After months of pandemic challenges and a complete disruption in the pace of life, recent weeks have also brought an eruption of greater exposure to racial injustice, leading to protests worldwide. Racial injustice is not a new issue. What we see today is a new outcry over destruction that’s been cultivated over centuries. Lord willing, it will lead to real change.
As a white pastor who planted a church in the heart of D.C., a city affectionately known as Chocolate City, I’ve had a lot to learn. Some of my own naivete and blind spots have been exposed, and surely more will be with time. As I’ve been learning, I’ve also been working to lead our church to a greater understanding of the fullness of the gospel as we live as sojourners and exiles in our cities (1 Pet. 2:9–11).
Too often, the people in our churches have been discipled more by political perspectives and platforms than by Scripture concerning justice in public life. Pastors have a responsibility to undercut partisan rhetoric and apply God’s Word to real life. Church planters are uniquely positioned to shape the culture of new churches and to assert a biblically firm foundation capable of addressing whatever is happening culturally.
One familiar grid to understand the gospel’s narrative (the story that runs throughout all Scripture) is:
Christians who lean right and left have both deemphasized points of this complete narrative in harmful ways.
Temptation Toward a Gutted Gospel
Focusing only on creation and restoration results in a social gospel. The temptation is to overemphasize human ability to bring the eternal kingdom to bear today. While minimizing the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, the social gospel says we can and must restore all creation and administer all justice in this life. Leaders avoid preaching on God’s holiness or human sin for fear of being offensive. They teach how to become better citizens without centering our need for a Savior.
Too often, the people in our churches have been discipled more by political perspectives and platforms than by Scripture concerning justice in public life.
This is the temptation of the Christian left. Follow it, and you might make disciples, but not of Jesus. The irony is that this focus looks to politics as savior. The perspective fails to account fully for human depravity and the need for a personal encounter with the Son of God. So it works to implement Christian perspectives without a call to Christ.
Temptation Toward a Truncated Gospel
On the other hand, some focus only on fall and redemption. The cry from the pulpit is, “You’re a sinner! Repent!” Unfortunately, it often ends there. Christians in this perspective miss the beauty and significance of creation, and the hope of God’s restorative work (Rom. 8:18–25). They minimize the call on God’s people to correct oppression, seek justice, and protect the weak (Isa. 1:17). They also miss God’s image and likeness in other people—an image that needs to be redeemed and restored, yet also reflects his beauty and glory.
The irony here is that over-conflation of civil religion into politics has wrongly divided biblical Christianity from speaking into politics at all. Calls to “Just preach the gospel!” are often more concerned with personal rights than the collective good, ignoring that the gospel is bigger than our individual salvation stories. This is the temptation of the Christian right. It’s a truncated gospel that fails to connect Christ’s work on the cross to his work through his people. Cries of “Just preach the gospel!” in the face of racial injustice too often represent a failure to love our neighbor. We’re still stuck asking Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
Power of the Gospel
To combat racial injustice, church planters must proclaim the whole gospel, showing the people in our churches and in our cities that the gospel speaks to our need now. All things are made by God to reflect his glory, and all people bear his image and likeness and are worthy of dignity and love. All creation has been affected by the power and dominion of sin. Total depravity means that every person, and the structures and systems of this world, are bent by sin.
We’re still stuck asking Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’
Jesus endured the cross for us, where he was unjustly arrested, beaten, and killed by human authorities, even though he is the authority who sustained the life of his torturers. But death could not hold him down. Suffering, injustice, the powers of this world, and the Devil himself did not win, because Christ triumphed over them and now rules and reigns over all things. The kingship and anticipated return of Jesus frees us from fitting categorically into this world’s systems, and adapting the gospel to be palatable to either the right or the left, because our true and lasting citizenship is of a different kingdom.
Yes: listen, lament, and learn. Educate yourself where you may have ignorance or blind spots. And then lead your church plant to actively work for the good of your city (Jer. 29:7–11), preaching the whole counsel of God. As we lead people to know and live in light of the fullness of the gospel—not pandering to cries to gut or truncate it—we’ll find our prophetic voice and work for justice and healing as we anticipate the restoration of all things.