Why, with all due respect, it’s wrong to pit social justice against the Gospel

Eternity News has a new podcast, With All Due Respect. It features two people I appreciate and respect, Baptist pastor-theologian Megan Powell Du Toit and Anglican pastor-theologian Michael Jensen. The first four episodes have been fun, and a model of irenic disagreement. In episode three they tackled the relationship between social justice and the proclamation of the Gospel, a discussion prompted by a new ‘statement’ issued by a bunch of Christians in the U.S, who seem to have nothing better to do than sit around and come up with line drawing exercises to decide what really is and isn’t kosher for Christians; it’s in the tradition of the Nashville Statement, with a series of ‘affirmations’ and ‘denials’, and this one, The Statement on Social Justice, aims to make it clear to true Christians that the social gospel, especially as it applies to issues of racism and social justice is a distraction from the work of proclaiming the Gospel.

As something of a follow up to the podcast episode, Eternity ran this piece from Michael Jensen, fleshing out his argument — he’s not embracing the Statement, but he does share some of its concerns when it comes to the way the mission of the church might be confused when it comes to ‘social justice’ — he argues, in sum, that:

“The gospel of Jesus Christ demands social justice but working for social justice is not the gospel.”

His piece tracks back through the history of the evangelical movement’s approach to (and embrace of) the pursuit of justice as a fruit of the Gospel, to a fork in the road moment. A divide he describes between:

“… those who were committed to personal conversion through evangelism as the supreme, even only, calling of the church, and those who argued that the Christian gospel was advanced as much by social justice as by evangelism.” 

He reflects on the polarising way this debate has often been framed; and then attempts to chart a via media — and a new one — through the poles. Between “Christians are doing gospel work when they argue for racial equality or promote more just treatment of the poor, regardless of whether the gospel is preached or not,” and “our task is to preach the gospel, and when hearts are changed we find that society is changed.” 

The position, or understanding of the Gospel he sees underpinning the former, the social gospel position, is a version of the Gospel that recognises that there’s more to sin and evil than the individual, and that sin infects systems, institutions, and other social structures (a classically ‘left wing’ approach. The position, or understanding of the Gospel he sees underpinning the latter, is a version of the Gospel that focuses on one’s individual sin, and that Jesus takes the penalty for that sin. His middle way:

“And that means we cannot think of discipleship in simply individual terms. Neither can we think of the Christian gospel as only a matter of the individual’s reconciliation with God. But if it doesn’t begin with the individual’s reconciliation with God, it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus did not just die for sin. He died for sinners.”

And this is all good stuff. It rejects a certain sort of reductionism that plenty of us fall into along tribal or ideological lines, and invites us to consider that the Gospel has both individual and systemic implications.

Jensen does make a claim about the priority in this relationship — the individual. And I’d like to humbly suggest that this definition of the Gospel also turns a fruit of the Gospel into the Gospel; that it is an anthropocentric Gospel rather than a Christocentric Gospel… that the Gospel ‘begins’ with Jesus, not our reconciliation with God; that it is good news because it is an announcement about the victory and rule of Jesus, as God’s king, and that this victory has individual and corporate fruits — the forgiveness of sins for the individual, and our reconciliation with God, is a fruit of this victory at the same time (and with the same priority); that Jesus is king of a new and different kingdom.

If we make the Gospel first about Jesus, rather than about the implications of what Jesus does for us, then we don’t have to resolve certain tensions but can hold them together (this is a bit like the way the reformers seem to use union with Christ to resolve a tension we’ve then tried to create between justification and sanctification).

Jensen’s conclusion is eloquent and excellent, after making the case that “the gospel demands that we think about social justice” he says:

“… we can too easily substitute working for social justice for the gospel – in which case we just become a reflection of whichever political philosophy we prefer, progressive or conservative. The power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts, by drawing repentant sinners to the cross of Jesus Christ and by unleashing his resurrection power in them, is the power we wield for change.”

It is absolutely the power we wield for change. But how then do we wield it. Presumably, because he doesn’t expand on this point — he sees this wielding happening predominantly through proclamation, that there’s a priority here being expressed of word over deed. And again, I’d humbly suggest that this still resolves a tension that doesn’t need to be resolved, or prioritises one arm of a paradox. I think we’d do better to hold ‘word’ and ‘image’ or ‘speaking’ and ’embodying’ together in the way the incarnation of Jesus does; so that our actions and words together are what proclaims the Gospel. Our lives are part of the medium that carries the message of the Gospel.

