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Social justice and evangelism

25 April 2010

For as long as I can remember there have been debates among Christians about the relationship between social justice and evangelism.

And the majority, or at least the loudest voices, seemed to think that one or ought to have priority, and that the other should be secondary.

Those who regarded themselves as evangelicals, as their name implies, thought that evangelism should come first, and that concern for social justice was an optional extra, or even a hindrance if it distracted from preaching the gospel.

Those who thought that social justice should take priority likewise thought that evangelism was an optional extra, or even a form of escapism.Unlike evangelicals, the social activists didn’t really have a name. One could call them social activists, but they weren’t always all that active. But for the moment let’s call them “social activists”.

And also, as long as I can remember, I have felt alienated by both positions.

In the 1970s things became a little more fluid. The charismatic renewal helped a lot of social activists to see the need for evangelism. It helped some evangelicals to see the need for social justice as well.

A dyed-in-the-wool Anglican evangelical, John Stott, went so far as to define mission as evangelism plus social action, and to say that both were therefore necessary.

Much of the problem, it seemed to me, was that when people argued about it, they never defined their terms. What is social justice? What is evangelism?

Back in the 1960s social justice was a bit easier to define than it is now, at least in South Africa. The greatest social injustice was apartheid and the ethnic cleansing that it entailed, and the fact that the majority of the victims of the ethnic cleansing, who were being forced out of “blackspots” in “white areas” had no vote. Those who opposed this policy too strenuously were harassed by the Security Police, banned, detained without trial, and some were defenestrated. To protest against it too strongly or to say that there should be votes for all was regarded by the government as subversion, or “furthering the objects of communism”.

And the standard response of evangelicals back then was “Jesus never organised any protests against the Roman government” (conveniently ignoring Palm Sunday) and that he said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” and that Christians should therefore not get involved in such worldly things as politics (that was before the rise of the “religious right” in the 1980s).

The Christian social activists, on the other hand, read things in the Old Testament. The story of Naboth’s Vineyard (I Kings 21) seemed to have a great deal to say about the ethnic cleansing of the 1960s. Ahab was condemned even though he offered Naboth a better vineyard, or adequate compensation, whereas the South African government offered neither to those it dispossessed. The land people were moved to was usually worse, and the monetary compensation was often less than the value of the land they were forced out of. Certain liberals, who helped the dispossessed to go to court to fight for better compensation were banned, since that kind of justice was “furthering the objects of communism”.

And so, in reply to the evangelicals’ references to “Render unto Caesar”, the social activists would parody Amos 5:21-24, “Take away from me the noise of your sentimental choruses… but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” and would quote texts such as Proverbs 29: “When the righteous are in authority the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan” and “The righteous man knows the rights of the poor; the wicked man has no such knowledge.”

But hurling proof texts really makes for futile arguments and debates, and does not get to the heart of the matter. What social justice was was reasonably clear, but what is evangelism?

Evangelism is telling, proclaiming the good news. But what is the news, and why is it good?

The problem was that most evangelicals back then were wedded to the penal substitution theory of the atonement. God’s justice was in conflict with God’s mercy. God’s mercy means that he loves sinners, but his justice demands that he must punish sin. He resolved this dilemma by punishing his sinless Son so that the sinful ones could be let off the hook. So for evangelicals, this was the good news, this was the gospel. Evangelism was telling people that Jesus has died to pay the price of your sin, so that all you have to do is accept him as your personal saviour and God won’t punish you. And that had nothing to do with politics or social justice. It was easy to separate them.

The problem is that this is a very narrow and partial view of salvation and the atonement, and therefore a distortion. I have discussed that in another blog post on Salvation and atonement, and so won’t go into all the details here.

My political education in this respect began with New Testament II at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal, UKZN). A rather dry and dull lecturer, Vic Bredenkamp, was explaining about principalities and powers. Until then the word “principalities” brought Monaco to my mind, so I found what Vic Bredenkamp was saying difficult to follow. He pointed out that it meant more than that — in Ephesians 3:10 and 6:12, for example, St Paul (if he wrote Ephesians, but that is another question) spoke of principalities and powers in heavenly places, so it was not just places like Monaco that he was talking about. Vic referred me to a small book by G.B. Caird, Principalities and powers and my eyes began to be opened.

Political power was as much a spiritual thing as a worldly thing. Authority (exousia) was more than flesh and blood. Our struggle was not merely against the flesh and blood authorities of Vorster and Verwoerd, but against spiritual wickedness in the heavenlies. G.B. Caird also wrote commentaries on the Gospel of St Luke and the book of Revelation, which helped to make things a lot clearer. More recently, writers like Walter Wink have covered the same theme in more detail.

