Mohler v. Wallis October 2011: Is Social Justice the Church’s Mission?

I don’t know if you’ve seen word of this, but this debate, sponsored by the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, looks great.  It’s between Al Mohler and Jim Wallis and will cover the role of social justice in the mission of the church.  The debate will be held on October 27, 2011 at TEDS.

Here’s the description of an event that will surely attract a good deal of attention, and should.

North American Evangelicals, long focused on sharing the gospel as the essential mission of the church, have recently become very interested in issues of social justice. A growing sentiment among some today is that Jesus, when he lived on Earth, was indeed among the poor and marginalized, and this fact has, or at least should have, implications for the church’s self-understanding and mission.

Rightly or wrongly, this interest in social justice is being transformed into a blueprint for a new vision of ecclesial ministry. For those holding this position, social justice is not only a burning concern as we seek to embody a pure and faultless religion, but also an essential part of the mission of the church. For others, this new blueprint conjures up concerns about liberal Christianity and a watering down of the gospel, not unlike what took place in Europe in the 20th century. The defining mission of the church, for them, continues to be the sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ to all nations, generations, and social classes. The issue of social justice, though important, is not to be considered as an essential part of the mission of the church. A basic question at the heart of the debate is this: Is social justice an essential part of the mission of the church?

The Henry Center for Theological Understanding, in its Trinity Debates forum, is pleased to provide a public venue for addressing this question by hosting two prominent voices from competing perspectives. Jim Wallis will answer “Yes” and R. Albert Mohler will answer “No.”

I look forward to watching this debate, which most likely will be webcasted.  The Henry Center continues to produce events that are of great importance to the faith and practice of the evangelical church, and is definitely a center worth following (on Twitter, for example).

  • Christianes

    I would caution people who want to exclude ‘social justice’ as something that is not a Christian concern.

    The Holy Gospels should be THE reference on this matter, not the teachings of modern day ‘ideologues’ or conservative radio hosts.

  • owenstrachan

    Interesting thoughts. I suppose it matters how one defines “social justice,” the church’s mission, and the individual’s responsibility.

  • ndefalco


    I like your first sentence. Your second sentence needs some work:

    The Holy Scriptures, all of it, should be THE reference on this matter, not the teachings of modern day ‘idealougues’ or conservative AND LIBERAL radio/tv/internet hosts/commentators.

    There, fixed it for you.

    • Christianes

      Thank you for helping. All sacred Scripture is connected, you are right. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, all sacred Scripture points us towards Christ the Lord, the Eternal Word.

  • Thomas Twitchell

    It’s a question?

    …And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea…

    If it wasn’t Jesus mission, why should we think it ours. Jesus said this in the context of doing good deeds. The people would have constrained him to social justice, as if that concept that has any real meaning. It is quite amazing that the question is even bantered about when Jesus himself said, it was not his purpose, and he was on mission. So, what then is the answer that even Paul gives? …But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content… And that following Jesus who to the anxiety factor about the common needs of life at this: …Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also… Therefore do not be anxious…

    That was in the context of what? The fact is that the mission of the church is the Gospel. In that Jesus said that a blessing belongs to those who care for “these my disciples,” and not to those who would delay them from their mission by binding them to the works that unbelievers desired and sought Jesus so that he might show them a sign to legitimate his message.

    • Kyle Barrett

      What about these verses where Jesus is defining his mission, unique though it is?

      Luke 7:21-23

      In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

      We have to say more than just “lay up treasures in heaven” because the Bible says more.

      The Mohler-Wallis debate should be a good one. Thanks for the heads up.

      • Thomas Twitchell

        The signs that Jesus pointed to had a specific reference which John would have understood. The signs are not the purpose (mission), the purpose is the proclaimation of the Gospel. True enough there is much more that can accompany the Gospel, but they are neither primary, nor even necessary as is clear from Jesus pronouncements about just what it is we shouldn’t be anxious about. Jesus would not even submit to his disciples pleas, rather that get caught up in the melieu of the surrounding circumstances he set his eyes on the goal. It simply isn’t true that by giving blessing doors are openned. Indeed, Jesus’ instructions to his disciples was that if the message was not received they were to leave a curse and not bless. His own instructions included a requirement to submit to the Gospel, “eat my flesh and drink my blood.” That is the necessary provision. The long history of Israel is that when they were blessed with provision it only tended to their rebellion. As the Gospel goes forth it should never be held hostage to the belly.

