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Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice by Robert K. Johnston


Robert K. Johnston, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Culture, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena CA 91182. Prior to that he was Vice-President and Dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. This book was originally published by John Knox Press in 1979. Copyright held by author and permission granted. Prepared for Religion Online by Rev. Herbert F. Lowe.


Chapter Four: Evangelical Social Ethics: The Use of One’s Theological Tradition


In his book Evangelicalism and Social Responsibility, Vernon Grounds, the president of Conservative Baptist Seminary in Denver, sketches the following caricature of evangelicals concerning their social indifference and ineffectiveness.1 He states that evangelicals can be criticized for their conservatism -- they sanctify the status quo; for their quietism -- they naively trust Providence to remedy social injustice; for their pietism -- their concern is with one's soul, not concrete needs; for their perfectionism -- -only the unqualifiedly good can be supported; for their legalism -- righteousness applies more to abstinence than to paying employees livable wages; for their nationalism - - the essence of the American way of life is thought to be Christian; and for their pessimism -- only the end of the age will bring hope.

David Moberg is similarly critical:

We [evangelicals] wait until there is general consensus in society before we speak on controversial issues in a pattern of "me-too-ism" that makes us almost like contemporary ancestors of the present generation. We focus upon personal vices and individual problems, failing to see that the great sweeping social problems of our time also are personal problems for all their victims. We defend "the rights of property" when they clash with the physical, psychological, or intellectual welfare , of underprivileged people. We hail the class-related positions of the rich with rationalizing Scripture passages and salve our consciences for neglecting the poor by giving out a few Thanksgiving baskets and making token contributions to a gospel mission. If our neighborhood begins to deteriorate and poor whites or Negroes begin to invade it, we move our homes and churches to the suburbs .. . and thus we betray our Lord.2

Such are caricatures surely, but evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike recognize familiar lines in the drawings. Evangelicals stand accused, by those within as well as without, of uninvolvement and/or wrong involvement on the major issues of social justice in our day.

Viewed historically such assessments have strong validity. One can find numerous examples like William Brenton Greene, Jr. who in 1912 argued that the more acute the social crisis, the more the church needed to emphasize its own mission of evangelism.3 Greene believed that no crisis outshone the religious crisis and there was neither time nor energy to go in two directions. Moreover, argued Greene, even if it wanted to, the church could not effectively enter into social service, for it lacked the required exact and varied knowledge. The early church recognized its limitations in this area and was able thus to be of influence where it counted.

But the historical example of a Greene can be countered today with a host of evangelical voices ranging from Billy Graham to John Warwick Montgomery, from Robert Linder and Richard Pierard to Mark Hatfield, from Sherwood Wirt to Bill Bright to Richard Quebedeaux.4 Evangelicals have awakened to the need for a whole gospel. The unbridgeable dichotomies which Greene expressed between salvation and service, between proclamation and demonstration, between faith and works are beginning to give way. In their place is the widespread recognition expressed by Billy Graham that "Jesus taught that we are to take regeneration in one hand and a cup of cold water in the other."5

Carl F. H. Henry's The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism was certainly the key document in evangelicalism's emerging social conscience. Written in 1947, the book bemoaned the needless assault fundamentalism was undergoing for refusing to apply "the genius of our position [i. e., the orthodox faith] constructively to those problems which press most for solution in a social way." In its revolt against the Social Gospel, evangelical Christianity had become unwittingly inarticulate about the social reference of the gospel. Henry therefore declared:

If historic Christianity is again to compete as a vital world ideology, evangelicalism must project a solution for the most pressing world problems. It must offer a formula for a new world mind with spiritual ends, involving evangelical affirmations in political, economic, sociological, and educational realms, local and international. The redemptive message has implications for all of life; a truncated life results from a truncated message.6

In his book, Henry did not spell out the implications of this challenge to the church, but his clarion was loud and clear. As Billy Graham echoed six years later: "Christians, above all other, should be concerned with social problems and social injustice."7

That evangelicals should be involved socially has become a foregone conclusion. As John Montgomery states, the effort to validate Christian social concern is "tantamount to a statistical survey demonstrating that all husbands are married, or a search purporting to discover who is buried in Grant's tomb."8 But how and why evangelicals are to involve themselves in society have proven to be much more vexing questions. That they are to be involved brings near unanimity; how that involvement takes shape and what is its Christian motivation bring only debate. As Henry himself recently characterized the situation, evangelicals are increasingly divided "over what program Christian social ethics implies."9 Judy Brown Hull, co-chairperson of Evangelicals for Social Action, a coalition which first met in 1973 in Chicago over the Thanksgiving holiday, echoes a similar appraisal: "justice-minded evangelicals are squaring off against each other," she bemoans.10

One such dispute that has surfaced is a difference between the editors of Sojourners and the editors of The Reformed Journal, two leading evangelical periodicals. In a series of articles and editorials that appeared in both magazines during 1977, differences of opinion over the church's involvement in society were defined and debated with little resolution.11 Although both sides refrained from labeling it merely a contemporary version of the debate between sixteenth century Anabaptism and sixteenth-century Calvinism, both recognized the importance their historical antecedents played in the discussion. In fact, it can be argued (and I will, in what follows below) that the present divergences in social thought throughout contemporary evangelicalism stem largely from this source from differing theological traditions that provide conflicting models for social ethics today. Evangelical social ethics reflects in its diversity the variety of theological perspectives out of which evangelicalism springs, a variety which includes among others, American revivalism and fundamentalism, as well as Anabaptism and Calvinism.12

Evangelicals must take with increased seriousness the variety of traditions from which they spring, for here is one major source of conflict in their present theological formulations. Here, also, is a major resource for theological consensus-building. Where the resolution of conflict over the proper shape of Biblical hermeneutics surfaced as central for an evangelical consensus in its understanding of the role of women, the use of tradition as a theological resource holds promise for evangelicals as they seek to move beyond their current impasse regarding social ethics. If evangelicalism's commitment to social activity (care? concern? action? responsibility? welfare? justice? -- the lack of a consensus even at this basic level of vocabulary hints at the problem) is to prove productive; and more important, if its theoretical commitment to Biblical authority is to maintain its integrity by proving true in practice; then evangelicals must learn to use the insights of their theological past to build a Biblically based social ethic relevant to today.

How can evangelicals mine the resources of their divergent Christian heritages, while maintaining their commitment to Biblical authority? A dialogue between the conflicting theological perspectives provides the key. Evangelicals must be willing to have their longstanding social beliefs enriched and/or challenged by fellow evangelicals who similarly accept Scripture as authoritative, but who interpret it according to opposing theological models. They must find in the insights of other evangelicals a stimulus for a renewed investigation of the Biblical data. And they must be willing to draw out new conclusions theologically from their clarified Biblical perspective as it interacts with contemporary understandings in society.

In the remainder of this chapter, I will suggest the general shape which such a programmatic might take regarding social ethics. I will turn, first, to a description of a variety of evangelical perspectives concerning social ethics. Having listened to these positions and ob- served the importance which theological traditions play in their formulations, I will then look for direction as to how a renewed investigation of the Biblical data might proceed. In this case, I will find a major resource for theological consensus-building in a Biblical definition of "social justice." Although there is much work still to be done on this topic, I believe there is sufficient clarity in present Biblical scholarship to risk such a definition. Using the concept of "social justice" as a key, I will then seek to draw out the implications of this Biblical perspective for an evangelical social ethic through a series of questions.