A year later we were doing Theology II, also with Vic Bredenkamp, and we were discussing theories of the atonement, and the subject of principalities and powers came up again, and Vic referred to Gustav Aulén’s Christus Victor, which again made much more sense than the penal substitution theory of the atonement, and linked up with what Caird had said. In most of the arguments between evangelicals and social activists, social justice had been treated as a matter of Christian ethics, and salvation as a matter of doctrine. Evangelicals were suspicious of social justice being regarded as important because they believed that “by grace you are saved through faith, not because of works, lest any man should boast”, and they regarded concern with social justice as “works”. But people like Caird and Aulén showed that social justice was part of Christian docrine, and not merely an ethical question.

A couple of years later I learned that all these Western theologians like Caird and Aulén were in fact rediscovering what the Orthodox Church had known all along and never forgotten.

For those who believe in the penal substitution theory of the atonement, sin is primarily something that God punishes us for. But really sin and evil are things that God rescues us from. The world lies in the power of the evil one (I John 5:19), and so all oppression and injustice in the world ultimately proceed from the devil, who holds the world in thrall. But Christ has come to break the chains of the devil, sin and death. Social justice on earth is not merely a question of right and wrong ethical human behaviour, but it is a sign of the Kingdom, or Reign of God. All Christian theology is liberation theology, because the theme of liberation runs through it all.

In Western theology, Liberation Theology is seen as one theology among many. There are theologies of this and theologies of that and people are always looking for or declaring the need for a theology of something or other. And so theology is fragmented into a host of competing sub-disciplines, each declaring that “traditional” theology is lacking in this or that aspect of theology.

But traditional theology is a theology of liberation. And the good news, the gospel, the evangel, the evangelion is that Christ has set us free, as Jesus announced at the beginning of his ministry “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Freedom and liberation are at the heart of the gospel. As Christos Yannaras says in his book The freedom of morality

Freedom is one of Christianity’s most central ideas. As Berdyaev aptly summarizes: ‘The idea of freedom is one of the leading ideas of Christianity. Without it the creation of the world, the Fall and Redemption are incomprehensible, and the phenomenon of faith remains inexplicable. Without freedom there can be no theodicy and the whole world-process becomes nonsense’ (Berdyaev 1948:119). This message of freedom recurs in the New Testament in a variety of contexts (Mt 17:26; Jn 8:32, 36; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1-13). The Greek Fathers of the Church repeatedly expound the truth that a free God created free human beings, who are therefore responsible for their actions. Taking responsibility is linked to human dignity.

There has certainly been no lack of Christians who, in the course of time, have sought to restrict this freedom, allegedly in the interests of maintaining social order. In the end, however, the Christian conscience has always rejected them.

John Stott was wrong. Mission is not “Evangelism + Social Action”. The “social action” is part of evangelism; social justice is part of the good news.

Back in the 1960s, however, the issues were reasonably clear. The oppression and injustice of apartheid were obvious to all who had eyes to see and ears to hear. Now things are a bit more fuzzy. Back then the issues were black and white (literally!), but, as one friend of mine used to say, when South Africa has solved the problem of the blacks and the whites, you will begin to see the real problem: the haves and the have nots.

So what is social justice now?

Perhaps the Orthodox philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev gives a clue:

It was the industrialist capitalist period which subjected man to the power of economics and money, and it does not become its adepts to teach communists the evangelical truth that man does not live by bread alone. The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbours, for everybody, is a spiritual and religious question. Man does not live by bread alone, but he does live by bread and there should be bread for all. Society should be so organized that there is bread for all, and then it is that the spiritual question will present itself before men in all its depth. It is not permissible to base a struggle for spiritual interests and for a spiritual renaissance on the fact that for a considerable part of humanity bread will not be guaranteed. Such cynicism as this justly evokes an atheistic reaction and the denial of spirit. Christians ought to be permeated with a sense of the religious importance of the elementary needs of men, the vast masses of men, and not to despise these needs from the point of view of an exalted spirituality.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 April 2010 8:46 am

    Excellent post Steve. Thanks!

  2. 25 April 2010 5:27 pm

    I suppose this will always be an issue, and a troubling one at that. None of the Saints that I know of put a gun (though they certainly preached hard from the pulpit) to any rich man’s head and made him give to the poor. Social justice (I hate that term, because it assumes that all poor are poor because someone wronged them. I do not mean that it is their fault they are poor, that is just as repugnant.) will always been something for me to do and to persuade others to do, not something possible at the point of a gun. Let us all seek to become worthy unmercenaries.

