Mark Galli: Evangelism Is a Work of Social Justice

I find myself scratching my head as to why so many evangelical Christians committed to social justice are reacting so strongly to the recent statement on social justice.

In part it may be due to matters of style and tone; the statement, for example, is a list of bold affirmations and denials. This is not in tune with our times. While we are wont to make definitive and sweeping pronouncements on social or political matters, we’re hesitant to talk like this with when it comes to things transcendent (more on this below).

As in any statement, there is much I would want to change or tweak, but statements like this do raise fundamental concerns that deserve careful thought.

The Temptations of Social Justice

For example, I think this statement grasps some of the principal temptations of those who are called into the social justice arena. Every ministry of emphasis has its peculiar temptations (e.g., journalists are subject to cynicism among other sins), and we are wise to be aware of them—if for no other reason than to ensure that our social justice ministries remain vibrant.

One social justice temptation, for example, is to let the world determine our social justice agenda and rationale. This is how the statement, now signed by almost 7,000 people, puts it:

WE AFFIRM that God’s law, as summarized in the ten commandments, more succinctly summarized in the two great commandments, and manifested in Jesus Christ, is the only standard of unchanging righteousness. Violation of that law is what constitutes sin.

WE DENY that any obligation that does not arise from God’s commandments can be legitimately imposed on Christians as a prescription for righteous living. We further deny the legitimacy of any charge of sin or call to repentance that does not arise from a violation of God’s commandments.

Of course, evangelicals have different interpretations about how far to extend those Ten Commandments, but I would think we’d all agree that the Jim Crow era violated both the commandments against bearing false witness as well as murder.

But sometimes enthusiasts for social justice push too far. The statement puts it like this:

WE DENY that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture. We further deny that Christians can live justly in the world under any principles other than the biblical standard of righteousness. Relativism, socially-constructed standards of truth or morality, and notions of virtue and vice that are constantly in flux cannot result in authentic justice.

On a more mundane level, this temptation looks like this: You don’t have to go to many social justice gatherings to conclude that if you are not actively involved in this justice issue or that, you are contributing to the injustice: “He who is not fighting racism is implicitly supporting racist policies” and so forth. It’s dramatic rhetoric, to be sure, but in fact, there is no way any of us can be deeply involved in every social justice effort; we are finite beings, and it is not a sin to be finite. We have to pick our causes, and follow the calling of God on our lives.

The devil’s final temptation of Christ was to offer him political power.

The temptations abound, like they do in every ministry: There are some Christians (white, black, Asian, and Hispanic) who are more anxious about their racial or ethnic identity than they are their identity in Christ. There are some Christians who have let feminism or Marxism or deconstructionism or race theory shape their ideas more than the Bible. There are some Christians whose anger at injustice has little righteousness in it, instead driven by hate of a political leader or group. There are some Christians (left and right) who are so anxious about gaining political power to enact their social agenda that they compromise some important Christian values.

Any devout Christian who is deeply committed to social justice knows these temptations firsthand, and the honest among them acknowledge that they have not always resisted these temptations, especially the last. They never forget that the devil’s final temptation of Christ was to offer him political power.

Learning from History

Another critic, pastor John MacArthur, has expressed similar concerns, especially about evangelical engagement in justice issues. I often disagree with MacArthur, but I think his pastoral instincts should be taken into account when he said (in a blog from August):

Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of “social justice” is a significant shift—and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results.

He’s not the first to note this trajectory. We witnessed this in the last century in mainline Protestant Christianity, whose social justice concern in the 1950s and 1960s was admirable in so many ways. But slowly the mainline become nothing more than the Democratic Party at prayer. Typical were the millennium goals established by the Episcopal Church in 2007. The goals were:

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger Achieve universal primary education Promote gender equality and empower women Reduce child mortality Improve maternal health Combat HIV and AIDS, malaria and other diseases Ensure environmental sustainability, and Create global partnership for development with a focus on debt, aid, and trade.

Nothing wrong with the goals as such, but they were the exact same Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations in 2000. It speaks volumes that a Christian church could not imagine how to talk or prioritize its social justice agenda without simply copying those of a secular institution. One would have thought Matthew 28—taking the gospel to the four corners of the world—might have played some part in its goals for the millennium.

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Source: Christianity Today