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Sunday, March 06, 2005

Doing Justice and Preaching Grace

As some of you know, Ryan and I hope to plant a church in Missoula, MT after we finish seminary next year. Of course, that raises a very important question: What exactly is the church? What makes us any different from the Mormons, the JWs, or the local Elks Club?

What really makes a church, a church? If we intend to plant one, we better have a good answer.

Now we're not the first ones to ask this question. In his book, Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace, Harvie Conn lists 4 basic criteria:
  • proclamation - true churches should be proclaiming God's words (not man's), and that means calling people to repent and believe the gospel (cf. Mk 1:15)
  • fellowship - true churches should do more than just talk - they should be a community of believers who actually spend time doing stuff together: eating, praying, singing (cf. Acts 2:42)
  • service - true churches should also serve one another, meeting needs within the body (Acts 6:34)
  • worship - perhaps most importantly, the church is called to worship God together in unison, corporately (cf. 1 Cor 11)
These are all important. But Conn goes one step further: for the church to really be the church, we must also be concerned with justice.

Now this may sound a little suspicious - especially for us evangelical types who are extremely wary of 'liberals' and 'social justice'. What's interesting, however, is that the OT prophets repeatedly slam Israel's leaders, not just for false worship, but for failing to seek justice for the poor, to care for the fatherless (cf. Is 1:17)!

Fast forward to the NT, and we find Jesus rooting his own messianic claims in the fact that he fulfills Isaiah's prophecy: "the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them" (Mt 11:5, quoting Is 61).

The point here is that Jesus links the preaching of the gospel with the healing and liberation of people who are weak, sick, oppressed (whether by sickness, or the powerful). Maybe this is why James says that "true religion is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep one unstained from the world." (Jms 1:27, cf. 2:14-17).

Conn's point is that the good news of the gospel actually entails 2 distinct realities: grace and justice. If we preach the one without practicing the other, unbelievers will sense the inconsistency and reject the message. And that's because God designed it that way - grace without justice is not the gospel; its religious rhetoric.

So what does justice look like?

First of all, it means that we must be willing to call sin, sin. That may sound a little odd at first blush, but I've talked about this before in my post on Drawing the Line: if somebody is addicted to destructive behavior, a friend who truly cares will intervene and say, "you have a problem." It might seem more compassionate to simply look the other way - but that does injustice to your friendship, and even more importantly, it does injustice to the person being wronged by sin (ultimately, God).

Now, in the church today we've actually done a pretty decent job at this side of the justice coin - we're pretty good at telling people where they're wrong. Unfortunately, we've done an awful job of saying it in a way that "sinners" can actually hear it. And that's because we have often failed at the second side of justice.

Conn, in describing his unsuccessful efforts to minister to Korean prostitutes, recounts a startling breakthrough:
"I discovered that a person is not only a sinner. He or she has been sinned against. My cultural background in white, North American churches had oriented me almost exclusively to seeing a person as the subject of sin. But not the object of sin. Seeking the various factors that kept women in prostitution opened my eyes to that new dimension." (p45)
What Conn is saying here is huge: Yes people are sinners (and believe it or not, most of them already know that). But they have also been sinned against. And so we as Christians are called to stand along side them against the injustices they have suffered, to help right the wrongs that they are experiencing.

At times, this may indeed look like social justice. Conn's breakthrough came when he realized the reasons WHY these women had entered prostitution (how many girls actually say: "ooh, prostitution! Now there's a career path for me!" ?). Then he began to seek to help them address those underlying issues, whether they came to Christ or not.

He did not stop preaching the gospel, but by identifying with the oppressed, his gospel message took on a whole new weight and significance. His actions validated his message. In fact, Conn was actually modeling the gospel of grace to them - by coming and identifying with them in their mess, he placed himself in a position to help them respond to that first call for justice. He became their advocate. He became a little christ to them.

Herman Bavinck describes it like this: "Now the order is reversed. Before the Fall, the rule was: through works to eternal life. Now, after the fall, in the covenant of grace, the eternal life comes first and out of that life the good works follow as fruits of faith" (Our Reasonable Faith, p272)

This is precisely what Christ has done for us - he has intervened on our behalf, doing justice and preaching grace. And that is precisely what the church must rediscover if we hope to reach people with the gospel message.


At 9:02 PM, March 06, 2005, Blogger rs said...

I too was changed by Conn's book and we as the church have to realize that people are objects of sin...and most have been sinned against by the church. How do we as the church repent and begin to minister to people who hate the church?

The question for you who aren't in the church is why? Are you opposed to the person of Christ, or are you just opposed to the church?

At 2:38 AM, March 07, 2005, Blogger Charles said...

I found it odd that this list did not include anything about the community surrounding the Church. Does the Church serve the community around it, or does the community around it serve the Church? It is too often the latter and not the former.

I think that this post gets to something. I think that if you want to reach people, it isn't about what you say as much as what you do. If you do the right things and are open with them, then they will probably tell you when they want to hear what you want to tell them. You guys always ask me what to do to get people to go to Church or how do you tell people X, and I think that at the end of the day, if you live your life as an example, and these people truly are ready to hear what you have to say, then they will come to you.