  3. 26 April 2010 8:51 pm

    @ David,

    When considering your statement, I think we need to always remember the first part of the scripture of ‘principalities’ that Steve has mentioned.

    Eph 6:12

    Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

    Those that wish to put a gun to people’s head in the name of justice and God have forgotten that our battle is not against flesh and blood, even if flesh and blood are ultimately bringing the spiritual forces of evil (or doctrines of demons, we could say) into the world through their actions.

    Steve, I’ll probably have to read your atonement entry but I would struggle to say that the penal substitution theory should be jettisoned completely for another theory of atonement. Is it not far better to bring these theories of atonement together?

    It’s of course entirely possible that Jesus achieved a number of things through his death and resurrection. One, the forgiveness of sins, two the covering of sins, three defeating the devil and the spiritual forces, four bringing us into fellowship and union with God, five Jesus now has all authority, which he gives to us, so we can implement systems of the Kingdom, and many others. And I don’t put those in any order, they all deserve to be on equal footing, because they can all work hand in hand together very well.

    I’m quite comfortable with believing both Christus Victor and penal substitution together. Of course, I may believe my own version of these two to have them work together, but I just see no reason for an either/or scenario. Ultimately, they both are entirely valid scripturally.

    I would be interested in hearing if Christus Victor is a widely accepted view of the Orthodox Church? I always thought the Orthodox Church saw the death and resurrection primarily as a way of God opening up the opportunity for divinisation, union with God?

    • 27 April 2010 9:13 am


      Yes, that is one of the reasons why I have tended to be pacifist. Holding a gun to people’s heads, and engaging in “armed struggle” is not necessarily the best way to deal with social injustice. I’ve read some of the works of the advocates of guerrilla warfare — Mao Tse Tung saying that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” for example — but in saying that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, St Paul reminds us that what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us.

      I’ve been reading a biography of Dorothy Day by Jim Forest (the bosser up of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship) and hope to post a review of it when I’ve finished, as it also covers some of those points.

      Concerning atonement, yes, please read my post on Salvation and atonement, as I think some of your questions may be answered there. The penal substitution theory developed out of Anselm’s satisfaction theory, in isolation from most other views. I think G.B. Caird does a good job of showing how the theology at the core of it fits in with the theology of the others. It is developing in isolation that has made it, in my view, a distortion.

      If you think of the distinction between justification and sanctification in the Calvinist view, you can see a similar one in the Orthodox understanding of redemption and theosis. And it’s in most of St Paul’s letters. The first few chapters deal with what God has done for us: delivered us from the authority of darkness and brought us into the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son. The second half (usually signalled by a “Therefore” is about putting off the deeds of darkness and behaving as children of light, living a more godly life, being more godly, ie theosis. See, for example, the “Therefore” in Ephesians 4:1, and what precedes and follows it. and also Philippians 2:12, or Colossians 3:5. As my New Testament lecturer, Vic Bredenkamp, used to say (probably quoting his New Testament lecturer), "Always look to see what the 'therefore' is there for."

  4. 27 April 2010 5:29 pm

    The point I was making Ryan is that justice is something you do. It’s a virtue you develop. You can make the world a more just place by your acts of justice. This is cooperation with the Father’s work in Christ reconciling the world to Himself and our ministry of reconciliation. (The term used in 2Cor is an accounting one, not an interpersonal one.)

    The work on us to be reconciled is redemption, the work we do with God is theosis. Justice is theosis.

  5. 27 April 2010 6:39 pm

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks so much for this superb overview of the discussion on the relationship between evangelism and social justice. I found it incredibly informative.

    I hope you don’t mind – I reblogged this link to

    Rich blessing,


  6. 27 April 2010 8:36 pm

    Hi Steve,

    I left a comment here earlier but it did not show up (forgive me if it is awaiting approval and you get this second post).

    Steve, thank you for your superb and insightful overview of the relationship between evangelism and social justice. It is a topic that is receiving a lot of attention in the Lausanne movement. I hope you don’t mind, I have reblogged it on the Lausanne Conversation Website (I would encourage you to joint the conversation if you feel so inclined):

    I also reposted it on my tumblr feed so that it could make its way through to facebook. See

    I have also tweeted it from the Lausanne @capetown2010 twitter account to generate some discussion and feedback here on your blog.

    Thanks for your ministry on the internet! It is a source of encouragement and challenge for me.

    Rich blessing,


    • 28 April 2010 1:15 am

      Thanks Dion.

      I’m not sure why, but it was not merely waiting for approval, but WordPress had put it in the spam queue, perhaps because it thought there were too many links in it, although the first one had only one link, and it was also in the spam queue.


  1. Jesus and Social Justice | 3-D Christianity

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