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What is the relationship between evangelism and social justice? The question is difficult to avoid as voices from all points of view fill conference stages, blog rolls, and even the pages of magazines like Leadership Journal. One side believes social action was unjustifiably divorced from gospel mission a century ago during the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversy. What God has joined together, they argue, we have wrongly put asunder.

Voices on the other side recognize the goodness of seeking peace and wholeness for the suffering, but not at the expense of eternal salvation. They believe social justice to be a byproduct of the gospel but not the essence of it. Failure to make such a distinction, they fear, leads the church astray.

As I encounter this debate, what surprises me is the lack of historical or global perspective. We seem to think this is a purely contemporary, and primarily American, question. And among my own generation of younger leaders, I sometimes detect a hint of smugness as we congratulate ourselves for rescuing social justice from an evangelical phantom zone where we assume it had been languishing until we came along.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The church has been addressing matters of mission and justice ever since Pentecost—the Book of Acts, after all, isn't just a list of evangelistic sermons. And the issue is repeatedly found among Patristic writings. But my own understanding of how evangelism and social justice intersect has been informed by a more recent church father—John Stott.

Stott, whose service to the Lord in this age ended last year, was neither American nor a Gen-Xer. He was English, Anglican, and a theological heavyweight of 20th century evangelicalism. Together with Billy Graham, he established the Lausanne Movement, and crafted one of the most respected and widely accepted modern statements of Christian faith and mission—the Lausanne Covenant.

But having witnessed the many horrors of the 20th century, Stott also wrestled with the question of evangelism and social action. And what he concluded has much to say to us in the 21st century. In short, Stott believed both sides of the controversy were in error.

In Christian Mission in the Modern World (IVP, 1975), Stott argues that most people try to make social justice either superior or subordinate to evangelism. The superior position diminishes the importance of calling people to be reconciled to God through Christ—something Stott found utterly incongruent with the New Testament. The subordinate position, however, he saw as equally untenable. It made social action into a PR device; a way to win favor in order to lead to conversions, a mere means to an end. Stott wrote: "In its most blatant form this makes social work the sugar on the pill, the bait on the hook, while in its best forms it gives the gospel credibility it would otherwise lack. In either case the smell of hypocrisy hangs round our philanthropy."

Stott recognized that forcing ...

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Skye Jethani is the executive editor of Leadership Journal, an ordained pastor, and the author of numerous books. He co-hosts the weekly Phil Vischer Podcast and speaks regularly at churches, conferences, and colleges. He makes his home with his wife and three children in Wheaton, Illinois.

Related Topics:GospelGraceServiceTeaching
From Issue:The Outreach Issue, Winter 2012 | Posted: March 5, 2012

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April 09, 2013  10:29am

I prefer to think in terms of our having three aspects to mission: reconciling Man with God (evangelism and disciplemaking), reconciling Man with Man (peacemaking in the wider world and loving fellowship within the church), and reconciling Man with God's Creation (aiding those afflicted by a broken world and substantially healing the brokenness of our ecology and economy). We are called to be God's instruments in all of this. "Social Justice" is perhaps shorthand for the latter two dimensions of reconciliation, but it unfortunately tends to carry with it some political and ideological associations.

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Rick Dalbey

February 12, 2013  2:46pm

By whose standard is social justice measured? 163,000 Christians are martyred for their faith every year. 53 million unborn babies are killed every year because they are inconvenient. Unemployment for blacks in America stands at over 14%. When will the President ever address this? Is social justice Gay marriage equality? Is social justice increasing taxes on the rich? Is social justice condemning our children to onerous debt to China? Who gets to say what social justice is?

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March 15, 2012  10:22am

There are social injustices everywhere today and to shy away from that is ridiculous. Christ's teachings center mostly around a love for the poor and dejected. Social Justice is an integral part of the Christian faith, because all men were created in the likeness of God. It isn't less use of a so called politically charged word that is needed it is more action for what is right and just in this world that is needed from christians. To wake up and speak out for justice, not cower behind terminology which allows the people who cause the injustices to simply continue what they are doing.

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David Troughton

March 08, 2012  2:02pm

We sin in ignorance and we sin through our own deliberate fault. we get caught up in our society which contributes to injustice. In quotation marks, or out of quotation marks does not matter. It is astonishing that John Stott was writing insightfully in 1975, able to hold two aspects of the truth together coherently, and yet so many years later we are still struggling to. He was able to because of compassion.

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March 07, 2012  11:52am

I will further note that when the author uses the term 'social justice' alongside Stott's words in this piece, that 'social justice' is never in quotes. This implies that Stott did not use the term himself and that the author chose to twist whatever his words/terms were into his preferred 'social justice' term. Again, I urge the author to forgo use of this term in favor of less negatively charged terminology.

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