Social Justice and the Cross: A False Dichotomy

Something’s rotten in the state of Christendom.  In the third century, Cyprian was bishop of Carthage.  The church had recently survived the Decian persecutions and Cyprian controversially urged his congregants to welcome back into the body of Christ those who had denied their faith under duress.  Then plague struck North Africa.  As the collective personas non grata, Christians found themselves blamed for the devastation.  In 257, Emperor Valerian opened new persecutions against Christians, including the execution of Pope Sixtus, the exile of Cyprian, and the ordered execution of all Christian leaders.  In the midst of this chaos and persecution, Cyprian did the unthinkable: he ordered all Christians of Carthage to do what no one else in the city was willing to do.  He ordered them to take on the suicide mission of caring for plague victims.  These were people who actively supported the murder of Christians, and the believers faced nearly certain death by tending to the needs of the victims dying of plague.  And yet under Cyprian’s leadership, they did so willingly.

The face of Christian charity in America is somewhat different.  Today, we find ourselves embroiled in modern entanglements of post-Enlightenment theology and the ever-present problem of greed disguised as self-interest.  When books like Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger find serious challenges from books like Successful Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulation, and a prominent Mormon with several daily talk shows on TV and radio instructs Christians in the theological legitimacy of social justice, Christians have strayed from the radical charity of the early church.  While most thinking Christians thankfully dismiss both anti-biblical extremes, we still find ourselves drawn into a debate that bogs down radical actions of Christian charity.  Humanitarian and theologian Christian Buckley argues

Just as the masses left Christ two thousand years ago when His call became difficult, His ways became unpopular, and His perspective became detested, we are being challenged to walk away from Christ’s humanitarianism.

We draw Christian charity battlelines and accuse each other from across no man’s land.  We obsess over one question: Should we serve people in order to share the Gospel with them, or is service sharing the Gospel with people in need?

In Humanitarian Jesus: Social Justice and the Cross, authors Christian Buckley and Ryan Dobson present the answer to this modern quandary by examining the Body of Christ, both His physical incarnation and the actions of His followers.  In the first half of the book, Buckley lays out the main points of both arguments, service for evangelism and evangelism as service.  He marks the major turning points in each movement and presents biblical support for both and exposes the weaknesses of each approach.  But the argument culminates in the obvious conclusion: you can’t have one without the other.  Evangelism and charity must be united for either to be authentic.

Dobson and Buckley interviewed dozens of Christians who serve as exemplars of how to act on our Savior’s instructions.  From missionaries to social workers, surfers to abolitionists, the interviewees make a compelling case for the futility of the false dichotomy of service versus evangelism.  Jerry Wiles, president of Living Water International, says it best:

It is more effective, and, to paraphrase an African head of state, “You can’t minister to dead people.  You can’t do health care to dead people.  You can’t educate dead people.  You’ve got to have them alive first.”  The first thing is to bring physical life.  It is true that if you just bring the water without the message, you just extend their physical life.  It’s not a matter of either-or with us.  It’s both – and in every case.  It’s not a choice… I don’t think that’s ever the option – the gospel or good works.  I don’t think we have to make that choice because God’s going to provide a way to bring the gospel when you engage people and meet their physical needs.

It’s hard to argue with a man who’s dedicated his life to ensuring access to safe drinking water for people around the world.  It’s even harder to do so from a country that uses hundreds of millions of gallons of safe drinking water to fill our swimming pools.  Interview after interview in the book comes to the same conclusion: There should be no division between evangelism and service.

During His ministry, Christ didn’t divide evangelism and service.  Neither should we.  Buckley and Dobson didn’t need to write a book to make this argument.  This isn’t an argument that needs winning; it’s an argument that needs living.  Being right isn’t enough.  We must, as Saint Paul exonerated the church at Ephesus, “walk in a manner worthy of our calling.”  As my priest, Father Matthew Weber says,

We cannot be whole Christians without both these things.  We cannot be whole human beings without both these things.

Followers of Christ brave enough to dive into the trenches of radical Christian service understand that truth.  Those of us who sit comfortably in the industrialized world continue to bicker.  We need to sacrifice our greed on the altar of grace, take up our cross and follow Him, proclaiming His name all the way.  We’ll then find then that there is no division between evangelism and service.  We’ll find there is only Christ.

