Do Social Justice Activities Detract From the Gospel?

Do Social Justice Activities Detract From the Gospel?

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Activities that fall into the category of “social justice” (like fighting poverty, digging wells for clean water, and working in inner city communities) are becoming popular in many of our churches and Christian circles today. But do you assume that social justice and the Gospel go hand-in-hand? I’ve appreciated the most recent set of blogs on Rising Voice where Jenny Abel gives us some thought-provoking considerations as we endeavor to live out our faith in ways that are true to the Gospel and tangible in their expression of God’s love.

For starters, Jenny suggests we need to consider carefully what priority we’re placing on social justice and the Gospel:

"At the same time that strong anti-Christian forces are seeking to silence the Christian message in the public sphere, many churches and Christians (perhaps as a result of the public pressure and desire to steer clear of controversy) are shying away from direct, 'with words' evangelism—and putting more emphasis on the same kinds of problems gaining greater attention from the world at large. Within churches, this shift may be blatant and formal—perhaps making its way into a church’s statement of faith—or more subtle and vague (e.g., sermons may gradually contain less talk about more absolute terms like sin, death, repentance, and salvation, and more talk of God’s love, neighborly love, and God’s plan for human flourishing and the 'renewal of all things'; one particular organization speaks of having a 'faithful presence,' which they believe is a 'fuller reflection of the integrity' of the Great Commission and cultural mandate—'a more effective model of Christian engagement').

"Now most of this sounds really good (new, innovative ideas tend to have that sort of luster); and much of it does have a biblical basis. The problem is one of emphasis and motivation—and of what is being left undone as a result. God’s work in the world and our lives does entail more than saving us from death and sin; it isn’t enough to only win converts—we must also grow in grace and 'work out' our salvation on a practical level, bringing light into darkness.

"But the question is not whether we have a full picture of God’s dealings with His creation, and whether we should take part in acts that further His purposes. Of course we should! The question we’re wrestling with is this: What is the primary role of the Church in the world?"

So I’d ask you to consider: Is there a difference between the Christian activities you participate in through your church and those of a local do-good organization (think United Way or March of Dimes)? Does there need to be a distinction?

I think there is a very clear danger (as Jenny posits here) in Christians (whether as individuals, churches or community groups) of getting so caught up in preaching the good of humanitarian efforts that we forget that those things do not lead to salvation — which should be our ultimate identity and goal.

Still not convinced that we need to think carefully about our mission when it comes to social justice activities? I encourage you to read the rest of the blogs in this Rising Voice series

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  • -.-

    --Why not both? Why do good works have to be at the expense of the gospel message?

    "Talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free. For if you refuse to act kindly, you can hardly expect to be treated kindly. Kind mercy wins over harsh judgment every time. Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department. Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove."

  • --What if you are doing social justice works in the name of Christ?  It seems simplistic to say that either you are doing work through your church (ie. telling people about Jesus) or something with a secular organization.  In college I spent a summer volunteering with an inner city ministry that ran a health clinic.  We asked if people wanted prayer and were open to hearing about Jesus, but the primary purpose was to meet the physical needs of those people,  But the people knew the organization and why we were there.    I like the social justice movement within the church, I think it helps take away from people looking at the church and seeing a bunch of hypocrites.

  • With MrsAshleyTOF and Kellie on this one: we should be doing both, not an either/or.  The Bible seems pretty clear on that.  James 1v.27 anyone??

  • Yep, we should be doing both.  My church has recently started to do a better job of including both aspects.  They had (under a former pastor, I suppose) been great about doing "good works," but people didn't necessarily hear the gospel unless they came to a church service.  The new pastor felt that the church should continue to do those good works, but do them with evangelism as the ultimate goal.  Granted, we usually focus on our near-by community rather than global problems, but at least we are actively getting the gospel out there to people who need it, and meeting their physical needs as well!  

  • I think one of the big questions we need to ask ourselves is the why. Why are we digging these wells and rescuing girls sold into slavery?

    If the answer is "it's popular right now, and it will make people like us and not see us as hypocrites," then it's totally wrong headed. We are doing exactly what Jesus told his descales NOT to do -- "Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." (Matt 6:1)

    But if we are doing these things for the people we are seeing through God's eyes – seeing them as sheep without a shepherd who God longs to show them his love and father's heart. And that if we give them a physical sign of God's care – the water, they may be more willing to listen as we tell them of the living water they can find. Or of the girl sold as a slave – how will she hear, locked away from the light of day and of hope? We can be God's hands, rescuing her from the darkness, and showing her that only true freedom and healing is found in Jesus.

