HOW SHOULD WE, AS BELIEVERS, ENGAGE WITH SOCIAL NEEDS AND JUSTICE ISSUES?
Recent events have highlighted various challenges for our engagement with the world around us. To what extent should churches practically help and support the vulnerable in the midst of our pandemic? Should we deliver food and medicine to people? And what about Black Lives Matter? Should we be engaged in the issue of racism and social justice? For some, the answers are obviously ‘yes’, while for others, there is great concern about a social gospel! So what does the Bible tell us about this? What is our responsibility as believers when it comes to justice and compassionate care? Here is a quick summary.
Our responsibility according to the Bible
First, the Bible makes very clear that compassion for the oppressed, the marginalised and the poor is a required fruit of regeneration, both individually and as churches. A lack of compassion for the poor may well indicate that someone doesn’t know Jesus, or that a church is spiritually dead (James 2:14–17; 1 John 3:16–18). Other Scriptures make clear that failure to help the poor will result in judgement and cursing (Proverbs 21:13; 28:27). It is, for example, striking that Sodom’s sin is identified in Ezekiel 16:49 with a failure to help the poor. In fact, Jesus says that how we deal with the poor will reveal the true nature of our relationship with Christ on the last day (Matthew 25:31–46).
Second, the issue is not simply one of compassion, but also of justice. We need to remember God’s great concern for justice is grounded, not least, in his very own character (Jeremiah 9:23–24; Psalm 146:5–10). In fact, righteousness itself is defined in close connection with doing social justice (see Ezekiel 18:1–18; Proverbs 29:7). We’re not simply called to ‘have pity’, but to demonstrate social justice in our relationships (by, for example, restraining economic inequalities, maintaining fair play and fighting against favouritism to the rich and powerful). Doing mercy and justice is thus an end in and of itself (Amos 5:24), and not merely a means to something else (such as evangelism).
Third, we must also consider the coming kingdom of Jesus. The Bible pictures the kingdom as a new world full of peace and social justice, ruled over by the very best King (Psalm 72:1–4; Isaiah 11:1–10). Given we live in light of that future world, and that future is breaking through into our world now through the church, should it not impact our present? In fact, that is just what we see in the Spirit-filled church in Jerusalem when it came to how they viewed their possessions (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–37) and treated racial differences (Acts 6:1–6; 10:1–48).
In order to get real clarity on this, it’s good to look at common objections to what I’ve written here. Thinking through these objections helps us to see why we need to take this so seriously.
Objection 1: ‘Given that the Bible does command us to be just and care for the poor, the Bible is really only concerned with the care of other believers, not outsiders.’
What can we say to this?
First, it is right that the poor in our own spiritual family are to be prioritised (Galatians 6:10; 1 Thessalonians 3:12). However, we shouldn’t take this as a limitation of our compassion. For example, we don’t usually take the priority of providing for our own biological family to mean that we don’t care about anyone outside of our family. In the Old Testament, the ‘alien and stranger’ were included in the compassion of God’s people (Leviticus 19:33–34; 23:22). This is radicalised even more in the New Testament, where we are called to love our neighbour (Luke 10:25–37) – and even our enemy (Romans 12:20) – very practically.
Second, because God is Creator and Judge, he is concerned about justice for the whole world. Our God is a God who sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). We can hardly say, doctrinally, that God does not care about unrighteousness and injustice simply because it is happening outside the church! And how strange it would be to think of a Christian living without regard to righteousness just because he is among unbelievers!
Third, church history is awash with men and women who have campaigned for justice for all regardless of their spiritual status. (Can we imagine Wilberforce only campaigning for the release of slaves who acknowledged Christ?!!) It is part of the glory of church history that we are a group who do not simply look after our own.
Objection 2: ‘We must prioritise that which is most important – evangelism – because feeding people’s bodies and fighting for justice won’t save them from the wrath of God.’
What can we say to this?
First, we might ask ourselves which is more important: to invite someone to an evangelistic event, or to have a shower?! Of course, we would answer, ‘Inviting someone to an evangelistic event’! Yet, we don’t live our lives in such constant existential dilemmas. Normally, we can get to do both and combine different tasks. Otherwise, I would start to smell quite badly, and see the taking of a shower as a sin of omission! We recognise that the most important thing doesn’t cancel out everything else. Accordingly, we must be careful not to polarise evangelism and justice as continual alternatives.
Second, Christians go out to restaurants, redecorate their houses and use their resources for all kinds of things that are not evangelistic. We take our own bodies and comfort very seriously (!). Given that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves, can we not at least do the same for the people around us as we do for ourselves? Why would we ever consider treating someone according to principles which we don’t apply to ourselves?!
Third, we must be very careful not to pit God’s commandments against each other, so that we start cancelling some of them out with other ones. We don’t say, for example, that we have the capability to do only eight out of the ten commandments this year because we need to prioritise! Rather, we try to do all of them with the resources and time that we have.
Objection 3: ‘Engaging with the poor and fighting for justice will drain the church of its resources and attempt to fill a black hole of need that can never be filled until the future kingdom.’
What can we say to this?
First, it is true that any strategy, ministry or action has the potential to drain the church’s resources if handled unwisely. So this is an issue of wisdom concerning how we use all our resources to do everything God has commanded us to do.
Second, ironically, isn’t evangelism itself ‘a black hole of need that can never be filled until the future kingdom’? We wouldn’t see this as a reason not to do it!
Third, we could make an argument that we lack resources precisely because we don’t engage enough with issues of justice. Isaiah 58 outlines the hypocritical religiosity of Israel, who come to worship but who do nothing about injustice and the suffering of those around them. God’s word comes to them, though, and says that they need to repent if they want renewal, blessing and prosperity (see also Deuteronomy 15:7–11).
Lastly, the mere fact that we cannot do everything does not mean that we do nothing. The very fact that the future kingdom will be a kingdom of justice and goodness, which is breaking through already in the church, should inspire us to reflect it in our lives now.
There is much more to be discussed and debated on this issue. There are lots more practical questions to be resolved. But let’s not wait to tie up every loose end before we obey God in this. ‘But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ (Amos 5:24).
Andy Mason - Senior Minister, St John's Chelsea