The Kingdom of God and Social Justice

Found this excellent primer for discussion on the relationship between the Kingdom of God and social justice at Matt Harmon’s blog.  He gives us “Ten Theses for Further Discussion”, intended to help us engage in social action without losing sight of why and who we serve in the first place, the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I think these are important points for consideration, whether we are on mission at home or abroad. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.  

  1. We must learn from church history. There is a rich and varied history of the church engaging these issues, and we are fools to ignore this history. By looking at the past we can benefit from the thinking and practice of those who have gone before us, while hopefully avoiding their mistakes.
  2. We must allow biblical and theological convictions to shape our engagement in social action. There are simply too many individuals and churches that jump into these issues out of compassion devoid of biblical and theological foundations. The responsibility for this rests primarily with the church to provide solid teaching on this area, but also for individual believers to ground themselves in Scripture. Compassion that is not rooted in the gospel will ultimately and inevitably lead to assuming and eventually even denying the gospel in the name of caring for people in this life.
  3. We must not collapse the already/not-yet tension. However one puts this together, we need to be sure to recognize both. Emphasizing the already to the neglect of the not-yet results in people thinking that our efforts usher in the kingdom, or worse yet that the ultimate goal of God is to improve conditions in this life. Emphasizing the not-yet to the neglect of the already results in people thinking that any engagement in social issues is a waste of time because it is all going to burn. Holding the two together holds the promise of engagement in social action while prioritizing eternal issues of heaven and hell.
  4. We must recognize that evangelical engagement with these issues will take different forms within different political, cultural and social contexts. While it is increasingly popular to champion individuals like Abraham Kuyper and the goal of transforming culture, large numbers of believers simply do not have that option available. Believers in the Middle East and parts of Asia (just to name a few) have little or no access to the various institutions of a culture to effect transformation. Believers in the United States, by contrast, often do. Thus a one size fits all approach to this issue simply cannot and does not work.
  5. We must prioritize proclamation of the gospel without neglecting social action. This is the point where our theology really surfaces. If we are convinced that heaven and hell are ultimate realities that each human being must face, then we will prioritize the communication of the gospel message. This does not mean that every kind deed must be accompanied by a gospel tract, but it does mean an intentional effort to share the gospel in the context of meeting physical needs or addressing social structures. Actions are not self-interpreting; there are plenty of nice moral people who do good things for the community and have no interest in Jesus Christ. If we are to distinguish our efforts from them (and at some level we MUST if we are to be faithful to Christ) there must be communication of the gospel. Faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), not by simple observation of good works.
  6. We must realize that our actions are not self-interpreting. There is absolutely a place for being salt and light in a community through good deeds. But unless those deeds are given an interpretation, people will simply not know why we are doing them. There are plenty of groups who do good deeds in the community. Our actions will not truly adorn the gospel unless people are made aware that the actions flow out of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Again, faith comes by hearing, not simply doing good things before people and hoping they make the connection to Christ.
  7. We must recognize the trend towards increasing social action and decreasing evangelism within the church. In many (if not most) evangelical churches today it is easier to recruit people to go do a neighborhood service project than it is to do evangelism. My concern is that a growing number of evangelicals assuage their guilt (if it even exists!) for not sharing the gospel by doing good deeds in the community. While I am not arguing a strict causation, it seems more than coincidental that at a time when evangelical participation in social action is rising rapidly active participation in evangelism falling rapidly.
  8. We must think through and articulate the connection between specific social action and the gospel. One of the reasons that social and action and evangelism are hard to marry is that we have often failed to think through the relationship between specific physical needs and the gospel. When ministering to the hungry we can point them to the bread that truly satisfies. When ministering to those who are poor we can help them to see that their physical poverty is a window into the spiritual condition before God, and their need for spiritual riches that cannot be destroyed. When we think through these kinds of connections the relationship between social action and the verbal communication of the gospel seems much more natural.
  9. We must not allow people’s physical needs to blind us or them to their even greater spiritual needs. This is related but distinct from the previous point. There is a danger in meeting physical needs that we become so engrossed in them that we lose sight of their spiritual needs. By all means we should do what we are able in meeting their physical needs. But if we stop there we are not loving our neighbor in the fullest sense of the term. Regardless of their current situation, they must stand before a holy God on the Last Day, where they will either be welcomed into heaven or banished to hell. Sometimes those who are suffering physically are so consumed by their situation they cannot see the greater spiritual realities; at other times their very neediness in the physical terms opens their eyes to their spiritual condition. Either way, we must remember there is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be avoided for everyone.
  10. We must recognize the challenges that come with working with others of different beliefs. Who should believers partner with in these endeavors? Should we accept government money (which almost always comes with strings)? What about other churches? How much do they have to agree with you doctrinally? What private social agencies with no spiritual affiliation? Where does one draw lines? These are all difficult questions that do not have simple answers. But they must be considered when engaging in social action.
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