The Church and Social Justice

The Church and Social Justice
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 2:31pm

QUESTION: I’m growing increasingly concerned over the emphasis on the concept of “social justice” in the church. Does the church have a divine mandate to address the needs of the downtrodden, the poor, and the suffering? How is this related to our mandate to preach the gospel? Did not Jesus himself feed the hungry and heal the sick? What is the proper place of benevolent ministries such as food pantries, medical missions, and disaster relief?

ANSWER: I have discussed these issues in my book, “Tough Questions, Biblical Answers, Part Two,” in chapters 2 and 4; and in the chapter on “The Righteousness of God” in my book, “What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer,” pp. 183-186 & 240-242. Several key distinctions are primary. First, we must distinguish between the two sides of God’s moral nature, i.e., his holiness of the one hand (which includes justice), and his love on the other hand. Second, we must distinguish between the God-given purpose for the church on the one hand, and the God-given purpose of government on the other hand. Third, we must distinguish between the responsibilities of the church AS CHURCH, and the responsibilities of individual members of the church not only as Christians but as citizens of the human society.

Confusion on who is responsible for correcting social ills stems largely from a failure to distinguish between the purpose of government and the purpose of the church. As I understand it, the Bible teaches that civil government is supposed to uphold and enact the demands of God’s HOLY nature to the world, including especially the enforcement of JUSTICE for all its citizens. This is accomplished through the protection of the rights of individuals (as the end or goal of governmental activity), and through the punishment of those who violate such rights (as the means of accomplishing this goal). A crucial point is that it is NOT government’s job to PROVIDE us with everything we have a right to; government is simply supposed to protect our right to attain and possess those things.

The purpose of the church, on the other hand, is to represent God’s loving and gracious nature to the world, as embodied in the gospel of salvation. The function of the church AS CHURCH is to proclaim the gospel of God’s grace, to win the lost, and to bring converts to spiritual maturity in a context of acceptance and love. Becoming directly involved in matters of social justice is NOT the church’s mandated job or mission, though it should encourage its members (who are also members of society in general) to become so involved.

Here is how I describe the differences in my “Tough Questions” book: “A. The PURPOSE for which government exists is to maintain temporal law and order; the purpose for which the church exists is to provide spiritual salvation. B. The PRINCIPLE by which government operates is justice; the principle by which the church operates is grace. C. The POWER by which the state accomplishes its purpose is force; the power of the church is love.” In other words, “government must see that justice prevails, while the church tries to change the world through love.”

In many circles today it is typical to see these roles reversed. “Some well-meaning but misguided churchmen are declaring that the church’s main task is the establishment of justice throughout the world. Likewise many are saying that all governmental policies, programs, and decisions must be determined by the love-ethic of Jesus as taught in Matthew 5:38-48.”

Where does this leave us with regard to the question of the church’s role in matters of social justice (or injustice)? In chapter 4 of the “Tough Questions” book I distinguish three (actually four) views on this issue. First, some say the church’s ONLY mission is social action. This is mainly the approach of liberal churches (e.g., the Disciples of Christ) who have rejected basic biblical teachings about sin and salvation and eternal life, and for whom the only meaningful reason for their existence it to try to change the quality of life on this earth. Individual evangelism is irrelevant; changing society is all that’s left.

Second, some say the church should NEVER engage in social action, but should focus entirely on evangelism. This is typical of churches that tend to be more conservative or fundamentalist.

Third, others say that BOTH evangelism and social action are necessary parts of the church’s mission. Some of these—whom I usually characterize as “left-wing evangelicals”—say that both of these tasks are equally important, with each being independent of the other and justified in its own right. As Ron Sider says, there is no hint “that Jesus considered healing sick people any less important than preaching the Good News. He commanded us BOTH to feed the hungry AND to preach the Gospel.”

The other version of this third view is the one I support, namely, that evangelism and social work are both necessary but are not equal partners in the church’s agenda. The church does have a responsibility to provide for its own who are in need (brotherhood benevolence; see Acts 2:44-46; 4:34-35; 6:1-6; 11:29-30; 1 Cor. 16:1-3; Gal. 6:10; 1 John 3:17-18), and it must act as the Good Samaritan did in cases of emergency (occasional benevolence, Gal. 6:10 again). But in addition to these, I believe that the church must be directly involved in relieving the misery and suffering of mankind in general, as a MEANS of accomplishing its primary task of evangelism (evangelistic benevolence). By meeting people’s needs in the name of Jesus, we lay the groundwork for preaching the gospel. This should be done in the local community through such things as food pantries and community service days; and it should be done on mission fields through schools, hospitals, orphanages, and disaster relief. Such works of love should not be seen as ends in themselves, but as a means of opening the doors of people’s hearts to hear the Word.

To say that Jesus’ ministry put equal emphasis on healing the sick and preaching the gospel is a distortion of the Bible. Jesus’ miracles of healing the sick and feeding the hungry were a MEANS of pointing to Himself as the one who saves us from our sins. (The purpose of all miracles is to give evidence of the miracle-worker’s truth-claims.) E.g., Jesus healed the paralytic let down through roof “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). The things we can do in the areas of social action may not be this dramatic, but there are many things we can and should do in the name of Christ that will draw sinners to him for salvation.

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