Is the Gospel Social Justice?

There has been a lot of controversy lately on whether the Gospel is social justice or not. This is a continuation of positions stated in the 1987 Danvers Statement and the 2017 Nashville Statement. For your consideration, I have included a couple of articles that generally reflect the Episcopal Church’s position on the Gospel as social justice, as well as an alternative point of view, and two articles I have written about social justice. You may not agree with all the stated positions (I have some that I question), but we all should evaluate our stance on social justice and the Gospel, and what the members of the Diocese will do in the future.


The REAL Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel

Recently a group of Evangelical church leaders released a document called The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, which has since been electronically co-signed by 7,000 clergy members through America.

Following on the heels of last year’s Nashville Statement, it is yet another attempt by a group of Bible Belt Conservatives to lecture the rest of the nation on how to properly follow Jesus—as if Jesus himself wasn’t fit for the job, as if he needs their help.

I’ll let you read it for yourself, but here’s a spoiler alert: 

Like it’s equally pompous brother from Nashville, it too is filled with sanctimony, self-righteous gas-bagging, and all kinds of Bible verse-footnoted religious-speak—designed to serve an iron-clad apologetic of a compassion-free Christianity.

I’ll share with you two revelatory statements that bookend the piece, one from the preamble and another from the afterword.

From the former:
The Bible’s teaching (in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality) is being challenged under the broad and somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for “social justice.”If the doctrines of God’s Word are not uncompromisingly reasserted and defended at these points, there is every reason to anticipate that these dangerous ideas and corrupted moral values will spread their influence into other realms of biblical doctrines and principles.

It’s all there; every Conservative Christian dog whistle, every terrifying fundamentalist sky-is-falling talking point, every familiar hot button Evangelical trope.

And the writers position themselves as authorized by Divinity in these weighty and urgent matters.

But here’s part of the closing, talking about the Genesis of this lofty, anointed, God-ordained proclamation:

Fourteen men met in Herb’s House coffee shop in Dallas, Texas, having all expressed our growing concern with much that was taking place within evangelical circles under the banner of “Social Justice.”

Fourteen men.
At Herb’s House Coffee shop.
In Texas.
Sounds super spiritual, don’t it?
Sounds like exactly the place to be hearing revelation from the Almighty on matters of equality, sexuality, diversity.

Fourteen (predominately white) dudes over 50, sitting around somewhere in the reddest of red states, bloviating to one another about the evils of the world and imagining themselves qualified to tell tens of millions of Christians they’re doing it wrong.

And here’s the real kicker: these same 14 dudes, are among the most ardent supporters of this President and his Administration.
These 14 supposedly Christian men have repeatedly signed off and supported and defended:
his vile words about women,
his unrepentant serial adultery,
his race-baiting diatribes,
his ignoring the murders of unarmed black men,
his Cabinet filled with supremacists,

his dismantling of healthcare for millions,
his ICE harassment of undocumented Americans,
his separation of families and caging of children,
his incendiary language about Muslims,
his disregard for victims of gun violence.

These men, renting out their pulpits to shill for an amoral predator like Donald Trump, have the absolute brass testicles to declare to anyone, what God would have Christians do.

If these fourteen men were being at all honest with themselves and with us, here’s the real statement that they’d have made this week:

We are terrified.
We are afraid of gay people and Transgender people and brown people and Muslims—in a time when others are rapidly abandoning such fear.

We are white, Conservative, old men, and we realize that we are rapidly dying dinosaurs approaching extinction.
We see the culture becoming more intelligent, more scientifically aware, more connected across faith traditions and borders, and far less willing to be dictated to by white, Conservative, old men—and we are panicking.
We’ve made our bed politically with a man who is antithetical to every word and deed of the life of Jesus in the Gospels, and since we can’t change him or risk severing those ties now—our only option is to rewrite the Jesus story; to retrofit him to the monster we’ve created.
We want a Christianity that secures our privilege, that hordes our power, that doesn’t require us to be at all confronted or inconvenienced by Jesus.
We will do anything to resist equality, curb diversity, and keep marginalized people where they are—even betray the very heart of the Gospels.

I could spend a lot of time here arguing the minutia of the sprawling Social Justice Statement, but I don’t need to.

Jesus has already done that.

Don’t rely on me, see for yourself.

Read the Sermon on the Mount from front to back and see what was happening, what he was calling people to.

Meander on your own through the life and ministry of Jesus in the four New Testament biographies of Jesus.

Go anywhere you’d like: to him feeding multitudes on hillsides, to him railing against the hypocrisy of politically tainted religious leaders, to him sharing his affinity with the hungry and the imprisoned, to him challenging the religious systems oppressing the poor.

