Thursday, May 22, 2008

Social Justice and the "Gospel"

Tony Payne has recently written an article over at the Sola Panel looking at the relationship between what he calls "the gospel" and social action. To cut a long story short, Tony concludes that the relationship is non-existent, or at the very most, fairly tenuous. If anything, this should immediately signal alarm bells, given that Jesus seems to attribute considerable importance to the task of social justice in his ministry.

The first thing to point out is that Tony assumes that the definition and the parameters of "the gospel" are beyond dispute. According to Tony, the gospel is embodied in a series of propositional statements that one affirms in order to become a Christian. Reading through the gospels, that simply isn't what I read in the teachings of Jesus. Quite possibly it seems that evangelicals of Tony's ilk agree, since tracts that are meant to represent the gospel such as "Two Ways to Live" choose not to incorporate any of Jesus' own words into their gospel presentation. Apparently, the Jesus of the Bible and the Jesus of history is much too inconvenient for the evangelical understanding of the gospel.

Given that evangelicals don't like to refer to Jesus when they talk about the gospel, it's not the least bit surprising that their understanding of the gospel has become somewhat warped, as evidenced in what they call Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I think more than anything else, this explains why evangelicals have consistently failed to construct a coherent framework to adequately understand the interrelationship between what they call the gospel and good works. Interestingly, it is worth mentioning that James deals at length with the problem of a faith that does not express itself through works and works that exist independently from faith.

I'd suggest that if evangelicals were to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, then they wouldn't have the problem that I've discussed above. The first thing to point out is that Jesus places considerable focus on what he identifies as the "Kingdom of God". It is clear that while the Kingdom of God involves an eternal element, it is also a presently unfolding reality. Several times in Scripture, both in the teachings of Jesus and elsewhere, the Kingdom of God is contrasted to "this present evil age", which is construed as nothing less than an opposing force to the Kingdom of God that Jesus is establishing. The establishment of the Kingdom of God involves tearing down the strongholds that hold humanity captive - and we see this in the ministry of Jesus in his determination to strike against the purity, debt and social codes of his days. His words in Luke 4:18-19 are particularly poignant:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

There is one important last word to say on the subject. Social justice is not the sum total of the gospel. Jesus' ambition to bring about a reconstituted humanity is not completed by building a well, or alleviating hunger - it is only started. Jesus' vision of God's Kingdom coming, when "His will be done on earth as it is in heaven" involves a complete reappraisal of values, both individually and corporately. The first step is freeing the captives. The second step is maintaining this freedom - and this will only occur when people are under the jurisdiction of Christ.


Paul said...

You're on the right track David, or as Jesus would say "you are not far from the kingdom of God." Evangelism falls under the greater mission of seeing God's will be done on Earth. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Our mission is primarily to "To love him [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself."

The gospel task is clearly not equivalent to evangelism, as Tony suggest. The 'Great Commission' is not actually found in the Biblical texts! The verses that people refer to as the 'Great Commission' were directed at the disciples, and they (arguably) fulfilled those verses in their own time.

I will take down the 'Two Ways to Live' link from my web site now. I will have to rescind my endorsement if that tract is only about getting people a ticket to the sweet by-and-by in the sky when they die.

Keep up the iconoclasm mate. Be abrasive, but respectful of the individual. Without iconoclasm (Jesus and the OT prophets in particular) Christianity would just be another 'slave morality'.

Paul said...

I should clarify why I make the point that the 'Great Commission' (that header smacks of Evangelical eisegesis) was directed at the 11 disciples. (Mk 16:20, Col 1:23 and Rom 16:25-26 could make a case that the 'Great Commission' was fulfilled).

That is, the Gospel points us to Jesus Christ (the Gospel is Jesus Christ), not the work of the disciples. Of course, preaching the Kingdom of God was the primary task of Jesus, but that preaching was seen in actions, not just words (as Isaiah says). It wasn't just about making disciples, as the gospels overwhelmingly attest. It certainly wasn't about God's wrath and eternal physical punishment in a material hell, or its polar opposite in Heaven, as many Christians would have you believe. The disciples themselves weren't sent to only preach, but to "heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give."

The Apostle Paul, post-Easter, calls us to the faith and spirit of Jesus. With His (not our own) faith and spirit of Jesus Christ we will (not must or ought to) be witnesses to Him, and that won't only be in the form of words. We will do far greater things than He.

I think limiting the gospel task to evangelism is a major cop out and terribly unbiblical, especially when you can dismiss your failure to make a disciple using some Gnostic understanding of predestination.

The point about slave morality is that it is full of 'ought tos', legalism. You ought to evangelise, for instance. It is only in being one with Christ, having the faith and spirit of Christ, that all 'ought tos' are buried. Hence, Christians don't have tasks, just an I AM of faith, to be worshiped freely through recognition of God's grace in Christ. This faith and spirit will be seen in good works and evangelism (faith and works are a false duality when lead by the Spirit), as it was seen in Jesus.

To those who feel burdened by a perceived obligation to evangelise or other good works, I say this. If you don't feel inclined to do works of service, don't. Don't create a false dichotomy in your head about faith and works to justify yourself. Forget about works, withdraw to a lonely place and pray. Read the gospels and renew your knowledge in the faith. Good works will be a natural outgrowth or fruit of your renewed faith, your creation in Christ. That's a promise, nothing to be anxious about.

ileanasantamaria said...

Dear David,

I hope that you are somehow alerted to my response to this dated yet thought-provoking post on an important subject. I happened upon your blog via a Google search for an actor who has been taken on the role of Screwtape in a stage production of the Screwtape Letters, which search sent me to Tim Challies' blog.

After poking around and finding the mandatory, two-page polemic around McLaren and the Emerging Church movement, I started following your discussion with a Donsands and was impressed by the intellectual level of your reflection on the matter being discussed and by your clear and articulate expression. So I've been reading some of your posts on here and remain impressed, not to mention appreciative of your candor in discussing such sensitive matters as depression (with which I have been grappling consciously for the past three to five years, and on some unconscious level, for the better part of the past two decades) and a potential conversion to Catholicism.

As for who I am and what brings me here, I'll quote Tim Challies' scathing dismissal of Brian McLaren's faith, albeit in an entirely different context, and go ahead and identify myself as 'no kind of Christian at all'. I say so because I have been exploring Christianity amidst great emotional turmoil, no small amount of it stirred up by said exploration, adding to the overall upheaval. I won't make this any longer, but I would like to know whether you'd be open to an e-mail exchange of some sort, as I am keen to ask questions of someone who has been on a faith journey for much longer than I have and who has managed to remain of sound mind and retain a perspicacious intellect, rather than regress emotionally and mentally whilst settling into a comforting, warm-and-fuzzy faith that regards intellect and rational thought with outright suspicion (something I greatly fear I might end up doing, given the need for emotional healing and sheer emotional fatigue that are drawing me to faith). That said, perhaps that dichotomy isn't as prevalent in Australia as it is here in the United States, where anti-intellectualism is hardly the province of fundamentalist Christians alone.

If you'd be willing to correspond with me, you can reach me at the following address:

Best regards and many thanks for your insightful contributions to a complicated conversation!


ileanasantamaria said...

"I happened upon your blog via a Google search for an actor who has been taken on the role of Screwtape"

Sorry, I meant to say 'who has taken on the role...'