Is Social Justice at the Heart of the Gospel?
Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. He blogs at The Constructive Curmudgeon:
Christians should have a Kingdom of God orientation. God's Kingdom advances as shalom (peace with God and the flourishing of humans and creation) is restored to all areas of life through the reconciling power of Jesus Christ, who has all authority in heaven and on earth. Individuals, families, organizations, and civil government need the influence of godly people and godly principles in order to be brought back into alignment with the rule of King Jesus. The Great Commission calls us to disciple nations, not just individuals.
This, of course, requires justice, mercy, and humility. The term 'social justice' is sometimes used as a neutral description of giving people their rights, rescuing the needy, and bringing integrity to politics. However, the term can also be used to describe a left-wing political philosophy that aims to redistribute wealth through high levels of taxation and massive governmental mechanisms. I take this strategy as ill-advised, historically refuted, and unbiblical. The state in the Bible is one sphere of government among many, including self-government, family government, school government, and so on -- all under the Providential government of the Triune God. Abraham Kuyper developed this idea of 'sphere sovereignty.' When the state is inflated beyond its basic place of enforcing contracts, providing domestic safety (police), and ensuring security from foreign foes, it easily becomes an oppressive idol.
While Christians should work against human trafficking and advocate for all 'the least of these,' this does not imply that a left-wing strategy is the wisest course. I believe it is not. Given the recent revolutionary changes in the federal government's control over the economy and individuals, Christians should support a smaller state, more individual and church social action, and concerted prayer that 'thy kingdom come.'
Further, Christians should oppose any federal funding of abortion, since this helps propagate the flow of innocent blood in our land. They should work for pro-life laws and lead pro-life lives, affirming a sanctity of life ethic. Abortion is not one issue among many; it is still the leading social issue of our day.
Danny Hall is Senior Pastor of Valley Community Church in Pleasanton, California:
For Reverend Hall's full response, go here.
The re-emergence of a healthier ecclesiology that calls us to be not just a collection of "saved" individuals on our way to heaven, but a people called to live out eternal kingdom life here and now, means that we have the opportunity and the responsibility to stand against the false dichotomy of the "social" gospel versus the "real" gospel. We are called as followers of Jesus to do both.
In truth, evangelicals have always had a role in issues of justice. Even during its most colonial, dysfunctional days, for example, the missionary work of the church pioneered bringing medical and health care, improving educational opportunities, and basic economic empowerment to many parts of the developing world. Today, the church has become ever more involved in humanitarian issues.
Where the American evangelical church has been slower to get involved, except on a narrow band of issues, is at the systemic level. We have always been better at meeting needs than at addressing the causes of those needs. I fear this may too often reflect our temerity at confronting the intertwining of our faith with nationalistic goals and our comfort in our affluent, suburban lifestyles. For me this is a new frontier that I am beginning to explore.
However, the alleviation of poverty, injustice, disease, etc., is not enough. The ultimate goal is not reformation but transformation. Transformation requires something deeper. It requires that humans be changed at the core of their beings and this is solely possible through the gospel of grace. It is not even enough to change evil systems if we have nothing to offer that can change the evil souls that create and maintain the systems. While the example of Jesus is an important one to follow, it is His work on the cross that makes forgiveness and transformation possible. It is as transformed people, living out His kingdom's values that we become the kind of force for good that is able to address the needs of the whole person.
I do not, therefore, see these as competing responsibilities, but rather as two integral parts of what it means to follow Jesus faithfully in this world. We may differ on how all this works out in the world of activism and policy, but it is healthy and right that we continue to be a part of this conversation.