Social justice and church mission

As some will know, I have a rather (in the opinion of some) perverse interest in theological controversy and quite clearly there are many controversial theological subjects I could focus my attention on, not just over the 2000 year history of the church but several affecting this present time, and these do have practical ramifications. I got to think along these lines when I watched a You Tube video titled: “Is social justice an essential part of the mission of the church?”, where two eminent Christians were in debate on this very question and then answer further questions from the audience on the subject.

The two debaters were Al Mohler and Jim Wallis and, while the context was American, the subject matter was relevant universally. I am not a great follower of high profile personalities as I note that both men have quite a following, have been prolific in putting forward their views and represent different camps (if that is the right term) within the church. I was stimulated by the debate and impressed with the quality of the argument. I was also inspired by the respectful way the two men went about their task and found they had prayed together beforehand for God to get the glory. While Mohler was meant to be arguing the “No” case and Wallis “Yes”, it seemed they agreed a lot more than they disagreed and I sometimes got the impression they were arguing different yet important things.

I was particularly struck by arguments put forward and the concerns the two men expressed. On one hand, Mohler felt by getting involved in social justice programs the church can (and often does) lose its edge (and sometimes conviction) when it comes to proclaiming and supporting the great truths of the gospel whereby we must be saved. Wallis, on the other hand, was concerned that some (many) churches showed too little interest in social justice (some even regarded it as a non issue) and as a consequence have alienated a new generation of would be members by appearing to be irrelevant. Given that these days my links with the community at large involves Christians with an assortment of views on these matters, it seemed to me pertinent to explore these further …

My purpose in citing this happening is to highlight what is an important issue and important concerns, as well as reflecting on my own observations and journey thus far to get to where I am and would like to be and, more importantly, where I would like the church to be. Some of what I am about to say is touched on in my “Theological Musings” book but always there is a need to rethink one’s position when challenged to do so and in the light of the situation one finds oneself. Firstly, I need to define something that is often not understood – the word church (Greek: ekklesia), which is an assembly / congregation of Christian believers that can be identified at both a local and universal level. This has ramifications, such as the universal church not speaking with one voice on many matters, there often being several sometimes conflicting manifestations of church at a local level and often individual Christians are not engaged in church and some, maybe many, do what they do for the common good quite separate from the church.

While there will be those who will want to diminish the contribution of the church when it comes to matters relating to social justice, the way I see it, the contribution of the church to these matters down the ages and throughout the world has been and continues to be monumental. But then what is the mission of the church and what should its priorities be? As some will know, my own position leans toward Conservative Evangelical but I recognize the contribution of many other traditions to my thinking and have come to the view that no single one has the monopoly on truth. I also note that the issue of churches undertaking social programs such as starting / running schools and hospitals and instigating campaigns such as freeing slaves and civil rights is a complex one. While I have seen significant successes when this has happened, I know there are many pitfalls also and without wanting to duck issues when they arise I am also prepared to watch from the sidelines and chip in when needed.

Putting it simply but knowing the “it” needs to be unpacked too, I would say “it” is being Jesus to the world. By our lives we need to be showing the love of God and righteousness of God by our loving God and our least likely neighbour also, just as Jesus did when he touched every area of the society he found himself in, especially when coming across the poor and needy. We are also called “to make disciples of all nations”. We do this by telling people the Gospel story as well as our living it (check out here for that which the Gospel comprises), and then by building them up in the faith so they follow God/Christ better. Sadly, as I see it, many churches, probably most churches, fail to do this. But also because our mission is holistic we look at the bigger picture and face it head on such as using our building to shelter homeless people and helping meet some of their manifold often practical and immediate needs in all sorts of ways, and addressing the gaps in the way people are helped, while begging the question of whether to take on bigger projects.

If I were to use an illustration that recently struck me – we aren’t just called to pull bodies out of the water, but we need to go up river to find out how they got there in the first place and do something about it. That challenge has long exercised the best of Christians. But we simple folk must do what we can do as best we can do it, and with God’s help, but (extending the illustration) we must not ignore the plight of living bodies being buried beneath the water, for such is the destiny of those without a saviour, and ending up at the bottom of the sea, for such is the fate awaiting those without Christ.

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