Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Gospel and ‘Social Justice’…

In light of the highly publicized politic debate taking place right now concerning “Obamacare” (i.e., national government health care), I have been thinking about how all this relates to the subject of social justice and whether or not the church should involve itself in such things. This has really become a hot topic these days, especially amongst younger Evangelicals.

A few examples are………

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC. Tim has been speaking about justice for many years but has just recently put his insights into a new book coming out in October of this year entitled Generous Justice. Here is the publishers description:

It is commonly thought in our secular culture that the Bible is one of the
great hindrances to doing justice. In Generous Justice, Timothy Keller
illuminates a life of justice empowered by an experience of grace: a generous,
gracious justice.

Generous Justice is a book for believers who find the Bible a trustworthy
guide, as well as for those who suspect that Christianity is a regressive
influence in the world.

Keller calls upon life-long Christians to deepen their faith by
understanding that justice for the poor and marginalized is central to the
Scripture’s message and challenges skeptics to recognize that the Bible is
actually the basis for the modern understanding of justice.

Like all of Tim’s books, this one promises to be thought provoking and generate lots of good healthy discussion and debate.

But it illustrates the debate about the social justice and gospel.

It doesn’t take a one long to realize that the so called “emerging church” which crosses a number of theological boundaries and the participants can be described as evangelical, post-evangelical, and post-liberal. They are very concerned with the planet, with the ecosystems, pollution and the environment; so much so that apparently in some sense Christ died for the physical planet and it is the job of the follower of Christ to help restore and protect this world. He is also troubled with injustice.

One of the leading voices of this movement is Brian McLaren. He asks, “And could our preoccupation with individual salvation from hell after death distract us from speaking prophetically about injustice in our world today?”( The Last Word and the Word After That, p. 84) .Emergent leaders have a deep concern that if we are preoccupied with who is “in” and who is “out,” who is going to heaven and who is not, we will ignore present physical needs of the planet and social issues like injustice, poverty and AIDS.

McLaren argues, “When Matthew, Mark, and Luke talk about the Kingdom of God, it’s always closely related to social justice…. The gospel of the kingdom is about God’s will being done on earth for everybody, but we’re interested in getting away from earth entirely as individuals, and into heaven instead.”(ibid 149) Martin Luther King is given by McLaren as an example of one who had the right gospel emphasis.[ibid 153) They fault the evangelical church for being too wrapped up in eternity to care about what is happening right now on planet earth and with being too anxious over who is saved from sin to notice who is suffering from man’s inhumanity to man.

It does not seem to be an option to the emergent church that both social injustices and eternal redemption can be and have been attended to by God’s people. But, despite opinions to the contrary, the priority of Scripture is on man’s relationship to God. It is because men are alienated from God that they mistreat one another. The spiritually redeemed and transformed person should and will care about social sins.

But, again, the gospel is about man’s alienation from God and what He has done through Christ to reconcile us to Himself (Romans 5:6-11), not about the ozone layer and elimination of poverty. Neither Jesus nor the apostles made these latter things the focus of their ministries; it was the reconciliation of souls to God that was at the heart of their message. Once we begin to draw our gospel from the culture, no matter what culture that might be, we have altered the true gospel. Emergent leaders are not wrong to be concerned about the environment and social injustice; they are wrong to confuse it with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For me, the issue is not an “either/or” scenario. I like the way Jonathan Leeman put it recently, suggesting that evangelism and social involvement are “not at odds with each other, but that social involvement is a subsidiary part of evangelism but we shouldn’t get our priorities confused.”

Again, to me, the question to me is we will be emphasizing evangelism and reaching out with the proclamation of the Gospel at the same time, just as strongly how we as Christians live that out? The reality is that in our culture today, especially among the younger generations, they respond to social justice issues and move from that to hearing the Gospel, rather than hearing the Gospel and moving to social justice.

Again, it is good and proper for us to attempt to alleviate the suffering of anyone, in whatever form that is: feeding the hungry, healing the broken, freeing the slaves, redeeming those in prostitution, loving the orphan and the widow, etc.

But the truth of the matter is that if we do not preach the gospel, we are, in essence, simply putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. In the end, that does not address the real issue, and that is giving people life. One can be freed from forced prostitution but still a slave to their sin nature. It is better for one to remain in slavery and come to know Christ than it is for one to never hear of Christ and be freed from slavery. Of course... it is best if one knows Christ and is freed from slavery... but I believe it is our best practice to address the former sooner than the latter, if at all possible.

