Theological Orthodoxy and Social Justice

One of the things that surprised me after posting my latest blog-post was how it seemed to have resonated and struck a chord with the disenfranchised millennial in the local church. I don’t have enough Professor X powers to tell you why, but I suspect that at least one of the reasons may have been the call not just for continued orthodoxy (which has always been a struggle in the Church since the first century), but also for social justice. It doesn’t take long for the reader to notice that I flash around terms like “orthodoxy” and “social justice” a bit liberally, within a sentence’s breadth of each other, which may have raised an eyebrow or two.

“Social justice” may have a funny-sounding ring when speaking to fellow theological conservatives, often based on a misunderstanding of the term and a de-emphasis that certain social-justice groups have toward evangelism. In the same way, “orthodoxy” may sound crusty and stale to social justice warriors that are ready to take action, which is common among younger adults in any generation. New York pastor Tim Keller notes in a great video-talk that there seems to be an apparent disconnect between what he calls “justification people” (those that emphasize evangelism) and “justice people” (those that emphasize social justice as kingdom work), and how it is important that we hold both together. It’s a “both/and” gospel, not an “either/or” gospel. Orthodoxy and social justice go hand in hand.

Now on the one hand, the idea that “orthodoxy” and “social justice” sharing rent-space should tickle our ears as funny is a bit unfortunate. A constant theme throughout the Bible, particularly the Old Testament (yes, the same Old Testament that tends to rub us the wrong way in the 21st century), is God consistently calling out His people (Israel) on two indictments: 1) idolatry, AND 2) social justice issues.

In other words, God was questioning their practice of theological clarity and social justice. As a matter of fact, these two issues of idolatry and social oppression were apparently important enough to God for Him to shut the proverbial door on Israel for a good 400 years until the birth of Christ.

There are FOUR particular groups of people that God consistently called the Israelites to look out after: widows, orphans, the poor, and the foreigner. Any offense to these marginalized groups, according to the Bible is an offense to God Himself, and He DOES take it personally. The call to care for the oppressed first finds its roots in the Exodus-Deuteronomy storyline and is further fleshed out in the Prophetic books. It is unsurprisingly reflected by Jesus when He informs the people of Israel that the two greatest commandments are to 1) “Love the Lord your God”, and 2) “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Apparently, you cannot ultimately separate loving God and loving your neighbor from each other, or vice versa. Care for social justice is an inherent result of truly loving God, and the two are inseparably intertwined.**

So on the one hand, the fact that social justice and theological orthodoxy should go hand-in-hand should come as no surprise. On the other, hand, it does. At least to many. Why is this the case? Many have argued that there actually is a significant difference between the self-professed Christian constituents that make the most noise in the media, and those that are trying to live humble lives in the church while trying to make a difference in the community through both evangelism and humanitarian work. I believe that there is certainly some truth to that,  although to make that sweeping statement is too over-simplistic and a bit naive. As the gospel tells us, the truth is that we are all equally sinful, and you have Christians failing to live up to our ideals and non-Christians succeeding where we often fail. That is why for the Christian, as St. Paul would say, there is no boasting. We are saved through the atoning work of Jesus Christ alone.

But now is not my purpose here to diagnose the problem per se. I simply wanted to highlight the parlance of the terms “orthodoxy” and “social justice” in light of a few articles that I stumbled across just today from Christianity Today. The first one addresses racial division within the church. How does this apply to social justice as the Bible spells it out? At first glance, it might not seem like it. But as many minorities will tell you, it is not uncommon as a minority to feel “out of place” and like a foreigner in a majority culture, something that the average white American doesn’t realize simply because of the fact that they haven’t experienced it and don’t have to worry about it. However, racial inclusiveness has continued to be on the rise among churches, and, well, the Church as a whole.

Here are some tidbits from the article:

“While many evangelicals of color may feel tired of “begging to be noticed, considered, and invited,” they are having an impact, recent research shows.”

“In the United States today, 1 in 3 self-identified evangelicals is nonwhite, according to a September study from PRRI. This rises to 4 in 10 evangelicals when measured by theological belief, according to a December study from LifeWay Research.”

“In other words, evangelicals are now more likely than mainline Protestants to attend multiracial congregations and to report African American and Hispanic friends.”

“Theologically conservative congregations generate more embedded social ties (measured by friendships) than do liberal congregations, and more congregation friends increase the likelihood of cross-racial ties,” Yi and Graziul posited.

[Notice that the article highlights “theologically conservative” churches. I tend to prefer to “orthodox” as you can tell, because “conservative” tends to have multiple connotations in our politically-charged atmosphere due to the recent presidential election.]

The article adds that churches that downplay hard-line, rigid denominational distinctives statistically join Catholics in racial diversity.

This is a perfect example of how faith should play out in our lives in the community, and society writ large. This is surely what Jesus had in mind when He prayed for unity among His followers in John 17. And, in fact, racial diversity was a marker of the early first century church once it expanded from its Jewish roots. Many living in the Roman Empire would scratch their heads at this odd community that was not united first and foremost by a shared ethnic culture, but by belief in a crucified Jewish carpenter that claimed to be their Messiah and God incarnate Himself. It was belief in Christ that united these early Christians, and this theme can be traced in the letters of Paul, whose concern was to create a new group that defied racial boundaries. Truly there is ultimately no Jew or Greek, slave nor free, in the Kingdom of God.

As a minority living in America, this is encouraging news. And what is more encouraging is that, according to the article, this trend is likely to continue especially among younger Christians (what’s that? Millennials? …maybe someone should write a blog about that).

The other article (which I hope to cover more in-depth in the next two weeks but can’t because of time) addresses the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movement that confronts sexual abuse. This is just as important to Christ followers, if not more so, because God continuously commanded His people to look out for those that might be taken advantage of, and the Church cannot stay silent on these issues.

I’ll attempt to conclude by the simple full-circle reminder that God calls His people out on 1) idolatry, and 2) oppression of the marginalized. And what’s the antidote for idolatry and oppression? Orthodoxy and social justice. Loving God and loving our neighbors. Orthodoxy is important because in order to love God, you must first know who He is through the special revelation of Scripture, and a god that never challenges you through His Word and never rubs you the wrong way from time to time is likely to be an idol and a god of your own making. Social justice is important because in order to love our neighbor, we must look out after them. Human beings bear the image of God–however marred, broken and sinful it may be in us–and an offense to image-bearers in that regard is an offense to God Himself.

Theological orthodoxy and social justice. Viola.

*The book of Malachi bookends the Old Testament and begins the intertestamental period.

**There’s a certain nuance to reading the Bible that comes if we dare for a moment to take off our 21st century western-American lens. Though this does not answer every question, it certainly puts things into perspective.

[Although people often think of God in the Old Testament as being portrayed as harsh, especially for our western/21st century ears, much of that can be understood within the context of a particular group of people (the nation of Israel) within a particular historical time period, failing to live up to their calling as the people of God, and God calling in the debt of justice as a response.]

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3 thoughts on “Theological Orthodoxy and Social Justice

  1. This is a good one and well-thought! Thank you for sharing. I would just suggest one thing and this comes from the Methodist theological tradition. Rather than focusing on the “justification” and social justice, my own tradition would see Christian vocation as one of inward and outward holiness or sanctification. By that I mean sanctification as participation in the life of God, this calls for not only the move out of idolatry, but also engagement with the mission of the Son through the gift (empowerment) of the Spirit with the Church.


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