The Kingdom of God and Social Justice

During the last week of July, I taught a two-day course for the Equip Conference, put on by the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. As the title suggests, the main burden of the not-for-credit course was to explore what the relationship is and should be between the kingdom of God and social justice. I approached the issue by: (1) providing a brief and necessarily selective historical survey of how the church has engaged these issues; (2) exploring the nature of the kingdom of God as revealed in both the Old and New Testaments; (3) revisiting Niebuhr’s fivefold typology from Christ and Culture and critiques of it; and (4) noting the vague and nebulous definitions of social justice. I also hosted a panel discussion with three individuals involved in ministries that broadly fit underneath this umbrella to hear their perspective on these challenging issues. It was a very enjoyable experience.

I concluded the class by stating Ten Theses for Further Discussion. I do not intend these as the last word, but rather a statement of key components to this discussion that need to be remembered if we are to be faithful to Christ in these areas. I am posting the first five below; the second five will follow in a later post.

  1. We must learn from church history. There is a rich and varied history of the church engaging these issues, and we are fools to ignore this history. By looking at the past we can benefit from the thinking and practice of those who have gone before us, while hopefully avoiding their mistakes.
  2. We must allow biblical and theological convictions to shape our engagement in social action. There are simply too many individuals and churches that jump into these issues out of compassion devoid of biblical and theological foundations. The responsibility for this rests primarily with the church to provide solid teaching on this area, but also for individual believers to ground themselves in Scripture. Compassion that is not rooted in the gospel will ultimately and inevitably lead to assuming and eventually even denying the gospel in the name of caring for people in this life.
  3. We must not collapse the already/not-yet tension. However one puts this together, we need to be sure to recognize both. Emphasizing the already to the neglect of the not-yet results in people thinking that our efforts usher in the kingdom, or worse yet that the ultimate goal of God is to improve conditions in the life. Emphasizing the not-yet to the neglect of the already results in people thinking that any engagement in social issues is a waste of time because it is all going to burn. Holding the two together holds the promise of engagement in social action while prioritizing eternal issues of heaven and hell.
  4. We must recognize that evangelical engagement with these issues will take different forms within different political, cultural and social contexts. While it is increasingly popular to champion individuals like Abraham Kuyper and the goal of transforming culture, large numbers of believers simply do not have that option available. Believers in the Middle East and parts of Asia (just to name a few) have little or no access to the various institutions of a culture to effect transformation. Believers in the United States, by contrast, often do. Thus a one size fits all approach to this issue simply cannot and does not work.
  5. We must prioritize proclamation of the gospel without neglecting social action. This is the point where our theology really surfaces. If we are convinced that heaven and hell are ultimate realities that each human being must face, then we will prioritize the communication of the gospel message. This does not mean that every kind deed must be accompanied by a gospel tract, but it does mean an intentional effort to share the gospel in the context of meeting physical needs or addressing social structures. Actions are not self-interpreting; there are plenty of nice moral people who do good things for the community and have no interest in Jesus Christ. If we are to distinguish our efforts from them (and at some level we MUST if we are to be faithful to Christ) there must be communication of the gospel. Faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), not by simple observation of good works.

I’d welcome your thoughts on these first five theses.

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