    Then if we are truly seeing these people we are helping through God's eyes, and caring for them with his heart, we will be just as grieved for their spiritual condition and need, and won't be able to keep quiet about the Gospel.

    But if we are doing it only because it's popular on social media – doing it to impress our community, then it will fail. We will start running around, obsessed with making a good impression, and completely forget about the people we are claiming to help. And since we won't really care about them, the Gospel will be lost in doing things, because that part's not nearly as popular.

  • --Thanks, Dawn, for bringing this up!  I think it is something that we need to take a serious look at this issue.  I agree with Joanna's paragraphs:

    "But if we are doing these things for the people we are seeing through God's eyes – seeing them as sheep without a shepherd who God longs to show them his love and father's heart. And that if we give them a physical sign of God's care – the water, they may be more willing to listen as we tell them of the living water they can find. Or of the girl sold as a slave – how will she hear, locked away from the light of day and of hope? We can be God's hands, rescuing her from the darkness, and showing her that only true freedom and healing is found in Jesus.

    Then if we are truly seeing these people we are helping through God's eyes, and caring for them with his heart, we will be just as grieved for their spiritual condition and need, and won't be able to keep quiet about the Gospel."

    What I am concerned about is Christians who are content with providing for physical needs of unbelievers and stopping there.  Not that those things aren't absolutely things we are commanded to do to care for the poor and needy, but they are not the end of our responsibility.  Nonchristians can dig wells, rescue trafficked girls, operate clinics etc. too.  But they canNOT share that there is something more that matters beyond this life.  They cannot share that our ultimate hope is not is having a safe, clean, comfortable existence here on earth (all of which is very important), but in knowing the God who has freed us from the bonds of our slavery to sin, adopted us into His family, and is providing for us a real, permanent, and perfect home in heaven.  THAT is our REAL hope.  It absolutely terrifies me to think of the "false hope" or representation of what Christianity is when Christians and Christian organizations are willing to stop at providing for health, physical, safety, justice etc. needs, and then rejoice with these people in the "freedom" and "new life" they have, without presenting the real hope of eternal life in Christ.  What message does this send?  What if many of these people spend eternity in hell, and cannot say that the Christians they met who so greatly impacted their physical lives on earth had any concern to warn them of what was to come?  If we really believe and meditate on it (the reality of hell, and the importance of our salvation), and are not swept away by the emphasis of our culture to think that this material life on earth is all there is and all that really matters, we will not be able to stop there.  We will love those souls enough to want them to know the truth, and to pray that the Lord would set them free spiritually, as He has physically!

    Yes, Jesus was pleased to heal many, many people of physical ailments during His time on earth.  But His ultimate concern was always that through those healings, they and those who looked on would come to believe the truth of who He was, and that He has the power not only to heal, but to forgive sins, which is much greater! (Mark 2, the paralytic man)  

    So should we engage in social justice as Christians? Absolutely!  Proverbs especially is full of commands to care for the poor, orphaned, widowed, oppressed, those in bondage, treated unjustly, etc. But as we see the brokenness and horrors of evil and the effects of sin as we minister to such people, we must remember that the greater need by far is forgiveness from sin and reconciliation with God--and that hell will be unimaginably worse than the worst we will see on earth.  Let us not stop short of sharing with them our ultimate hope and the motivation behind our compassion, and let us use every opportunity to share the gospel with the people we minister to!  (And let us not delude ourselves, that a comfortable, first-world quality of life is what really matters.  It is not for them, and it should not be for us.  It is such an easy thing to slip slowly into unaware!)    

  • --More importantly, seeking "social justice" in the absence of people converting to Christ is ineffective.  Without changed lives, the amount of resources you throw at a problem will never fix it.  I find it fascinating that even secular organizations like the Peace Corps have learned that they best invest their resources with villages who have "skin in the game" and are willing to work and take responsibility for improving things.  "Raising awareness" is completely useless if the population in question refuses to take responsibility for their own choices.

