Southern Religion

The social justice imperative

Skye Jethani, writing at Out of Ur, raises — then dashes — hopes for the end of a 100-year-old conflict within Christianity:

The impact of the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy shaped the direction of the American church for most of the 20th century by creating an ‘either/or’ scenario. Either a church cared about social justice or it focused on saving souls.

In “The Battle Lines Over Justice,” Jethani cites findings by LifeWay Research that younger evangelicals are increasingly likely to regard social justice as a “gospel imperative.” The post considers whether the trend indicates the closing stages of a century-old division between Christians who emphasize social issues and those who stress repentance and salvation.

Hopes that “both/and” thinking might replace the “either/or” conflict, are dim. While some think fundamentalism is on life support, the heated debate cited by Jethani and further articulated in user comments shows that last rites for the either/or are premature.

Certainly this isn’t the first time evangelicals have shown an interest in social action movements.

Sojourners, a group that seeks to “articulate the biblical call to social justice, inspiring hope and building a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world” formed in 1971.

In 1973, a group of evangelicals released the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, which led to the formation of Evangelicals for Social Action. And a second Chicago statement was issued 20 years later. (Both statements are available here.)

A 1979 article in Christian Century outlined “A Fundamentalist Social Gospel,” tracing the rise of social action in the 1970s to the “neoevangelical” movement in the 1940s.

The highly publicized controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention that started in 1979 was a reaction to a perceived rise in the liberalism in SBC seminaries.

The recent Out of Ur article shows that similar perceptions are alive and well. It first references an article by J. Mack Stiles, a former InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff worker. Stiles fears InterVarsity is “slipping into the errors of liberal theology” due to the elevation of justice issues by the ministry and says the pursuit of justice is a gospel implication not a gospel imperative.

On the other side is Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, who says, “Proclaiming the whole gospel, then, means much more than evangelism in the hopes that people will hear and respond to the good news of salvation by faith in Christ.”

Commenters on the post stake out both positions, with few taking a conciliatory approach.

In 2000, Richard Mouw called for “Reclaiming Evangelicalism” from the Religious Right in a column on BeliefNet:

I wish that we evangelicals could work together to promote a third way — a middle course between withdrawal from politics and campaigns that give the impression that we are attempting to impose a full range of moral and religious specifics on our fellow citizens.

That “third way” can only be found by a broad cross-section of Christian believers who respect and work with each other. And Jethani at Out of Ur sees an unresolved dichotomy:

One side is vowing to guard the gospel against neo-liberalism; the other side is hoping to restore the gospel to its fullest expression by reconciling proclamation and demonstration.

Still work to be done.

January 28, 2010 Posted by | Religion | , , , | 3 Comments