I’m pretty sure I’m an evangelical. I think what this means is that we believe Jesus and his grace are the only way to heaven, that we want others to know Jesus and that the entire Bible is inerrant and authoritatively from God. If this is what it means, then I am definitely an evangelical.
The reason I do justice work is because the Bible tells me to. Isaiah 1:11-17, Jeremiah 5:26-29; Micah 6:6-8, Amos 5:21-24, James 1:27, Matthew 25:31-46; Galatians 2:10; Luke 4:17-21; to name a few. The Bible is clear that justice for the oppressed is core to God’s character.
It seems like justice gets a bad rap in a lot of evangelical circles though. Like it’s an agenda or a legalistic addition to the gospel.
In fact I have found myself having to persuasively argue with some evangelicals that justice is actually a biblical concept, as if we are reading two different Bibles.
Or historically we’ve shied away from justice issues because we label them as “political” and thus don’t want to offend or turn off our (wealthy, white) constituency. This is the reason Billy Graham held racially segregated rallies in the 60’s and the reason white evangelical churches never got involved in the Civil Rights Movement. If they talked about racism (something core to the heart of Jesus and the teachings of both the Old and New Testaments), it would turn off the affluent white person I was trying to convert to Christianity.
We divorced the “gospel” of Jesus from the message of Jesus, giving people the option of receiving the former without the latter.
Another reason evangelicals have avoided justice is because it gets thrown out as the proverbial baby in the bathwater. So many do justice work without ever naming Christ, so we shouldn’t associate with that at all. Like justice is a replacement for or in competition with Jesus and the gospel.
When I go to local justice gatherings that are faith-based, the evangelical churches are sparsely represented while liberal churches (by ‘liberal’ I mean those who admittedly don’t hold to the Bible as the authoritative word of God, those who believe in many ways to salvation, those who have active gay and lesbian clergy, etc.) by far hold the majority.
The ones who don’t believe in the Bible are the ones doing what the Bible says…
This rings odd to me.
So why is this?
One reason for this is because liberal Christians are so prominent in justice conversations that evangelicals shy away from associating with them. At first glance, this can seem judgmental, but I understand and can relate to this. As evangelicals, we don’t want to be confused with other Christians who don’t believe in the entire Bible as the Bible is the foundation for everything we do and is the source of our authority. So if we do justice work with these liberal Christians, and we are all doing it in the name of Jesus, it will be easy for their theological views to get easily projected onto us by onlookers. For example, if my church is listed on a piece of paper at a justice event as one of the sponsoring churches and all of the other churches listed are liberal churches, this is a legitimate concern for a leader in my shoes. I say this respectfully, but I never want anyone thinking my church is a church that doesn’t hold Jesus to be Savior and that doesn’t hold the Bible as God’s word.
I am personally much more comfortable doing justice work as pastor of my church alongside of the State of Michigan, Michigan State University, atheists, and fill-in-the-blank secular non-profit agency than I am the liberal churches I mentioned above as well as leaders of other faiths such as Islam and Judaism. This is not a slam at all on those churches or those faiths, but what happens in those environments is we call it “faith-based” and then we pray to God. But at that point I get a queezy feeling because we are praying to “(choose your) God” and not to God, the God of the Bible, the God I have stamped on my chest and the God who represents the very reason I am doing justice work. For an evangelical like me, this can begin to frighteningly feel like idol worship. Whereas in a secular justice setting, I know I can just shine Jesus’ light knowing it won’t be confused or contorted and I don’t have to compromise anything about who I believe in and why.
I was asking a Christian justice leader about this concern of mine while at the Justice Conference this past weekend. Here are some helpful things they shared with me:
- Evangelicals can use “faith-based” justice opportunities to teach the Bible to Christians who don’t believe in the Bible and also to share Christ with Muslims, Jews, etc. who are involved in justice work. He gave me examples of where he’d led Jews and Muslims to Christ in this way.
- People know you and your church. The impact and results of justice work itself serves as a powerful witness to the community, regardless of who else is around it.
- The ministry of justice is still a mandate in the Bible, so evangelicals still need to be on the forefront of this work, regardless of how people might perceive it. (Sorry God I didn’t obey you because I was afraid of how people would label me)
- If the ability to mix with other faiths in doing justice work is just too big of a hurdle to overcome, evangelicals in a community should band together and do their own evangelically-labeled justice work / community organizing where it’s evident that Jesus of the Bible is at the center.
On point #4, this Christian justice leader brainstormed that I could organize 10-15 of my evangelical pastor friends in the Lansing area to do justice work together in our community. At this point I realized with sadness that I don’t have 10-15 evangelical pastor friends who see justice work as a biblical mandate or as critical to their church’s vision, in fact it’s not even close.
This isn’t mean to throw stones at my evangelical friends, but I hope it is does stir us awake to see the call of Scripture in a fresh way and to see where we have drifted away.
We’ve probably drifted away due to the associations I listed above, but this is still no excuse to disobey what the Bible says. I’d hate for the characterization of the 21st century evangelical church to be James 1:22-24, But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.
Justice is not an agenda.
It is not a replacement or competitor to the gospel.
It is a part of discipleship for every Christian, just like any of the other discipleship elements that the evangelical church currently embraces. Justice is no more optional in Scripture than sexual fidelity or honesty or learning to pray and read the Bible. We never call any of these replacements for the gospel, so why continue to do so with justice?
Justice is at the heart of God and is an essential part of the path of following Jesus.
If being an evangelical means I believe the Bible is God’s word and I aim to follow all of it, then I am definitely an evangelical. But if being an evangelical means we cut out the commands about doing justice, then I need to find a new label to ascribe to.