Does the Gospel Call Us to Engage In Social Justice and Mercy Ministries?

"[R]arely, if ever, do those who also identify as conservative evangelicals and who are the targets of online mobs over their desire to pursue justice say that feeding the poor is the gospel." - John Ellis

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Aaron Blumer's picture

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I sympathize with John's frustrations in this piece... but he does lump a whole together that isn't the same.

There's a difference between these two statements:

  • Christians should engage in ministries of mercy and justice
  • The church should engage in ministries of mercy and justice

As for "social" tacked on to "justice," there's a whole lot of leftist baggage attached to that. One may dismiss concerns about that as adherence to a mere "political" agenda, but the fact of the matter is that there are deep and profound differences between how leftism views human nature and the human struggle vs. a biblical view of these matters.

Also at issue: what really helps the poor and oppressed, anyway? Debatable, to say the least. So acting on what one believes to be most helpful is a far thing from being uncaring and unmerciful... just because it doesn't make for a good photo op, like standing in the serving line at a soup kitchen.

John E.'s picture

Thank you for your comments and criticisms. Writing it, I was aware that I was on the thin line of possibly conflating two separate propositions into one. Towards the end, I wrote, "Churches that do not encourage nor provide opportunities to engage in social justice and mercy ministries are damaging their witness of the gospel."

To be blunt, I'm never really sure how to interact when a sharp distinction is made between the individual believer and the local church. I don't think that distinction is really there. Maybe it's my hermeneutic, I'm not sure (I was a member of a dispensationalist church for the first 10 months of my Christian life, and that's it), but the churches I've served in say things like the church gathered and the church sent. So, for example, saying that politics isn't the appropriate sphere for churches isn't correct if politicians or staffers have covenanted in membership with the local body. The ministry of the Word should provide the ethics those politicians and staffers take into their job. Same with social justice and mercy ministries. More so, in fact. I'm not called to introduce the Kingdom's ethics into politics because I don't work in politics. Promoting the Kingdom's ethics as it relates to justice in regards to racism and poverty throughout our communities is the purview of all Believers, though.  

As far as what's best, I left that vague on purpose. The resources of each local body is going to vary widely. So will the needs of the community. Pastors and congregations answer to God for how they use those resources. That being said, I do believe that many congregations are not wise stewards of the resources God has given them in this area. The lack of any level of priority regarding these specific Kingdom ethics within the gathered church sets the tone for a disregard in the sent church. Again, how churches prioritize and use the resources God has given them is not really my concern. Just do something. And that starts with recognizing the need and our responsibility, and that's my biggest concern.

For me, my concern is more with how the current political climate has shaped our rhetoric in a way that is seemingly pushing Believers to the side of anti-mercy ministries and anti-social justice. I attempted to give the Church credit throughout and not to condemn Christianity wholesale. I figured that if my complaint doesn't apply to the reader, I'll trust that they'll realize that. Again, they don't answer to me; they answer to God. 

As for my use of loaded terms like "social justice," I didn't choose the terms of the debate. All I can do is pray and hope that readers will read in context and realize that whatever baggage is connected to the terms is baggage that doesn't apply to me. I stated as clearly as I could that speaking the gospel is vital and commanded. Also, there are many, many articles and blog posts of mine in which I clearly define the gospel as robustly Biblical as possible, I believe. Also - (another "also" Smile ), I made sure to contrast social justice with the social gospel in this post. Sure, many Christians do not know the distinction, but unless I want to write a book every time I write an article, I have to trust that readers will look stuff up for themselves (knowing most of them won't, of course).

In case anyone's interested - I'm about to publish a companion piece, of sorts, to this one.

Again, thank you, Aaron. I do take your kind and thoughtful criticisms to heart and do consider them. They are an aid as I continue to write. 

John E.'s picture

Let me be the first to acknowledge the weirdness of that huge smiley face in my comment. I'm not going to edit it, because it amuses me. 

Bert Perry's picture

I don't know that you'll find Biblical examples where Paul, Peter, John, or other epistle writers specifically tell the Church to get involved in caring for the poor and oppressed, but it's worth noting that the communal funds for the Disciples and Christ were indeed used for this purpose.  So we might argue that the demonstration of the Apostles would at least suggest that the Church ought to induce us to do things together.

