Is Christian social activism biblical? This debate is often at the forefront of the Church when societal ills or political propositions arise. We are confronted with the proverbial fork in the road: ‘Should we do or say something?’ . . . ‘Should we stand by in silence because we would sacrifice our Christian witness to align ourselves with the causes of the world?’ My hope is to offer some perspective that might help resolve this conundrum, or at the very least, provide some food for thought.
Part of the challenge lies in our theological framework. Things such as our views on the effects of sin can greatly influence how we look at problems in this world. For example, sin causes brokenness and depraved behavior. Therefore, some suggest what logically follows is that sin is a problem that will remain until God makes all things new. So as Christians we shouldn’t involve ourselves in temporal resolutions. Rather, we should preach that we all need Christ and that is how you deal with the problems of sin. Others argue that God has left us here as his representatives to be His salt and light. Through this representation (as salt and light) God draws people and they become part of the Church or a Christian. Which view is correct? My belief is that the latter is the more correct of the two. So let me share with you some of the reasons for this conviction.
Two very under-appreciated themes of scripture is that Christianity is both missiological and a collectivist enterprise. Missiology is a fancy word for mission and that is a very important thing. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible presents followers of God as having a mission. What is that mission and how do we faithfully perform it? The missions start with the very first people of God, Adam and Eve. They are given a mission to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue or rule on behalf of God in the earth. What’s often missed in English translations is that the mission has a priestly connotation to it. The garden and the sacrifices of their children are significant elements. When we get to Abraham and his descendants picking up the mission to represent God, we are explicitly told that they were to be a nation of priest (Ex. 19:6). Then they were given a law that would set them apart and identify them as God’s representatives (Deut. 4:5-9). We often think of this law concerning meeting or failing God’s standards of righteousness. However, the reality is that it served as the means by which God desired to change the world and bring others into God’s family. That is why we see a plethora of laws, which address social ills and problems. Justice and equality or caring for the poor and oppressed in treatment was such a vital issue that it is a primary reason that God judged Israel. Some examples are Habakkuk 1 & 2, Isaiah 1:16-17, Amos 5 & 6, Micah 3, Ezekiel 22:29, Jeremiah 5:28, Malachi 3:5, which are just a fraction of the references. One only needs to do a word search on ‘justice’ to see how important and integral it is to God’s mission.
In fact, God is known by these very prominent characteristics: Psalms 10:17-18, 11:7, 89:14, 103:6, 140:12; Isaiah 33:5, etc.
He commands the kings and rulers of His people to rule with justice and to care for the poor and vulnerable: Psalms 72:1-4, Proverbs 14:34, 16:10-13, 29:4, Ezra 7:25-26, Isaiah 10:1-2, 1 Kings 10:9, etc. Therefore, justice is clearly a major theme for God and His mission for his representatives.
He commands His people to “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Ps 82:3-4)
Proverbs 31:8-9 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Next, let me point out the significant context of collectivism from the Bible. Most of us were probably introduced to Christianity in a very individualistic context. We hear sermons that give us practical advice on how to live according to the Bible. Biblical stories are preached anecdotally with moral and practical applications that address our individual behaviors. But (as Morpheus from the Matrix once stated) “what if I told you” that the Bible communicates a predominately collectivist message. What I mean is this: while the Bible gives us some stories of individuals, those stories are always connected to the broader biblical narrative. Adam and Eve's job was to rule the whole earth as God’s partners and on His behalf and their failure to do so affected the collective humankind. God judged humankind’s sin collectively with a flood. God chose Abraham so that “through him, the whole world might be blessed.” (Gen. 22:18) Afterward, Israel was called to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6).
Even the theology that we espouse from explicitly collectivist passages somehow become popular individually applied promises. Jer. 29:11 is a perfect example. Notice that the context of Jer. 29:1 is clearly referring to the collective surviving Jews from Jerusalem living in exile. Rarely does anyone apply the same reasoning to verses 16-19 and claim the curses and plagues. We seem to be fine with those being collectively levied towards Judah and Benjamin rather than claiming them for our individual selves. Or how about the idiomatic imagery of the potter and clay. We often apply this imagery to ourselves as though God is shaping us as individuals, but if we go to Jer. 18:5-12 we see the contrast is of disobedient nations. This theme of God dealing with us collectively continues in the New Testament. Jesus went first to the collective “lost sheep of Israel” (Matt.15:24); Paul’s gospel was presented in a collectivist model “first the Jew then to the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16, 16:25-26). We often forget that the meta-narrative of the whole of Scripture is the reconciliation of humankind to God, which is a collectivist enterprise. So, it is important to remember that God not only cares about us collectively, but that He judges and holds us accountable for our collective behavior. Particularly the failure to fulfill our mission that He has left for us to do.
Living and promoting justice and righteousness has always been an integral part of representing God as His people. Yet somehow this gets overlooked even when we are talking about Jesus as the quintessential priest and image-bearer of God who came to finally fulfill the mission that all previous priests had failed. The question then arises, how did Jesus fulfill this mission? What was his message for those who would continue this work after Him?
He announced his mission in Lk. 4:17-19 as the fulfillment of the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:10). A very here and now a real-world mission.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Some attempt to allegorize this passage, but if Jesus ministry and teachings are the measures I think that is a mistake. Jesus preached messages about our behaviors and attitudes about the here and now. Money and marriage, for the poor and vulnerable; He preached messages like the Good Samaritan (Lk.10:25-37); visiting the poor, hungry and imprisoned (Matt. 25:37-40); the importance of justice and mercy (Matt. 23:23). The apostles likewise taught that Christian’s should not be callous and careless of our fellow mankind especially the poor: Js. 1:10 & 2:12-19; 22-24, Heb. 6:10-12, Phil. 2:4, 1 Cor.10:24, 33.
My studies have led me to the revelation that the statement ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not merely a propositional truth that needs to be apprehended for salvation. But that ‘Jesus is Lord’ is a mission statement for those who follow Christ that permeates and guides our lives in a way that as someone once said, “we are the hands and feet of God”. We are building His kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” until the day that the kingdom of heaven comes down to earth permanently and the dwelling place of God is with His people Revelation 21:1-4. We do this collectively by following Jesus's teachings and addressing the brokenness and injustices of this world. We are not saved to sit but we are saved to serve, to be salt and light. To draw others into this Kingdom of righteousness by our deeds and words.