Social-justice causes are the piety of our time. But should they be the heart of the church’s mission?

There are at least seven obstacles that prevent the reduction of the gospel to politics. [This is an adaptation listing a few of the seven obstacles outlined by Mark Mattes in his book, Law and Gospel in Action.]

We Don’t Live in Biblical Times

First, the political context of today’s endeavors to achieve social equity is simply not the same as that of the biblical prophets. Ancient Israel assumed that religion and politics or church and state were one. In fact, for the Hebrews, cult and kingship often worked in tandem. Prophets of yore ever sought that both cult and culture would be loyal to the covenant and not be consumed by either idolatry or inequity.

But how does that concern, important as it is, translate into modern, pluralistic America, where it is not always clear whose justice and which rationality should prevail? One would need a more complex argument than a biblically grounded “preferential option for the poor” to do that. Many contemporary activists who are so vocal in rejecting biblicistic fundamentalism’s apparent loyalty to American consumerism in fact simply proof-text their own economic convictions from Scripture. Even more ironic, they often live a comfortable suburban lifestyle, fed by the very consumerism they abhor.

Contrary to the assumptions of many liberal Christian ethicists, there is little analogy between the theocracy that existed in ancient Israel, in which the role of a prophet as a spokesperson for God was an established institution within both the cult and the state, and our current democracy, which advances a separation between church and state. Obviously, ancient Israel had no such separation between divine matters and a secular, nonsectarian government. No doubt, there are modern-day prophets (such as Martin Luther King Jr.) who, even if they do not speak through inspiration as did ancient, biblical prophets, eloquently advocate for the oppressed in the face of racism and majority privilege. But thinkers such as King must assume the residue of a legacy of Christian history, culture, and presence in America in order to make their case. Such a Christian cultural legacy, however, is less and less privileged or viable today—certainly not in secular public universities and occasionally not even in the church.

The Problem with Ideology

Second, the alliance of the church with various secular ideologies undercuts the most basic tenets of the Christian doctrine of humanity. Christians can never affirm, following John Locke, that we are “self-owners,” any more than they can affirm Karl Marx’s materialism. Far from self-ownership, Christians belong to Jesus Christ, their Lord who has redeemed them and in whose life they are hidden. Undoubtedly, Christian ethicists, when it is possible, should seek common ground with non-Christians in the quest for a more equitable society. But Christians involved in that quest must be willing to critique secular ideologies, not merely translate the biblical message into contemporary ethical idioms.

Who Would Have Thought It So Complicated?

Third, while it is true that there are many victims of “systemic distortions” in our society, it is also true that economic privilege and disenfranchisement are more complex than many assume. For example, some who are poor contribute to their poverty by not taking advantage of educational opportunities, literacy programs, and the like, which could help them raise themselves out of poverty. The old question asks, “Do you give someone a fish or teach them how to fish?” The correct answer is actually “Both.” But many social justice advocates emphasize only the first, giving someone a fish. The Bible says that poverty is often due not only to systemic exploitation but also, on occasion, to sloth. Remember Proverbs 6:6—“Go to the ant, you sluggard.” In other words, the Bible presents a more multifaceted, less simplistic perspective on poverty and victimization than those of many social justice advocates. It acknowledges that poverty is sometimes due to exploitation but other times due to a self-defeating mind-set.

There are certainly systemic racist underpinnings that create and sustain poverty. But at the same time, people’s individual decisions also chain them to someone else’s racist script. Deplorably, racism and poverty truncate the lives of many. But when we turn people into the objects of these horrible states, we rob them of their humanity and their own power to meet these challenges. Indeed, the powerless can equally become victimizers when they themselves gain power. The best way to alleviate poverty is to focus on rebuilding family units in impoverished communities, which helps keep people from sliding into poverty. In truth, there is more than one kind of poverty; spiritual poverty, for instance, is that with which the church, as the church, is particularly equipped to deal. Economic poverty, in contrast, is something that both Christians and non-Christians must seek to ameliorate in the world and through worldly means.

