I have a recap of a recent debate between Jim Wallis and Al Mohler over at The Gospel Coalition this morning:

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.

What do you think the appropriate question to ask is about this relationship?

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • I think that Molher has it partially right. Justice is an implication to the gospel. But I think he has the definition of the gospel wrong. The gospel is not evangelism, the gospel is asserting that Christ is Lord (which Mohler basically says).

    Yes, I have recently read Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel and that has given me language to discuss what I have been thinking for a while. The fight between social justice and evangelism is present because we have replaced the actual Gospel with evangelism.

    I think Wallis is right in his critique that in the way that Mohler speaks, social justice is marginalized.

    But I more agree with Mohler that the way to solve the problem is by concentrating on Christ as king and the overall kingdom of God. I just think that because of Mohler’s framing of the question, he ends up with the wrong answer.

  • Don

    I like Adam’s comments on this. I think defining “gospel” is the most important part of this discussion, and Scot McKnight’s recent thoughts on this are helpful. If gospel=message of salvation, then it is understandable to see evangelism taking a primacy over social justice. But if gospel=good news of the kingdom, then I think evangelism and justice get put on a much more level playing field. With this view of gospel, I think you could make arguments that they are both integral or both implications, but it is harder to see that one becomes more important than the other.

    So, to answer your question about what is the right question, I’d say the question to start with is, “What is the gospel?” Depending on how you define it you will get vastly different answers. “What is the relationship between justice and salvation?” is a different question than “What is the relationship between justice and kingdom?”

  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Thanks, guys, for the feedback.

    I’ve read McKnight’s book too (review forthcoming in Leadership Journal at some point), and I agree that it’s helpful. I’m not sure I agree with everything that he does, but the broader framework seems right to me.

    That said, part of what I’m wrestling with is the conceptual vocabulary. Consider the metaphor of fruit: it’s different than an “implication” of the life of the plant. In fact, it might be the entire purpose that the plant exists, even if the plant can only produce fruit by virtue of the life within it (rather than by seeking fruit itself).

    In that sense, fruit is similar to an implication, but not identical. And it is integral to the purpose of the plant, but not necessarily it’s nature (the barren apple tree is still an apple tree).

    Which is why I’m trying to get away from both sets of vocab for the relationship. Not sure if Scot’s book gets into this (I don’t remember it), but I think there’s got to be other ways of framing the relationship that are more helpful.

    matt

  • If we had been talking about evangelism and social justice as fruits of our life in Christ, I don’t think we would be having this discussion. I would be thrilled with that language. But instead we are talking about evangelism and social justice as competitive forms of the gospel. I think that is dangerous and it just doesn’t work. Wallis ends up minimizing the needs for evangelism and Mohler minimized the importance of social justice to very nature of Christ’s kingdom.

    So I view downgrading them both to implications of the Gospel (and that Gospel actually being Christ as king and fulfiller of the story of God) as an upgrade to both evangelism and social justice and one way to actually move beyond this stupid little fight that has consumed so much of our energy for the last 150 years.

    I agree implication is not a great word, I am all for finding another. But as fruit, we need something that designates a natural outgrowth of a healthy Christian. A healthy tree should have fruit. A healthy Christian should be involved in evangelism, social justice, discipleship, etc. Each person and local church body in different measures according to their gifting, geographic identity and particular calling.

    I think both men have strong points, but the way that they formed the question ends up creating antagonism where there should not be.

  • jon

    It seems to me that the definition of “mission” is important, since the whole proposition debated may turn on it. If I understand Wallis’s position, his position would assert a very broad definition of “mission,” defined as “obeying the whole counsel of God.” Mohler is defining “mission” more narrowly, as the sine qua non of the church’s obedience.

    Presumably both would both agree that the whole counsel of God must be obeyed. The next question, then, is how to define “essential.” From a sin/obedience perspective, everything is essential because sin is impermissible. That’s not usually what we mean with the word “essential,” though. We usually use that word to refer to the difference between two goals, one of which may be discarded or neglected under some circumstances (non-essential) and one of which may not (essential). Obviously we all would love to be in a position to do everything that we can, but this fallen world means that we have scarcity, limited time and resources, and disagreements about strategy and tactics. It becomes necessary, then, to choose between essential and non-essential goals.

    Two questions arise in this discussion. First, are we speaking abstractly, or are we talking about a particular set of circumstances in which to judge when we choose social justice? If abstractly, then we are talking the logical relationship between different parts of Christian theology, not a particular set of priorities for a particular situation. If particular, we are talking about practicalities.

    Second, is it possible for both social justice and evangelism to be essential to the mission of the church? People like Tim Keller would probably say “yes.” It is a false dilemma to be forced to choose between the two.

    My big beef with “social justice” talk is that it usually presupposes some position of cultural acceptance or power. This is also true of talk about “transforming the world” or “taking back the culture for Jesus.” Both assume that Christians enjoy freedom to practice their faith openly, hold political office, vote, do good works publicly, or generally be free of persecution. These are not good assumptions, either historically or internationally.

    A definition of “social justice” that purports to be binding on Christians of all times and places must take account of the fact that many Christians live underground and without toleration by their governments. “Social justice” that binds these Christians must be performed by individuals or very small groups in conjunction with the rest of their duties as churches. Limited resources, unplanned personnel departures, and severe cultural disapproval hound these faithful saints, often in direct proportion to their faithfulness. Consequently, we should shy away from grand designs about what might be possible and stick to what we clearly have to do.

    I’ve got a lot more to say, but I’ll limit myself to a few more propositions which I won’t bother to defend.

    1. The biblical prophetic witness on social justice was critical of the community’s failure to uphold justice, which of course applied to individuals.
    2. God punished the community for the sins within that community.
    3. It is controversial whether collective punishments are permitted by the New Covenant.
    4. The covenant community of the Old Testament had clear social boundaries; the covenant community of the New Testament has no social boundaries per se, just theological and spiritual ones.
    5. Consequently, the emphasis of the New Testament church is love on the part of the individual believer, not society.
    6. Participation in a collective movement to show love may therefore be a sufficient but not necessary expression of the New Testament law of love. Even then, participation is not enough – the individual believer has to be characterized by love.

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  • Steven

    Matt,

    I like the notion of exchanging the word “implication” for something else akin to what fruit is. How about the word “organic”? It is characteristic of *organisms* that they reproduce themselves – a plant produces fruit which then produces another plant, so the primacy of one over the other is hard to countenance. Aristotle and the medievals presumably would have said that the full-grown plant is the “telos” of the fruit/seed in the ground; on the other hand, modern genetic science would presumably declare that the fruit itself – the reproduced DNA – is the “telos”. I once read a quote in a book by Norbert Wiener that “a chicken is nature’s way of making an egg”. To take up your metaphor, Matt, one could say something like “the fruit is organic to the life of the plant” rather than “an implication of the life of the plant”. Perhaps, too, both social justice and evangelism are somehow organic to the gospel and to each other…? Just a thought.

    Steven