If further study reveals that modifications must be made in the proposed concept of "social justice" in order for it to remain true to the Biblical witness, some of the conclusions of this chapter will no doubt be changed. But its general shape as to theological methodology will not. And here is my primary interest. The current impasse in evangelicalism over social ethics provides us a model for exploring how a dialogue between conflicting theological traditions can aid theological formation as evangelicals seek to apply concretely their theoretical commitment to Biblical authority.

 

A Cross Section of Current Evangelical Opinion Concerning Social Responsibility

In sketching a cross section of current approaches to social ethics within the evangelical church, numerous approaches are possible. But perhaps as representative a procedure as any is to use as paradigms of current evangelical diversity four of evangelicalism's leading periodicals -- Moody Monthly, Christianity Today, The Reformed Journal, and Sojourners These journals have been selected for they reflect not only a breadth of current evangelical thought, but a range of the traditions undergirding contemporary evangelicalism as well. The magazines move from the strongly traditional viewpoint of Moody Monthly (a viewpoint carrying on the social ethic of late nineteenth century American revivalism), through the moderately conservative stance of Christianity Today (a stance that seeks perhaps unconsciously to revive the social activism of American fundamentalism prior to the repeal of Prohibition and the Scopes trail), to the socially liberal commitment of The Reformed Journal (a position seeking to be contemporary, and yet faithful to Calvin's thought) and the socially radical perspective of Sojourners (a perspective molded in the Anabaptist tradition).

l. Moody Monthly

Perhaps the most popular periodical among Dispensational evangelicals is Moody Monthly. Reflecting the basic orientation of its namesake, the late nineteenth-century evangelist Dwight L. Moody, as well as that of the school he established, Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, the journal has as its main concern the task of evangelism -- that is, the preparation for, understanding of, reporting about, and inciting interest in the proclamation of the gospel. Moreover, as it warned in an editorial on the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, evangelism must not be confused with the Christian responsibility for genuine social concern. "'To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that He now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.'"13

But although evangelism is understood as being the Christians', as well as this journal's, primary responsibility, Christian social responsibility is not ignored. As contributing editor Howard Whaley states, the aim of evangelicals is "to prevent indifference to social issues on the one hand, yet avoid social gospel pitfalls on the other."14 Seeking to carry out this goal through its editorials and articles, the magazine points to three aspects of Christian social responsibility: (a) the importance of spiritual renewal, (b) the necessity of ministry through benevolences, and (c) the need for responsible, Biblically principled citizenship.

The need for a spiritual awakening in America is an oft-recurring theme in the Moody Monthly. "It's no secret that America is sick," states executive editor George Sweeting, who is also president of Moody Bible Institute. "But few realize that her one hope lies in the ends of God's people." If America is to survive, it must have a revival -a regaining of spiritual consciousness-beginning with the church itself. Until God's people are broken, until they prayerfully repent and turn in radical commitment to the Lord, the nation will continue to flounder. "Let's stir up the gift that God has planted in us and seek the outpouring from heaven that our nation and our day so greatly need!"15

In addition to emphasizing serious Christian commitment and discipleship, the monthly stresses voluntary service to the needy, both materially and spiritually. The avowed goal of all such benevolent activity is the demonstration of the gospel. Articles and editorials on emergency world relief, hunger, poverty, friendship to the POWs, care for the elderly, homosexuality, ministry to the hurts of the inner city, and the like appear regularly in the magazine's pages. In the vast majority of these articles and editorials, the social issue is discussed as a prelude to the larger issue of evangelism. From out of the apparent physical anguish, dislocation, or hardship, the editors see a greater spiritual need which must be addressed in and through the material one.

The third prong of the Christian's social responsibility in addition to costly discipleship and generous, evangelistically oriented benevolence is Biblically principled citizenship. Because the Bible tells Christians to honor those in authority, they must do so. This does not mean, however, a blanket endorsement of American policy: "When America is right, we support her. When America is wrong, we still love her and do our best to correct her," states editor Sweeting.16 For Moody Monthly this has meant speaking out editorially or in articles against abortion, welfare, the E.R.A., detente with Russia, the corruption of Watergate, pornography, state lotteries, leniency in homosexuality laws, and euthanasia. It means speaking on behalf of the death penalty, racial equality, and American aid to Israel. The Christian citizen should call on government to enforce Scriptural mandates and to limit itself to its preservative function in society. This can best happen if individual Christians act by writing their elected officials, by voting justly, and by praying.

Behind such a programmatic is an underlying acceptance of the structure of American society. Even when the structure proves glaringly inadequate, as in the energy crisis of 1974, the monthly does not offer significant social critique. Instead it editorializes by drawing spiritual object lessons from the economic crisis, by reminding us that we can see in the situation our need for dependence on God, and by admonishing us to be thankful to God it is not any worse than it is.17

Cautious, selective, Biblically based social engagement, qualified by the more basic concern for spiritual renewal, motivated by compassion toward the needy and the opportunity for evangelism, and actualized by responsible individual citizenship and benevolence characterizes Moody Monthly's social ethics. The journal, thus, can be seen as carrying on the individualistic, pietistic shape of its founder's social ministry. It represents the conservative wing of evangelical social engagement.

2. Christianity Today

While Carl Henry served as editor of Christianity Today, the editorial policy of what has become the Christian community's largest circulating periodical mirrored his position. Spelled out in a lengthy lead editorial entitled "Evangelicals in the Social Struggle," as well as in books such as Aspects of Christian Social Ethics, Henry's understanding of Christian social responsibility stressed (a) society's need for the spiritual regeneration of all men and women, (b) an interim social program of humanitarian care, ethical proclamation, and personal, structural application, and (c) a theory of limited government centering on certain "freedom rights," e. g., the rights to public property, free speech, and so on.18 Though the shape of this social ethic thus closely parallels that of the present editorial position of Moody Monthly, it must be distinguished from its counterpart by the time period involved (it pushed others like Moody Monthly into a more active involvement in the social arena), by the intensity of its commitment to social responsibility, by the sophistication of its insight into political theory and practice, and by its willingness to offer structural critique on the American political system.

But Christianity Today has moved away from the position of its founder on matters of social concern. It has, on the one hand, become more in line with the American way of life, while at the same time increasing its commentary and critique on specific social and political issues. A loose parallel might helpfully be drawn between the magazine's changes and the development of revivalism into fundamentalism, prior to fundamentalism's retrenchment in the social arena following the debacle of the Scopes trial and the repeal of Prohibition. For fundamentalism, from within its individualistic and pietistic commitments, did for a time frontally challenge the evil structures of its day, even while remaining strongly patriotic. Here, too, is Christianity Today's programmatic.

Since Harold Lindsell assumed the position of editor late in the sixties, Christianity Today has moved away from the mere elucidation of socially related Biblical principles, as Henry thought was right, to an ongoing commitment to social critique and specific commentary on a wide range of social and political issues. Rather than leave specific policy assessment to individual Christians, the editors have sought to provide informed opinion for their readership. Thus, in a period from 1972 to 1977, of the better than 700 editorials in the magazine, more than one-third involved public issues. Christianity Today's favorite topic during this period was its anti-abortion campaign. This, along with its ongoing assessment of Watergate and its call for American political pressure against Russia's persecution of Christians, was a repeated focus of it editorials.

The magazine's strong Christian lobby has also ranged from Vietnam to postal rates, from gun control (pro) to child abuse (con), from amnesty (a la Ford) to television programming to crime in the streets. If one were to generalize on the nature of the topics addressed, one would note a marked focus on questions of individual morality, human rights, and strong, limited government. But the range of issues addressed belies somewhat the caricature of conservative Christians as being involved in only a select number of social issues.

