“… what does the Lord require of you…”
I don’t know a Christ follower who doesn’t want to see the gospel advance. Neither do I know a believer who claims Jesus is unjust. Every Christian I have met aspires to be like Christ.
Yet somehow, for segments of the evangelical church, it seems we must choose. A line drawn. Are you pro gospel or justice? Place ‘social’ in front of justice, out come the blades.
Definitions matter. Perception often matters more. A term’s meaning is important, but is often overshadowed by the conversations taking place around it. In the last 18 months, terminology related to race, status, religion, etc. have simultaneously become more divisive and more elusive. More charged and more ambiguous. As the world wrestles with important issues and grapples to find a path forward, an ever-present need for unity in the body of Christ has risen. But the path. It seems cloudy at best, and opaque at worst.
Social justice, the phrase, elicits great and varied emotion. The term is typically cast in favorable light by those on the political left. It often carries negative connotations from the right, which is most frequently associated with Evangelical Christianity. By some in the church, the term is apt to be avoided altogether. This is a mistake.
The etymology and nuanced history of the term is not the issue at hand, nor is my objective to provide a clear-cut, one-size-fits-all, palatable definition for the phrase. No. However the term is defined, however any complex issue involving humanity is defined, we are called to humbly engage. We are called to seek gospel-centered solutions with trinitarian unity. We are called to emerge committed to walking into a hurting world together.
When faced with a politically, socially or racially divisive issue, most people respond in one of two ways. First, disengage altogether. Shift the conversation back to safer, more comfortable territory. The second is to take hold of a position so intensely it becomes all-consuming, and assumes a position in one’s heart it was never intended to.
In a now-famous 2018 New York Times editorial written by Dr. Tim Keller, he speaks poignantly to this. Christians who decide to avoid issues they deem ‘political’ and simply ‘preach the Gospel’ are casting a vote for the status quo. Keller says, “American churches in the early 19th century that did not speak out against slavery because that was what we would now call ‘getting political’ were actually supporting slavery by doing so. To not be political is to be political.”
The desire to avoid confrontational topics is not always overtly misplaced. Often, those in the church are hesitant to wade into these waters simply because they do not know what they do not know, and fear retribution for well-intended but bungled questions or conversations. Thus, the decision is made to simply avoid the quagmire altogether.
As it relates to the discussion around social justice, the rote game plan of avoidance and re-centering conversations around ‘safer’ topics, such as merely ‘preaching the Gospel’ is simply not available to the Christian, nor the church. In part because there is no separation between justice and the Gospel. The two are inexorably linked, as justice serves as the context for the Gospel itself. God is perfect and cannot be in the presence of sin. Humanity is sinful and fallen. To be in the presence of a Holy God, there has to be a justification process. Our sin requires justice, it is demanded by God’s perfect nature. Enter Christ, who justified us through His work on the cross.
There was very real, very clear justice carried out to allow us to stand in the presence of God. A price was paid, we simply didn’t pay it. In light of the vertical justice granted freely to us, the natural result must be horizontal justice. The gospel and the idea of justice broadly, and social justice specifically, cannot be separated.
Throughout scripture we see God desires justice in our affairs. He is concerned with how we treat one another. He expects men and women, boys and girls to treat each other as human beings made in His image. He calls us to treat others as image-bearers equally endowed with the thumbprint of God. Thus, anywhere created beings are not honoring each other in a way that reflects their Creator breaks the heart of God, and demands action on the part of the church.
Yes, share the gospel. Yes, make disciples in all nations. And, yes live out the answer to the prophet Micah’s inspired question, “… what does the Lord require of you…”
Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.
We live in a divisive moment. Corrosive conversations surround challenging but important issues. The body of Christ and the broken world we serve doesn’t need ‘status quo.’ It yearns for blood-bought freedom. It begs for otherworldly unity. It needs Gospel-Advancing Justice.