In this way “the Gospel” has both individual and corporate fruits, and they work themselves out in the world through Christians — ambassadors of Jesus — as we live as embodied communities and individuals who belong to his kingdom; the church being both ‘the body of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 12) and Christians being those the Spirit is transforming into the image of Jesus. It seems oddly reductionist to separate word and deed the way we so often attempt to in these debates about what has priority. And here’s my real disagreement with this piece… It’s about who we are as humans and what it means to be human, then, what it means to be embodied speakers, and finally, the relationship between ethos and logos in communication. If we insist on splitting embodying the Gospel (or its fruit) from proclaiming the Gospel (or its fruit) in order to decide which activity has priority, we tear apart things that are held together both biblically and in our experience of reality.

One of Michael Jensen’s specialty areas is theological anthropology — what it means to be human. And I’m not going to be the young punk who tries to undo him on his own turf. I’m going to suggest he’s already undone himself… In one of my favourite essays (not just ‘essays by him,’ but essays), ‘Through a Glass Darkly: Social Media and the Paradox of Virtual Intimacy,’ he says:

“The Word, as John wrote, had become flesh: and the appearance of the Word enfleshed had been proclaimed as the decisive manifestation of the divine presence, full of grace and truth, revealing the glory of the Father. The fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily on Jesus Christ; and now that that body had ascended, and was no longer present to be touched, the presence of Jesus could be experienced textually – by means of the spoken and written recollections of Jesus. The fellowship of believers is then is called into being as itself the “body” of Christ, so as to mediate the presence of Christ in the world. It has in its possession the recollection of Jesus’s words and his works – and so it is called to believe his words, and depend upon his works, but also to repeat his words and perform his works.”

It’s difficult to split the church mediating the presence of Jesus in the world, and taking up the task to ‘repeat his words and perform his works’ — much as I’d suggest it’s difficult to split proclaiming the Gospel and living lives marked by the Gospel… especially if the Gospel is not about me, or us, but Jesus (with implications for me and us), and if Jesus is both the ‘word of God in the flesh’ and the image of God — an embodied communication (in word and deed), then these two tasks — word and deed — are aspects of one task. What I’m really trying to say… or what he said… is:

The Incarnation of the Son of God as “the image of the invisible God” is also a refraction that most basic of anthropological themes, namely, the imago dei. As the English theologian Alastair McFadyen and others have argued, the “image of god” is not a reference to some particular ability or capacity that human beings have, but to their vocation: they are called to represent the creator to the creation, in visible, bodily form. For this role they are made articulate: they are agents of communication in part because they are tasked with declaring the will of God to the world, and because they are invited to declare his praises to him. And they are made as bodies, located in time and space. They are something to see, and hear. The New Testament not only sees Jesus Christ as the one who finally fulfils this human vocation (see, for example, 2 Corinthians 4:4), but the church finds its new vocation in being renewed in the image now of Christ (as in Romans 8:29).

Splitting ‘representing the creator’ in visible, bodily, form and ‘proclaiming the Gospel’, given that this representation is about mediating or communicating, and ‘articulating’ starts to seem a bit like splitting a hair to me (as opposed to hairs).

Even if the church’s primary task is proclaiming the Gospel — especially because the Gospel is the power we wield in the world — then the idea that we can proclaim something just with words doesn’t grapple with who we are as people, how we communicate, or how we are persuaded. It assumes that our words (logos) can somehow exist in a vacuum, apart from our lives — our integrity and credibility as speakers. They can’t. Medium and message are inextricably tied together — if a message comes without a medium (well it can’t), but if it were simply words on a page with no reference to a communicator, that, in itself, communicates something that shapes the way the message is received… Our lives, our pursuit of justice and our lives as individuals, provide the context for others to interpret our proclamation. Here’s Jensen again, on Paul.

“It was not only his words, but his observed manner of life in connection to those words – in imitation of Christ – that establishes his apostleship, and proves his sincerity of motive. He reminds his listeners of his costly service of them and of the way in which he supported himself financially when he was with them.”

This is true for individuals — that our lives are the ethos that form the basis of our communication — that our words and manner of life work together… Why then, when it comes to the pursuit of justice, systemically, would we split our ‘observed manner of life’  — the imitation of Jesus our king — from the proclamation that Jesus is Lord and king of a God’s kingdom? Why split the pursuit of justice from proclaiming the Gospel so long as both are consistent and there’s an integrity to our words and deeds?

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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