Qualifying its vigorous social commentary has been Christianity Today's belief that "a spiritual awakening and a turn to Judeo-Christian principles is the sole hope left to the Western world."19 "The nation needs regenerated people, and this is the business of `revivalism'; and it needs keepers of the Law of God, which is at the heart of a pietism that emphasizes ethical absolutes."'20 Here is a view of the church's essential social mandate that parallels early, socially active fundamentalism. The church collectively is not to work for politicoeconomic liberation as the Social Gospel movement argued, and as the World Council of Churches now believes, but first of all is to foster individual salvation and personal holiness.

Because all people do not respond to the preaching of the gospel and its concomitant call to discipleship, however, the gospel itself demands that Christians both encourage society to " `make serious and positive use of the social theories' of Jesus Christ and the Scriptures," and help society to heal social injustices by loving our neighbors as ourselves.21 Toward this end, the church must first of all proclaim to the world the Bible's perfect rule not only for faith but also for practice. State the editors, "Those who know and practice . . . truth must ever stand as guardians of what is essentially the Christian tradition, and call before the bar of human justice and public opinion those who traduce these truths of natural and special revelation."22

Active social reform (or involvement in the structures of society) will follow such proclamation, but it will be left by and large to concerned individuals.23 According to the editors, individual Christian involvement will include responsible public criticism of the errors of government (e. g., detente, price freezing, opposition to capital punishment, corrupt leadership, lack of low-rent housing) while remaining always orderly and loyal in the process. Christians, moreover, should seek specific legislation where appropriate (e. g., regulations of nursing homes, censorship of pornography, prohibition of state casinos), while encouraging non-governmental solutions whenever feasible (e. g., child abuse counseling centers, voluntary contributions to the arts).

In addition to fleshing out a Christian social theory, individual Christians must continue to participate in voluntary social programs of benevolence-inside the church and without. "Those of us who are Christians-and who, for the most part, live in wealthy and favored nations," writes the editor, "should deprive ourselves of our luxuries and surpluses and do all that we can to alleviate the worst suffering of our fellow humans."24

Christianity Today's advice to concerned individual Christians includes direct socio-political opinion and action, as well as a recognition of the need for generous benevolence. But though we work to remedy or alleviate certain temporal societal ills, the editors believe that social service and/or political change can never provide society's ultimate answer given human sin. For this reason, government should be severely restricted, beyond its necessary role in defense and citizens' rights protection. Government social programs are not the panacea: they usually end up hurting more than they help; they often lack proper controls; and they inevitably lead to fiscal irresponsibility. It is not big government, but Jesus Christ alone who "has a solution for the mess into which man has got himself."25

Nevertheless, though our political and economic system is imperfect, Christians can remain thankful for it. "As is often quoted our democracy is the worst system in history, except for every other one that has ever been tried," the editors declare.26 Similarly capitalism is viewed as being more just than socialism/Marxism (the two are equated). Though they want to criticize government for the sake of reforming it, the editors deny any need for basic societal restructuring.27 It was this basic trust in the American system which caused Christianity Today to accept the president's word concerning Watergate-until Cox's firing and the tapes- and to back the president concerning his role in Vietnam as late as May 1972:

Whether we approve or disapprove of the President's conduct of the war, we are going to have to live with what he has chosen to do .... However, the people will have their say in November.... Christians should stand by the President, even if they think his policy is mistaken. Every Christian should pray that what is being done will lead to peace and justice.28

The editors of Christianity Today have chosen to support the American political system, becoming a strong Christian political lobby within it. Qualifying this role, however, is a recognition that all governmental solutions are imperfect, and personal holiness and individual salvation remain our nation's only ultimate hope. The journal's social stance, therefore, has become an interim policy centering on benevolence, social critique, and limited social reform. Their position remains basically a conservative one within the social arena.

3. The Reformed Journal

The Reformed Journal is edited by a team who are all members of the Christian Reformed Church. Though its immediate constituency is narrow, the magazine's cogent-manner in addressing theology from an evangelical, Calvinist perspective has given it significant influence throughout evangelicalism and beyond. Although there is some variety in the editorial position reflected in the journal, the editorializing of theologian and social ethicist Lewis Smedes is perhaps representative.

While not downplaying the significance of evangelism, Smedes opposes the assumption which we have seen represented in Moody Monthly and Christianity Today that somehow "good men [i. e., Christians] will make good societies." Personal redemption is vital. Moreover, no society is going to be good without good people. But to make individual evangelism the priority for one's social ethics is naive according to Smedes.29 (Changed people don't always change laws.) Along with evangelism, the church needs to recognize life's corporate nature and to involve itself directly in social and political structures. Referring approvingly to Mark Hatfield's commencement address in 1970 at Fuller Seminary, Smedes states in an editorial:

Unless Christians recognize that structures can work iniquity as well as justice, they will wash their zeal in frustration as they try to reform American society by reforming individuals. ... the Christian must be aware that if he is to be effective, he too -- in his own, constructive but radical way . -- has to tend to the economic, political, and social structure.30

Social ethics means concrete "political" engagement for the Christian. Such structural involvement will be a complement to the church's task of evangelism.

Most conservative evangelicals have slowly and inconsistently recognized the need for such political involvement, usually in areas touching on individual sin -- pornography, corrupt politicians, sexual practices, drugs, abortion on demand, crime, and so forth. But systemic sin, according to Smedes, has more often and wrongfully been ignored. The large hardcore areas of social deprivation-the dislocations and hardships brought on people by shifts in economic and social patterns---are matters which a Christian social ethic must address.31 Why is it that civil rights are championed while economic rights are ignored?

Traditionally, the evangelical response to structural injustice in the socio-economic sector has been benevolence. While Smedes and the other editors of The Reformed Journal do not deny the need or desirability of Christian acts of compassion, they argue that structural violence demands social redress that goes beyond benevolence, being based first of all in the human rights of the victims. If it is right to seek political solutions in certain personal areas of life, why not in the whole range of life's experiences? Certainly Christ is the Lord of "all things." (Eph. 1:22)

It is at this point that Smedes becomes more cautious than other of his colleagues on The Reformed Journal's editorial staff. Though silence and noninvolvement on the one hand, or simple benevolence on the other, are not options for the church as it confronts society's crucial affairs, neither is an "unwarranted meddling."32 How is the Christian to distinguish what constitutes meddling? Smedes is not altogether clear. He tries to distinguish between the church's declarations of concrete, Biblically based moral principle (this is its rightful task) and its statements on political policy (this is the province of the government). The church speaks corporately, concretely, and constructively about public issues where moral dimensions are prominent, but it does not move beyond moral valuation to issue political directives. "The Church has to find its way between airy generalities and particular policies," Smedes writes. "It must speak with the authenticity of biblical principle without becoming innocently abstract. It must speak to the concreteness of the present situation without taking on the posture of a heavenly State Department."33

To give a concrete example of this distinction, in the July-August 1967 edition of The Reformed Journal Smedes stated his position forcefully that America's presence in Vietnam was immoral on Biblical grounds (cf. Moody Monthly and Christianity Today, which remained at least tacit supporters of government policy throughout the war). But unlike some of his socially liberal colleagues, Smedes refrained from advising Dean Rusk how he should end America's presence in the war.34 Smedes does not seem to be totally consistent at this point, however. In another editorial he argues that the church should promote such concrete programs as Social Security, Medicare, the Jobs Corps, and the massive attack on the intolerable slums of our great cities.35 These are concrete applications of Scripture's moral principles, viewed in light of contemporary social and economic reality.