Another reason to do things together is simple practicality.  OK, so we believe that most social justice is horribly contaminated by liberal agendas; GREAT!  Now with theoretically good theology, we have the opportunity to do it right, no?  Let's show them how it's done!  Another good point of reference is Marvin Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion, which details how "no questions asked" charity from the government created ever deepening cycles of dependency.  We might infer from that that we have an even tougher job than those of a century ago; a century ago, a great portion of dependents were merely poor.  Now they are not necessarily poor, but they are psychologically scarred.  

One can see this as a threat, I guess, but we might see it as a huge opportunity.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Joel Shaffer's picture

There's a difference between these two statements:

Christians should engage in ministries of mercy and justice

The church should engage in ministries of mercy and justice

Practically speaking as one who has been doing ministries of mercy and justice for almost 30 years, its much easier when a church, or a group of churches and/or non-profits, businesses work together to help a person break out of generational, chronic poverty, than when an individual Christian engages in  ministries of mercy and justice to directly try to help someone out of poverty.  And in my experiences, I've never had to choose between doing evangelism and doing mercy ministry/justice.  If you're intentional in sharing Jesus, you won't have to choose.  

As for "social" tacked on to "justice," there's a whole lot of leftist baggage attached to that. One may dismiss concerns about that as adherence to a mere "political" agenda, but the fact of the matter is that there are deep and profound differences between how leftism views human nature and the human struggle vs. a biblical view of these matters.

But the leftist baggage attached is a relatively new phenomenon that emerged in past 10-20 years.  The Roman Catholics were the first to put words social and justice together over 100 years ago and were quite clear that they weren't advocating some socialist agenda and held (for the most part) to a more Biblical view of human nature. Also, Carl FH Henry often spoke about Social Justice throughout his writings and he was very Biblical in regards to human nature, he was very free-market friendly, and he kept the Gospel central as well.  We don't need to fear the term social justice if it is defined Biblically.  Here are some social justice quotes from Henry.

"Evangelicals stand openly and firmly for racial equality, human freedom, and all forms of social justice throughout the world."

"Evangelicals know that injustice is reprehensible not simply because it is anti-human but because it is anti-God […] Evangelicals must make God’s Word and ways known because it is the divine will and demand that is flouted by social injustice." 

"Social justice is not simply an appendage to the evangelistic message; it is an intrinsic part of the whole, without which the preaching of the gospel is truncated. Theology devoid of social justice is a deforming weakness of much present-day evangelical witness."

"Because God is holy Creator of all men and all the world, and demands historical righteousness and social justice in all human affairs, the Christian community must proclaim his revealed will to all mankind."

 Also at issue: what really helps the poor and oppressed, anyway? Debatable, to say the least. So acting on what one believes to be most helpful is a far thing from being uncaring and unmerciful... just because it doesn't make for a good photo op, like standing in the serving line at a soup kitchen.

I completely agree, which is why books such as When Helping Hurts, Toxic Charity, and Charity Detox have been very beneficial corrections for the body of Christ.  

TylerR's picture

Editor

Mercy ministries and other forms of community involvement are vital vehicles to build relationships to bring outsiders to Christ. Ready Rosaria Butterfield's The Gospel Comes With a Housekey.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks for the feedback, John.

One of the reasons I noted the "how" part is that I believe the most powerful thing both the church and the individual Christian have to offer is truth. The church can add the power of a truth-centered community. Parachurch/nonprofits can create communities around truth also (aka learning communities) but the church alone can provide a community of truth that is also spiritually connected--so you have unity of the faith (per Eph 4) and also unity of the Person of Christ. Unity of the Head... .also Eph 4, but many other passages.

On the difference between "the church as the church" vs. "the church as believers living out the Christian life," I've been meaning to do some writing on it. But I can sort of illustrate what I mean:

  • The church helps me do my work in a Christian way, but the church does not do my job... I do my job
  • The church helps me parent as I should, but the church doesn't parent for me... I parent
  • The church helps me be what I ought to be in the culture/society but it doesn't do that for me

Where the distinction gets blurrier, and rightfully so, is in relation to the Scriptures, worship, and disciple-making. The church helps me do those things, doesn't do them for me, but does do them with me.

Should the church help believers understand how to pursue justice and mercy in society? Yes. Should it pursue justice and mercy for believers? We'd probably agree, no. Should it do it with believers--a.k.a., "the church working as the church" ? We should answer that question from the what the N.T. says the church is supposed to be doing.

Andrew K's picture

I grew up in the church. My dad's been a pastor since before I was born and still is today. So I know a fair bit about the inner workings of a small, community church. I overheard a great deal of conversation from my parents, and know more that is typical about what goes on underneath--both the good and bad. 

