“The separation in our minds,” T.S. Eliot once wrote, “which results simply from dwelling constantly upon the adjective social may lead to crimes as well as errors.” The logic of Elliot’s claims highlights how qualifiers occasionally obscure what they originally qualified.

This tricky relationship was on full display in last Thursday’s debate between Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, and Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The question was whether “social justice is an essential part of the mission of the church,” with Mohler staking his ground around the negative and Wallis the affirmative. Debates themselves have limited usefulness, but as far as they go this was a helpful and instructive one. The formal remarks were largely preparatory for the final 15 minutes of direct conversation, during which I wondered why the whole time wasn’t spent this way.

Yet if the formal remarks seemed less than exhilarating, it is largely because Wallis and Mohler’s styles made it seem as though they would spend the evening talking past each other. Wallis peppered his remarks with personal narratives, biblical exegesis, and stories of those pursuing the sort of social justice he sees as “integral” to the mission of the church. Mohler took a different tack, systematically defining terms and making a general biblical case for why the unique mission of the church is the proclamation “that Christ died according to the Scriptures.”

Different Theological Approaches

Perhaps the most clarifying moment of the debate was a rather pointed exchange about the proper interpretation of Luke 4. After some back and forth, Mohler attempted to get Wallis to clarify the good news that Jesus proclaimed. As Mohler put it, “What’s the good news that people are bringing if it’s not Christ?” Wallis’s response that people bring “health care” was, it seemed, an exaggerated overstatement of the sort that happens in debates. Health care is a good thing, Mohler pointed out, but that simply isn’t what the text says.

Wallis and Mohler’s respective styles and readings of Scripture revealed significantly different theological approaches. For Wallis, the failure of some evangelicals to authentically bear witness to the gospel through their good works is itself a decisive argument against their reading of Scripture. Most of those who preached an “atonement only gospel,” Wallis argued, ended up on the wrong side of the civil rights movement. Mohler, granting that the African American church’s pursuit of civil rights is the “hardest test case” for his position, repeatedly returned to the claim that he saw no programmatic plan for social action within the New Testament itself. Instead, the emphasis is on proclaiming the distinct message of Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins. While both sides recognized that evangelicals have failed in their social witness, the question is whether that failure constitutes a defeater for those who want to more narrowly define the gospel around atonement.

Health Care or Unique and Unrepeatable Message

Difference in hermeneutical approach bubbled up in other ways as well. Mohler was unremittingly focused on the New Testament, repeatedly arguing that the message of the early church as the gathered assembly was to proclaim the message of the kingdom. Wallis, however, turned to the Sermon on the Mount as inaugurating a “new order” for Christians (a point Mohler agreed with). Wallis underlined that the early Christians were known as the “people of the way” rather than “people of doctrine” (a dichotomy that strikes me as overstated). Yet in attempting to hold together both message and practice, Wallis inevitably de-emphasized the former in favor of the latter. Hence, bringing “relief to the poor” means health care, rather than the unique and unrepeatable message of Christ’s saving death.

By the end of the evening, the lines were about as clear as viewers could hope for. In a crystallizing summation, Wallis suggested that if Christians are not “justice people because we are Jesus people,” we will turn others away from Christ. This missional motivation was evident throughout the evening, as Wallis repeatedly mentioned the hunger among young evangelicals to see faith in practice. Mohler, on the other hand, went the other direction, suggesting that we need Jesus in order to be justice people.

Getting Beyond ‘Integral’ and ‘Implication’

Despite the clarity of the concerns (and the accuracy of each side’s worries), I left wondering whether the language of “integral” or “implications” for the relationship of social justice and the gospel is ultimately insufficient to capture the nuanced relationship between social justice and the unique, unrepeatable sacrifice that Christ made on our behalf.

While (with Mohler) the gospel is clearly paramount within the New Testament, it is only intelligible when set against the failure of individuals and societies to act justly toward each other and God as described in the Old Testament. The sacrifice of Jesus solves the problem of our relationship with God and, consequently, the brokenness of our relationship with each other. In the way the Law was given before the gospel, the call to social justice precedes the gospel, but only made possible and intelligible by the gospel.

In other words, the demands of social justice are something more than merely implications of the gospel. They are also conditions that help us see the gospel’s uniqueness, for we bear witness to that shalom inaugurated at the cross. Framing the gospel/justice relationship this way potentially reveals their inter-relationship more accurately than describing justice as a one-directional “implication” of the gospel. It opens the possibility that the church has unique insight into the nature of social justice (Christian ethics) that is not itself the same as the gospel. And this framing avoids making social justice something that is brought into the atonement in ways that potentially undermine its distinctiveness.

Neither this hasty proposal nor the debate between Wallis and Mohler will resolve the question of whether social justice is an essential part of the church’s mission. It was not, of course, intended to. Yet progress is often made by understanding the questions more deeply, and seeing the internal dynamics of an issue with greater clarity. On both respects, last Thursday’s debate was an unquestionable success.