Justice Churches

Is the term “justice churches” really all that helpful? Or for that matter “gospel churches”?

Lately, I’ve been hearing the term “justice churches” to refer to those congregations that have chosen as one of their core goals pursuit of social justice. Is this a helpful term?

Perhaps not, since implicit in the label may be the assumption that “justice churches” are departing from the core gospel ministry — that they are becoming “more justice than Jesus,” to use another turn of phrase.

Another assumption could be that pursuing justice, while laudable, should not properly be the main focus of a church’s work of gospel proclamation. When ministry to the poor or solidarity with the oppressed are brought up, the first concern is that the preaching ministry or discipleship or teaching biblically faithful doctrine could be compromised.

How does the gospel relate to justice in such circles? (Let’s call them “gospel churches” but that might be a problematic label too, as outlined below.) The most sophisticated answer I’ve heard is that social justice is an implication of the gospel, but not the gospel itself. The pursuit of justice flows from the gospel message, but the gospel proper is nothing more than the message of Jesus crucified, buried, and risen, that demands our faith. In other words, gospel ministry is word ministry, to be distinguished from deeds ministry.

The most common takeaway has been: “The church’s most urgent mission is to preach and teach the gospel, and get people saved / sanctified / believing correct theology.” Now notice the next logical step: “Therefore, resource-strapped churches cannot in good wisdom spend itself in matters of justice. It must focus on the ministry of the Word.” Such logic can place justice on the far periphery of a church’s life and theology, an optional extracurricular activity, or something to be handed off, in keeping with our consumerist approach to spirituality, to specialists and para-church ministries. Or it may even lead to this conclusion: “A commitment to Christian orthodoxy requires that we treat justice churches with suspicion.”

But ought not justice be an everyday reality of the kingdom of God? Carried out by all God’s people? Shouldn’t gospel ministry be both show and tell, not just either show or tell? To divide justice from the gospel would do violence to the biblical text. How do you read Luke 4, when Jesus declares that his mission is to preach the gospel to the poor, and to announce the year of Jubilee? How do we make sense of Mary in Luke 1 who sees in the arrival of the Messiah the day of the Lord when the downtrodden are finally lifted up and the oppressor brought low? Or of Matthew 25, the parable of sheep and the goats? Or of Acts 2, where the eschatological life ushered in by the Spirit of the risen Christ is demonstrated by a new community that practices justice? Many other examples abound. “Gospel churches” are therefore in danger of reducing the gospel to a far narrower sphere than God had ever intended. Ironically, “gospel churches,” by seeking to boil the gospel down to its essence, lose the multi-faceted manifestations of the gospel demonstrated in human life and society today, and the gospel they preach no longer is good news in all its fullness. Case in point: the gospel ceases to be good news in a context where injustice is the most visible manifestation of our fallen condition and yet the bearer of the “good news” says, “That’s irrelevant.”

Meanwhile, the same problem can come to plague the “justice churches,” but from the other side. Whereas the “gospel churches” retreat to the fortress of words and ideas about the gospel, “justice churches” can venture too far out into righteous deeds in society, activism, and advocacy, and find itself cut off from its moorings in the gospel of Christ and his mission. When that happens, “justice churches” can draw their energy and vision from a humanistic, rationalistic morality or a postmodern view of power struggle to define truth and justice. Neither approaches look for guidance and power from the narrative of the God who redeems that which was lost and ushers in his kingdom of righteousness in the person of Christ. We cannot conceive of justice apart from the God revealed to us in Christ, and we cannot know what justice is without the words of Scripture. As people of faith, we are not allowed to jerry pick Scripture to suit our own tribe’s power struggle against another. We are called instead to submit to the lead of Christ and establish his kingdom according to his wishes, not lean to our own understanding of righteousness and justice. We are called to the mission of God, not to our own narrow vision of what constitutes orthodoxy or orthopraxy.

Thus, we see that “justice churches” and “gospel churches” need each other. Their different predispositions help the other see what it can’t by itself — a fuller, deeper, and wider vision of the gospel. It would do well to recognize that our own tendencies are good and healthy ones for the body, but only when balanced by the tendencies of others in the body. Paul would have seen these apparently contradictory predispositions as spiritual gifts that we bring to the common table for the upbuilding of the whole body, for there is neither “justice churches” nor “gospel churches,” but one church of Christ, witnessing to the one kingdom of God. Moreover, by holding the different trajectories in tension, a forward momentum of discipleship and mission can drive the church to fulfill its role of being a blessing to all nations.

But too often, they have suspected and denounced each other, and promoted self over against the other, without humbly listening and learning from each other. Think about it. How much energy from your church or circle has been spent denouncing the evils of the heretical slippery slope of social justice, or those of cultural chauvinism within the dominant evangelical culture, while the nations around us were never shown nor told of God’s love for sinners and his plan of redemption of all things? Has the toxic nature of the culture war fatally poisoned and divided the church with no hope of recovery?

In spite of what appears to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I am not permitted to give up hope on the church. In fact, I have much reason to be hopeful from the stories I receive. The mission of God is very much alive and on the move, but it is usually not seen on the big stage. It is going on among the lowly, the strangers, the poor, among those outside the gates. I hear stories of aging congregations who have welcomed in refugees and unexpectedly found that the newcomers restored the hosts’ sense of purpose and identity as a community of God. I hear of churches who, because of their faith in the God of redemption, welcome traumatized families as though their own, and healing resulted not only for traumatized individuals but for the whole faith community. I am hearing rumors of the future kingdom. May I hear more, to the glory of Christ, and may the church experience more fully the width, the length, the height, and the depth of the gospel of Christ and his mission of redemption.