Behind editor Smedes's call for the church to involve itself in the whole range of life's experiences, including the socio-political sector, is a strong notion of "social justice." Again, Smedes and his editorial associates diverge here from their more conservative colleagues. FCC Smedes, justice involves the right for all persons to share in the ; common goods.36 To be able to provide for your family, to live where you can afford a house, to have access to adequate health care and public accommodations, these are rights that all possess by reason of their God-appointed humanity. Government, as an agent of justice must therefore move beyond protection and deterrent functions to the ' active and creative promotion of human rights.

Smedes, like Calvin, understands the government to function as ( an agent of justice in a way analogous to the father in a family: "The father has to do more than keep the kids out of each other's hair. He has the task of providing for the welfare of each child and not as a matter of charity, but of right."37 Here then is the motivation for Smedes's social agenda -- a corporate, familial sense of human justice governmentally based.

Smedes is not a Pollyanna in his expectations for achieving social , justice; but neither is he fatalistic. The Reformed Journal editor recognizes that suffering will be the necessary style of the Christian's entire life.38 Just as God entered fully into history in the Christ-event, taking upon himself its pain, so Christians must commit themselves to the human situation, assuming its misery. To do this is neither uncreative morbidity nor neurotic self-flagellation. Instead, it is faithful obedience to Christ's agenda for transforming this world. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we discover that this battle for justice has been won. It is therefore with an eschatological hope that we act, remaining confident of the meaningfulness of our social agenda Writes Smedes:

Realistic, to be sure; we are not going to build the Kingdom of God. But despairing, never. We should have no illusions; the hope is centered on God and not on human programs for renewal. But it is a hope in God that makes human programs meaningful and responsible.39

Here then is a "reformist" social ethic in the tradition of Calvin himself. Stressing the endeavor for social justice as a complement to the task of evangelism, recognizing the inadequacy of benevolences to meet the challenge, and therefore seeking concrete, structural, political involvement based on a Biblically informed concept of "social justice," editor Smedes argues that the church's action will "find its way on the ridge between harmless generalities and divisive particularities."40 It will be sacrificial yet hopeful, realistic and engaged.

4. Sojourners

Sojourners (formerly called the Post American) gives voice to another opinion in evangelicalism concerning social ethics, one increasingly being felt by the wider community. First published in 1971 by a staff who were largely Trinity Evangelical Seminary students, the magazine has become increasingly clear in its orientation. Articulated by editor Jim Wallis in his book Agenda for Biblical People, as well as by editorials and articles by the staff, the Sojourners position reflects a Christian radicalism steeped in the Anabaptist tradition-one committed to rigorous discipleship, corporate life-style, and societal critique.

Central to the magazine's concern is its desire to explore fully the implications of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. For the editors, and for the intentional community within which they live, Jesus' life is politically axiomatic. They believe, therefore, that Jesus neither calls his people to a personal, individualistic salvation, nor to a life of secular commitment to social action and class struggle, but rather to a participation with him in the kingdom of God. It is Jesus who defines "the new order of the kingdom of God in the midst of the old order of this world," states Wallis.41 This new order is set against all secular orders, being based on repentance and issuing forth in sacrificial, obedient common life. Seeking separation from the world's power, the church derives its total orientation, including its positive social ethic, not "out of examples or out of the cases and circumstances," but only concretely from "the revelation of God in Jesus Christ."42 It is thus an imitatio Christi (an imitation of Christ in all things) which informs the Sojourners editorial position; it seeks "to accept the political example and style of Jesus."43

Seeking to live solely by the values and priorities of Jesus Christ :and his kingdom, desiring, that is, to be Christ's community of called-out people, the Sojourners staff and community have sought (a) to become post-American in their social critique, visibly protesting the systems of death in the world. They have understood (b) the key to God's action in history to be in the common life of his sojourning community. And they have recognized (c) the need to be in daily involvement with the poor, believing that the church's orientation within society must be informed by the powerless and dispossessed.

Sojourners is suspicious of, if not downright opposed to, all expressions of society based on political power and governmental institutions. Because all secular structures are demonically influenced, because all forms of power breed their own abuse of the poor and powerless, because the use of power not only invites, but demands, compromise with evil-Christians must distance themselves from the public political arena. But this is all right, for "the state is never intended to be an instrumentality for bringing in the new order."44, Conservative and liberal Christian political agendas are equally mistaken (The Reformed Journal and Christianity Today are equally in error). Neither a blind conformity to the American way of life nor a naive commitment to society's reconstitution by reforms of political power and institutionalism are adequate socio-political positions for the follower of Jesus. Social justice can only be achieved through a Biblically based response to the poor, hungry, and oppressed, centering on the counter ethic of the kingdom of God as realized in the called-out community. As coeditor Wes Michaelson states:

My experience [he was Mark Hatfield's chief legislative assistant for several years] is that when you get involved in the political order, you then are asked continually to compromise, relegate, reinterpret, or dismiss central New Testament teachings in order to preserve your own place within the order, or to preserve the government itself on the terms which it defines. To gain power within the system, I have to play according to its rules which are part of a fallen order, directly in contradiction to the kingdom that I have given my life to.45

Christians are to be post-American. They are sojourners, aliens in a strange land; their task is that of demythologizing and debunking all ideological idolatry (whether Marxism or capitalism, liberal democracy or conservatism).46.

Committed only to Jesus Christ and his kingdom, Christians must not only challenge the present church's socio-political involvement (whether reformist or conservative), they must also take as their first priority the rebuilding of the church. Here is Christ's kingdom made concrete. Here is the Christian's rightful "political" mission. To act in terms of the kingdom is to become a new order-a new community living out a common life together. Thus the strong economic and political critique of American and world-wide power is balanced in the pages of Sojourners by an increasingly strong commitment to a communitarian Christian life-style. "It is our belief," writes Wallis, "that authentic political existence requires an authentic personal and communal existence."47 The focus on community is not interpreted as an act of withdrawal from the "political" task or a substitution for involvement. It is instead the outworking of a basic understanding of Christ's kingdom as one that is a countersign to the established powers and structures. Just as Jesus rejected both the politics of the Sadducees and the revolutionary violence of the Zealots, so his followers must embody not with their weapons but with their lives a counter social ethic. "Change comes, we suspect," states Wallis, "more through the witness of creative and prophetic minorities who refuse to meet the system on its own terms but rather act out of an alternative social vision upon which they have based their lives. "48

Seeking society's transformation by embodying an alternate "political" structure-a new communal order based in the kingdom of God, the people of Sojourners have understood that the social location of their church must be alongside the poor and dispossessed. A comparison with Christianity Today can be instructive at this point. Christianity Today's board chairman, Harold Ockenga, announced in 1977 that that magazine would move to a suburb of Wheaton, Illinois because " `Deleterious things happen to attitudes if a person lives here"' in Washington, D.C., amid the moral decay of soaring liquor consumption and illegitimate births.49 Sojourners, on the other hand, recently chose to relocate its intentional community and editorial offices in the heart of that same capital district, amid the suffering and dispossessed. The church must be involved daily with the poor, Wallis believes, for the Christian community is called Biblically to look at the systems of the world through the eyes of their victims. Joined in community with the poor, the church can be a visible protest and confrontation with the forces of death at work in the world today. Committed to the urban neighborhood, Sojourners is involved not only in political organizing and lobbying, but in food cooperatives, day school tutoring programs, neighborhood recreational programs, and extended-family living situations. The Sojourners involvement mirrors its commitment to "stand outside" the system of power and to "stand alongside" those who are powerless.