I contend you’ll see the same truth these overwrought Evangelicals are doing everything to ignore in their verbose manifesto: Jesus was a social justice warrior.

He was compassionate caregiver and status quo changer.
He was gentle healer and radical activist.
He was wall-destroyer and barrier-breaker and least-lover.
He was shepherd to the people of the street and he was a holy terror to the wolves wielding religion like a hammer against them.
He poured out his life in acts of service and generosity and empathy and sacrifice.
He made selfish, powerful, entitled religious people the most uncomfortable—because he welcomed everyone to the table and declared them equal.
With every breath he preached social justice, with every act he engineered it.

In short, Jesus was everything these fourteen men in a coffee shop in Texas and those like them, despise—and they have no interest in emulating him.

The writers of the Social Justice Statement use a ton of flowery words and religious code language, to simply say, “We don’t want to give a damn about people who aren’t like us.”

I’m sorry, but in the spirit of Christian love—I’m calling BS on it.

If we try and have a Christianity without social justice, we cut out the beautiful, beating heart of Jesus and we are left with only a lifeless corpse of religion to drag around.

‘Justice’ is what Jesus was doing and preaching and demanding of those who would follow him; and that justice is precisely what made the powerful want him dead.

You can draft any statement you want to resist that truth.

In the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus declares his purpose.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

This is the real Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel.

Someone needs to tell these terrified white, Conservative, old men.

Just like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day—they’re missing it.

John Pavlovitz, Things that Need to be Said, September 15, 2018
The REAL statement on social justice & the Gospel



A Gospel Issue?

When the morning worship service ended last Sunday, a woman whom I had never met before made a beeline for me and stood between me and the aisle. I was trapped in a row of seats. She said she was a guest from out of town, but she seemed to recognize me, and she said she wanted to help me understand the “social justice” issue.

“Despite what you think,” she said, “it is a gospel issue.” “Injustice is everywhere in the world. I am fighting it full time. Right now I have several lawsuits pending against injustice in the health-care industry. Don’t tell me that’s not gospel work. You’re not being a faithful witness unless you’re fighting for social justice. It’s built right into the gospel message: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

I tried to sound as agreeable as possible under the circumstances: “That’s surely one of the most important tenets of God’s moral law, and it does distill the idea of human justice into a single commandment,” I said. “But be careful how you state it. That’s not the gospel. That’s the Second Great Commandment.”

“Oh, right,” she said. “I meant to say the gospel is ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’”

“Well, that’s the First Great Commandment,” I said. “That’s still law, not gospel.”

“What do you mean?” she said. “I can show you those verses in the Bible.”

“Yes, ma’am, I know,” I said. “It’s Matthew 22:37-40. But that’s a summary of the law. It’s not the gospel.”

“But it’s in the Bible,” she repeated. “So it’s a gospel issue.”

I tried to explain: “Gospel and law aren’t the same thing. The law is a prelude to the gospel, not really part of the gospel. The law tells us what God requires of us. But then it condemns us, because it requires perfect obedience and curses anyone who doesn’t obey its every jot and tittle. But none of us obeys so thoroughly. And ‘whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.’ That’s James 2:10. Jesus said in Matthew 5:48 that the standard the law sets for us is God’s own absolute perfection. We can’t live up to that. The law therefore brings wrath (Romans 4:15), not salvation. The law can only condemn us, because we are guilty. All of us.

“Furthermore, suffering oppression doesn’t absolve anyone of wrongdoing. And being privileged doesn’t make a person any more sinful. We all deserve the wages of sin: death. That’s what the law says. Once we understand that, the last thing we need is more law. What we need is salvation from the penalty and power of the law. That’s where the gospel comes in.

“The gospel is the good news about Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Its themes are atonement for sin, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the justification of sinners. It’s the answer to the dilemma of the law.”

She interrupted at that point. “But you can’t preach forgiveness to people who treat other people unjustly,” she said. “That would just compound the injustice.”

“Scripture says the opposite,” I told her. “Christ died for the ungodly. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. Christ, who never committed a single act of injustice, gave his life as a ransom for other people’s sin—the just for the unjust. He paid sin’s price and thus satisfied both the wrath and the justice of God on behalf of sinners, so God can be just and still justify sinners who turn to Christ in faith.

“That’s the gospel. And God’s Word emphatically condemns anyone who proclaims the law instead of the gospel, or mingles the law with the gospel.

“Yes, the law condemns oppression, and it puts evildoers under a curse. But it cannot change hearts, and therefore it can neither free oppressed people from the bondage of their own sin nor transform their oppressors into good Samaritans.”

