? The question has been raging for decades, and in some circles the matter was settled long ago. But a new generation of evangelicals with a strong inclination toward social engagement is reviving the debate. I’m increasingly convinced, however, that we are framing the debate incorrectly and missing the point as a result.
For example, back in 2011 Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (my alma mater) hosted Jim Wallis and Al Mohler to debate the role of justice in the mission of the gospel. Wallis, the president and CEO of Sojourners, affirmed the centrality of social justice in the gospel, while Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said it was an implication of the gospel but not part of it.
Disagreeing with Mohler’s point of view, Wallis said, “If justice is only an implication, it can easily become optional and, especially in privileged churches, non-existent.” He cited the examples of “atonement-only” churches in America that were on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement, and churches in South Africa that defended the apartheid regime.
In a post-debate blog post, Wallis wrote, “Conversely, churches that have been on the side of justice, such as black churches both in the United States and South Africa, were always the ones to say that justice was integral to the meaning of the gospel and not just an implication of it. That should tell us something,”
Mohler opposed Wallis by noting that we must be careful how we define terms in the debate. Equating social justice with the gospel is a road that follows 20th century liberal Protestantism into a watered down message of salvation. Still, Mohler did affirm the goodness of social action on the part of Christians:
“The larger theological frame is that God is glorified when His fallen creation is to any degree rectified … that is drawn into a closer alignment with His own justice, His own righteousness, His own attributes. We should celebrate every good thing that is done in Christ’s name. Christ’s people must be agents of human flourishing precisely because flourishing was God’s intention for His human creatures in Creation.”
The Mohler-Wallis debate caught my attention in part because I hosted a very similar conversation between Jim Wallis and Mark Dever a few years earlier for Leadership Journal. You can watch the conversation here:
Dever took the same position as Mohler–justice is a good implication of the gospel, but not essential to it. The concern again is that the message of the gospel remain uncluttered; a clarion call to faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
Rather than wade into the debate with merely my thoughts, I’d like to share a the more respected thoughts of John Stott. Of course Stott was one of the pillars of 20th century evangelicalism, and the theological heavyweight behind the Lausanne Covenant. He wrestled mightily with the question of gospel proclamation versus demonstration, and the role of social justice in the mission of the church. In his book Christian Mission in the Modern World (IVP, 1975), he outlines three ways of understanding the relationship between evangelism and social action:
1. Social action as a means to evangelism. This view sees social engagement as PR for the gospel. It turns the soil and positively predisposes individuals or a community to receive the good news. But as Stott says, “In its most blatant form this makes social work the sugar on the pill, the bait on the hook, while in its best forms it gives the gospel credibility it would otherwise lack. In either case the smell of hypocrisy hangs round our philanthropy.”
2. Social action as a manifestation of evangelism. Evangelicals have become very fond of Francis of Assisi’s line about always preaching the gospel, and using words when necessary. That’s how Stott defines this manifestation model. Social justice is a means of proclaiming the gospel. This is very close to the the implication view held be Mohler and Dever. But Stott says:
“It leaves me uneasy. For it makes service a subdivision of evangelism, an aspect of proclamation. I do not deny that good works of love did have an evidential value when performed by Jesus and do have an evidential value when performed by us (cf. Matthew 5:16). But I cannot bring myself to accept that this is their only or even major justification. If it is, then still, and rather self-consciously at that, they are only a means to an end. If good works are visible preaching, then they are expecting a return, but if good works are visible loving, then they are ‘expecting nothing in return’ (Luke 6:35).”
3. Social action is a partner of evangelism. This, finally, is where Stott lands on the matter. He believes that social justice and evangelism “belong to each other and yet are independent of each other. Each stands on its own feet in its own right alongside the other. Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself.”
Here is where John Stott not only reveals his theological brilliance, but also his Christ-formed heart. He recognizes that forcing every facet of the Christian life to fit into a mission/evangelism framework is untenable, and insisting that social action somehow justify itself in relation to evangelism is to ask the wrong question. In other words, we are having the wrong debate. Rather than asking how justice fits into the mission of the church, we ought to be asking how justice fits into the life of every Christian. Stott goes on:
“The reason for our acceptance of social responsibility is not primarily in order to give the gospel either a visibility or a credibility it would otherwise lack, but rather simple, uncomplicated compassion. Love has no need to justify itself.”
For me, this is where the debates about social justice and the gospel go off track. Atonement-only advocates demand justice advocates justify their emphasis on social engagement rather than evangelism. And justice advocates demand atonement-only advocates justify their emphasis on evangelism rather than social activism. But, using Stott’s logic, if evangelism or social activism is flowing from a heart of love and compassion than neither must be justified. Love is it’s own justification.
How then are we to discern which to engage? According to Stott it depends upon one’s situation and calling. At times the situation calls us to love by seeking the reconciliation of people to God. Evangelism is the manifestation of love. In other situations the most pressing need is physical healing, social reform, or advocacy for the oppressed. Social justice becomes the vehicle of our love.
But calling must also be factored in. Sadly in much of evangelicalism we’ve lost a theology of calling, therefore the institutional church or influential leader’s fill the vacuum and seek to establish a one-size-fits-all hierarchy of Christian service. In other words, we impose from the outside what every Christian “should” do. But Stott recognizes that Christ is Lord, and he calls his servants to different tasks for his glory:
“Then too there is a diversity of Christian callings, and every Christian should be faithful to his own calling. The doctor must not neglect the practice of medicine for evangelism, nor should the evangelist be distracted from the ministry of the word by the ministry of tables, as the apostles quickly discovered (Acts 6).”
Without this humble, and biblical, theology of vocation we will continue to argue about what each Christian should be doing based upon our own limited understanding of God’s will, rather than affirming the place of the Holy Spirit in calling each servant according to his purposes. (A theology of vocation and how Christians are to engage the world as agents of God’s redemption is the subject of my book, Futureville.)
If John Stott’s perspective were more widely held, I wonder how a conversation between Jim Wallis and Al Mohler might be different. Rather than engaging the social justice/gospel issue through the lens of theological rightness, what if they saw it through the lens of calling? Might it be possible for Dr. Mohler to affirm and bless Wallis in his social activism as part of God’s good work in the world? And could Jim Wallis thank Al Mohler for his unwavering call to announce Christ’s invitation of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God? And could they both invite other Christians to commune deeply with God and seek his calling for their lives–blessing those called to evangelism and those called to social action? Does it have to be a winner-take-all theological battle with each side demanding the other justify its position?
I agree with John Stott. Love, whether manifested as evangelism or social action, is it’s own justification.
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