Providing a radical critique of all political power and a living eschatological model of the coming kingdom, Sojourners has committed itself to a common life of servanthood alongside the poor as alternate mode of political effectiveness.

Some Questions Evangelicals Must Face

What sense can be made of the editorial policies of the journals described above? The spectrum of evangelical opinion concerning social ethics which these periodicals define could perhaps be sharpened by further explication of the positions of representative individual Christians. Even more radically conservative, though somewhat aligned with Moody Monthly's position, for example, is Rus Walton's. His bicentennial book One Nation Under God advocated generous benevolence by the rich to the poor, out of the overflow of their resources, stemming from the free enterprise system and made possible by our republican ("Christian") constitution.50 More radical in critique of America's unjust structures, but less willing than the current editors of Christianity Today for the church to become directly involved in social and political policy (only "in some emergency") been Carl F. H. Henry. Like the editors of The Reformed Jounal evangelical sociologist David O. Moberg has sought a better balance between personal evangelism and social action, and between Biblical principle and social reality (as understood by the social sciences)51 Finally, Senator Mark O. Hatfield could be mentioned as a strong ally of the Sojourners political stance of Christian protest and suffering servanthood, though his periodic desires to flee politics in order to work for the principles of the kingdom have so far been modified by his partial success in working to bring about God's justice within American political arena.52

If space allowed for further delineation of the social ethics of these representative evangelicals, it would prove illuminating. But whether evangelicalism is surveyed by an assessment of the editorial policies of its leading periodicals, or whether it is understood by reference to various of its leading spokespersons, the fact of evangelicalism's wide range of opinion in regard to social ethics cannot be gainsaid. It is this very breadth of current opinion that is perhaps the most important single characteristic defining contemporary evangelicalism's social stance.

While such diversity might be expected among Christian groups where pluralistic approaches to theological authority are knowingly taken, it is difficult to reconcile within a body which claims the Bible as its sole authorizing agent. The lack of consensus within the evangelical community in regard to a Christian social ethic suggests that there exists within evangelicalism an inability to translate a theoretical commitment to Biblical authority into practice. The problem, as in the previous chapters, is the lack of an adequate interpretive procedure for making the Bible truly authoritative within contemporary evangelical theology. Largely in opposition to their conscious desire, evangelicals have let other standards besides Scripture function authoritatively in their theological and ethical social formulations. In particular, they have found authorization for their social ethics in the distinct, but conflicting theological traditions in which their respective Christian communities reside. Given multiple communities, and thus multiple theological traditions, we discover multiple ethical formulations.

That contemporary evangelical ideas of social ethics are rooted in outside theological/ideological frameworks can perhaps be illustrated by comparing the four positions outlined above with that of California politics over the last twenty years. What we have in evangelical social ethics is a rough analogue of the ideological differences between Ronald Reagan (conservative), Richard Nixon (moderate), Pat Brown (liberal/reformist), and Jerry Brown (radical). Seen in this light, the differing formulations of social ethics within the evangelical community are highly predictable, as predictable as the clashing once was between Richard Nixon and Pat Brown. However, if evangelicals are to continue to be self-defined by their commitment to Biblical authority, their ongoing theological differences, though predictable, must be challenged. Evangelicals must be willing to work conscientiously toward a Biblically defined consensus regarding social ethics. Otherwise, a spade should be called a spade, and evangelicalism's Biblical position concerning authority should be modified.

An attempt at consensus-building regarding social ethics is one of contemporary evangelicalism's most critical tasks, but it will not prove an easy one to accomplish. For Scripture has within its pages "conservative," "moderate," "reformist," and "radical" thrusts. Its Biblical witness is not univocal. In framing a social ethic, it will always be, to some degree, a matter of interpreting, sifting, and choosing. Romans 13 (which sees government as God-ordained) and Revelation 13 (which sees government as demonic), exodus and captivity, the kingdom present and future, standards of equality and standards of need-all must be properly weighed. In this process, traditional interpretations can help, but they must not take on an exclusively authoritative status. If this is not to happen, or more accurately, perhaps, if this is not to continue, evangelicals need to recognize the problem and willingly engage in a therapeutic process of dialogue and joint formulation with fellow evangelicals from conflicting traditions. As Jim Wallis recognizes,

Would it not be better to honestly identify the real differences of opinion among us and begin a more open and fruitful dialogue that might aid us all in discerning the shape of biblical politics?53

 

Or as Judy Brown Hull states:

We should not be afraid to search out the extra-biblical authorities in our lives and to take the time with ourselves and with others to discover what else is operating to affect our "clear reading of the scriptures."54

1. What Do We Mean by Social Justice?

As evangelicals dialogue among themselves, they will discover that there is presently lacking in sections of their community a commitment to ground social ethics in a Biblically based understanding of "social justice." For example, of the four journals we have considered, only The Reformed Journal and Sojourners (those periodicals reflecting ethnic perspectives) commonly use the term. Too often, in that section of the evangelical community which stems from American revivalism and fundamentalism, discussion of social ethics passes over this foundational matter altogether, discussing instead only specific procedures. When "justice" is noted as the basis and goal of social ethics, it is all too often left undefined. More commonly, perhaps, when foundational matters are mentioned, they are reduced from "justice" to "compassion" alone.

Even David Moberg, for example (someone I have aligned with the perspective of The Reformed Journal), believes that the church's social task is best described using terms such as "social ministries, social obligations, social responsibility, social concern, social service, social welfare, or social action."55 What is conspicuously absent, both in this quotation and in the rest of his book on social ethics, is the phrase "social justice." His is typical of the majority of evangelical discussion on the topic. Rather than centering on the goal of a Christian social ethic (i. e., justice), the evangelical church has settled traditionally for a debate over tactics (i. e., the proper action, service, ministry, or concern), or has reduced matters of ethics to humanitarian service.

In fairness to evangelicals, they are not alone in their difficulty with the concept of "social justice." The term "justice" has proven historically difficult to pin down. Jacques Ellul and Emil Brunner, to mention but two writers on the topic, consider the term undefinable. 56 Thus it is somewhat understandable, though hardly excusable, that evangelical Foy Valentine never bothered to specify what "justice" means, when he declared at the 1973 Thanksgiving Workshop on Evangelicals and Social Concern: "Justice. Nothing so upsets us as injustice. Is not this a universal phenomenon? ... Justice simply has to be a major target for Christians concerned about social action." Valentine wrongly assumed, it seems, that the concept "justice" had a univocal meaning in society and in the church.57

In the absence of any concerted effort toward arriving at a univocal Biblically based definition of "justice," evangelicals have too often adopted certain working definitions from the American culture. These have been two in particular: "to each according to the person's merit or demerit" (the aristocratic) and "to each according to a standard of equality" (the democratic). Both definitions have limited usefulness, but both also are difficult to defend rationally or Biblically as the Christian's basic posture. Rationally, the aristocratic model suffers from the fact that it is justified only if each individual has an equal chance of achieving all the merit she or he is capable of. Competition being unequal, judgments based on its results are fallacious. Moreover, by what criterion is one to judge merit? Similarly, the democratic model proves inadequate. For whatever standard of arithmetical equality is selected (Aristotle chose "free birth"), it can be shown that such a norm exists only in a larger social context and thus participates in society's basic inequality. Such rational problems, however, are not the real issue for the evangelical church, important though they be. More serious for evangelicals is the fact that these two culturally derived models seem at odds with the Biblical witness concerning "social justice."

