The Mission of the Church: Justice, Part 1 (Christopher Wright on Jesus; Boundaries)

Eucharist-Mission1Christopher J. H. Wright includes in the church’s mission “justice (transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation).”

Boundaries

This requires some unpacking as well as some boundary setting.

Pacifism

First, I don’t want to wander off into yet another long discussion on pacifism, which we’ve covered here many times. I’m not sure it’s a fair reading of scripture to be against “violence of every kind.” But today is not the day to try to draw that boundary precisely.

The USA is not the Kingdom

Second, applying biblical principles to modern society is far harder than many imagine. For example, the modern analog to Israel is not the United States of America. It’s the church. The countless warnings and condemnations leveled by the prophets at corrupt government in Israel are targeted toward a kingdom ruled by God — not a secular state. But since the Kingdom of Heaven is not an earthly kingdom, the analogy doesn’t always hold. Not every command or warning can be applied to the Kingdom in its present state.

For example,

(Isa. 10:1-2 ESV) Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression,  2 to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! 

This warning is speaking of what we’d call the legislative branch of government — the enactment of new laws. And there is nothing analogous to this function in the Kingdom of Heaven. Does that mean we can apply the same rules to our secular government? Well, we’ll see. But we can’t just leap to that conclusion.

History of Christian love in the public square

Third, when we look back at the history of the church, we find there are clear cases where the church failed to speak out against evil as it should have. Although the abolitionist movement arose out of the 19th Century church, far too many churches conspired to allow slavery by silence or by outright support for the institution. Surely we should have spoken out against enslaving our fellow man with a unified voice! If so, we’d live in a very different world today.

The same is true of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Some Christians very vocally supported equal rights for blacks, but most were either silent or outright supporters of the status quo.

And while I believe that homosexual acts are sins, I also believe that the church has tolerated hatred and outright cruelty toward homosexuals in plain violation of the scriptures. And before my time, we had the same problem with illegitimacy. The church acquiesced in society’s mistreatment of those born to the unmarried.

In short, the church has often failed to grasp social justice at the most basic level: “Love your neighbor.” We’ve become so captivated by culture that we can’t find it in ourselves to condemn hatred when society approves hatred.

So at the very least, we could certainly have encouraged social justice by at least telling our own members that these behaviors are contrary to scripture. I mean, we can argue over whether we should lobby or support candidates, but surely there’s no objection to teaching the Greatest Commandments to our own members!

And today, that unquestionably includes treating LGBT persons as objects of the love of Jesus, not the enemy — even when we disagree with their behavior or political positions. They remain our neighbors.

Just so, while I’m under no illusions about the dangers of Islam, Muslims are our neighbors — and the Bible quite clear on this subject —

(Matt. 5:43-48 ESV)  43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

“Love your enemies” is at the core of the gospel. Jesus declares it an essential step toward becoming different from the pagans and, instead, like God. And so, even if our politicians and TV and radio commentators tell us differently, well, we should listen to God rather than man. Hatred is not permitted us.

That does not mean that we have to have wide-open borders and allow honor killings. But we do have begin our thinking in love. I mean, we should not reach a position on immigration without first thinking and saying that we love the people who wish to immigrate — even if we disagree with their desire to do so. We start with love. Always.

And love means that we are concerned with their needs and desires as well as our own. We are not permitted to simply do whatever provides the greatest prosperity for Americans regardless of the cost to others. Love requires that we consider the impact of what we do on others. We are not the only ones who matter to God, and so we are not the only ones who matter to us.

We live in a sadly, severely polarized age in which hatred and jingoism and xenophobia are encouraged by our leaders. Now, that hardly means that I know how to solve the immigration problems, the war in Syria, etc. But it does mean that I’ll not participate in hate-filled discussions — or any discussion that is only concerned with American people and American wealth.

The protective role of government

On the other hand, I recognize that the role of the US government is to protect American citizens and to provide for the prosperity of America. I expect the government to behave selfishly. The American government wasn’t created to govern Afghanistan and Syria and Mexico. But as a Christian, I have to hold myself to a higher standard — and vote (or not) accordingly. It may be a selfish, nationalist system by design, but that doesn’t mean I have to participate in a selfish, nationalistic way. I can be better. In fact, God commands it.

(Lk. 6:27-36 ESV) 27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.  30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.  31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.  

32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.  35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Now, the sad thing is that if I were to read this passage in Bible class and ask the class how to apply it to today’s world, many would desperately not want to admit that they are required to love Muslims, gays, and Syrian refugees.

Part of the reason is that we confuse “love” with “agree with the positions of.” And I’m not suggesting that love requires us to allow honor killings by Muslims, or refugees who refuse to honor US law, or to support gay marriage. But when we say “no” to gay people marrying, we need to figure out how to say that in love. Love is very plainly commanded — and it’s one of the big ones.

(And it’s really hard to persuade someone that you love them when you’ve never done anything for them. I mean, how many of our preachers have even preached a sermon insisting that we learn to love gay people? I’ve heard some. But not many.)

The same complaint is true of those on the political left. Somehow we’ve developed the attitude that those who don’t agree with us are to be dealt with through hatred. Respectful dialog is dying. If I’m a left-leaning person and someone dares to disagree with me about gay rights or bathroom usage by transsexuals, I’ll not lower myself to discuss these issues. Rather, I’ll attempt to silence “hate speech” by being hateful. It’s Orwellian how the left is increasingly adopting McCarthyist tactics.

The Jews hated Samaritans more than we hate anyone. We don’t know how to  hate as the Jews hated Samaritans. We’ve not experienced such hatred — most of us. And yet Jesus repeatedly went out of his way to teach his disciples to love their Samaritan neighbors. It was not good marketing. It made people question his sanity. It defied centuries of thinking and tradition. And yet he did it.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to The Mission of the Church: Justice, Part 1 (Christopher Wright on Jesus; Boundaries)

  1. buckeyechuck says:

    Jesus’ engagement of the money changers in the Temple Courtyard could serve well as a model for appropriate opposition to injustice in the public square. I’ve often wondered how Jesus would have reacted if he had met physical resistance. Matthew 21: “12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”

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