Are We Doing Social Justice Wrong?

Injustice is just one of the complex issues our generation is wrestling with. How should Christians respond? We asked some of the leading voices in the Church if our focus on social justice is out of balance, and what they have to say may surprise you.


Brian McLaren:

The most important thing is for us to stop putting evangelism and social justice in opposition as if they are enemies. That shows the degree to which we have become captive to a colonial, consumerist, dualist mindset, where religion or salvation is a private matter of the heart or soul and eternity, and social justice is a secondary concern because it involves bodies and politics and history. As long as we're playing in that field, we're playing somebody else's game. God's game is about God's creation and God's Son entering creation—not to destroy it, but to save it; not to invite people to abandon ship and evacuate for heaven, but to invite people to switch sides and start working for and with God instead of apart from and against God.

We need to remember that Jesus doesn't teach us to pray, "May we come to Your Kingdom in heaven after we die, where, unlike earth, Your will is done." He teaches us to pray, "May Your Kingdom come here to earth. May Your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven." When God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven, people who are alienated from God come back in relationship with God—which is evangelism. And people who are mistreated by others are given justice and relief—which is social justice. In my mind, they aren't simply two sides of one coin: They are like two metals that form one alloy from which the coin is made.

Steve Brown:

That’s a false dichotomy.

A follower of Christ doesn’t put on a “social justice” hat and then an “evangelism” hat and then try to discern which hat to wear the most and which hat is the most valuable. Why? Because it isn’t a hat; it’s the head and the heart. You can’t exchange either. They are integral to the person.

When a Christian sees someone who is physically hungry, a Christian feeds the hungry person. Why? Because hungry people can’t understand the plan of salvation? No. Simply because that person is hungry. That’s what Christians do. And if a person is spiritually hungry, a Christian becomes “one beggar telling another beggar where he or she found bread.” Why? Because that’s what Christians do.

Shane Claiborne:

When I look at Jesus, [evangelism and dealing with injustice] are inseparable in His life. People are hungry, I think, for a Gospel that embodies a social, political alternative to the patterns of our world. To me, that is the very essence of what spread within the early Church— they were caring for the poor, preaching another Kingdom and another emperor than Caesar’s. And it was absolutely magnetic because the faith people had placed in Rome was at an all-time low, so when they were saying, “We’ve got another Kingdom,” people were like, “Yes, we’re ready, because the world as we’ve experienced it is not working.” The beautiful thing is, people are saying the same thing now.

Jesus went around allowing Himself to be revealed through His work and His love, through touching leapers and healing the broken, setting captives free. And then people were like, “Wow, you’re the Son of God,” and He said, “Shh, don’t go around cramming it down people’s throats; don’t shout it. Allow people to discover that on their own.” I think that’s evangelism at its best, when we invite people into the mystery of God’s love.

Cindy Jacobs:

In the light of eternity, no question—evangelism. However, I do sincerely believe we will be judged on how we treated the poor and dealt with issues such as Sudan, sex trafficking, prostitution and the like.

NT Wright:

Justice and evangelism are three things which have to go on through the work of the Church simultaneously. I really don’t think we have to make the choice, and I think to suggest we do, as our culture has suggested over the last 200 years, is to capitulate, to put a split in the world which has little or nothing to do with the vision we find in Scripture where Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God. He is telling them about God’s sovereignty happening in a new way, which is evangelism. But the way it works out is the fact of what He’s doing for the poor. And it’s often as the Church is getting its hands dirty doing what needs to be done to help the poorest of the poor that people realize this Gospel really does make a difference—it can never simply be a matter of the heart. It’s got to be a matter of real conditions of people.

Nancy Ortberg:

I think for a lot of people, social justice leads to evangelism. Jimmy Long has written a book called Generating Hope, which talks about how you present the Gospel in a postmodern setting. And I love what he says about community. He says first of all, community really is our best apologetic. I believe that. I believe if the Church can live out community that is raw and vibrant and magnetic, people will be drawn to it. In this postmodern culture, people who didn’t grow up in the Church are going to, if they do come to know God, probably experience two conversions and not one.

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The first is the conversion to community. That will allow them to live close enough to God’s people to get a view of the God who sits in the center of those people. Their second conversion then will be to God. So as we authentically live out social justice in our lives individually and in our churches, evangelism will be an outcome of that, and I also think evangelism will bring people into our churches who will be very committed to social justice.

Many churches I come in contact with have all kinds of programs for banquets, and teas, and Bible studies, which in and of themselves are not bad, but there is not an equal amount of serving the poor, and getting our hands dirty, and coming alongside people in need. The Church has to go to them. Many people started clamoring around Jesus initially because He was healing people, and then when they got close enough, they began to hear His message. And His message was, “The Kingdom of God is available right now.”