Published by

Lindsay Stallones

Lindsay teaches Advanced Placement history and political science in a Christian high school. She graduated from Biola University summa cum laude where she earned a B.A. in history and she holds a Master of Liberal Arts degree from Stanford University. She is a Perpetual Member of the Torrey Honors Institute, a film geek, and a screenwriter. Both in her classroom and beyond, Lindsay spends her time bringing history to life for the uninitiated, promoting ecumenical and bipartisan conversation within the Body of Christ, working for social justice at home and abroad, and enjoying and preserving God's Creation.

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  • Bill H

    Great thoughts, thank you. I am haunted by the idea that we focus on one or the other way too much – and I am coming to the view that thinking about doing social justice works are fine but just as in error as being right and not doing. What happens if we just listen and walk as He leads? My thoughts were in my series on Walking with Christ.

  • Bill H

    Great thoughts, thank you. I am haunted by the idea that we focus on one or the other way too much – and I am coming to the view that thinking about doing social justice works are fine but just as in error as being right and not doing. What happens if we just listen and walk as He leads? My thoughts were in my series on Walking with Christ.

  • Grey

    Errr…I agree with everything except the title….
    Social Justice is about using force to take peoples money and give it to some other people because it is apparently an ‘injustice’ to be poor. I.e. total rubbish.

    The downside of the social justice movement is that the responsibility for dealing with the poor and needy is shifted to a government and away from the individual (which is why liberals give less to charity than conservatives per person). It also fails to generate the moral character in either the giver (who feels good about paying taxes?) or the receiver (who becomes ‘entitled’ to handouts), whilst increasing the number of people receiving the handouts (what you reward, you get more of).

    No small surprise to see the Israelite solution was allowing the poor to harvest their own food, rather than simply giving handouts.

    As Christians we should be out in the world, helping those in need, but we should not be fooled by value laden, incorrectly named phrases which ultimately will lead to the destruction of western civilisation and the taming of the church…

  • Eric Foley

    Amen and amen.

    I’ve been doing some thinking and writing on this myself lately and have reached the same conclusion. It is the only conclusion, really, when we look at the life of Christ.

    I like to put it this way: the proclamation of the Gospel is the soundtrack to the demonstration of Christ’s work in us. Good works are of little use when muted and sharing the Gospel lacks impact without flesh and bone.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I’m afraid I don’t agree. I think you’re using the term ‘social justice’ incorrectly. The term was first coined in 1840 by a Jesuit priest, not during the establishment of an American welfare system. In addition, the term encompasses far more than mere income equality – it also refers to addressing issues of discrimination and tackling violations of human rights such as human trafficking.

    For political gain, both sides of American party politics have narrowed the definition of ‘social justice’, but we shouldn’t capitulate to that. It’s cheap party politics, but the Bible speaks a lot about justice in the social order, and doesn’t shy away from having the government partner in that work. Neither should we.

  • Steve

    What I’d like to see is a little less talk about “social” justice from those inside the church which seems to pander to the PC crowd and the secularists being allowed to define the debate and more of God’s “righteous” justice and that approach to service each Christian should be engaged.

  • Greg Dill

    Unfortunately, we have seen Christian charity give way to political causes. It’s so much easier to push your social agenda through politics rather than living the radical life of servanthood that Jesus demonstrated to His followers.

  • Anonymous

    Alas, very few live the radical servant life we’re called to. I’m not sure it’s only political causes that suck the oxygen out of the room, though I find it odd to talk to Christians who spend exponentially more time opposing gay marriage than they do helping the poor. I wonder if it’s also the thinning of Christian theology. We’ve adopted secular ideals (like the pursuit of property) and hold them in higher esteem than the radical servanthood Christ calls us to (Christ isn’t terribly big on private property in the Gospels). We’ve somehow confused capitalism and faith, I fear, and that, too, stands in the way of Christian service.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    How can justice exist in the social order without society? For that matter, aren’t you drawing a false dichotomy? Justice by nature is righteous. I don’t understand the distinction you’re trying to make, and I suspect it’s the terminology, not the principle that you object to.

