Social Justice Has Always Been Part of the Church

Those who think that social justice has no part of the church, or worse, that it is a “danger” to evangelicalism, must have forgotten church history.

Image Public Domain.

In the summer of 2018, a group of conservative American evangelicals, led by Grace Community Pastor John McArthur, saw a need to educate the world that there’s a “dangerous” trend growing in the American church. This trend is so dangerous they felt a need to draft a formal document, to be signed by all those who believe in the “real” meaning of scripture, to stand firm in their belief and fight against this dangerous movement.

The movement is not sexual harassment. It’s not pedophilia. Nor is it spousal abuse, or any number of issues that are rampant in the church and one could argue are empirically more detrimental—not just to the church, but society itself.

No, the dangers these men and women see that is so egregious that a formal international statement was needed is (wait for it) social justice. (WTF!) That’s right. Social justice. So, the Statement of Social Justice and the Gospel was formed.

In the opening paragraph of their home page, it states:

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.

Now, it’s no secret where their concerns are coming from. The social justice movement in America has a strong political bent to it, and we all know that these upstanding, conservative, evangelical men and women feel strongly that politics and the church should not be mixed (that was sarcasm, in case you missed that).

Whether it’s the right for homosexual couples to marry, other LGBTQ+ rights, or the legality of abortion, we all know that it’s these “social justice” movements that are largely the reason behind such a statement.

But social justice extends way beyond those to include issues of racial injustice, gender equality, the treatment of immigrants, voting rights, the elimination of homelessness, helping the poor, health care, and even global warming. So I fail to see how all these other issues are somehow “dangerous” to evangelicalism.

Did IQs Just Drop Sharply While Jesus Was Away?

One of my favorite movies is James Cameron’s 1986 “Alien” sequel, “Aliens.” And one of my favorite lines from that movie is when Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver), after being brought out of an unusually long hyper-sleep, is addressing a room full of executives as to why she blew up their expensive ship (referencing the events at the end of the first movie).

Incredulous as to the existence of xenomorphic life forms on the barren planet LV426, one pompous exec with an Edna Mode hair cut tells the group there is no indigenous life on LV426. Ripley then turns to the group and says with a straight face, “Did IQs sharply drop while I was away?” She then goes on to remind them that she specifically said the alien was not indigenous to the plant—that it was part of a ship whose distress signal Ripley’s ship was responding to.

What does any of this have to do with evangelicals and this statement? I have a belief that when Jesus does come back, he will turn to the church, and in a straight face say, “Did IQs sharply drop while I was away?”

Christian Social Justice Throughout History

Just like Ripley had to remind the low IQ-having company executives something she told them not 10 minutes prior, I’d like to remind my fellow conservative brothers and sisters in Christ who stand behind this document, that whether you like it or not, social justice has always been part of the church. And there have always been moments in history when the social justice it supported, went against the popular or political beliefs of the day.

Here are just a handful of examples. Some of them you might recognize:

Martin Luther King Jr.: a southern baptist pastor in the American south during the 1960s stood firm and rallied a movement to help fight for the civil rights of African Americans everywhere, but the south particularly. When he was assassinated in 1968, as a USA Today article reminded us, he had an approval rating worse than even Donald Trump’s—it was barely over 25%. (Just let that sink in). The rights of African Americans was not a very popular political stance in the sixties (and some would argue even today the fight for African Americans is still a political issue causing strife in this country *cough* Colin Kaepernik).

William Wilberforce: the early 19th century British politician and philanthropist, led by his strong Christian and evangelical beliefs, was a driving force behind the abolishment of the slave trade in Great Britain ultimately in 1833. It was his life and work upon which the movie “Amazing Grace” was based. The famous hymn itself is rooted in a Christian tradition of “social justice.” Its author, John Newton, was an Anglican priest, funny enough, who wrote the hymn as a testament to his remorse about being a former slave trader. And speaking of Anglicans, that brings me to example #3.

CLWS: continuing with the UK theme, in th early 20th century, as the right for women’s suffrage raged on in England, the Anglican Church was not too crazy about this movement to give women more rights. Many of the biblical verses about the role of women was used by the church to maintain a status quo of inequality in the church and in families. But as this Christianity Today article reveals, there were growing Christian movements in England that stood with the suffrage movement. One such organization was the Church League for Women’s Suffrage (CLWS). As the CT article recounts, “other groups such as the Free Church League for Women’s Suffrage and the Catholic Women’s Suffrage League, there was a significant body of clergymen and laymen throughout Britain who supported it.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe: the famed author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a staunch abolitionist in the 1800s, driven by her Christian beliefs. Despite the use of certain verses in the bible to actually support slavery, Stowe and other Christians like Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley, and the Quakers, all saw the evils of slavery and something that went counter to the teachings of their faith.

The Early Church: let’s take this idea of social justice all the way back to the beginning of the church itself. You want to know why this offshoot brand of Judaism grew and spread so quickly in the Roman Empire during the early years of the church? Because these “Christians” were a group of people so attractive, that despite being in the middle of two adversarial forces (the Roman Empire itself, and the Jewish traditions from which it was born), Christianity exploded.

And one of the reasons they were so attractive, was specifically because of their treatment of the poor, and their distribution of wealth—two ways of life that ran counter to the popular political systems at the time (heck, some might say that runs counter to some conservative political movement today). As Asbury Theological Seminary PhD candidate Takanori Inoue states in his doctorate thesis:

…despite persecution and disadvantages in their social situation, the Christian population was growing because the early Church attracted people in the early Roman Empire. The greatest attractions were Christians’ practices and behaviors. An essential part of Christian communities depended on their willingness to aid those in need and on the teachings of the Christian church about the right use of material goods. [emphasis mine].

It’s Not So Simple. (But it Is Though.)

It get it. There are political movements and changes happening in this country that many find scary. They see it as a threat to their Christian ideals, and as such, they want to stand against it. That has been the case all throughout history.

But social justice is NOT something the Christian church should fight. I argue that social justice is at the heart of what this faith stands for. I like what Megan Briggs wrote in her blog post for Churchleaders.com:

Social justice is a very Christian agenda. Although we may disagree on what kinds of social justice causes we should be involved in, we would be wise to look at the church’s history. From Old Testament leaders like Boaz to the early church fathers to Wilberforce to Sojourner Truth to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Martin Luther King Jr., Christians have been concerned with social justice causes. Some in the church questioned their motives and even their interpretation of Scripture. Things are no different today.

I’m not naive to the complexities of biblical interpretation about issues like sexuality and gender rights. But I also know that there are men and women with way more letters after their names and exponentially smarter than most of us, who STILL all can’t agree 100% on what this book actually means. So, given that, it seems to me that the better move is to err on the side of love, compassion, empathy, and understanding. Then let God sort out the rest.

Content marketer @ bladeronner.media. Satirical author @ DnDBook.com. Opinions my own & (mostly) correct. Get free insights & inspiration @ bit.ly/substack-ron

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