As I committed last week, I want to begin responding to the social justice debates with a brief statement of a basic view I hold. One way to bring that view into focus is to contrast it with a sentiment commonly expressed in these discussions. That sentiment is worded along the lines of:
“Just preach the gospel.”
“Only the gospel can change an individual’s heart.”
“The gospel is the answer to problems of injustice.”
We hear these sentiments so often it can feel like heresy to question them. In one sense, the sentiments above are true. The preacher and the Christian should “just preach the gospel” as our main message and the only message that saves. We ought to see the gospel as providing the most fundamental answer to sin problems of every sort, including injustice.
However, these statements alone are entirely insufficient as a complete Christian ministry strategy or program for living. We do not need more than the gospel to save or see the individual heart changed from stone to living flesh. But God has given us more than the gospel in his Word, and all he gives us in the word is necessary to ministry and life. That’s why “just preach the gospel” can become a dangerous distortion of Christianity.
Evangel and Ethic
Theologian Graham A. Cole speaks to this well in his book Engaging with the Holy Spirit. Cole writes:
The evangelistic . . . must not be divorced from the ethical. Again Paul did not divorce the two. He spent three weeks at Thessalonica, and yet he left them not only an evangel (1 Thes. 1:9-10) but also an ethic: “You received from us how you ought to live and to please God. (1 Thes. 4:1-8). (p. 95, italics added)
Any effort to emphasize the evangel (the gospel) that effectively cuts off the ethical (how to live to please God) fails to be properly Christian in the full sense of the term. Separating evangel from ethic becomes proclamation without practice—and that is not our calling in Christ. As Cole puts it: “The ethical can become unhinged from the evangelical and replaced by a ‘gospel’ pragmatism” (p. 97). Or, as I’ve argued elsewhere, replaced by a “gospel escapism” (here and here).
So, the first thing I’d like to contribute to the social justice debate is a statement I don’t suspect will be controversial to most. Specifically: The Christian life is both evangel and ethic, proclamation and practice, inseparably joined. The two must be held together, the ethic flowing from the evangel, the evangel empowering the ethic. We dare not break them apart lest we damage Christianity itself.
That’s my simple overarching thesis.
My overarching problem statement is that historically and at present we have an evangelical Christian church generally failing at the ethical half of the faith. That failure results from little teaching and inadequate understanding of gospel ethics, especially as it relates to the practice of justice on a range of issues.
The conservative and Reformed evangelical church receives a heavy dose of gospel doctrine (appropriately so) but not nearly enough discipleship in gospel duty. Its witness is being hurt by the latter (duty), not the former (doctrine). Or, to use Paul’s words to Timothy, there’s need for the church to “closely watch its life and doctrine.”
The social justice “debate” appears to me as a kind of spiritual and intellectual dissonance caused by some quarters of the church awakening to the ethical demands of God while other quarters resist that awakening or perceived excesses in it. From my vantage point, Christians pursuing justice are attempting to hold together evangel and ethic in renewed ways as they apply biblical texts and appropriate history. (I stress Christians here because I am not defending and am not a part of the large number of non-Christian things traveling beneath the banner of “social justice.”) To put it simply: Some Christians are trying to grow in their understanding and pursuit of Bible- and gospel-informed justice, while some other Christians are invested in protecting the gospel from threats they believe they see. My critique of the latter is that they appear to be severing evangel from ethic.
As I see it, the disagreements are not primarily matters of formal theology; our disagreements are primarily ethical and political.
But there’s a further problem, more difficult to notice at first, but just as deadly to living a life of proclamation and practice. Whenever we sever the ethical from the evangel, we also tend to reduce Christianity to a kind of spiritual individualism. Performing the ethical requires a target “other.” The church’s treatment of others is the empirical data for evaluating its ethical understanding. Christians are called to love others, first other Christians but also the outside world, including our enemies. Our witness is not primarily a matter of individual Christian reputation but a matter of our corporate, congregational reputation.
We see this most clearly when charges of the church’s complicity in racism are met with appeals to personal innocence. They say, “I have never owned a slave.” Or, “I am not a racist.” Implicit in those announcements of personal innocence is a distancing of the individual from the church. Whatever may be true of the church, it’s not true of me is the thinking. By that logic, individuals begin to subtly de-church themselves. They own only their personal ethical performance while disavowing the entire family of God.
This pattern of thinking then further weakens perceptions of the church’s ethical responsibility. If it is indeed the case that someone has not committed a sin, say, made a racist remark or participated in oppression, then it would be entirely appropriate to state, “I have not individually committed said sin.” But if at the same time we are one body in Christ, and we have a plethora of “one another” commands like “restore one another” or “admonish one another,” then our ethical duty is not exhausted by our individual behavior. If we are Christians, then we are part of the church, and if part of the church, then we are both associated with and have responsibility for the church’s ethical practice and witness (at least and primarily our local church’s witness). We could argue that by virtue of our innocence in these matters we actually have even more responsibility for contributing to the church’s correction, growth, and improvement in these areas. Who else will the church learn from except those who have some experience and victory in the areas of concern?
But evangelicalism continues to be weak in its understanding of the centrality of the church in Christian faith and practice. As Mark Noll has observed, “Up to the 1700s, British Protestants preached on God’s plans for the church. From the mid-1700s, however, evangelicals emphasized God’s plans for the individual.” That shift in emphasis from church to individual weakened the Christian’s sense of group identity as well as the sense of ethical responsibility as a covenant community. But as Graham Cole reminds us in a different context, “Our lived ecclesiology is of profound importance.”
We, the Church
We, the church, together as the family of God, have received both an evangel and an ethic. The challenge facing God’s people today is not primarily the challenge of “just preaching the gospel” but of preaching the gospel while living the ethic. We have further need of not distancing ourselves from the church, even unintentionally, lest we further weaken its ethical witness.
There’s a clear biblical priority—“the gospel is of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:1). But it’s not of sole importance. The commands of God governing his church’s lived agenda are critical as well. Without them, we may just falsify the gospel we want so badly to preach. Failing to recognize that such a falsification has and does happen is one major problem in the current debate. We should aim to correct it wherever it exists so that with integrity we may give the whole counsel of God to the whole people of God (Acts 20:26-27) so they may bear witness to God’s whole world.