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Newbigin Weighs in on the Social Justice Debate

The debate over justice and its relationship to evangelism is a old, old story, nearly as old as the gospel itself. Recently, this ancient narrative’s swirling tensions have broken again in broadly reformed and even more broadly evangelical circles. In the historical-global world of the church universal, this ocean of an issue blows onto the shore of our little corner of Christendom as something of a hurricane in a coffee cup. Still, it’s our shore, our coffee cup, and our storm to weather, not to mention the fact that the same issue iterates in every part of the ocean. In other words, this is a significant issue, with universally significant implications for the church in the world before Jesus returns.

One of the prevailing themes of the recent debate has been the accusation that those who believe in social justice are deeply influenced, often unconsciously, by Marxist ideology. I’m not an expert in Marxism, and I’m not qualified or even inclined to talk about Marxism per se. Instead, in a sort a roundabout way, I want to offer some suggestions based on Lesslie Newbigin’s discussion of “the justice issue” more than 40 years ago. Newbigin famously came back to the Western world after a career as a missionary in India, to find that the Western world had moved beyond Christendom. His most fruitful labor (and here is a life lesson) came after he had “retired” as he gave lectures and wrote books about the church’s mission in light of the emerging, Western cultural context. In The Open Secret, first published in 1978, he has a chapter called, “Mission as Action for God’s Justice.” Here are a few non-comprehensive, but hopefully helpful riffs on Newbigin’s thoughts.

  1. This question isn’t going away. The tension between evangelism and justice, between “saving souls” and bettering bodies is built into the project of mission. Newbigin explains that “there has always been an undertone of questioning about all this activity” — meaning “social services” or helping people physically and tangibly. This question and tension is not going away, because, as Jesus said, “the poor will always be among you.” People will always be hungry, thristy, sick, and sad.
  2. The question isn’t going away, because of the nature of the gospel itself. Newbigin says, “One can tell the story of missionaries who have set out with the firm determination to do nothing except preach the gospel, to be pure evangelists uninvolved in all the business of ‘social service.’ But the logic of the gospel has always been too strong for them. A hungry man comes asking for food; shall he be refused in the name of the gospel? A sick child is brought for help” — and the list goes on. The nature of the gospel, what Newbigin calls the “logic of the gospel,” is compassion, condescending to address the deepest needs of people.
  3. Any solution to the human condition has to address the problem of death. This, according to Newbigin, is the great failure of Marxism as appropriated by Liberation Theology. It provides “meaning for history at the cost of denying meaning for the human person.” The true gospel by its very nature deals with the problem of death: “The gospel is good news because in Jesus Christ God has dealt with sin and death.”
  4. The work of God is always scandalously particular. He chose a specific man, Abraham, to go to a specific land, Canaan. He sent his Son not to become “everyman” (though he was the true man), but to become a specific man — Jesus — from a specific town — Bethlehem by way of Nazareth. Paul writes to the “saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” (Phil. 1:1). Every person is some one and some where. Only God is everywhere. And the majestic reality of the Incarnation means that forever and now, infinite and finite, have somehow, mysteriously met together. By implication, the gospel addresses the eternal needs of particular people in particular places.
  5. There is a third way. Ironically, Marxism, specifically manifest in Liberation Theology, finds itself in agreement with those on the far-right discernment blog and Tweet circuit here. “The conditio sine qua non for a true theology is to be committed totally to action for and with the oppressed on the basis of the Marxist analysis of the class struggle.” We could call this position “justice-onlyism.” And, like the Pharisees and Herodians joining forces (Mk 3:6), hatred of the way of Jesus makes for strange co-belligerence against the idea that there can be a both/and third way of both justice and evangelism. For example, at the SBC annual meeting earlier in June, a motion (almost unanimously defeated) was made to defund the ERLC and to redirect the budget to international missions. In its denial of a third way, you could argue such “evangelism-onlyism” is more Marxist than those who are trying to work out the logic of the gospel for the people who actually live in the world we’re called to reach and serve!
  6. We follow the Great Commander not merely the Great Commission. “The commitment,” Newbigin says, “is not to a cause or to a program. At the heart of mission there must always be the call to be committed to Jesus Christ in his community.” Many in reformedish circles proclaim the absolutely necessary (hear me!) once-for-all, uniqueness of the person and work of Christ. But this does not exclude the exemplary nature of Jesus’s person and work. Some have so sought to protect the uniqueness of the Incarnation that they verge on implying Paul was a heretic. In Philippians 2, Paul uses one of the most profound christological portions of the Bible as an example to imitate! This upshot is that Christ is profoundly and ultimately more than an example to follow, but he is not less. When Jesus had compassion on the crowds and gave them bread, he was not only giving a spiritual illustration for us to give “bread from heaven.” He was also giving them food because they were hungry. Jesus is big enough to do both, at the same time. We should, however, fallibly try to follow his example.

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