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2008 issue of RELEVANT magazine.



ethanf commented…

Those may have been Christ's last words, a mandate front in his mind as he left his disciples to lead the church... However.

To ask where does Social Justice fit into the criteria of Jesus seems to be a bit of a back hand to the mans actions which in reality speak on much stronger levels then even his words.

Christ hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, blind beggars, lepers and alike. Men and women who were outcast and beaten down in need of help.

"Do you want to be saved" said Jesus to the man who had been waiting for healing for thirty-eight years. By "saved" Jesus meant both and inward and outward healing obviously, but when we look at the rare facts of it, Jesus was interested in saving those who needed saving. That was his mandate. To love unconditionally those who needed love. He didn't spend much time with those who weren't interested, instead he gave them his word and moved on to those who were hurt and in need of a savior.

The golden rule: LOVE. Love God and Love others like you would love yourself.
Jesus laid that out for us.

Therefore evangelism or "spreading the gospel" is not handing out tracts to people who don't care... its spreading the golden rule. Love.

What is should look like is building homes for those who dont have any, providing family to those who are alone, food for the hungry, a hug to the hurting, a smile to the forgotten. - not once do we need to mention Jesus and Jesus will heal - when we have created a bond of love with a people, culture, or individual then doors will open to spread the good news about Jesus and when they hear it , it will make sense because they will be hearing it from people who practice what they preach and act out their faith in a REAL way.

In conclusion, social justice MUST be apart of not evangelism, but rather the very way in which christians live their lives. It should surround what they do and what they say.

For "whatever you did to ONE OF THE LEAST you did to me." - Jesus

We do not ever need to walk out with a mandate of bringing people to Christ, Christ will bring people to himself, we can be vessels in that work but our job is to love those who need loving.

Really what i am saying has been said by a much wiser man of God.

"Preach the Gospel always, If necessary use words." St. Francis of Assisi

Rachael Devlin


Rachael Devlin commented…

This article was mostly good, if somewhat unsuprising, responses (don't get me wrong - just because they were unsurprising, doesn't mean that they didn't have anything to offer. It's always good to have one's thoughts clarified and crystallized by the words of others). The only comment I took issue with was Cindy Jacobs' words. She has unwittingly bought into the Enlightenment split that began with Cartesian dualism and ended up relegating Christianity to the keeper of some sort of spiritual, otherwordly province. However, as with many conservative Christians, Jacobs has tried to implicitly claim that the priority of evangelism over any notion of social justice has theological warrant, when in fact it stems from the divorce between the secular and material on the one hand, and the sacred and spiritual on the other. As some of the other contributors noted, the early Christians did not recognize such a distinction. God has come to set everything to rights - souls, bodies, communities. In short, all creation. That includes the inner spiritual life, but also embraces the outward material life.

The other problem I had with what she said was the fact that her concession to the importance of works seemed to provide a very flimsy - and ultimately self-interested - ethical base for said works. She said that we will be judged in some way on what we do, and according to Jacobs, this is the reason we should be engaging in things such as AIDS prevention, caring for the sick and homeless, etc. But if we leave it there, then we are essentially saying that we should do good things in order to avoid judgement and gain reward. I think this is a rather shallow foundation upon which to build an ethical and theological justification for such things, and as I said, encourages us to engage in works of charity out of a sense of spiritual self-interest. Rather, we should see such works as in some way prophetic, anticipating God's new world.


Kayarr2k commented…

Scott, I am thankful that everything will be judged according to my heart. If that weren't true I'd be in big trouble.
It has been becoming more clear that our mandate as Christ followers is to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, tend the sick and homeless and widows and love them with the new heart that God has provided through Christ. If we aren't being led to help in these areas or aren't moved with compassion I think we need to question our own salvation.
Let's not confuse works for having the heart of Christ.

Megan Jones


Megan Jones commented…

I think both social justice and evangelism are the natural results of communicating God's love onto the world. I do not think they are without emphasis on love at all. What is social justice at its core but ensuring that everyone understands that they are a beloved creation and are treated as such? What is evangelism but sharing the love with which God has blessed us?



Johnny commented…

Spiritual justice should be our focus. It is not a question of either social justice or evangelism. The question is how do we free people from the bondage that is strangling their ability to live a fuller life. Spiritual is praying to bind up the spiritual forces that ensnare and enslave God's children. Start today, by binding up these entities that wage war on the children of the inheritance of glory. Speak against the whispers that lie about who these beautiful image bearers are meant to be. If we are willing to pray first instead of label, then struggling men and women will Have the opportunity to hear the voice of Jesus.

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