Is justice an imperative or an implication of the gospel, and why are people getting so stirred up about the answer?
As I write this, Christian relief agencies, denominations, churches, and parachurch ministries around the world are mobilizing to aid the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. But the call to alleviate suffering and rescue the oppressed is not only being answered in the wake of catastrophes. Over the last decade there has been a significant awakening to social justice issues among evangelicals. From Rick Warren’s PEACE plan to the efforts of Christian bands like Jars of Clay and Hillsong United, issues of justice and compassion have moved from a sideshow among evangelicals to the center stage.
Research conducted by LifeWay last year found that “Younger evangelical pastors are less likely to self-identify as conservative than older generations and more apt to view social justice as a gospel imperative.” Commenting on the findings, Ed Stetzer said, "I think ultimately that we are at a season right now where the issues of social justice are growing and a desire to integrate compassion and commission are clearly evident among younger evangelicals and evangelicals as a whole.”
Some are celebrating this movement as long overdue; the healing of an unfortunate rift in the church that occurred nearly a century ago by pitting social concern and justice against the preaching of repentance and salvation. The impact of the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy shaped the direction of the American church for most of the 20th century by creating an “either/or” scenario. Either a church cared about social justice or it focused on saving souls.
The fact that orthodox, conservative, Bible-believing evangelicals are now showing great interest in matters of justice and compassion may indicate the aftershocks of that rift 100 years ago may finally be over. Or are they?
Earlier this week J. Mack Stiles, a 30-year veteran staff worker with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, wrote an impassioned article explaining his belief that IV is slipping into the errors of liberal theology. Central to his argument is the recent elevation of justice within IV’s ministry—an elevation that parallels what’s been happening among younger evangelicals in general.
Stiles’ objection is not that IV, or many other evangelicals by extension, should not engage in social justice, but that they are elevating justice too high. “As important as social action is,” he writes, “we still must not confuse the gospel with an implication of gospel living. If we do, the gospel message is lost in a sea of confusion.”
Stiles articulates the critical question: Is the pursuit of justice a gospel imperative or a gospel implication? Those, like Stiles, who view justice as an implication are concerned that elevating it will take attention, resources, and urgency away from what they see as the gospel’s core—the salvation of souls. In addition, the new excitement around justice could be a slippery slope toward the social gospel that neglects salvation altogether.
On the other side are those who believe we evangelicals have been defining the gospel too narrowly for too long. Richard Stearns, president of World Vision and the author of The Hole in Our Gospel, says:
“Proclaiming the whole gospel, then, means much more than evangelism in the hopes that people will hear and respond to the good news of salvation by faith in Christ. It also encompasses tangible compassion for the sick and the poor as well as biblical justice, efforts to right the wrongs that are so prevalent in our world…The whole gospel is truly good news for the poor, and it is the foundation for a social revolution that has the power to change the world.”
There are many voices on both sides of this debate, and the rhetoric seems to be increasing in volume. One side is vowing to guard the gospel against neo-liberalism; the other side is hoping to restore the gospel to its fullest expression by reconciling proclamation and demonstration.
Is the stage being set for another church rift in the 21st century paralleling what happen 100 years ago? Like InterVarsity, are you feeling the tremors in your church of a conflict over the scope of the gospel and the proper role of social justice? And where are you turning for informed theological reflection on this subject? How we address this controversy, and not simply which side we land on, may impact the evangelical world for decades.