Is Social Justice at the Heart of the Gospel?
By the Cross Examinations Group
The Cross Examinations series encourages pastors, professors, authors, and bloggers to explore questions of import to the church in a coherent and cooperative manner. Every two weeks, a question is posed to the group, and individual responses are featured as they arrive at the Cross and Culture blog on the Evangelical Portal. One week after the question is sent, the answers are gathered together into a single article. We hope that reflecting together will stimulate thought, focus conversation, and ultimately prove more edifying to online readers and to the church more generally.
The question for this installment is:
"The nature and import of social justice ministry has been attacked and debated frequently in recent weeks. To approach the issue constructively: what exactly IS the proper relationship between evangelistic and social justice ministries?"
Respondents to the question in this round, in alphabetical order, are:
Timothy Dalrymple, Manager of the Evangelical Portal at Patheos.
Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Theological Seminary.
Danny Hall, Senior Pastor at Valley Community Church in Pleasanton, California.
Daniel Harrell, Senior Minister at Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota.
Brian McLaren, founding pastor at Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland.
Kelly Monroe-Kullberg, author, campus minister, and founder of the Veritas Forum.
Mark D. Roberts, Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge.
Timothy Dalrymple is Manager of the Evangelical Portal at Patheos.com:
To paraphrase N. T. Wright, the central proclamation of the Christian gospel is that God is reclaiming the world He creates and loves. This is accomplished through the gracious reconciling work of Jesus Christ, and those who are saved through their trust in Christ are called to yield their lives to him and serve the least of these. We are saved not from the world, but for the world, called not out of the world but into the trenches and foxholes of the suffering and the persecuted -- saved not simply to be with God, but to work with God in the restoration of all things.
Evangelism, at its best, is a profound act of love and courage. If we are not deeply concerned about the souls of those around us, either we are not compassionate or we are not truly convinced of the essential articles of our faith. But even as our own salvation is not solely for our own sake, so the salvation of others is not only for their own sake. Evangelism too serves the redemption of the world, insofar as those with whom we share the gospel, those who are saved by God's grace through faith, also become salt and light within the world. Indeed, countless Christian organizations around the world seek not only to serve the physical needs of those around them but also to evangelize because they believe that the most thoughtful and enduring way to transform societies is through transforming the individuals that compose them, and specifically helping individuals into a relationship with God that will serve as the wellspring for social transformation.
I have reservations regarding the lack of clarity around the term "social justice," and its rhetorical uses for partisan political initiatives. I also fear that focusing too much on promoting systemic change in our societies can detract focus from the constant inward transformation that makes us sensitive to God's will and God's vision of the good. Jesus did not merely protest the injustice of his day; he also yielded himself moment by moment to the will of the Father, and gave himself into radically self-sacrificial relationships. I would rather focus on the imitation of Christ than on social justice as that term is presently construed. But let there be no doubt that Christians are called to bend the arc of history toward the love, truth, and justice of God. Social justice serves evangelism insofar as it demonstrates the love of God for the world; evangelism serves social justice insofar as it rescues more men and women from the slavery of sin and frees them to redeem the world.