At 3:53 AM, March 07, 2005, Blogger Christian said...

Charles: Judging by the time of morning at which you generally write your posts, we are clearly going to have to offer a 4 AM service on Sunday mornings.

Of course, everyone else in our congregation will be taking your name in vain (but just think - your sleep habits would have served you very well in the early church, since they met before dawn! :-)

Now regarding your point about serving the community - this is a good observation. It IS actually there (under the category of service), but I intentionally left it a bit vague. People in the church argue over whether the church should serve anyone outside the community, or just take care of those inside.

On the one hand, there is a practical side - you need to take care of your own people first: if you only have a couple hundred bucks in your "service" fund, and you already have 3 families in your church who need help with their utility bills, the reality of the situation is that we're not going to have much left over to serve the community.

At the same time, its important that we don't treat service like its a "reward" for faith - eg. you have to believe before we will help you. That's really the antithesis of the gospel. The early Xians were known for helping prisoners (and that was someone NO ONE did back then).

The good news is that most churches really aren't that stingy - most churches help a lot of people who are "unafilliated" (in many times, knowing full well that the people they are helping may well be trying to take advantage of them).

One final thought. The Bible actually has an interesting view on community - it sees "the church" as the culmination of community; the church is "community redeemed" (I think of Molly's post about Hells Splashover, how sin affects all aspects of creation, including community).

The church is all about creating true community, with redeemed humanity. So it never should focus on "community for the sake of community" - by definition, true community can only happen in the context of Christ-changed-hearts.

That said, we are indeed called to minister the gospel to people all around us, and that means we are going to have to participate in their community as well, however imperfect it might be.

The church needs to be going to the world, not demanding the world come to us. When the church is really being the church, it cannot help but transform the communities in which we live.

At 3:10 PM, March 07, 2005, Blogger Molly said...

Reading Christian's response to Charles' comment, I was reminded of a quote that I hear off and on:

"The church is the only organization in the world that exists for the sake of its non-members."

I think what this is trying to get across is that churches really miss the mark when they start becoming "members only" events. Unfortunately, that means that a lot of churches are missing the mark because we find it so much easier to focus on building up programs that benefit people who will come consistently, who have something in common with us, and who will express gratitude for all our work.

But we don't just have this outward focus in order to convince people that Christians are reallyreally good people and that they want to become just like us! I think the Bible has a much broader view of how the way we work in culture - whether it's creating artwork or working for social justice - and how that is related to God's bigger plan for the world.

I feel like I'm beating the drum that I always beat, but I also think it's pertitent here and it's always very important, so I'll do it again.

When Christ came to save the world from sin, he didn't just do it on an individual level. He does restore us in our relationship to God, but he also restores us in relationship to other people, of groups to other groups, etc. Now, we're seeing the benefits of that slowly, which is why we still have wars and need to work for social justice. But working for social justice does more than say, "Jesus loves you." It actually proclaims, "The way this world is working is WRONG, and Jesus came to rectify this situation (cf. Luke 4:18-19). At this point in history, Jesus has chosen to commission me as his hands and feet and mouth, and so I am doing this to show the world - Christians and non-Christians alike - that Jesus is rules over the world and that he is reclaiming unjust situations." Incidentally, we would have no motivation to do this if we didn't believe that Jesus was presently reigning over the world and calling us to proclaim this to people, because we would have no hope that we could actually effect change with our work.

At 3:42 PM, March 07, 2005, Blogger Charles said...

Perhaps I used the wrong words. I do think that a Church should serve the community, meaning help the people out where they can. But what I really care about is the Church being a good neighbor. I will not go into too much detail about my experiences with Churches here. Ryan and I have talked about it with some breadth. What I will say is that a lot of the Churches in my neighborhood are not good neighbors. The members do not live in the community. Whenever they reach out to the community, it is usually for a selfish reason. Being a good neighbor means having a give and take and having mutual respect. You may not even have to interact, as long as you have an understanding and respect one and other. Interacting is better than not interacting, mind you, but not interacting but having mutual respect is better than a one way interaction. Mutual respect does not require resources.

Now, it is true that many Churches are not stingy and do “give” to the community. My question would be, what is their motivation? There is a passage of the Bible, which you guys have talked about a lot. I forget name chapter and verse, but the non-believer Cliff’s Notes version goes something like this. There was this dude that did “all the right things”, and God did not take kindly to him because his motivation was not about Glorifying God. It doesn’t matter how good your actions are if they are not motivated by glorifying God.

OK, me being a non-believer, I could really care less whether good deeds are motivated by the glorification of God. However, I know for a fact, that many churches are motivated by their own pride and to toot their own horn. They have programs so that they don’t have to face the real problem around them. That, I find insulting and, I don’t know, extremely sinful, for lack of better words.

At 6:08 AM, March 08, 2005, Blogger CM said...

Theres some intresting thoughts on integrating our theology of Justice comming from the SPEAK network here in the UK.

See: "An evangelical rationale for social action"...

At 9:35 PM, March 09, 2005, Blogger Christian said...

cm: thanks for that link - I just glanced at the paper and it definitely looks like something I'd like to read further...


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