  • Christianes

    There is nothing about the Gospel that is not an answer to evil.

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  • idreformando

    I do see a social concern in the gospel but only after the eternal concern. When I have traced liberal theology and the social Gospel, I end up with much of what we can label Marxism with Humanism. Do note, that Humanism was a heresy coming out of the church. What i see mostly in regards to social justice in Latin America, that is all i see, I see no proclamation. I see social christians aligning with all types of humanistic centered groups. They (Humanists) envision a World without God and therefore are responsible to bring justice and equity. We as Christians and as bible believing christians know that We envision a World governed by God and that He will bring justice and equity through his Kingdom. Should that keep us from the social concerns? No. But it should not put social concerns as our main objective but his proclamation.

  • owenstrachan

    Appreciate the sharpening discussion, all. The lively nature of the comments indicates just how crucial a matter we’re discussing. Care is warranted on this issue, and I suspect that a biblical position on “social justice” will defy easy categorizations (Yes! No!).

  • Jeremy

    Matthew 25:35-40 comes to mind:

    35‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

    Even if it were decided (discovered?) that a Christians primary concern should not include ‘social justice,’ (and I’m not convinced that social justice qua social justice is essential to a Christians mission) it still seems to me that a Christian still has a responsibility towards his or her neighbour (i.e. everyone) with respect to displaying (in an actionable way) the (agape) love of Christ.

    The ‘debate’ seems to be over the degree the Christian should go, not whether the Christian should act in the first place.

    (I hope my HTML isn’t stripped, apologies if it is)

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  • kevin

    Jeremy, I think that one of your means of describing this is a huge part of the debate. You continue to speak of an individual Christian and the debate is whether or not the Church as a whole should have social justice as a primary mission.

  • Jeremy

    Sure – My understanding is that what is true of the church is true of the Christian. Is there any reason to think otherwise?

  • Jeremy

    I should add, and vice-versa.

  • kevin

    Well, that’s what the debate is about :) How’s that for an answer!

    The question, however, isn’t if what is true for the church is true for the Christian but the other way around. Just because a Christian should be doing certain things (i.e., feeding the poor, caring for widows and orphans, etc—and what that looks like could be discussed much further), does that mean that a local church should be active in setting those programs up? I think we would all agree that, as believers, we are called to those tasks.
    You and I might possibly disagree on whether or not churches should see it as their mission to feed the poor and care for orphans. It seems to me that if we say that is a mission, then they aren’t acting as they ought if they don’t have a means in place to do it.

  • kevin

    okay….you beat me to it: disrgard my second sentence

  • Jeremy

    Hey Kevin:

    Well, that’s what the debate is about :) How’s that for an answer!

    Not a very good one :P

    The question, however, isn’t if what is true for the church is true for the Christian but the other way around. Just because a Christian should be doing certain things (i.e., feeding the poor, caring for widows and orphans, etc—and what that looks like could be discussed much further), does that mean that a local church should be active in setting those programs up? I think we would all agree that, as believers, we are called to those tasks.
    You and I might possibly disagree on whether or not churches should see it as their mission to feed the poor and care for orphans. It seems to me that if we say that is a mission, then they aren’t acting as they ought if they don’t have a means in place to do it.

    A disclaimer to begin with. When I refer to ‘the Church,’ I’m not referring to a building. Moreover, I’m not referring to ‘the body of Christ’ plus ‘the Church’ (as some abstract entity). By ‘the Church’ I mean the totality of all believers in Christ. Thus if i were to say “the Church has a mandate to feed the poor”, an equivalent sentence would be “followers of Christ have a mandate to feed the poor”.

    But it seems to me there are two types of mandates (I’ll revise my earlier statement): mandates which apply to the Church (love thy neighbour), and mandates which apply to a specific individual (do not drink, because you can’t help but get drunk; the mandate for the church might be ‘do not get drunk’).

