Social justice in church: The problem with a thin view of social justice and, equally, a thin view of the gospel
I hadn’t even glimpsed at Newbigin for background and resource when I was writing my Wasted Evangelism. Apparently I should have. I wrote Wasted Evangelism, first and foremost, as an exegetical journey (in the Gospel of Mark). And, I did so from a social action platform (the sphere in which, at the time I had been employed for eighteen years), which directed much of my research (beyond my exegesis), bibliography, and thought process. I did not write, necessarily, from an ecclesiological platform—although that was never far from my mind (which you can tell from reading the book). And, neither was Newbigin far from my developed thought, really, for I had been reading his work throughout my discipleship journey years before I began Wasted Evangelism.
What is so significant about Newbigin (for me now) is his ecclesiological center. To separate such grand observations of social action from Newbigin’s ecclesiology is to read him wrongly; furthermore, to detach his view of social action from church, God's alternative social group in contrast to the rest of the world, is to miss his point entirely. This is where I am at now in my own journey: that the church (and I prefer you reading, a church) is an alternative to the social and cultural groups and associations known and experienced in the world, the locus of mission; and, as such, we should understand that biblical social action is a component of its evangelism (the very argument of my book). Thus, biblical social action is an element of the church’s nature, not an add-on or a hopeful by-product of some of the individuals who can do social action or make systemic changes from their place in society and/or their vocation getting saved, or as an “optional extra” as Newbigin puts it.
Many Christian social justice leaders and activists separate social action from the life of church (a church, again) as if it is merely a church-state confrontation or a public sphere activity of Christians and Church-like groups. Most conservative-leaning Christians see social action as a by-product of salvation, but still a distraction from the church’s real center, “eternal salvation.” Both misunderstand Jesus. Both misread the gospel. Both err toward what they want to protect theologically or promote politically. The former has a thin view of church. The latter has a thin view of the gospel. Newbigin affirms my own view of Wasted Evangelism and helps me to place it where social justice belongs: church (and again, please read here, a local-gathered-church).
*If you are interested, please checkout my Wasted Evangelism: Social Action and the Church's Task of Evangelism for all the royalties go to our church planting and ministry in the Hill. You may also support the church plant and ministry itself by giving a donation through our website >> CPCinTheHill.org
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.