Rather than continue to use such culturally derived, and ultimately unsuccessful, definitions of "justice," the evangelical church must search out the Biblical norm. Here, the recent writings of the Reformed wing of evangelicalism, as well as those of "Anabaptist" writers, seem crucial. For a Biblical concept of justice has been the real concern of a few of these writers.58 Evidence is of course mixed, but the overwhelming thrust of Scripture's discussion of "social justice" suggests the following Biblical definition: "to each according to his or her needs " Rather than act on the basis of society's most common definitions of "social justice" those of merit or equality-the Christian seeking a Biblically derived social ethic must respond, first and foremost, on the basis of need. Such a judgment carries with it its own problems concerning definition, and it will be unacceptable on first reading to many within evangelicalism, for their traditions do not easily stretch to include such a notion as being that of "justice." At best this would seem a definition of "compassion," they would argue. But if the evidence from within Scripture is as strong as Biblical scholars are increasingly suggesting, evangelicals who wish to remain true to their self-defined norm of Biblical authority will need to consider closely such a definition, regardless.

Evidence to back up this notion of justice ("to each according to need") as Biblical comes from throughout Scripture. Although it is not the Bible's purpose to give a careful scientific definition of what our "needs" are, Scripture does repeatedly identify justice with assistance for the poor, the sick, and the powerless. Job states, for example:

I put on righteousness [sedaquh], and it clothed me;

my justice [mishpat] was like a robe and a turban

I was eyes to the blind,

and feet to the lame

I was a father to the poor,

and I searched out the cause of him

whom I did not know.

[Job 29:14--17]

Paul understands justice along similar lines in his second letter to the Corinthians:

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. As it is written,

"He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness
[justice]endures forever."

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness [justice].
[2 Cor. 9:8-10]

To buttress his point, Paul refers back to Psalm 112:9 where God's righteousness, his justice (sedaqah), is defined in terms of his assistance to the poor (cf. Pss. 103:6; 146:7-9). Similarly, our righteousness, our justice (dikaiosyne), is to be seen in terms of the abundance of our helpful deeds (our "every good work").

Such a concept of justice finds its full expression in the Christ-event. In the Magnificat, Mary sings in praise of him who will reverse the roles of the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong (Luke 1:46-53). Jesus similarly announces his mission as being that of releasing the captives and preaching good news to the poor (Luke 4:18-19). Similarly, he judges his true followers to be those who practice a style of living based on the needs of the poor (Matt. 25:34-35). God's great act of salvation is for the poor and needy. And it is this that Paul labels an expression of God's righteousness (dikaiosyne), i. e., justice (Rom. 1:16-17).

Support for such a notion of justice comes also from the Pentateuch where Israel's ancient laws (its sense of justice) protected the downtrodden and powerless, granting them special favor (Deut. 14: 28-29; Exod. 23:11). The prophets' indictment of Israel similarly centered on the fact that Israel had oppressed the poor and needy, ignoring the standards of justice which God had set up to protect these people (Zech. 7:9-10; Amos 5:7-15; Jer. 34:8-22).

Even where Scriptural evidence seems on first reading to contradict this bias toward the needy, closer inspection reveals that no real inconsistency exists. For example, the Law at times seems to set out as its standard a basic notion of equality. Leviticus 19:15 reads: "'You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor."' (See also Exod. 23:3; Deut. 25:1.) How does this correlate with "to each according to his or her need"? The answer lies in the basic difference between criminal (or retributive) justice and social (political and economic) justice. The needy are best protected by criminal justice being meted out impartially. Here is how God can best "judge . . . [his] people with righteousness, and ... [his] poor with justice." (Ps. 72:2) But with regard to social justice, the God of the Bible reveals himself to have a distinct bias in favor of the poor and helpless (cf. Deut 15:10; 1 Kings 1:53; Ps. 107:39-41). Jeremiah writes:

"Did not your father eat and drink

and do justice and righteousness?

Then it was well with him.

He judged the cause of the poor and needy;

then it was well.

Is this not to know me? says the LORD."

[Jer. 22:15-16; cf. Deut. 10:12-22]

2. "Love" Versus "Justice"?

"To each according to each's needs" is a common Christian standard. Similarly, action on behalf of the poor and needy is widely praised by the church. But what is disputed among evangelicals, despite Biblical evidence such as that given above, is whether such an approach to social involvement is to be put under the rubric of "compassion" or of "justice." There is, in other words, a dichotomizing of love and justice which is widespread in evangelical circles.

Carl Henry, in an editorial in Christianity Today, has expressed succinctly and forcefully the dichotomous view of much of evangelicalism:

Just as in his theological view of God the liberal dissolves righteousness into love, so in the political order he dilutes social justice into compassion. This kind of merger not only destroys the biblical view of God on the one hand but also produces the welfare state on the other. This confounding of justice and love confuses what God expects of government with what he expects of the Church, and makes the state an instrument for legislating partisan and sectarian ideals upon society. Ideally the purpose of the state is to preserve justice, not to implement benevolence.59

 

.Mark Hatfield, in his book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, similarly distinguishes between love and justice. He discusses the conflict within him as a Christian between the "purist" and the "apologist." He understands the "purist" to base his action on self-giving love. The "apologist," on the other hand, knows that institutions cannot be based on such a principle and that simple justice must instead be the motive. Hatfield tries, he says, to remain a "purist," even in his role as senator, though the "apologist" continues necessarily to manifest himself..60

Reflecting still a third perspective within evangelicalism, David Moberg in the second part of his book Inasmuch: Christian Social Responsibility in Twentieth Century America spells out the Scriptural basis for Christian social concern. Moberg concludes: "God's will in the area of social concern can be summarized under the one instruction to love. " What is conspicuously absent in his Biblical analysis is any call to the achievement of social justice. The only two mentions of the word "justice" in this section, in fact, occur in discussions of the Old Testament prophets. And even here, justice is separated from and subordinated to love as being that which prevents love's denial.61

Fourth, arguing from an understanding of justice, Rus Walton states:

Essential to the recognition of individual uniqueness is the recognition of the proper role of incentive and reward. He who works harder, and achieves more, and contributes more, is entitled to receive more. What he does with what he receives is up to him. 62

 

Here again, the loving response and the just action are distinct, separable entities.

Thus, in representatives from the moderate, radical, reformist, and conservative camps within evangelicalism, we find a similar dichotomizing of love and justice. Henry and Walton understand justice as the primary referent for a Christian's participation in society, while Moberg and Hatfield stress love. There are problems, it seems to me, with either alternative. To stress love as one's motive for involvement encourages an overvaluation of voluntaristic structures as the key to Christian social ethics, and ultimately aborts rigorous structural involvement in society. Moreover, it permits societal positions of superiority and inferiority to remain intact. Too often, evangelicals have argued their understanding of social responsibility from the perspective of the "haves," rather than the "have-nots." An assumption of the point of view of benevolent power, rather than that of unjust powerlessness, seems almost the necessary outcome for even the most well-intentioned concentration on love.