  • InRussetShadows

    The term ‘social justice’ has been taken over by the progressivist left; in fact, that perspective is the only perspective I’ve ever seen associated with that term. It’s not Grey who’s using the term incorrectly. It is those who wish to push ‘social justice’. Justice needs no qualifier.

  • InRussetShadows

    If you frame Christianity in terms of a lack of ownership of say, land, then necessarily you will find yourself in opposition to people who wish to own land. Then owning land becomes “greedy”. The Pilgrims reasoned similarly and as a result, nearly starved to death.

  • InRussetShadows

    “Social justice” is a rubric for all manners of noxious socialism, as if you didn’t know! Is that justice righteous? No more than liberation theology liberates anyone! And yet, the two are joined at the hip by a common hate for “oppressors” and the “greedy”.

  • Jill D

    I used to become frustrated that not every Christian was fighting abortion with the same enthusiasm as I, but have come to realize that God gives us all our own tasks, some of them very mundane. Some will feed the poor, some will protect heterosexual marriage, some will raise their children, some will pray in solitude. Please do not pit us against one another as if one cause holds more merit than another. We are the Body of Christ, each with a different function, each necessary.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I’m sorry, but I think you’re completely and utterly wrong. There are plenty of Christians and non-Christians alike who fight for what they call “social justice” by working against human trafficking, feeding the poor, educating the disadvantaged, housing the homeless, and any number of other things you would be hard-pressed to take issue with. And I refuse to allow recent sensationalized politicking to hijack a term coined, as I pointed out earlier, in 1840. I think it might be time for both sides (especially Christians on both sides) to set aside partisan blinders and look at what social justice really means, then pursue it.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I’m afraid I don’t follow your argument here.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I think I might be misunderstanding you. Are you saying that social justice looks different for every believer, or that believers need only concern themselves with one issue and can relax on the rest?

    I think there’s a case to be made that not everyone needs to be an activist for every cause championed by the Church. And because the church is flawed, some of them aren’t worth our time (Does heterosexual marriage really need protection? Is it in danger of failing? Does enshrining it in civil law make it virtuous, or does it cheapen a sacrament?)… but it interests me that our first instinct is to say “how much must I do to be good?” rather than “what needs to be done?” Why do we look for things we don’t have to do rather than opportunities to serve? I would suggest it’s because we’re caught up in a materialistic life that promises comfort, stuff we want, and calm, when we’re called to be agents of God’s transforming power on earth. And marches and political campaigns are probably the most mundane way to serve as those agents, of course. But why must our causes be in competition? Oughtn’t we all strive to live as justly as possible in all ways, not just those that strike our fancy? And oughtn’t others’ efforts to pursue other issues encourage us rather than appear to be competition?

  • Lindsay Stallones

    Justice doesn’t need a qualifier, but it needs definition. Justice is a big topic, ranging from the physical to the metaphysical. Social justice just limits discussion and action to justice in the social order. If that’s the only kind of justice we discuss or act on, that’s a bad thing, but I hardly see how it’s threatening. And if the term’s been taken over by the left, do you just lay down and die, or do you take it back? I suspect it’s more a reluctance to act on or disagreement with certain issues, not an ideological conflict over the term “social justice” standing in the way, here.

  • J Paul

    After reading through some of the posts below, I think it should be pointed out that the government is the vehicle for the atheists and the secularists to incorporate what they consider social justice, while it is the church that God is tapping on the shoulder to implement his compassion.

    An example: the homosexual agenda with all its trappings has become the hot button for liberals concerned about “social justice,” while abortion is the concern of the church’s social justice.

    The problem comes when both Democrats such as Jim Wallis and Republicans syncretize the Christian faith with politicians whose objectives are not particularly or overtly Bible based. Mitt Romney’s supporters, I think, are a good example of this enigma.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I think the problem rather comes when Christians forfeit their duty as citizens in a representative democracy. Government is amoral. It is what its citizens make it. The false adversarial relationship Christians have invented in the past thirty years serves a political agenda and gets us out of dealing with the daunting issues of poverty and hunger. It has little if anything to do with reality.

