Updated: Jan 28, 2020
NOTE: The following article was originally published in the Mosaic Bulletin. Mosaic is a ministry of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Mosaic Ministries aims to advance the ministry of reconciliation and renewal by equipping students, developing resources, and creating new networks.
Majority-culture evangelical churches have long decried the dangers of the “social gospel”. Countless pastors and theologians have insisted that 20th century mainline Protestants erred greatly by overemphasizing the need for churches to redeem and reform broken social structures and institutions, while underemphasizing the importance of gospel proclamation and personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Their critique is not entirely unfounded.
Scripture is clear that the greatest need any human experiences is the need to be reconciled with their Creator. However, those who rightly seek to avoid the error inherent to the “social gospel” can many times neglect social activism. They can be reluctant to engage pressing societal issues in thoughtful, faithful and sustained ways. This reluctance brings disastrous consequences.
It is important for pastors and church leaders to recognize what is at stake when they neglect to wisely engage social activism.
Indeed, when churches fail to proactively participate in initiatives and endeavors that combat injustice, advocate for the oppressed, and bring flourishing to their communities, proper theology, the church’s public witness, and its ability to extend God’s powerful love to those in great need are put at risk.
When churches refuse to thoughtfully and faithfully engage in social activism, they make a grave theological error. They ignore God’s call for justice, which echoes throughout the pages of Scripture.
Indeed, the need for God’s people to take proactive measures to combat injustice is asserted in Old Testament law (Lev. 19:15), instructed in poetic wisdom (Prov 31:8-9), and reaffirmed by Jesus at the outset of His earthly ministry (Lk 4:18-19). The call for justice echoes most obviously in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, as God’s prophets repeatedly remind God’s people that fair treatment, human welfare, and advocacy for the vulnerable are priorities that matter to God.
For example, the prophet Isaiah exhorts Israel to “Learn to do what is good. Pursue Justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause.” (Isa 1:17). Likewise, Jeremiah instructs Israel’s leaders to “Administer justice and righteousness. Rescue the victim of robbery from his oppressor. Don’t exploit or brutalize the resident alien, the fatherless, or the widow. Don’t shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jer 22:3).
Time and time again, God’s prophets proclaim that the proactive pursuit of justice is not optional; it’s mandatory. It’s what God wants.
When churches neglect social activism – when they refuse to be engaged in work that resists oppression, in work that defends the vulnerable, and in work that promotes the flourishing of all people – they make an error that is fundamentally theological. They suggest, through their inaction, that the explicit commands of Scripture no longer apply to God’s people, leaving their congregations wondering if God has renumbered His priorities or refocused His efforts.
This is hardly the case.
The unchanging God of Scripture is One who has always desired that His people be a visible, tangible blessing to their neighbors. From the very beginning, God intended that His people would be advocates of social change and cultural practice that would bring increased blessing and flourishing to their communities and cities (Jer 29:7).
The call to social activism is a call that is first and foremost theological in nature.
It’s rooted in God’s character and in God’s intentions for His people.
Churches that neglect thoughtful and faithful engagement in social activism present a theologically inaccurate portrait of God and His people (the Church) to their congregations. Implicitly presenting inaccurate representations of God and the Church ought to be something that pastoral and congregational leaders resist.
When churches neglect to engage in social activism, their theology is not the only thing that suffers. Their public witness to a watching world also loses credibility and power.
In our increasingly post-Christian age, sociologists of religion regularly debate the future of faith, as well as the role churches may or may not play in public life in the coming decades. While thoughtful analysts disagree about whether Christian faith will lose steam or surge forward, there seems to be consensus that churches need to consider with fresh eyes and open minds how their practices and priorities lend plausibility to or undermine the plausibility of the message they proclaim. Indeed, sociologists say, it is vital that a church’s public practice match its public proclamation – particularly in our current cultural climate.
We live in a skeptical age, where individuals rightly suspect that the messages presented to them by institutions have been airbrushed, edited, and exaggerated for effect. Our age distrusts commercial enterprises, news outlets, advertisers and politicians. Understandably, this posture of suspicion extends to communities of faith as well.
If churches intend to be communities of the gospel that serve as visible witnesses to the reality that God is real, active, and drawing together a people to Himself, they must be engaged in social activism. Through strategic, cooperative, and proactive work in their communities, churches will position themselves in such a way that best demonstrates that the biblical message about a God who is in the process of redeeming and restoring all things is a message that is true because it produces tangible results in the real world.
By being thoughtfully and faithfully engaged in matters of justice the Church can bear more effective witness to its claims about God.
To neglect social activism would be to abandon work that many thoughtful Christians agree is most likely to engage skeptics and non-believers in the years ahead.
Finally, churches that neglect social activism neglect the opportunity to extend God’s powerful love to real people in dire situations.
When I was on staff at Christ Community Church in Kansas City, we'd often say, “The local church as God designed it is the hope of the world.” By this we meant that the local church, when it lived out its New Testament calling, operated as the Spirit-filled community God would use to bless, restore, and redeem this sin-stained world.
When churches engage proactive work that combats injustice – when they combat human trafficking, lobby for prison reform, advocate for fair housing, volunteer in under-resourced schools, speak out against unjust laws, condemn racism, serve immigrant communities, and engage other good, beautiful, and necessary initiatives in their communities and around the world that honor human dignity and promote human flourishing – they are, in a very real sense, directly participating in work that brings relief to those who are oppressed, support to those who are isolated, and love to those who are often neglected and dismissed.
Churches that are not engaged in such efforts risk missing the chance to love their neighbors in the way that Jesus commanded.
So Let’s Do It
In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked by an expert in the law to name the greatest commandment. This expert intended to stump and embarrass Jesus. He hoped that by asking Jesus to simplify and summarize the Old Testament, Jesus might overlook an important aspect of the law, which would open up an opportunity for him to dismiss and discredit Jesus.
But Jesus’s response to his question was brilliant, bold and beautiful.
Jesus replied, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In just a few words, Jesus masterfully summarized the entire Old Testament – everything from Genesis to Malachi.
Jesus’s answer is so simple: Love God. And love others.
However, this short, concise answer is remarkably expansive in scope and incredibly weighty in its implications.
In his response, Jesus makes it clear that what most matters most in our lives of faith is our costly commitment to sacrificial love. The legal expert assumes that God’s law is too expansive to be effectively summarized, but Jesus’s response proves otherwise. Jesus suggests that faithful, obedient, God-glorifying living does not require extraordinary mental acuity or a rigorous legal education. Rather, living a life pleasing to God simply requires our active courage to do the difficult work of love – to love our God with our whole being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
This is important for us to remember as we consider the church’s role in social activism.
As complex as it can be for contemporary churches to come to terms with the historical legacy of the “social gospel”, to navigate the cultural currents present in certain social movements, and to proactively engage activism in a manner that resists pride-soaked paternalism as well as dignity-stealing dependency, churches must never forget that at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus is a singular ethic that came from the mouth of Christ Himself: Love God. And love your neighbor.
The difficulty of doing that work well is no excuse to avoid that work altogether.
If churches are to articulate proper theology, present an effective public witness, and share God’s powerful love with those who need it desperately, they need to embrace thoughtful and faithful social activism that reflects God’s character, honors human dignity, and promotes the flourishing of all. The costs of neglecting that work are simply too high.