Social justice, the gospel, and our social contract.

Mark Noll’s book “America’s God” takes a fascinating look at the development of American theology since before the revolution, with a special focus on the Evangelical Church. Early on he makes the point that American Evangelicalism is as different from 16th Century Reformational Protestantism, as the latter was from Roman Catholicism.

This is an important point since it makes very clear that the formation of the American church, and it’s engagement with our society has been a work in progress, and not the static reality that we may experience. The US church has seen significant adjustments in its understanding of God, scripture, authority and perhaps most importantly (for the sake of this article) the church.

Noll describes how Jonathan Edwards essentially dismantled the way early Colonial Christians formed a relationship between the church and society (known as the Puritan Canopy). As a/the foremost American theologian, Edwards provided the critical theological explanation needed for many American’s to embrace what became known as an “Awakening”.

What he did specifically was to show that biblically America was not, as was commonly assumed, a nation having a covenant with God. Instead, Edwards argued, God only covenants with his true and redeemed people — the church. This allowed for a much stronger argument for evangelism and an increasing distinction and separation between church and state.

At first this seems like an obvious observation to many of us, but it was revolutionary at the time. If God’s covenant was with the church and not with the nation, it meant that there was a new sacred-secular divide previously unimagined. It created a space for activity in the world that had in essence no connection to the church. It also allowed for “work in the church” that had nothing do to with the world. You might say it voided the church’s covenant — or social contract? — with the nation.

As I re-read this critical part of American church history I wondered how it related to the current movement within the church towards “social justice”.

In our day the engagement between the Evangelical church in America and the “world” has begun to shift back in the direction active engagement around topics generally referred to as social justice. Education reform, human trafficking, international adoption, racial reconciliation and poverty alleviation are all the rage. Volunteerism is on the rise. Student bodies at even the most conservative of schools are collectively engaging in these “movements” which have previously been considered outside the focus of evangelical churches and institutions.

The urbanization of the world is also a factor. Not only are the centers of influence around the world becoming more focused on urban contexts and cultures, but the physical and demographic shift of the globe is toward the city. The future of the church, it is fair to say, is largely urban.

Becoming “urban” also means becoming something other than “white”. The overall make up of the western evangelical church and it’s growth around the world over the past 100 years through the “modern missionary movement” has now turned around from a racial standpoint. That is, while the central leadership structure remains largely folks of Anglo decent, the make up the believers is increasingly non-white.

Soong-Chan Rah has reasonably argued that this is not only unsustainable given the shift of the growth of the church internationally, but also the changing racial makeup of the US church.

Another factor influencing how the church engages the world is the shift in missions from focusing on FT vocational missions to the rapid growth of short term missions (STM) and the many critical questions that STM brings to the fore. Primarily, what is “effective” when it comes to doing STM work. These questions of efficacy have pushed the church to use principals common in the marketplace to the work of “missions”. These marketplace principals include using many free-market economic principals such as engaging economic tools that avoid dependency, encourage internal financial sustainability, encourage ownership, scalability, and local control, etc. . .

This larger movement toward “social justice” is receiving significant debate (and pushback), including arguments against the movement which engage the discussion primarily by assuming that social justice is always equated with “redistributive” economic principals associated with socialism and liberalism. I believe these criticisms are in error in that assumption, but beg a larger (and fair) question: What is the relationship of the church to society?

My own role at Sunshine and the development of our ministry to include both traditional “gospel proclamation” and “community development” leaves us in the middle of this debate continually. Leadership within Evangelical institutions constantly laud our work and are eager to engage us. . . but always with a curiosity about how we can do the work (which is much admired) without drifting into liberalism and a loss of the gospel (which is much feared). The Evangelical church seems to be searching for a way to embrace the work but is tenuous on where it might lead and almost entirely unable to articulate (and skeptical of) the gospel-connection. They also want to embrace cultural diversity, but fear loss of control.

I am reminded of the quote from a Helder Camara who said “when I feed the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist”.

I am interested in both the activity and the question Camara asks. I am also interested in how, as an Evangelical, we as the church, can engage the question seriously. I do not presume that one has to be Communist or Keynesian to ask (or answer) the question.

I think that it is fair to suggest that the underlying theological question in all of this is back to Jonathan Edwards’ and the undoing of the covenantal relationship between church and society.

What is our underlying theological and covenantal framework that will free us to ask this question seriously? Am I asking the right question? How do I frame this into a “project” I can work on? Who has addressed this question that I should read?

I would welcome constructive feedback and criticism as I work on this. As a “practitioner” I have many real-world experiences that will factor in. But as as student of theology, as one committed to what are traditional evangelical positions on the authority of scripture, the nature of grace, and the atoning work of Christ, I am interested in being able to engage the question(s) seriously and would welcome help. Whether it is via comments here, or over a cup of coffee, or via email, please consider giving me some input.

Joel