She cut me short again. “You can say that all you want, but I’m telling you that if you’re not fighting against injustice, you’re not doing gospel work,” she repeated. “Trust me; I know. I deal with corporate injustice all the time. I’ve even got these lawsuits pending . . .”

And we were right back where we started.

I didn’t make up that story. That was the real response of a self-styled full-time evangelical social justice advocate who is incorrigibly convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ alone doesn’t sufficiently address the problem of injustice. That brief conversation perfectly illustrates why alarms go off in my head whenever I hear some progressive evangelical insist that social justice is “a gospel issue.” It is worse yet when that claim is confidently made by bloggers and other representatives from various organizations whose raison d’être is supposed to be the defense and proclamation of the gospel.

Blending the gospel with social activism has been tried many times. (Google “Walter Rauschenbusch” or “social gospel.”) It has always turned out to be a shortcut to Socinianism, carnal humanism, or some more sinister form of spiritual barrenness. The social message inevitably overwhelms and replaces the gospel message, no matter how well-intentioned proponents of the method may have been at the start.

No wonder. “Social justice” (as that expression is used in the secular world or defined by practically any honest dictionary) isn’t really even a biblical theme. Nothing borrowed from worldly discourse should ever become a major theme in the message we proclaim to the world—not philosophy, politics, pop culture, or anything similar. Make any such topic a major theme alongside the simple gospel message and you are going against the strategy of the apostle Paul, who wrote, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Preaching on “social justice” in the manner now being modeled by certain leading evangelicals subverts the duty set forth in Colossians 3:2: “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” It encourages people to see themselves as victims, not sinners. It fosters resentment rather than repentance. It is a man-centered, not Christ-centered, message. It begets blame rather than forgiveness. And it points people to the law, not the gospel.

To insist that social justice activism is an essential tenet of gospel truth is a form of theological legalism not fundamentally different from the teaching of those in the early church who insisted circumcision was a gospel issue.

Evangelicals who are being inveigled into making social justice a central theme in their preaching need to consider these things very carefully, ponder the crucial distinction between law and gospel, and recover our confidence in the simple truths about Christ’s death and resurrection. Scripture says those are matters “of first importance.” These truths constitute the heart and the very essence of all true gospel issues: “That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

After all, that simple message is what turned the world upside down in the first century.

If the contemporary evangelical movement would get serious about God’s Word; abandon all the silly efforts to exegete popular culture; stop chasing “relevance” in all the wrong ways; eschew the wisdom of this world; and rise up and proclaim the gospel in earnest, with deep conviction, and with confident clarity, that simple message still has the power to conquer the world, vanquish ethnic strife, and heal all the other ills of our culture, even in these postmodern times.

Phil Johnson, SJ&G, September 7, 2018
A Gospel Issue?




In view of questionable sociological, psychological, and political theories presently permeating our culture and making inroads into Christ’s church, we wish to clarify certain key Christian doctrines and ethical principles prescribed in God’s Word. Clarity on these issues will fortify believers and churches to withstand an onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Specifically, we are deeply concerned that values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality. The Bible’s teaching on each of these subjects is being challenged under the broad and somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for “social justice.” If the doctrines of God’s Word are not uncompromisingly reasserted and defended at these points, there is every reason to anticipate that these dangerous ideas and corrupted moral values will spread their influence into other realms of biblical doctrines and principles.

We submit these affirmations and denials for public consideration, not with any pretense of ecclesiastical authority, but with an urgency that is mixed with deep joy and sincere sorrow. The rapidity with which these deadly ideas have spread from the culture at large into churches and Christian organizations—including some that are evangelical and Reformed—necessitates the issuing of this statement now.

In the process of considering these matters we have been reminded of the essentials of the faith once for all handed down to the saints, and we are re-committed to contend for it. We have a great Lord and Savior, and it is a privilege to defend his gospel, regardless of cost or consequences. Nevertheless, while we rejoice in that privilege, we grieve that in doing so we know we are taking a stand against the positions of some teachers whom we have long regarded as faithful and trustworthy spiritual guides. It is our earnest prayer that our brothers and sisters will stand firm on the gospel and avoid being blown to and fro by every cultural trend that seeks to move the Church of Christ off course. We must remain steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.

The Apostle Paul’s warning to the Colossians is greatly needed today: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). The document that follows is an attempt to heed that apostolic command. We invite others who share our concerns and convictions to unite with us in reasserting our unwavering commitment to the teachings of God’s Word articulated in this statement. Therefore, for the glory of God among his Church and throughout society, we offer the following affirmations and denials.

Affirmations & Denials