I greatly desire to see a resurgence of evangelism in the body of Christ today. But evangelism that is rooted in and focused on the gospel.

For a much better and compelling argument read the one made by Kim Moreland in the following article: http://www.breakpoint.org/features-columns/articles/14545-the-social-gospel-and-eternity.

In Christ,
Robert Prater


Anonymous said...

Well Timothy Keller's book needs a good welcome, since he has a lot of respect in evangelical and reformed strands of Christianity...of which I still hear voices saying that social-justice is diverting Christianity from the real issues.

Nevertheless, if we truly want social-justice in the world then the gospel needs to be heard because it is the gospel, when authentically heard, that transform people from woeful sinners and slaves of sin to Spirit-empowered followers of Jesus exibiting the very fruit of the Spirit...and if we had a world full of Jesus followers, we would have a world full of self-sacrificial servants who care for the poor and marginalized just as Jesus did.

Interestingly, I just had a conversation with someone today why our communities do not need another "church" but rather need a group of people sold out for Jesus living among the community.

Grace and peace,


PreacherPrater said...


I think we agree on much here.

In my congregation here in Shawnee, in addition to working some in a local homeless ministry, food and clothes giveaway, tutoring in the local schools, we are beginning a series of 'random acts of kindness' to members of our immediate community. The idea is to express, in practical ways, God's love to the people living near the church. There is the understanding that there is no intent of sharing the Gospel unless they invite the opportunity. This is called 'pre-evangelism'. What kind of remarks will we get from the church when leadership presents this?

Our church leadership is also considering allowing the use of the building to non Christian groups. This will certainly bring on questions of where is the Gospel in all this?

Washington Gladden, who was one of the first leading advocates of the “Social Gospel” beginning in the 1880’s, used the term for his version of the Social Gospel, 'Applied Christianity'. Although I would not take the term as far as he did to mean “Christian Socialism,” I would say that Christianity, if it is to be truly what Christ taught, must be 'applied' Christianity. We are not saved into an individual box but into a family.

We begin this Christian life in a social environment and what we do, how we live is the everyday application of our Christian truths found in the Word of God. James tells us to be doers of the Word and not just hearers only. This is practical Christianity, this is applied Christianity.

But I understand that there is a danger inherent in this thinking. We can often times work so hard to meet the material needs that we neglect the spiritual. Some individuals, churches, institutions, and agencies can get so involved in the program that the person's soul is neglected.

I find much about the emergent churches emphasis on the “social gospel” to be theologically liberal and unacceptable. However, I do not want to be like some hardline “fundamentals” and throw the good out with the bad. I believe that we can have and must have a renewed interest in the social interests of the world and still remain faithful to our fundamental understanding that the gospel is ultimately focused on the spiritual, not the physical.

Therefore, in my personal ministry as well as in my position as minister I work to encourage God's people to live kingdom values within their communities. These values include both a verbal proclamation of the Gospel as well as caring for the social, emotional, psychological and material needs of the people God places in my path.

We have a responsibility to live out our Christian faith in community. And the heart of a believer will naturally overflow in love to all, however, I still beleive we must avoid framing the commission of God’s people in terms of social justice.

God bless,
Robert Prater

Anonymous said...


It sounds like your church is trying to be about Kingdom business...which is always risky because it is often a messy business that is always sure to draw criticisms from both sides. Fortunately there is a cross on Calvary Hill that says this is right.

As for McLaren...I too have my concerns. I am much more interested in the missional and/ or emerging conversations about faith and church taking place than I am in the "Emergent Church" approach (I specifically capitolized "Emergent" to distinguish it from the other catagory).

I am less and less comfortable with the distinctions between physical and spiritual in the way they have been approriated from Platonic philosophy and incorporated into the Christian faith. I prefer to think in terms of "kingdom" or "gospel" which I believe includes both teaching people about the truth of God as well as showing them God's love in tangible ways with neither serving the other but both serving the goal of God's redemption of creation.

If it interests you, check out Christopher J.H. Wright, "The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2006). The approach of the author, who is an Old Testament Scholar and Missionary, is biblical theology. His intent is to show that mission and what that looks like is undergirding factor for everything God does and calls his people to be a part of. He has some strong critique for both liberal and conservative approaches to Christaintiy plus, the book is FULL of ideas for preaching and teaching.

Well, it is encouraging to hear what your church is doing and I think it will open many doors to share with people who Jesus really is.

Grace and peace,