I am all for a statement that provides a clear, biblical integration of both evangelism and social justice.
For most of the 20th century these two aspects of the mission of God’s people were considered to be competing interests in the life of the church. Even still today, for some people, evangelism and social justice are seen as polar opposites, so they assume the more committed you are to one, the less interested you are in the other.
So when I’d read there was a new major statement being issued about these two areas of Christian responsibility I had hoped we could at last put to bed the idea that commitment to one necessarily crushes interest in the other.
Imagine my disappointment when I read that one of the original signatories of the recently drafted Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel, was evangelical church leader, John MacArthur, who recently wrote,
“Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of ‘social justice’ is a significant shift — and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before.”
Firstly, evangelicalism does not have an obsession with social justice. I wish we did. Anyone who has ever tried to mobilise the evangelical church in campaigns to end war, increase foreign aid, address immigration reform, eliminate poverty, or take racial reconciliation seriously, know there’s often very little interest from evangelical circles.
And secondly, I see no logical or philosophical reason why the pursuit of justice by evangelicals should move people “off message”, by which I assume MacArthur means away from a proclamation of the gospel. MacArthur is stuck with that old view that evangelism and justice are two distinct and separate entities, each on different ends of a seesaw (or teeter-totter). As one ascends the other descends.
TWO INTERLOCKING COGS
Rather than seeing them as competing interests, I’d like us to recover the biblical idea that word and deed are interdependent activities of the church. Instead of evangelism and justice being seen as opposing each other on a see-saw, think of them as two interlocking cogs. As you crank one cog, it sets the other one turning as well.
I agree with those who have drafted the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel that evangelism is the spoken dimension and activity of the church’s mission, and that the gospel is “the divinely-revealed message concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ… revealing who he is and what he has done with the promise that he will save anyone and everyone who turns from sin by trusting him as Lord.”
Preaching the gospel should offer every person and community, everywhere, a valid opportunity to be directly challenged to a radical reorientation of their lives around Christ. This reorientation involves such things as:
- Deliverance from slavery to the world and its powers
- Embracing Christ as Saviour and Lord
- Becoming a living member of Christ’s community, the church
- Being enlisted into his service of reconciliation, peace and justice on earth
- Being committed to God’s purpose of placing all things under the rule of Christ.
Evangelism is the announcement of the kingship of Christ. So, words are required. As David Bosch wrote, “This message is indeed unique. It cannot be replaced by unexplained deeds.”
But those words must be backed by action. The actions themselves might not communicate the gospel without our words explaining why we do what we do. But neither can we simply do all the talking without demonstrating the values of the reign of Jesus we’re espousing.
So, again I agree with the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel when it says,
“We affirm that since he is holy, righteous, and just, God requires those who bear his image to live justly in the world. This includes showing appropriate respect to every person and giving to each one what he or she is due. We affirm that societies must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice.”
I’d just go one step further. I believe the more we seek to unravel unjust structures that keep people in poverty or marginalized or oppressed, the more we will be called upon to discuss our motivations for doing so. And the more we speak about the reign of Christ, the more we should be driven to demonstrate to others what we’re talking about.
Like the two wheels of a cog.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say if you’re committed to evangelism but never find yourself drawn to alleviate suffering or remove social or political impediments to allow true access and equality for all, you’re probably doing evangelism wrong.
The only people who say justice diverts you from evangelism are those for whom the gospel is (a) reductionist (information about how to go to heaven when you die); (b) individualistic (inviting Jesus into your heart); (c) punitive (guilt alleviation and hell avoidance): and (d) anthropocentric (focused on personal sin more than on the character of the Triune God).
However, if you believe, as Tim Keller says, “the gospel is the good news that God himself has come to rescue and renew all of creation through the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf,” then your gospel is expansive, communal, telic, and God-centered. It propels you into the world to demonstrate God’s justice, not just preach about it.
COMMUNICATION AND ILLUMINATION
Another way of putting it is Daniel Darling’s two-fold understanding of mission: that of communication and of illumination.
Evangelism, gospel proclamation, personal witnessing – these are the mission of communication.
But communication must be enhanced by illumination. As Darling writes,
“We have been told to illuminate the kingdom to the world. In our lives, we show what the kingdom is like. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is good news for the poor, the captives, the blind (Luke 4:18). So as we go into the world as healing agents—renewing, cultivating, restoring—we show the world a glimpse of the future kingdom of God.”
Communication and illumination should work like those two cogs I was talking about.
There’s plenty I could take issue with in the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. Why for example do we need yet another statement on human sexuality, gender roles and marriage in a declaration about justice and the gospel (especially since the drafters have already released a statement on those issues)? And how could intelligent communicators produce such a cringingly insensitive and ham-fisted statement about race while also trying to decry racism? And as for the statement, “…some cultures operate on assumptions that are inherently better than those of other cultures because of the biblical truths that inform those worldviews…” well, the less said about that the better.
But to its core message, why would they write that they “emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture”?
Are they saying William Wilberforce’s “lectures” on abolitionism weren’t expressions of his Christian faith? Should the Earl of Shaftesbury not have expressed his Christian faith by calling on Britain to initiate humane child labor laws? Are current-day cries to curb human trafficking not appropriate for evangelical Christians?
When the statement says, “such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel,” I couldn’t disagree more. Christian activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture is a direct expression of the gospel. And in many cases it provides us with the platform to openly discuss our beliefs.
Recently, while chained to the gates of the Prime Minister’s home in Sydney to protest the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees (a pretty justicey activity), I had a number of opportunities to talk to random strangers who came up to us to thank us for our action and ask us why we were doing it.
Lesslie Newbigin once declared,
“The Gospel is concerned with God’s purpose of blessing for all the nations. It is concerned with the completion of God’s purpose in the creation of the world. It is not – to put it crudely – concerned with offering a way of escape for the redeemed soul out of history, but with the action of God to bring history to its true end.”
We need the followers of Christ to plunge into history now more than ever, to demonstrate the values of the reign of Christ, and to articulate his vision and teaching, to explain the significance of his atoning sacrifice, and to invite all to experience his unending grace.