You will never hear the term "social justice" in my father's church. Instead you will find a hidebound, Trump-supporting conservatism that would no doubt infuriate many. And yet, the people of the church in which I grew up have demonstrated a kindness and concern for others far beyond what one would expect from people who are pretty low on the socioeconomic ladder themselves.

I could pile up examples of sacrificial giving and service for you, if I liked, for the poor, the hungry, the suffering, the imprisoned... within our church community, as that is our first priority, and without. Honestly, the thought of even listing them makes me wonder where I could even begin. I've been the recipient of some of this generosity myself as well, when I didn't have enough money to continue college. 

With the exception of my family, few, even within the church, would be aware of all the love with hands and feet that has been shown within the church. They don't advertise it. Much of it is done quietly, like the old widow who purchased an expensive winter coat for one of our less-desirables who primarily frequented our church for handouts and whatever she could soak up. Or all the gift donations for the children of those who were in the county jail. Or the many, many times the church quietly cut a check for rent and utilities for families who couldn't cover it themselves. I guess I am listing a few here, but don't think I'm even close to exhausting them. 

I don't recall my father ever preaching a message on "social justice" or "poverty alleviation"--though he gives rides to the homeless and town crazies, especially in the winter when it is cold. But it is not a visible mission in the church. A casual visitor would never be aware.

So I'm wondering... wondering how many other churches are like my dad's. I'm wondering how many of the social justice crowd would walk into one of the services and shake their heads at the conservative politics of these benighted, too-white countryside folks. I'm wondering if they would accuse them of holding to a "stunted gospel" and chastise them for not developing programs, networks, and outreach plans that could make pretty posters on the walls, or bold headings in the bulletin.

I think some might.

dgszweda's picture

A few of the problems that I see in how churches are dealing with this, is that they are focusing on the needs of others at a cost of other important functions of the church.  It is all about balance.  Here is how I have always sorted it out in my mind:

  • The primary purpose of the church is the spreading of the gospel message.  To many churches focus on just feeding the homeless.  If all we ever did was secure the physical needs of someone we have sorely missed their true need.
  • The primary purpose of the social outreach of the church is to its membership.  To many churches again are focused on helping the community when their own membership is in great need.

I think where we see the big pushback is this growing movement of a singular focus on meeting everyone's temporal needs, and the influence of the liberal social justice agenda.  This has soured peoples view of this terminology.  God's ultimate plan is for the unsaved to come to Christ where their spiritual needs are met, and to join a local church, where a group of believers are being used by Christ in meeting the needs of its membership.  That is social justice.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Agree that balance is huge. Though I would define the purpose of the church a little differently (the center is disciple-making, not precisely message-spreading.... etc.), there is a finite amount of time, energy, talent. So when you use it one way, you don't have it there to use another way. How are you going to use it?

Part of the trick, I think, is focusing on the local. If I had my pastoral leadership years to do over (or get to do that work again), I wouldn't push for more social justice or poverty relief, but I would aim for more community engagement.... and that might involve some poverty relief or some similar mercy-focused efforts. But the idea would be community relations, relationship building, etc.--not actually fixing social ills.

Also, speaking of balance, there's the gravity factor. Our society views churches mostly as social service agencies. To the extent churches are legit. at all, it's because they organize social relief efforts. This is where the built-in pull is. As a result, when you get involved in that, you really are getting on an escalator. Effort will be required to avoid being taking to a place you didn't intend... letting those activities define your mission the world and the community.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Part of the trick, I think, is focusing on the local. If I had my pastoral leadership years to do over (or get to do that work again), I wouldn't push for more social justice or poverty relief, but I would aim for more community engagement.... and that might involve some poverty relief or some similar mercy-focused efforts. But the idea would be community relations, relationship building, etc.--not actually fixing social ills.

One of Deyoung and Gilbert's "What is the Mission of the Church" strength as a book is their explaination of the "moral-proximity" principle in doing social justice/mercy ministries activities for the local church.  And I generally agree with them.  For instance, the organization that I oversee, Urban Transformation Ministries (UTM), is mainly supported by churches and individuals in Western Michigan because UTM is addressing the social problem of Fatherlessness by applying the gospel to the social problem of Fatherlessness in West Michigan urban communities.  The churches of Western Michigan have a vested interest in supporting UTM because they have a closer proximity to UTM.   Eventually UTM desires to expand to other Midwestern urban communities. When that happens, we will approach those churches in nearby communities for funding and support as well because of their moral proximity to the ministry.