  • --I don't think that Dawn meant to imply that we should *only* preach the gospel and ignore social justice activities. I think that the point was that we should continue to do these things but remember what is most important. We can all donate to Compassion International and call in to all of those organizations with the commercials depicting kids from Africa as often as we want; but I doubt Jesus would agree that we should "teach a man to fish" and forget to become "fishers of men." Social justice activities are a good thing; and they help millions and maybe even billions of people every single second of every single day. But preaching the gospel does the same and then some. No one (at least in my humble opinion) is saying that we should pick one and stick with it. The key is to remember what is most important. And besides, if we preach the gospel more often and allow the Holy Spirit to do his work, then that just means that we'll get more people to engage in social justice activities :-D I mean I'd say that participating in social justice activities is every Christian's duty :-)

  • --When the crippled man was lowered by his friends into Jesus's presence, he first addressed the sin issue, then addressed the felt needs.

    Liberal Christians love the felt needs and want to emphasize those and give them primacy because they fear the offense of the Bible and the Gospel message.

    Whether it is George W Bush's "Office of Faith Based Initiatives" or Mr. Obama's Organizing for America enlisting churches to argue for a fast-food restaurant pay hike and amnesty, or even the Salvation Army that abandons any evangelism in favor of maximizing its fundraising opportunities (I don't know about your neck of the woods, but they did that to provide help for a city that organized a "wooden nickel" campaign because they wouldn't pass out more money), the Gospel message does not belong as an add-on accessory.  The social justice campaign leaders I have known usually are not Christian people, but they do love taking the Gospel and providing their translation on things, to say that Jesus compels you to protest the WTO, Jesus compels you to vote a certain way, Jesus compels you to divest from Israel.

    There is one mission for the universal and local church; everything should flow from that mission.  Better to be inspired to help on a small scale than expect to glom onto some giant political banner and be a pawn or, worse, a misuser and abuser of the name of the Lord.

    Post Script: Regarding the first comment, @MrsAshleyTOF, The Message is a woefully inadequate translation of the Bible into English, suffering from an excessive interjection of the translator himself into the text, and showing creeping universalism.  I saw the quote and assumed it was a paraphrase and elaboration of James, which, given it's The Message, that's being charitable.  "Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (NKJV) or even "In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (NIV) has so much more depth than the modern pablum, "Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?"  Even the social justice gospel may be creeping into that sentence where the NIV and others say "Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.", and then it is universalized in The Message "For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved"  If The Message is your go-to translation, no wonder you tend to be a champion of liberal positions on this site; it is definitely a changed and reformulated gospel, and such things as the obligations owed to other brothers and sisters in Christ have been universalized and therefore rendered without meaning by it.  Even the Good News would be a more faithful rendering into modern English.

  • This was previously, accidentally posted to the wrong thread:

    --Jesus didn't tell us to build churches and recite creeds or to hold people responsible for their moral shortcomings. He told us to take care of the injured and to sell all our possessions and give the money to the poor. And he gave the example of healing the sick, loving the poor and forgiving sins. And when he healed the sick he didn't tell them to join the church, he usually told them to go back home. Jesus gave genuinely, without any agenda other than love.

  • --Out of the comments on this thread so far, I agree most closely with Nemo's. Grace and kindness and compassion are NEVER wasted. Doing the same things as atheists, if those things are good things, is in no way a problem. Christians should be leading the way on justice issues, fighting for equality and protection of the vulnerable everywhere we go. Sometimes it's appropriate to integrate a gospel message into that work, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes, in some situations, I think people do have to choose between effecting the biggest amount of change or hampering their practical efforts by bringing religion to the forefront of their work. As much as I agree that salvation is ultimately the most important thing for all of us, I actually think if we have to choose between showing love and giving support without mentioning Jesus, or preaching to those in need without helping them out in practical ways, I would choose the first one every time. Of course, we often don't have to choose between these things, but there are complex issues in many parts of the world, and there are people who would resist any intervention from overt Christian groups because of how they've been hurt by the church. Sometimes we have to tread lightly and prove our love before we earn the right to talk about our faith, and sometimes talking about faith is best done on a small, personal, one-to-one level rather than a public, organisational level. Making our support conditional on listening to a sermon or getting involved in a church, for example, is something I don't agree with at all. As Christians, everything we do should stem from our faith, but that doesn't mean we have to shout about it every second of every day. We need to be wise, and there are times when that means to be Jesus's hands and feet rather than his mouth.

  • --Jaybees, "If The Message is your go-to translation, no wonder you tend to be a champion of liberal positions on this site"

    Um, no she doesn't...