  • Naomi

    Lindsay, you are a far, FAR more patient and virtuous woman than I. Keep up the wonderful work.


    It is sad that this is even a question. Of course we do both. Just can’t focus on only the deeds.

    If we are preaching and living the gospel then we are automatically doing good.

    I like the saying: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

    Our 1st mission is to preach the Word and sometimes its by our actions.

    That is why the Body of Christ is set up how it is.

    We have the pieces to offer the basic needs of the people. We can pray, feed, strengthen, clothe, counsel, financially support and so on.

    Some people I think get distracted by the deeds and forget to preach and that is not good.


    I just read some of the comments and wanted to add a bit.

    I personally think Christians should stay out of politics for reasons explained in my latest blog.

    When you watch the Democrat Christians they talk about the poor and human rights and when you watch the Republicans you hear about DOM (defense of marriage) and abortion and stuff like that.

    Neither is a really good example but from my observation the ones who are talking about social programs being Christian-based and what “Jesus would do” are the ones who barely know the bible and don’t teach about sin. What good is it if you feed a person who ends up in hell? Who cares about rights if you are burning in the pit?

    The Word is what sets us free and if we are not preaching it to the people we don’t do them a lot of good. We need to both help the world with charity and service but also preach to them with love.

    A lot of the pundits on the news say they are Christian and act like they care about the poor but they don’t even pretend to live a Christian life. They pick and choose the scriptures and use them when convenient.

    Politics is a distraction for Christians. imo

  • Lindsay Stallones

    How is eschewing politics entirely not hiding our heads in the sand? Politics seems to be a tool we can use. If we allow it to become the whole game (as some have done, arguably), it’s dangerous, but if we remember that it’s a tool rather than a goal, shouldn’t we use it? Aren’t we irresponsible not to use it?

  • Anonymous

    “…a prominent Mormon with several daily talk shows on TV and radio instructs Christians in the theological legitimacy of social justice,…”
    Who might that be?
    If you are talking about Glenn Beck (who is a Mormon), that is exactly the opposite of his narrative.
    His narrative, as is mine, is very well put by Grey, below.
    Does not Christ also teach us about our discernment of those who will either not receive us in honesty or those who reject the Gospel?  In Matthew 10:16  – “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
    Grey’s warning concerns the current political use of the term “social Justice.”  Some of us in Christendom hear the words and analyze the context and the actions of those issuing them.  Take Joel Osteen for example. 
    Remember the tale of the talents – Christ did wish us to be bold in our Christian walk, as He was during the Devils first temptations.  We are to be “wise as snakes,” not dumb as rocks, or foolish as drunkards.
    When a Christian signs on to the “social justice” of progressives, he or she is shaming Christ who also said:
      “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”
    Jesus further instructed that if anyone did not welcome them (that is, take them in and offer hospitality) and refused even to listen to them, then they should shake off the dust from their feet as they left. Shaking off dust that accumulated on one’s sandals showed extreme contempt for an area and its people, as well as the determination not to have any further involvement with them. To shake the dust off one’s feet was a gesture of total repudiation. When the disciples shook the dust from their feet after leaving any town, it would be a vivid sign that they wished to remain separate from people who had rejected Jesus.
    The same goes Godless progressives.  Jesus wanted us to tithe 10% to the church to do the work of God.  Jim Wallis wants for you to tithe to Uncle Sam instead of God.  If anyone who says he is a follower of Christ buys into that paradigm, he or she is not “wise as a serpent,” nor are they serving God the Father.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I think you misunderstood my Beck reference. I simply meant to say that many Christian look to him for theological teaching on the issue of social justice. I’d argue that’s the height of folly… and indicative of how deeply wrong evangelical Christianity can manage to be on this topic. Mormons are Christian heretics. While we can learn from them as from any other religion, we should not look to them for biblical teaching.

    And I’m afraid you’re wrong on much more than that. Jim Wallis doesn’t want you to tithe to the government. He wants your church to be helping the poor and sick. And he wants you to use what political power you have to fight systemic social injustice with your vote and political action. AND he thinks you should give charitably beyond your tithe to your church. Between him and someone who tells me Jesus wants me to invest in gold and survival kits, I’m thinking the guy who asks more charity of me rather than less might be closer to the teaching of Him who said “sell all you have and follow me.”

