I’m thrilled that Prison Fellowship will celebrate its fourteenth anniversary this year. But as I look back I’m less than thrilled at the one question I’ve been asked most often: “Are you prison evangelists or prison reformers?”

Though seemingly innocuous, this question reveals a devastating schism that has polarized the church since the turn of the century, and the conservative Christian community since the early 1970s.

About 20 years ago several evangelical ministries began to emerge that were concerned primarily with social issues, working to right injustices and meet human needs. But resentment soon developed. Fundamentalists charged “justice” ministries with abandoning the traditional commitment to evangelize the lost; the social activists, on the other hand, derided “soul winners” for being concerned only with altar calls and notches in their Bible belts.

This split is bad enough for the disunity it creates among evangelicals. But even worse is the way it has obscured the mission of the church. For the church to regain a clear vision of its role in society and heal the rift between evangelism and social action, we need to rediscover what I believe to be the central theme of Scripture. Ironically, it centers on one of the words so misused in the current controversy: justice.

The Glorious Scarlet Thread

Many think of justice in terms of its secular definition: everyone getting his or her due. This far misses the biblical mark. Many then politicize the term. Conservatives gleefully suppose that getting one’s due means wrongdoers receive punishment. Liberals glibly assert it means everyone getting an equal share of society’s benefits.

The problem is further compounded by those who slice the Scriptures in two. On the one hand, ...

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