To concentrate on justice (at least as understood by Henry) overcomes the problems listed above, but it creates its own tensions. To limit Christians to serving society's institutions from a perspective of justice forces their responses of love into the interstitial spaces. Although love will always find a form of expression, such a procedure reduces love to the extracurricular, as it were. But what person nurtured in the Bible can be content with such a radical restriction of love's context?63

What then is the solution? If evangelicals are to escape this present tension between the proper valuation of "love" on the one hand and "justice" on the other, they must listen more openly to one another. For both an emphasis on love and an emphasis on justice have their foundations Biblically. What must be recognized is that a Biblically based social ethic will be built on neither "justice" nor "love" as viewed in isolation, but instead on "loving justice." The Biblical writers do not understand social ethics in terms of one or the other of these human values, but in terms of the nature and activity of God who demonstrated their interconnectedness and indissolubility. God's justice (his righteousness) and his love (his mercy) are not clearly distinguished in Scripture and never separable in fact. Although these qualities are not identical, they "infect" one another (cf. Isa. 11:5; Jer. 9:24; Hos. 2:19). To understand God's righteousness, suggests Paul Ramsey, is to recognize that it has been invaded by the "vocabulary of salvation."64

The Old Testament, for example, does not contrast God's justice and his saving love, but rather posits that because he is a righteous God, therefore he is also a faithful and merciful savior (cf. Isa. 11: 3-4). Thus Hosea writes (Hos. 10:12):

Sow for yourselves righteousness,

reap the fruit of steadfast love;

break up your fallow ground,

` for it is the time to seek the LORD,

that he may come and rain salvation upon you.

On the cross there is again this indistinguishable blending of God's justice and his love as God mercifully takes upon himself the just recompense due humanity. This loving center of God's righteousness is central to Paul's teaching about God, as Luther so forcefully discovered in meditating on Romans 1:16-17 (cf. Rom. 3:21-26). It is also central to a Biblical view of human justice. As with God, so his children are "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with ... God." (Micah 6:8)

Seen in this light, the dichotomy of love versus justice must be countered as a sub-Christian notion and dismissed. In its place, a Biblically informed system of social ethics based in loving justice must be formulated. A dialogue between evangelicals committed to "love" as the basis for a social ethic and those committed to "justice" as its basis can only speed the day when this is recognized. For open dialogue will show that each position has Biblical support and value while remaining incomplete as formulated. A recognition of the Biblical notion of "loving justice" as the basis for one's social ethic will help evangelicals actualize their corporate responsibilities while filling society's structures with a new humanity. It will also help them escape their history of well-intentioned paternalism and meet their fellow men and women as co-persons.

3. Are Human Beings Individual or Communal?

In a recent interview in Sojourners, Jim Wallis asked Carl Henry, "Are there inherent things in particular formulations of evangelical theology that are resistant to fundamental change in the social order?"65' In the paragraphs which follow, it becomes clear that behind Wallis's question is his belief that traditional evangelical thought has failed to deal with our fundamental human nature as social beings, choosing instead to center on the solitary individual vis-à-vis God. Ten years prior to Wa11is's question, Lewis Smedes expressed a similar concern in a response to Carl Henry's dialogue with Smedes in the pages of The Reformed Journal.

I have a notion that what separates Dr. Henry's thinking and mine is not so much a question of big or small government as such.... I think that where we differ, and where evangelicals ought to talk things. out at length, is in the area of the doctrine of man and his community. I think we are not agreed on the subject of justice and rights among men because we have a significant shading of difference in our theology concerning man.6666

Smedes goes on to characterize Henry's understanding of society's basic component as being the individual, rather than the various social spheres of family, church, and state.

The distinction that is being argued here is a complex one. Carl Henry, for example, was able to respond to Jim Wallis's characterization of the communal, over against the individual, nature of the gospel by saying that he agreed with Wallis's communal definition .67' But Henry's individualistic view of people within human society, while allowing for the community of the church, the importance of the family, and a limited function for the state, remains largely atomistic. It is this which explains many evangelicals' (including Henry's) basic apprehension concerning governmental involvement in economics and welfare. Most social involvement, Henry reasons, should be limited to the voluntary and/or contractual, being based in individual decision.

Such a commitment to individualism has a long history in the American evangelical church and has sometimes been overlooked by evangelicals in their discussions on involvement in the social arena. Timothy Smith's book Revivalism and Social Reform in MidNineteenth Century America, for example, argues persuasively that nineteenth-century evangelicals with their quest for moral perfection were at the forefront of the social battle, fighting against poverty, slum housing, racial intolerance, and inhuman working conditions.68 Smith's book has often been used by evangelicals to support their claim that they have been socially active. What is overlooked by Smith and his adherents in their discussion is the frontier orientation of most of these nineteenth-century revivalists, i. e., their Jacksonian individualism. As the changing socio-economic conditions of nineteenth-century urban, industrial America demanded of the church a reassessment of its understanding of people in society, it was the Social Gospel movement which arose to take seriously the reality of corporate sin and the need for corporate response. Unfortunately, such a social definition of human nature proved unacceptable to the evangelical majority, and thus the Social Gospel became increasingly alienated from the conservative church, finding its theological resting-place in more liberal circles. It was in this way that the modernist-fundamentalist controversy was born, not first of all over matters of Scriptural interpretation, but over matters of social reality. The legacy of that debate is still ours.

What is necessary, today, if we are to overcome the hostility and theological accretions that have been built up within and outside evangelicalism, is a fresh assessment of the Biblical doctrine of humanity. And here, as before, the increasingly felt influence in evangelical circles of Calvinist and Anabaptist traditions can be significant. Having largely escaped because of the ethnic flavor of their communities the influence of American individualism, as well as much of the modernist-fundamentalist acrimony, these segments (represented in our discussion by The Reformed Journal and by Sojourners) can lead the wider evangelical church back to a Biblical understanding of man/woman.

As they do, humanity's corporate nature will emerge. "Male and female created he them," states the writer of Genesis 1:27 (KJV). Here is the meaning of the image of God: relationship, co-humanity. Similarly, when Yahweh graciously covenanted, it was not with isolated souls but with a people. Again, Jesus incorporates those whom he saves into his body. And so the Biblical witness goes. Viewing the Biblical materials through an interpretive grid based in the individualism and voluntarism of American life, many evangelicals have been forced both to ignore the corporate witness of the Old Testament and to isolate certain individualistic thrusts within the New. An adequate evangelical social ethic will need to once again listen to the Biblical sources in their entirety regarding the nature of human beings.

4. How Should the Church Be Involved Politically?

In the preceding discussion, I have often grouped together the editorial positions of Sojourners and The Reformed Journal. But there is an important difference between these two viewpoints in evangelicalism which now must be explored. The issue is that of political strategy, and the right use of power to achieve it. What is the true shape of Biblical politics?

In an editorial entitled "What Does Washington [i. e., Sojourners] Have to Say to Grand Rapids [i. e., The Reformed Journal]?" Sojourners editor Jim Wallis characterized the disagreement from his perspective:

A rather persistent pattern of criticism has emerged against Sojourners from a group of people suggesting that our commitment to the building of community signals a withdrawal from the world, that we are more concerned with an "alternative lifestyle" than with social justice, and that we are apolitical, or not political enough, or at least not political in the right ways.69

 

Wallis disputes the charge of political irresponsibility by saying that he understands political involvement in different terms from his Reformed colleagues. A Biblical vision of social ethics must involve social, political, and economic realities to be sure. But these realities, for Wallis, must be viewed as standing under the judgment of an ethic of the kingdom. What this means concretely is that Christians must engage themselves in effective political critique on the one hand and in an alternate, community-based involvement with the poor on the other.

