Social Justice or Gospel Proclamation? Is the Church out of Balance?

Dave: I remember how in the church of my youth (1950s-1970s), the issue of social justice (e.g., clothing or feeding the poor) was pitted against proclamation (telling people about the Gospel). And there was a fear in the evangelical community of which I was a part that if we did too much of the former we would diminish our ability to do any of the latter. A much-needed pendulum shift was needed to enable the church to have a better emphasis on justice and mercy.

And the pendulum has shifted, oh my, how it has shifted! In fact, it has swung the other way, and we fear that there may now be an over-emphasis on social justice to the neglect of proclamation of the Gospel. This is a sticky wicket that needs to be addressed.

Joe: Yes, it can be a rather thorny subject. But does it need to be? I am reminded of how one veteran field worker would frequently remind our missionary team with monotonous regularity – “Make sure that you can articulate how the ministry you are involved in contributes to church planting”. And there is always someone who will quote – “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary use words” (frequently attributed to St. Francis, though that is uncertain).

Dave: In our mobilization role, Joe and I find it necessary to help churches wrestle with the tension between Christian social activism and Christian Gospel proclamation.

Joe: When teaching one of the later Perspectives lesson I will flash on the screen this particular quote from the Perspectives study guide to provoke discussion: “Many missions endeavors aim at fighting evil and manifest the kingdom through relief and community development efforts. This is right and helpful, but an important strategic priority is the planting of a viable church, which is the beginning of all that will bear lasting fruit.”

And provoke discussion it does! Usually the participants will need to digest the quote first, so the comments start with a trickle. By the end, I usually have to cut discussion off with folks wanting to say more than time allows. It really can get emotional.

At some point I may interject the Clive Calver (former president of World Relief) quote – “It’s hard to share the gospel with someone when they’re dead.”

Dave: Because this is such a huge topic, we would like to reference an excellent book of this topic – “What Is the Mission of the Church? 
Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission,” by Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert. These two authors seem to have a great grasp of the balance between the two extremes.

For the two of us, while fully affirming the necessity and biblical basis for social justice types of ministries, and while rejoicing in the activism that is pervading much church missions activities today, we would like to share a few balancing and (hopefully) insightful quotes from the DeYoung/Gilbert book to remind the church of the need to never forget the proclamation of the Gospel…

— “We are concerned that in all our passion for renewing the city or tackling social problems, we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that makes Christian mission Christian: namely, making disciples of Jesus Christ.”

— 
”If we improve our schools, get people off welfare, clean up the park, and plant trees in the neighborhood, but aren’t seeking to make disciples, we may ‘bless’ our communities, but we’re not accomplishing the church’s mission. Ultimately, if the church does not preach Christ and him crucified, if the church does not plant, nurture, and establish more churches, if the church does not teach the nations to obey Christ, no one else and nothing else will.”

— 

”We want the church to remember that there is something worse than death and something better than human flourishing.”

— “The mission of Jesus is not service broadly conceived, but the proclamation of the gospel through teaching, the corroboration of the gospel through signs and wonders, and the accomplishment of the gospel in death and resurrection.”

— 

”…There is only one gospel, but it can be looked at through a wide or narrow lens. And it must include the gospel of the cross. Without the cross there is no gospel at all. That would be like ‘picking up an armful of leaves and insisting that you’re holding a tree.'”

— 

”Evangelism is the act of telling other people about the plight they are in and how they can be saved from it. Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ is an act of deep love and compassion for that person. … There’s no bait-and-switch there; that’s simply holistic compassion – compassion for the whole person, not just part of him.”

A warning from DeYoung/Gilbert…

— “Be careful how you use the term ‘social justice.’ It often includes everything from hunger relief to carbon emissions and it is sometimes used as a trump card to silence opposition. It may mean that everyone is treated fairly or it may be expanded to mean equality of outcome, i.e., everyone getting their share.”

And some sound advice…

— “Understand moral proximity. Proximity means how connected we are by familiarity, kinship, space, time, etc. The closer the need, the greater the moral obligation to help. Millions of needs face us via technology. Distinguish between generosity and obligation.”

And finally…

— “Sound economics must accompany good intentions. Poor people are not necessarily poor because rich people are rich. Most nations are poor because of corrupt or inept political, legal, and social structures. Real world problems require real world solutions.”

We hope these quotes give some food for thought. For more, get a copy of the book!

Dave Shive and Joe Steinitz

3 Replies to “Social Justice or Gospel Proclamation? Is the Church out of Balance?”

  1. THis was a really good post! And I think it’s such an important thing to discuss. Sometimes I feel like people act as if the two things are almost mutually exclusive- should we focus on the social justice part? should we focus on the telling of the gospel? And I just see the two as so intertwined that we should be extreme about both.

    The question I think that comes up sometimes is “Well, which one is more important? Isn’t it more important that people hear the gospel?” And I think if you’re asking that question, in a way you’ve already lost. While I agree and like that statement…”There is something worse than death and something better than human flourishing…” I think sometimes the tension between gospel proclamation and social justice is largely created by us and not really a tension at all. Let’s seek to do both, let’s talk about how to do that, and let’s do it.

  2. Thanks, Kathryn. In the Perspectives class, when confronted with the (artificial) tension between social justice and gospel proclamation, we are challenged to go back to our root conviction: the glory of God must be displayed. Though it does not resolve every question, we could begin by asking: “What can I do in this situation that will give God the widest platform to display his glory?” I agree that we are good at creating unnecessary tensions.

  3. This is an excellent response to an inflammatory issue that is vital for the Christian church to wrestle with. The desperate need for a person to experience transformational salvation is primary and yet the means to see this occur is through the whole person to whom we are called to minister. So by doing good to people personally, which I’ve seen in many nations, opens the pathway for us to see the Kingdom come in their lives so that His will can be done in their hearts . It is in doing good for them that their hearts are opened and lives changed. And yet it is vital to see communities of hope (a church) springing up as a result of the life changing nature of this demonstration of the grace of God. (Brian)

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