    And shaking the dust off your feet has morphed in meaning over the centuries. Today we use it as a symbol of rejection and separation of everything. In the first century, it was really only political or religious repudiation. It was symbolic of a separation of doctrine, but if someone’s house was burning down in that town, the “dust shaker” was still obligated to throw some water on it… or have you forgotten that the same Christ also told the tale of the Good Samaritan? You don’t get much more religious and political animosity (recently marked by violence) than the Jewish v. Samaritan divide in the first century. That’s why He chose that particular example.

    I’d advise you to read more things you disagree with, perhaps starting with Sojourners. It’s good for these conversations! As Annie Dillard wrote: “You know your god is man-made when he hates all the same people you do.”

  • Anonymous

    Sorry about not getting back till now, life is busy.  I thought I posted this a while back, but revisiting the site I found no record of it.  I must have looked in the wrong place.
    I understood your Beck reference; I named your target correctly, didn’t I?  My effort was to get you to  identify those you castigate publically.  I also understand that “…we can learn from [Mormons] as from any other religion, we should not look to them for biblical teaching.”  I don’t look to Mormons or any other non-Christian faiths for spiritual guidance; they do, however, represent evangelical opportunities.  Perhaps in your position as the keeper of this blog (if that’s what you do here) you should be more clear in what you “meant to say.”  Perhaps you could have instructed us in examples of those foolish Christians who (you claim) now look to Beck for spiritual guidance, rather than leaving that generalized accusation in mid-air.  I find it instructive that the atheist C. S. Lewis gradually fell in love with Christ the more he attempted to discredit Him.  I’m willing to give Beck adequate time for the Holy Spirit to do His work on him, too.  Until then I’ll pay close attention to his “other” strengths while simultaneously keeping them from polluting my spiritual aura. 
    My church does use its resources to help the poor and just recently conducted a mission trip to Bolivia.  My church and its congregates, however, will fight a President who believes that it is “beyond his pay grade” to know if it that conceived child is human or not.  Talk about straining at gnats…  President Obama, a supposed Christian, could take some instruction from the Mormon you chose to emphasize as a “heretic” to avoid, because Beck the heretic is passionately pro-life.  Reading Sojourner’s web site and its namby-pamby stand on abortion makes Jim Wallis and Barack Obama great bedfellows.  That unfortunate partnering is troubling to me.  If the abortion issue is important to one’s Biblical worldview, I have to wonder how a Christian can waltz around that fact to embrace Mr. Wallis.  It is not difficult to discern the Wolves in this culture – some of whom go to bed every night adamantly pro-abortion advocates.  How I “use what political power [I] have to fight systemic social injustice with [my] vote and political action,” I’m guessing you already knew before you responded.  Discernment is a wonderful gift.
    I find it grotesque that there are Christians willing to work with a political party/ideology that either looks the other way concerning abortion, or passionately pursues its continuation.   Jim Wallis and Marvin Olasky of World Magazine got into a brouhaha about the fact that Wallis and Sojourners accepts donations from George Soros’s Open Society Institute (OSI):
    “George Soros, one of the leading billionaire leftists—he has financed groups promoting abortion, atheism, same-sex marriage, and gargantuan government—bankrolled Sojourners with a $200,000 grant in 2004,” Olasky wrote in his original column. “Since then Sojourners has received at least two more grants from Soros organizations. Sojourners revenues have more than tripled—from $1,601,171 in 2001–2002 to $5,283,650 in 2008–2009—as secular leftists have learned to use the religious left to elect Obama and others.”
    Soros and Wallis hanging out together is OK and somehow you object to Beck?  Ms. Stallones, your silly meter is malfunctioning; what wonderful bedfellows!  I know about Christ’s fellowship with harlots and thieves – He clearly went to them to draw them away from their sins – not to join in them.  Jim Wallis is either a naïve tool or an adherent of George Soros’ agenda.  As either, he is the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” our beloved Christ warned us to be “wise as serpents” about.  You suggested I go to Sojourners web site to read those views that I disagree with.  I did, but I’m not fool enough to give what is holy to dogs, and to throw pearls before swine.  Sojourners does little but go through the motions of Christian charity and supports  a healthy secular agenda working to nullify Christ honoring virtues.
    Your false dichotomy in highlighting those who encourage investment in gold or survival kits is unseemly.  You use disparaging innuendo  about people you simply do not know.  I thought we were supposed to practice comity –  not openly sow derision.  I personally know rock solid Christians who in planning their future expect to live (no matter what might befall America) passionately maintaining their walk and spreading the Good News – even if they need to carry a gun on their hip and freeze dried foodstuffs in their basement to ensure success at preserving God’s word.  Your presumption of investors and those seeking to protect their families during unusual periods of national stress with casual assumption of their motives is the very “judgment” Christ warned us about.  Just imagine, Ms. Stallones, that you’ve come to a conclusion about people who have a plan for their families’ survival in a terrible catastrophe…and you don’t like the actions they have taken, even though you don’t know what those actions are, or how those action affect their ability to tithe or function as the Lord’s servants?  Remember that when Christ was about to return to His Father, he told his disciples to sell their tunic to buy a sword.  He knew of the coming persecution that his disciples would face and decided that 2 swords was sufficient – for defensive measures only.  Today, make that a couple of AR-15s per 12 members of a household.
    “if someone’s house was burning down in that town, the ‘dust shaker’ was still obligated to throw some water on it… or have you forgotten that the same Christ also told the tale of the Good Samaritan?”  Yikes, more condescension.
    You cobbled together two incidences with widely divergent lessons.  Yes, I know the “sand off your sandals” was oriented toward doctrinal differences.  That is exactly how I meant it with respect to Jim Wallis.  I also know that if I found Jim Wallis drowning, I would be ethically and morally bound to save Mr. Wallis because all life is precious – even if doing so requires me to risk my own.  You might then reference I would be required to because I must love my neighbor and wish only the best for him.  True, and right after I rescued Mr. Wallis I would witness to him and show the weaknesses of the reasons (his selected Biblical quotes) he uses on his web site to justify as acceptable, abominations that a contextual reading of scripture clearly decries.  I would then give him the C. S. Lewis explanation made in Mere Christianity on how best a Christian ought to love his neighbors and his enemies.
    Last but not least – Annie Dillard?  I’ll leave you alone with your Humanist pals.  I thought this discussion was about Christians.  On Wikipedia there is a quote discussing her current beliefs: “…the critical importance of the individual in a world of almost 7 billion individuals, and the absurdity of the doctrines of divine omniscience, divine mercy, and divine omnipotence.”
    Yeah, Ms. Stallones, we really do need to stay away from those heretics, don’t we?   

