October 31, 2011
Skye Jethani: Love Justifies Itself (Part 1)
The wisdom of John Stott can help us reframe the entrenched debate around social justice & the gospel.
Is social justice an essential part of the gospel? The question has been raging for decades, and in some circles the matter was settled long ago. But a new generation of evangelicals with a strong inclination toward social engagement is reviving the debate. But I'm increasingly convinced that we are framing the debate incorrectly, and missing the point as a result.
The latest example came last week when Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (my alma mater) hosted Jim Wallis and Al Mohler to debate the role of justice in the mission of the gospel. Wallis, the president and CEO of Sojourners, affirmed the centrality of social justice in the gospel, while Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said it was an implication of the gospel but not part of it.
Disagreeing with Mohler’s point of view, Wallis said, “If justice is only an implication, it can easily become optional and, especially in privileged churches, non-existent.” He cited the examples of “atonement-only” churches in America that were on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement, and churches in South Africa that defended the apartheid regime.
In a post-debate blog post, Wallis wrote, “Conversely, churches that have been on the side of justice, such as black churches both in the United States and South Africa, were always the ones to say that justice was integral to the meaning of the gospel and not just an implication of it. That should tell us something,”
Mohler opposed Wallis by noting that we must be careful how we define terms in the debate. Equating social justice with the gospel is a road that follows 20th century liberal Protestantism into a watered down message of salvation. Still, Mohler did affirm the goodness of social action on the part of Christians:
“The larger theological frame is that God is glorified when His fallen creation is to any degree rectified … that is drawn into a closer alignment with His own justice, His own righteousness, His own attributes. We should celebrate every good thing that is done in Christ’s name. Christ’s people must be agents of human flourishing precisely because flourishing was God’s intention for His human creatures in Creation.”
The Mohler-Wallis debate caught my attention in part because I hosted a very similar conversation between Jim Wallis and Mark Dever two years ago for Leadership Journal. You can watch the conversation here:
Dever took the same position as Mohler--justice is a good implication of the gospel, but not essential to it. The concern again is that the message of the gospel remain uncluttered; a clarion call to faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
Rather than wade into the debate with my opinions alone (and I have plenty), I’d like to share a few reflections by John Stott. Of course Stott was one of the pillars of 20th century evangelicalism, and the theological heavyweight behind the Lausanne Covenant. He wrestled mightily with the question of gospel proclamation versus demonstration, and the role of social justice in the mission of the church. In his book Christian Mission in the Modern World (IVP, 1975), he outlines three ways of understanding the relationship between evangelism and social action:
1. Social action as a means to evangelism. This view sees social engagement as PR for the gospel. It turns the soil and positively predisposes individuals or a community to receive the good news. But as Stott says, “In its most blatant form this makes social work the sugar on the pill, the bait on the hook, while in its best forms it gives the gospel credibility it would otherwise lack. In either case the smell of hypocrisy hangs round our philanthropy.”
2. Social action as a manifestation of evangelism. Evangelicals have become very fond of Francis of Assisi’s line about always preaching the gospel, and using words when necessary. That’s how Stott defines this manifestation model. Social justice is a means of proclaiming the gospel, or a way gospel-people manifest their identity. This is very close to the the implication view held be Mohler and Dever-it is an outflow of the gospel. But Stott says:
“It leaves me uneasy. For it makes service a subdivision of evangelism, an aspect of proclamation. I do not deny that good works of love did have an evidential value when performed by Jesus and do have an evidential value when performed by us (cf. Matthew 5:16). But I cannot bring myself to accept that this is their only or even major justification. If it is, then still, and rather self-consciously at that, they are only a means to an end. If good works are visible preaching, then they are expecting a return, but if good works are visible loving, then they are ‘expecting nothing in return’ (Luke 6:35).”
Stay tuned for Part 2 where Skye discusses Stott's third way of relating social action and evangelism, and why the current debate is missing the point.