Observations from Divinity School [Part 2]: The Gospel and Social Justice
- June 08, 2021
- Sage Blalock
The most intense culture shock for me a Wake was its central mission. During my entire life in the Church, the goal was to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world and make disciples, to preach salvation from sin to the world. All of the New Testament states unequivocally that this is the case. Divinity school preached a different gospel: liberation.
If you aren’t familiar with liberation theology, then you probably just thought something like “liberation from sin, exactly.” But that isn’t the idea here. The gospel of liberation theology is that Jesus came to earth in order to liberate us from material and spiritual oppression, to lift up the marginalized peoples of the world. These, of course, are all tremendous aims that the prophets write about extensively. However, if we lose the centrality of Jesus for loving our neighbor, we give up the ultimate thing for a very good thing.
There was a time when I may have written a long article condemning liberation theology for its setting aside of evangelism and penal substitutionary atonement. But in light of (some of) the evangelical Church’s current war against Critical Race Theory and the modern civil rights movement, that isn’t what I feel like God is leading me to write. Instead, I want to bring attention to something I believe my slice of the Church needs to recognize: the fundamental critique of the evangelical Church—and the institutional Church in general—as deemphasizing the material concerns of the disadvantaged.
Specifically, proponents of liberation theology argue that the Church too often spiritualizes people’s problems, telling people to “just have faith” when they have mental health issues or can’t put food on the table. With the proliferation of Prosperity Gospel, name-it-claim-it theology, this has become an increasingly true observation. Instead of offering food to the hungry, the Church has developed the reputation for telling the poor to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and pray harder. Equally problematic, evangelicals have, over the last fifty years, left behind their history of refusing to ally with a particular political party. Add in the growing nationalist bend in some pockets of the American Church and you start to see the problem.
No one is saying the Church doesn’t care at all. Obviously, many evangelical or church-related organizations have given billions of dollars in aid, built wells and hospitals, and done tremendous things all over the world out of their love for Christ and God’s image-bearers. But so often in American Christianity, those in the Church advocate for cutting the very programs that our country’s oppressed rely on.
Ironically, too many in the conservative Church has crafted a mirror-image of their biggest gripe with the progressive Church: they have exchanged the image of God for an idol. Instead of a Jesus who only talks about systems of power and not salvation and forgiveness of sin, segments of the conservative Church in America now worship a white, American Jesus who wants low taxes and never gave the Sermon on the Mount. Whichever partial, distorted version of Jesus you look at, they’re both still man-made idols with no power to save anyone.
But this blog isn’t about bashing on the Church. Hopefully, it spur us all to look in the mirror, take the other side’s critique seriously, and make the changes necessary to uphold and repair the integrity of our witness. For the progressive Church, do not lose the centrality of Christ. Without Jesus—spreading the gospel of repentance and forgiveness of sin through faith in him—we cannot not care for the whole person, body and spirit. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, but he also told us that salvation could only be found in his name. As Jesus said:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17 ESV).
The conservative, evangelical Church—the one that raised me—has to take a more active role in providing for the physical needs of the people around us. Jesus fed and healed the people he preached to, greeted them with lovingkindness and his truth. Love—not just a fuzzy, compassionate feeling, but acts of love—cannot be separated from presenting the gospel. I’ll let Paul have the last word on the matter:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-4 ESV).