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I do appreciate the busyness of life getting in the way of responding online, trust me!

    That said… I don’t think there’s much point responding to you here. You’re clearly set in your beliefs, and considering the shaky evidence you’ve cited, you won’t believe any counter-evidence I provide.

    You find it grotesque that Christians would work with a political party that condones abortion. I do, too. I find it equally grotesque that Christians would work with a political party that promotes the mere acquisition of wealth, provocation of war, and rigorous application of the death penalty when we know that innocents are on death row.

    That is always the nature of politics. Both parties are odious. To pretend one is not is the height of folly.

    In addition, I find your views on self-defense hard to square with the actions of the early church. I’d encourage you to reexamine the two swords passage you cited, perhaps with word study and a background commentary. Unless you’re willing to claim that those who knew and walked with the incarnate Christ were fools, you’re going to need to reevaluate the “survive or else” position you hold.

    Finally, I’d urge you to review your position of disagreement as condescension. I never learned anything from someone who disagreed with me when I resented the disagreement and refused to question my position in light of their argument. None of us will.

  • Theauthor

    Time for an update! It’s election year 2012 – with leading Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s view about poverty in America boiled down by the press into one very simple statement: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Would this (admittedly simplified) synopsis of what Mitt had to say square with the views of one Jesus of Nazareth?The answer is not as straightforward as one might think. For more:

  • Lindsay Stallones

    For the record, “theauthor” is not the author of this article. That’s me. But this author agrees with that author that Romney’s slip of the tongue indicates an untenable policy stance regarding poverty.