    When I quoted Matthew above, my point was that the Church has a mandate to feed the poor, clothe the naked, etc. Christ was speaking generally -to all Christians, whether as individuals or part of a corporate entity – the principle is universal. It is not true that Joe should love his neighbour, but not Bill. In other words, your point is moot where Matthew is concerned.

    Incidentally, that is why I made sure to mention that the debate is over the degree a Christian ought to go, not whether a Christian ought to act. I would also think that if a church (as a collection of believers) had a reason for why they couldn’t perform ‘X’, then that’s not something they could be held accountable for. They would be held accountable if they could perform ‘X’ but didn’t.

    • kevin

      Jeremy, definitions are important. I agree….church is not a building and can be the universal church of all believers. However, if I’m not mistaken, the use of church in this debate is how should social justice look in the local gathering of believers. As in, should my church Third Avenue Baptist see social justice as their mission. I agree with you that the universal church…….the totality of all believers in Christ…has the mandate to social justice. However, that is the same as saying that individual Christians everywhere should pursue social justice. We agree on that. The question in this debate is whether or not social justice is a mission of the local gathering of believers.

      • Jeremy

        If all Christians are called to social justice, then a gathering of believers (a set of ‘all Christians’) are also called to social justice. To say otherwise would be to treat the local church as something distinct from the Christians that make it up, or at least I think.

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  • Jeff


    While “the totality of all believers in Christ” can properly be called the church (typically it’s referred to as the universal church), that’s not the only possible or biblical definition of church. And, from what I’ve read of these debates, what all Christians everywhere should do isn’t usually the question. More commonly, it’s a question of what particular, local churches – covenanted, recognizable bodies of believers who gather to worship, hear the Word preached, and practice the ordinances – should do.

    It’s clear from Scripture that there are some things that are given to the organized Church to do that individual believers may not do. Baptism and Lord’s Supper are two examples. And, as you recognize, there are things that are commanded of individual Christians that do not apply to the local church as a body – do not get drunk, love your wives, submit to your husbands, etc.

    So, then, we have two separate questions. First, is social justice something I should be concerned with as a Christian? And second, is it something that my local church should be working for?

    My own answer is yes to the first question and a qualified no to the second. As Thomas Twitchell noted above, Jesus’ main command to the church (via its founders and heads, the apostles) is found in the Great Commission: make disciples. As the 19th and 20th centuries have ably demonstrated, when churches start pursuing social causes, they typically lose the Gospel and fail at making disciples. However, it is also true that part of my being a disciple of Jesus is obeying his command to love my neighbor. Therefore, the church should be teaching me what it means to love my neighbor, which means teaching me about my responsibility to pursue social justice.

  • Jeremy


    It’s not clear to me that only the ‘organized church’ may baptize or perform communion (as opposed to a collection of believers). Nor am I sure that you aren’t treating ‘the Church’ as something distinct from its members.

    However, you echo most of my thoughts so I can agree with you (with some reservations; if we defined ‘social justice’ as loving my neighbor, and all Christians are to love their neighbors, then I see no reason why a local church body would not also work towards that end. ‘Social justice’ does not seem analogous to communion or baptism, so I don’t think your comparison holds.).

  • owenstrachan


    Good thoughts, friend. I think what Jeff is pointing out is that the local church has functions to perform that individual Christians or even non-churchly groups of Christians don’t have. My group of ten friends meeting for lunch, for example, does not enact church discipline (1 Cor 6). You may disagree about other tasks that Christians/the church perform. It’s very clear that the Corinthians bear the duty to keep the church pure, however.

    The church has functions distinct from groups of individual Christians. My aforementioned lunch table does not elect elders and deacons (Acts 7). The local church has its own particular structure, its own particular offices, and its own particular calling based on that polity. This is not to say that there is no overlap between non-church groups and the church; there clearly is. But at a basic level, at least, the church has a unique identity.

    That’s a starting point for this discussion–at least it is for me. Doesn’t settle everything, but perhaps helps to set the table (to overuse my metaphor of choice).

  • Matt

    Is there a link to the video?

  • Samantha Leahy

    My name is Samantha and I attend Clemson University. I work under my professor, who is currently publishing a new book about seven influential Christian leaders, Carl F. H. Henry being one of them. Would you mind email me for further questions at ?

    Thank you.