Last week I posted the first five of my theses regarding the relationship of the kingdom of God and social justice. Here now are the second five:
6. We must realize that our actions are not self-interpreting. There is absolutely a place for being salt and light in a community through good deeds. But unless those deeds are given an interpretation, people will simply not know why we are doing them. There are plenty of groups who do good deeds in the community. Our actions will not truly adorn the gospel unless people are made aware that the actions flow out of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Again, faith comes by hearing, not simply doing good things before people and hoping they make the connection to Christ.
7. We must recognize the trend towards increasing social action and decreasing evangelism within the church. In many (if not most) evangelical churches today it is easier to recruit people to go do a neighborhood service project than it is to do evangelism. My concern is that a growing number of evangelicals assuage their guilt (if it even exists!) for not sharing the gospel by doing good deeds in the community. While I am not arguing a strict causation, it seems more than coincidental that at a time when evangelical participation in social action is rising rapidly active participation in evangelism falling rapidly.
8. We must think through and articulate the connection between specific social action and the gospel. One of the reasons that social and action and evangelism are hard to marry is that we have often failed to think through the relationship between specific physical needs and the gospel. When ministering to the hungry we can point them to the bread that truly satisfies. When ministering to those who are poor we can help them to see that their physical poverty is a window into the spiritual condition before God, and their need for spiritual riches that cannot be destroyed. When we think through these kinds of connections the relationship between social action and the verbal communication of the gospel seems much more natural.
9. We must not allow people’s physical needs to blind us or them to their even greater spiritual needs. This is related but distinct from the previous point. There is a danger in meeting physical needs that we become so engrossed in them that we lose sight of their spiritual needs. By all means we should do what we are able in meeting their physical needs. But if we stop there we are not loving our neighbor in the fullest sense of the term. Regardless of their current situation, they must stand before a holy God on the Last Day, where they will either be welcomed into heaven or banished to hell. Sometimes those who are suffering physically are so consumed by their situation they cannot see the greater spiritual realities; at other times their very neediness in the physical terms opens their eyes to their spiritual condition. Either way, we must remember there is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be avoided for everyone.
10. We must recognize the challenges that come with working with others of different beliefs. Who should believers partner with in these endeavors? Should we accept government money (which almost always comes with strings)? What about other churches? How much do they have to agree with you doctrinally? What private social agencies with no spiritual affiliation? Where does one draw lines? These are all difficult questions that do not have simple answers. But they must be considered when engaging in social action.
I still feel as though I have much to learn and think through on these issues, but these ten theses are where I stand today. As always, I welcome your thoughts on these specific theses or the larger issues.
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Since 2006 Dr. Matthew S. Harmon has served as Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He is also a member of Christ’s Covenant Church, where he serves on the Preaching Team, leads a small group, and teaches regularly in their Life Education classes.
Find out more at his blog, Biblical Theology, which is a forum for all matters pertaining to biblical theology (and some entirely unrelated).
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