Redeeming social justice from liberals (and conservatives)

Behind this post are two conversations that I’m having with myself today: One, Mike Frost wrote a piece titled, It’s Not a Liberal Agenda, it’s the Gospel!. Second, this Sunday I’m preaching on Matthew 7:15-23, and so I’m spending time grappling with these words from the Lord Jesus.

As you read these ponderings you shouldn’t read them as a critique of Mike Frost, unless I refer to him explicitly. Mike’s meanderings serve as a jumping point for some ideas rather than the framing of what I want to say.

Also, as you read this article I understand that some people may burst a boil as you spot caveats, ‘what ifs’, and buts. In light of these medical emergencies may I offer this prefatory remark: this is a blog post not a 15,000 word essay, and so don’t be disappointed if I don’t fill in every gap or close every alleged theological aperture.

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i. Social selectivism

The Bible is certainly not short of individuals who lived a ‘form of godliness’, but ‘denied its power’, meaning they were bereft of Christ’s Gospel.

In my experience, both cultural conservatives and progressives have a propensity to fail in this way.

First of all, they are almost always selective in the kind of issues they promote. When was the last time you heard social and theological progressives defending the rights of unborn children and fighting to retain a classical view of marriage? Of course, the question could be asked of many issues across the socio-political spectrum.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but we know it needs to be said, Jesus never voted Green, Labor, or Liberal. Trying to squeeze Jesus under under any socio-political umbrella is wrong;  maybe he would prefer to stand out in the rain!

There are historical reasons why evangelicals have dropped the ball on many social concerns. These include the World Council of Churches’, Missio Dei, Second Vatican, and Lausanne 1974, each which have negatively impacted confidence in and need for verbal proclamation of the Gospel. Before this century long trajectory, Evangelicals immersed themselves in caring for the poor and suffering in society; some of the greatest evangelists were also intimately involved in creating orphanages and charities for the poor (John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon, for example).

Perhaps Mike’s critics smell some WCC residue in his social concerns; I don’t know.

But I love the fact that Mike Frost (and others) is seizing these issues from those who think they belong to a ‘leftist agenda.’ Concerns for Refugees and Indigenous people doesn’t belong to theological liberals, any more than other issues belong to the ‘right’. Rather, he’s rightly placing all things in the scope of God’s cosmic rule in Christ. While none of us can be active across all that troubles this fallen world, there is no opting out of loving our neighbour, including further examples that Frost cites,  people caught up in gambling and in the sex industry.

ii. Missing the Evangelical heart.

“Our job, as his followers, is to both announce and demonstrate what the rule of King Jesus is like and invite others to join us, to recognize that Jesus’ sacrificial death atoned for the sins of all, and that his resurrection establishes him as the Son whom God has appointed judge of the world and Lord of the coming kingdom.” (Mike Frost)

It’s a great statement, but the question is, in practice what is this looking like? Four questions/concerns come to mind. I don’t know Mike well enough to know what he’d think of these points, but they are certainly true of some of my friends who readily identify with some social justice issues. With the view of loving the poor:

1. Verbal proclamation of the Gospel is often relegated, if not dispensed with altogether.

I remember sitting in a seminar a few years back, addressing the topic of local mission. The presenter spoke of ‘doing mission’ by creating programs to help the poor and marginalised. I asked a question about evangelism, to which he answered, one might explain the Gospel but it is not necessary.

I did find this comment of Mike’s about evangelism a little boorish,

‘Is the gospel really just a set of magic words, like an incantation, I have to blurt out to appear to be true to Jesus?’

I certainly don’t know anyone who thinks this way, and it’s a bit mischievous to portray folk this way. We would do well to remind ourselves of Jesus’ earthly ministry where he prioritised the public preaching of God’s Word, a model adopted by the Apostles and passed on to future generations of pastors. At the same time, they didn’t ignore the very real social needs around them, and Jesus gives us the example par excellence of loving society’s most disadvantaged.

2. Aspects of the atonement such as Christus exemplar and Christus victor take centre stage while penal substitution is squeezed out, often becoming little more than an awkward ‘theory’.

3. The Gospel of ‘forgiveness of sins’ drops from the centre of  the Christian message, and we fall danger of converting people into a Gospel of works.

4. I want to be careful about confusing Gospel fruit with the Gospel, although we want to say the Gospel will inevitably and necessarily produce fruit (cf. Matt 7:15-23).

If any of these points are representative of the bald man of Manly, then there may be warrant for criticism, but fighting for refugees is no indicator of belittling evangelism or compromising the Gospel. And of the social concerns he has written, how can we not want to speak up and to defend and love?

iii. Redeeming social justice.

None of the above points are inevitable. Serving the hurting, lonely, and unwanted, are beautiful and necessary examples of loving our neighbours. These actions are fruit of the Gospel.

Does not the good news of Jesus Christ change everything? When we have experienced God’s forgiveness, and by grace been brought into his family, this love changes the way we view other people. Therefore, we mustn’t leave these issues to the left or right, for the love of Christ compels us.

In light of the Scripture I think it is fair to say that a Church who promotes social justice but doesn’t practice evangelism has failed to understand the Gospel and is disobeying God. And Christians who believe in evangelism and who think it unChristian to fight for the most oppressed, they too are yet to grasp the Gospel. As Jesus says, a good tree will produce good fruit. And in the Sermon on the Mount, fruit is almost a synonym for righteousness, and righteousness here includes purity, humility, sacrifice, and generosity. Is it not applicable to live out these things for the good of society’s most vulnerable people?

From what I can see, Evangelicals are returning to social justice ministries, and many respected evangelical leaders are increasingly speaking to these issues, including Tim Keller, Russell Moore, Al Mohler, and the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies. Why? The Gospel changes everything.

We don’t have to choose between helping the poor and doing evangelism. We ought to do both for both express love for others, and we commit to both without de-centralising the place of Gospel telling.

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3 thoughts on “Redeeming social justice from liberals (and conservatives)

  1. On verbal proclamation …
    Just because you don’t know of any it doesn’t mean that they aren’t out there. Evangelicalism is full of those who insist on saying the magic words and publically acknowledging your faith.

    My pastor once talked about baptists being great at post-disaster relief in the short-term and methodists being great in the long-term. I think each social justice group should stick to what they’re best at, otherwise they’d spread themselves too thin. The church can’t both fight abortion and demand it.

    Like

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