3/28/2007

Gospel Proclamation or Social Justice? Why Not Both?

I am immersed in a church culture that has always been suspicious of those "social gospel" people—those who make the gospel of Jesus only about helping the poor and hungry, fighting injustices, or caring for the needy. Not that my church culture demeans these actions as unimportant; we just insist that the gospel is about personal salvation through believing in the death of Jesus to atone for our sins. If helping the poor, fighting injustice and caring for the needy gives us a platform to share the gospel of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, then that’s great. If it does not have that as its ultimate purpose, then it is no longer gospel work.

Scot McKnight has a continuing series at his blog, Jesus Creed, called “Letters to Emerging Christians” (which I understand may become a book someday). His latest letter deals with this issue, and it got me thinking about my church culture and how it is too truncated in its understanding of the gospel.

Evangelicals have been fearful that if we create too broad a category for evangelism that would include such actions as stopping injustice, then we will lose the importance of proclamation. So we have insisted (especially in light of the social gospel movement of the past century) that there are two categories: “Gospel proclamation” (telling people about Jesus), and “social justice” (doing Kingdom work). Ron Sider, who I deeply respect, even makes this distinction in his very good book, Good News and Good Works.

What we need, however, is a bigger view of Kingdom living. The purpose of living as a Christian is to live authentically as Christ’s disciples in every aspect. We need to rid our lives of the dualist thinking that one thing (gospel proclamation) is what’s really important and everything else is some sort of second-tier Christian living.

Of course, our sinful nature will tend to push us toward thinking that “if all I do is help people, I’m doing gospel work,” and then quote Francis of Assisi (“Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words”) to rationalize our point. Christians can easily fall into the mode of “I’m living my life as a testimony” without ever saying a word about their testimony. That is not the legitimate holistic Christian life - it is not living the fullness of what it means to live as Christ’s disciple.

But the other side of the coin is just as illegitimate. We may think, “if all I do is proclaim Christ to people by explaining the cross, then (and only then) am I doing gospel work.” That separates one part of my gospel-living life in a way that makes it lose its power.

I want to drive home this point:
When everything that we do is seen as gospel work, then evangelism by proclamation becomes a natural part of who we are. It no longer feels forced; it no longer feels like an imposition on others; it flows from the core of who we are. We live it; we share it.

So it is no longer a debate between "Gospel Proclamation" versus "Social Justice." Why can't we live in a way that embraces both as one holistic gospel life?

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5 comments:

Greg said...

Indeed! Helpful post. Thanks. I especially liked "a bigger view of Kingdom living." Seems like there are even more both/and's around if we look carefully.

david said...

Great thoughts, Bob. One question: You state that "Of course, our sinful nature will tend to push us toward thinking that “if all I do is help people, I’m doing gospel work,” and then quote Francis of Assisi (“Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words”) to rationalize our point."

I'm not sure I understand how doing the work of Christ (without using words) is the work of "our sinful nature". Is our verbal skill a necessary indicator of our commitment to Jesus Christ? Was the Good Samaritan not a good Christian because he did not talk about Jesus Christ to the innkeeper?

Simon said...

Another term to refer to "kingdom living" is "mission". I like the way that David Bosch in his book "Transforming Mission" speaks of evangelism as being an essential component of mission, but only a component. Evangelical culture tends to make evangelism synonymous with mission, which results in a Church that is divided, with each "half" neglecting a whole section of it's kingdom mandate (evangelism as verbal witness on the one hand, and care for the poor on the other). This discussion has been around for so long, but I still don't think we've got it. Posts like this are really helpful in the discussion. Thanks.

Bob Robinson said...

David,

Good question. I guess I wasn't clear.

I'm not saying that "doing the work of Christ (without using words) is the work of 'our sinful nature'." I am also not saying that verbal skill is a necessary indicator of our commitment to Christ. Indeed the Good Samaratin is the example of what it means to love our neighbor.

What I'm saying is simply this: Individual loving action for the needy and systemic Christian activity in social justice issues are so important to the holistic gospel message. We cannot think that simply preaching at people or verbally evangelizing or handing out tracts are the only "real" gospel work. We need to get this right. We need to change our disposition about what is gospel.

However, in our zeal to "not be that anymore," I've seen people and whole ministries swing the pendulum so far that they no longer value the preaching or verbally sharing an articulation of the story of Jesus. They so value social justice that they devalue evangelism in the classic sense. And then they quote Francis as a way to cop-out of that aspect of the evangelistic endeavor.

I'm trying to strike the proper balance here--a holistic evangelistic life that cares for the needy "in the name of Christ."

Bob Robinson said...

Simon,

YES! YES! YES!

We are now calling it the "missional church," that sees our duty as the body of Christ to incarnate Jesus to the world around us. This "mission," therefore, encapsulates the whole thing - being Jesus to people, doing what he would do to compassionately love them, sharing with them the "good news of the Kingdom of God."

See the helpful blog on this: Friend of Missional.