Posted by: Philip Rushton | August 31, 2010

That’s So Last Century: Why ‘social justice’ is not necessarily code for liberal theology.

There continues to be a suspicion in conservative Christian circles about discussions on social justice and cultural engagement. Prominent evangelicals like James Dobson have often opposed Christians who care about the environment or other social justice issues. Glenn Beck recently said that pastors who talk about social justice are to be written off as communist liberals. Since this blog regularly discusses issues of social engagement from a Christian perspective, I thought it would be helpful to respond to these concerns.

Part of this suspicion surrounding social justice has to do with some historical baggage from a number of years ago. In the early half of the 20th century, there was a great divide between conservative evangelicals and the liberal Social Gospel movement. The Social Gospel movement was considered liberal in that it’s emphasized the social implications of Christianity over more traditional views on eternal salvation. ‘Deeds have replaced creeds’ was the concerned mantra of the conservatives.

However, the current discussion in evangelical circles about Christianity and culture is very different. Evangelicals are starting to care more about issues of poverty and the environment, but this is not at the expense of traditional beliefs in eternal salvation through Christ. Evangelicals are simply starting to wake up to the fact that Jesus had a lot to say about caring for our world.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this new evangelical dialogue is rooted in a rejection of some of the gnostic excesses of our fundamentalist ancestors. Gnosticism is an ancient heresy that views creation and matter as evil and the spiritual realm as good. This is not biblical and was rejected by the church from the very beginning. However, evangelicals have sometimes framed their theology in a gnostic way. The physical world was described as evil, and salvation was all about saving souls for eternity. Salvation was about escaping the world not about Christ reconciling all creation to himself as Paul emphasizes in Col 1:19-20. The implication was that we did not need to concern ourselves with worldly problems, we just needed to make sure people had a ticket for heaven.

Contemporary conservative theologians like N.T. Wright have managed to reclaim the important emphasis on cultural engagement without throwing away the fundamentals of the faith. For Wright, our engagement in reconciliation and social justice is still connected to God’s eternal plan for the world. These acts of cultural transformation are “sign posts” to the world of what God ultimately wants to do. This is very much in line with Jesus’ message in the gospel. In Luke 7:22, Jesus explains that the sign of his incoming kingdom is that good news is preached to the poor, the lame walk, the blind see, and the deaf hear. God’s plan for the world is not communicated simply through words, but through acts of reconciliation. The things we do on earth point to God’s in-breaking kingdom.

So when I hear conservative Christians critique those who care about issues of social justice, I find that they are stuck in an outdated conversation. The stereotypes from the early 20th century do not match what is going on in the contemporary evangelical church.

To be sure, there are some Christians that do fit into the liberal category. Some church communities do reduce the gospel to a social ethic. Furthermore, evangelicals who are reclaiming a more culturally engaged faith need to learn from some of the excesses of the Social Gospel movement. We need to be careful that we continue to preach the message of salvation, and use our words along with our actions. We need to combine social engagement with Christian discipleship. However, there is a fresh conversation going in the church right now that is moving past the worn out dichotomies of the prior century.


  1. Glenn Beck is a mormon. Why would any Christian follow his advice about their church anyway? Heck, I’d be more favorable towards a church if he said he didn’t like it.

    With that said, I do somewhat get what Beck has said. I was in a large discussion group of mostly non-Christians. A self-labelled liberal Christian there made a statement of faith and all the non-Christians said, yes that’s exactly what Jesus was all about. It was basically a social justice message. My comment about that is if non-Christians like your message can it really be a Christian message?

    Maybe things are changing and she is not the norm but too often when I think of liberal Christians I think of people like that. People to whom Jesus is little more than a philosopher and there are no real rules.

  2. A question for you Phil. In the past, conservative churches have focused their mission money on conversion and overseas missions. They spend a lot of money sponsoring overseas missionaries to try and spread the Word.

    Social Gospel missions would focus more on spending money locally and to help those in need physically rather than strictly spiritually.

    Where do you feel the church should fit in there?

  3. Thanks Bruce,

    Perhaps it was an overstatement for me to characterize the Social Gospel movement as a thing of the past. I have also come across examples of churches that are shockingly opposed to the basic tenants of the faith. As I concluded by saying, there is still a large Christian community that does reduce Jesus to a social philosopher. That is why my title says that social justice is “not necessarily” code for liberal theology. Sometimes it is. So you are right to voice caution when it comes to the relationship between Christianity and social action.

    I’m just saying that this does not need to be an either/or issue. It is not evangelism versus social action. The current dialogue in evangelical circles allows us to see it as a both/and issue. Christian witness in the world is intricately connected to social engagement.

    So in regards to your second response I guess I would also say that we do not need to divorce social action from missionary activity. For a long time foreign conservative missionaries have combined social action and evangelism. I spent some time in Guatemala learning from some missionaries a couple of summers ago, and many of the missionaries had a very integrated approach to outreach. They addressed both the physical and the spiritual needs of the people.

    I do think that if we are going to gain a hearing in our world we need to have our actions match our words. Integrity is great outreach!

  4. That’s good to hear about the missionaries Phil. The one’s I hear more about are leading VBS type stuff and holding church services not reaching out to help the poor. But then I don’t spend much time researching missionary activities.

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