Utopia Means “Nowhere”

Next, ironically, mainline Protestant justice advocates, again very much like the Christian right they despise, seem to take scriptural passages that speak of a future utopia quite literally. They envision an ideal future, much like the fundamentalist view of the millennium (Rev. 20), where wolves dwell peacefully with lambs (Isa. 11:6). Historic Christianity has generally spiritualized such texts, seeing them as referring to heaven or the inner tranquility that believers can have with God through Christ. But for modern religious progressives, utopia is just on the horizon—if we would simply all conform to a progressive social agenda. This stance lacks a robust view of original sin, making our social justice advocates more disciples of Erasmus than Luther. What is more likely is that humans will muddle through the future just as they have muddled through the past. It is good to recall that the word utopia means “nowhere.” It does not exist this side of the eschaton.

Pitting People against One Another

Finally, the quest for justice pits people against one another and has a hard time unpitting them, since the injustices seem to remain entrenched or systemic. The system does not seem to change much for the better, even when various minorities are given power within it. The quest for justice as currently articulated is far less biblical than its advocates make it out to be. Instead, it is an outgrowth of autonomy where individuals are perceived as self-owners and have the right to develop their full potential however they configure it. Instead of buying into the alleged entitlements of the privileged self, a more biblical approach would honor the creatureliness of all humans, intertwined with that of all other creatures, along with a stewardship that seeks for ethical agents to offer their gifts for the sake of the well-being of the common good.

We should instead seek to be good stewards of our current situation and so recover as much human potential and well-being for the creation as possible. The claims of justice often pit people against one another and all too often lead to ethical stalemates. But scriptural ethics are not limited to the quest for justice, which at best can be had only in snippets in this sin-drenched world.

Instead, inspired by the original human calling in Genesis to be good caretakers of God’s garden, we can seek for the best stewardship of the resources with which God has endowed in all humans and this planet. Focusing on the stewardship of human life in all its phases, along with sustainable practices enhancing the well-being of creation, may prove to be a better focus than that of justice, which all too often is framed through the lens of Enlightenment ideals far removed from the Bible. Indeed, we should no longer be tied to Enlightenment ideals of autonomy, which all too many current views of justice idealize. Instead, we should endeavor to unfold and express the “varieties of gifts” (1 Cor. 12:4) with which God has endowed people, all the while honoring the environment as the home that God has provided for us.

The Nature of the Gospel

Certainly, Christians should seek to uphold victims and care for the environment. What is in dispute is the nature of the Christian gospel and the church. Currently, social justice has become the gospel for many mainline Protestants. But that hardly offers truly good news, especially to the poor. Marx was wrong to see the gospel as a narcotic, the “opiate of the people.” It is just the opposite. The gospel empowers the poor and helps them move forward and remain hopeful in spite of social disadvantages. God has never abandoned the poor but instead has often used them as His vessels to make this world a better place.

After all, Mary—who received the promise from the angel Gabriel and so was empowered for her role as the God-bearer—was poor. So was her son Jesus Christ. We, too, need to reclaim the gospel as promise precisely for the downtrodden and for all, especially in these troubled times. The church most makes a difference in the world when it behaves as the church, providing an alternative to the world, allowing people to live in but not of the world—and not as the bureaucracy policing other bureaucracies.

In a word, the church offers the most when it deals with ultimate matters, matters of faith, and not the penultimate matters of politics...The church is most genuinely the church when it proclaims judgment and grace, law and gospel, God’s commands and God’s promises. Let’s let that be our primary focus. Politics must not be understood as a means of salvation but instead be honored as a venue for service. In this way, the church will live and embrace the fullness of response to God’s word and not limit itself to one humanly defined vision.

The following is an adaptation of Chapter 11 from Law and Gospel in Action written by Mark Mattes (1517 Publishing, 2019). Used by Permission, pgs. 191-198.