  • --Hmm, re-reading my comment I think it could be misinterpreted, so let me clarify: God is all about restoration, not just spiritually but physically. We're looking forward to a new heaven *and* a new earth, and we have the opportunity to work with God towards that goal in any number of ways as he leads us. The idea that good practical changes that we help to bring about in this world are somehow distractions from what's really important is just not biblical as far as I can see - they move our world along a trajectory of redemption that fits harmoniously into God's story of salvation. Most of us in our daily lives can promote grace and redemption and salvation through our conversations, our example and our efforts to help those in our lives as business people, nurses, parents, office workers, whatever, Then on a larger scale there are those who are called by God to focus on preaching and promoting the gospel and speaking truth, and there are those who are called to mobilise others to create radical change on the ground, working towards justice and to eliminate poverty. I just don't think it's fair or right to label those people as 'afraid of offending' or 'ashamed of the gospel' if they don't directly incorporate preaching into their work. Christians historically have been at the forefront of major social change in plenty of areas, and we underestimate the value of social change if we don't acknowledge that *even if* the gospel is not a primary focus of that change, it helps to create a world that is more like the one God desires, and more fertile ground for the growth of the gospel in generations to come.

  • --Jaybees: I'll chase your rabbit a little bit: You might be suprised to know that I actually don't have a copy of the message in my home, and I actually consider myself to be somewhere on the moderate/conservative end of the spectrum doctrine-wise. Unfortunately, the church has adopted a lot of social and sociological mores that really have nothing to do with the bible in any translation. In our home, currently, I have one worn NKJV bible embossed with my maiden name my grandparents gave me as a child and two much be-marked ESV bibles -- chosen specifically because at the time I was getting serious about faith study it was considered to be very accurate and not as difficult to read as the NASB, the gold standard for accuracy and the translation my husband owns.

    You might be interested to know that the NIV and the NLT, both widely read, are ALSO both paraphrases and not as concerned with textual accuracy as either the ESV or the NASB. Futher, the KJV itself, has, on numerous historical occasions been altered and corrected in order to better satisfy the political or social leanings of the church of the day -- although I was raised in NKJV, I strongly prefer texts that attempt a one-for-one translation from greek transcripts for this reason, and when I have to use a KJV translation, I prefer NKJV because I find it much easier to understand. People that claim that KJV is superior to all other translations remind me of the sort of person who demands that one read Chaucer in Old English because otherwise you can never truly appreciate it.

    The Message, I see, as a useful tool. Think of it as a beginer's math textbook, or perhaps, the very first introductory textbook to a new language. There are a lot of people who find the bible itself to be difficult to read, and the Message makes it more approachable. I find it to be extremely helpful when talking with people who, frankly, a little intimidated by the wording of other biblical translations. I also find it useful, for many of the same reasons in online discourse, mostly because I assume people who are familiar enough with the bible to identify the message on sight can then go look up that passage in whatever translation they are most comfortable with, while keeping the passage accessable to everyone. I don't see a problem with this approach, and I kind of see people whining about it in the same light that Jesus sees John's irritation expressed in Luke Chapter 9 verses 49 and 50:

    "And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us."

    It is worthwhile, incidentally, to not that you don't actually disagree with the passage I quoted, unless, of course, you do, which is far more problematic than a mere translation difference becuase disagreement would mean that you do, in fact, believe that works can be divorced from faith or words for the believer -- which is a far greater problem faced by the church than doing too many good works and avocating for too much social justice.

  • --Re: Nemo

    “Jesus didn't tell us to build churches and recite creeds or to hold people responsible for their moral shortcomings. He told us to take care of the injured and to sell all our possessions and give the money to the poor. And he gave the example of healing the sick, loving the poor and forgiving sins. And when he healed the sick he didn't tell them to join the church, he usually told them to go back home. Jesus gave genuinely, without any agenda other than love.”

    Much of your response doesn’t line up with Scripture. (1) Obviously Jesus didn’t tell anyone to join the church after he healed them, because the church hadn’t been established yet. (2) Jesus didn’t tell us to build churches; he built the church himself. (3) Jesus didn’t tell us to hold people responsible for their moral shortcomings? Really? Scripture is full of holding each other accountable for moral failures.

    (4) Jesus did not tell everyone to sell all their possessions, there were only a select few instances of this in the gospels. If he really did tell everyone to do this, he would not have honored the woman who poured the perfume on him (Mark 14).

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