The church exists as a sojourner, an alien in a strange and godless land. Its political strategy must, therefore, take on the form of dissent and resistance; it must stand over against the prevalent structures and values of society. States Wallis, "The church of Jesus Christ is at war with the systems of the world, not detente, ceasefire, or peaceful coexistence, but at war."70 Acting on this belief, Wallis led his Sojourners community in over forty public actions during the first six months of 1977, protesting such issues as the use of torture, the proliferation of nuclear armaments, and the government's repressive housing policies. Second, the church must also be, in Wallis's words, a "sort of pilot project of a whole new order of things."71 It must create a new community as an alternative power structure, a local community whose common life is characterized by service to the needy and radical obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Christian's life is political in that it is to create a counter community which is more conducive to human life, justice, and freedom than those structures presently existing. Here, then, is one form of evangelical political understanding -- one reminiscent of earlier Anabaptist thought, emphasizing political critique and alternate communal modeling.

Such a political program has been opposed by those evangelicals of the Reformed tradition, because "for all of its political relevance and all of its political language, it is in the end an apolitical strategy rejecting power, and thus rejecting politics as well."72 While political critique and communal activity are advocated which have political consequences, any direct political involvement is shunned. For as Wes Michaelson states:

when you get involved in the political order, you then are asked continually to compromise, relegate, reinterpret, or dismiss central New Testament teachings in order to preserve your own place within the order, or to preserve the government itself on the terms which it defines. To gain power within the system, I have to play according to its rules which are part of a fallen order, directly in contradiction to the kingdom that I have given my life to.73

 

Those in the Reformed tradition see in Michaelson's apoliticalness an underlying fatalism that both denies the power of the risen Lord over all creation and undercuts love's effectiveness in action. In Christ, God is working for the renewal of his creation. Thus, if Christians are to imitate Christ (a favorite theme of Sojourners), they must carry forward that work of renewal in all spheres of life, including the political arena, even while recognizing the partial, imperfect nature of their efforts. While the positive results of past efforts have been limited, they have nevertheless been real. Christian activity has been responsible for introducing new concepts of social responsibility, while at the same time alleviating some of the suffering, injustice, and oppression caused by society. The Reformed Journal editor Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that as a Christian

One must engage in ameliorative politics, and to do so one must calculate what would bring success. How can one seriously preach judgment to the oppressors and not do what one can to relieve the oppressed? The fact that the politics of earth is not the harmony of heaven renders neither irrelevant nor illegitimate our engagement in that politics.74

Fundamental to this difference between Sojourners and The Reformed Journal over political involvement and strategy is a conflicting understanding of hermeneutics. And it is here, perhaps, that constructive theological dialogue can begin. For Wallis's ultimate rejection of a Realpolitik (working within the corrupt "political" system to effectively garner power for human ends) is based on his understanding of Jesus' servanthood (identifying with the poor and oppressed, but rejecting all solutions based on political power). But will such a hermeneutical approach to Scripture hold up under close scrutiny? Because Jesus did not fight Rome, for example, should the confessing Christians in Germany in World War II have remained nonpolitical as well? Surely not. As Wolterstorff recognizes, "the fact that Jesus never ran for political office does not become an objection to running for political office, any more than the fact that he never heard a piano concerto becomes an objection to listening to piano concertos."75

For those in the Reformed tradition, it is not a literalistic imitatio Christi, but a recognition of the ongoing validity of a doctrine of creation that provides the basis for a Christian social ethic. Christ's resurrection allows his people to view all of creation not from the perspective of its victims alone, but also from the viewpoint of Christ's victory. A belief in the renewal of the world is not the same as a commitment to a superficial doctrine of progress. The latter is based on human achievement, and flounders because of it. The former is based on God's activity, and finds both a certainty for its hope in the proleptic event of the resurrection and an ongoing witness in the Spirit's activity in the world.

5. Evangelism Versus Social Justice?

In the editorial positions described above there was a widespread recognition that both evangelism and social action are necessary. But the priorities assigned to each of these aspects of Christian mission differed markedly. There was the "conservative" position which declared that evangelism -- the conversion of individuals to Christ -- was primary, though Christians should also be compassionate in their social action. Here, evangelism was seen as the Christian's priority task, as well as the inevitable first step toward social concern. The "moderates" recognized that evangelism without the parallel call to discipleship was sub-Christian and an invitation to "cheap grace." Thus evangelism -- the announcement that Christ forgives and recreates -- should be put within the context of a costly obedience. The Great Commission and The Great Commandment belong together. However, as Billy Graham stated at Lausanne's International Congress on World Evangelization, while efforts at social justice are important, they are "not our priority mission."'76

The "reformists" altered the position of social action from that of a subset of, or consequence of, evangelism to that of an equal partner with evangelism in the mission task of the church. The conversion of individuals through the proclamation. of the good news and the political restructuring of society for the sake of greater social justice through Christian social action are joint priorities for the Christian. Finally, the "radical" evangelical position is suspicious of socio-political liberation as the task of the church, but mindful that the good news is corporate and addressed to the whole person. Thus, the primary mission of the church is the proclamation and building up of the church, that new society based in the kingdom of God where an alternate personal, economic, social, and spiritual life-style can be modeled. As John Yoder states, "the very existence of the church is her primary task."77

While not downplaying the importance of personal regeneration, the need for radical discipleship, or the call to the building-up of the church, I believe such emphases tend to obfuscate a genuine, Biblically centered social ethic. Only as the commitment to social justice is given "separate, but equal" status can it operate creatively in its full integrity. Such a concern that social justice receive equal billing in the church's missionary task is motivated by two factors-the Biblical and the pragmatic. On Biblical grounds, we note, for example, that Jesus' ministry is summarized in the Gospels in ways like the following: "And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people." (Matt. 4:23, my italics) (See also Matt. 9:35; 11:1-6; Luke 4:18-19.) Jesus' ministry included preaching and healing; it was a ministry to the whole person. Pragmatically, we must conclude that societal reconstruction based on a missionary agenda of evangelism and/or discipleship has never worked. Nor has the Anabaptist emphasis on the reconstruction of the church been effective in changing society. If, as Samuel Escobar claimed at Lausanne, "concern for the integrity of the Gospel ... motivates us to stress its social dimension," then social action must be understood as standing alongside evangelism if the church's agenda for mission is to be effectively enacted.78

Increasingly, such a concern for the salvation of the whole person is being voiced in evangelicalism. Richard Quebedeaux, in his book The Young Evangelicals, discusses the fact at some length, finding that certain campus-oriented ministries (Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and the Christian World Liberation Front) are particularly sensitive to the issue.79 Samuel Escobar, connected with the student population through his work in Latin America with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, perhaps provides the reason:

Many young people in Latin America, who were motivated by the Gospel to love their neighbor and be concerned for justice and freedom in their society, have often become Marxists simply because their churches did not provide biblical instruction about Christian discipleship, or because they [their churches] were blind to clear demands from the Bible and opportunities and challenges provided by new social situations.80

 

It is a partial failure in the task of evangelism and discipleship that has proved the catalyst for a reappraisal of campus-oriented mission. In the process some campus-related evangelicals have made a contribution to the entire church, helping to once again direct Christian mission along its two interrelated, but separate paths.

Conclusion

Evangelism and social justice, political power and the power of servanthood, the individual and the community, love and justice, these are the polarities that the evangelical church must address as it moves toward a Biblically informed consensus regarding social ethics. Evidence from the conflicting theological heritages of evangelicals can be rallied to support both sides of each pairing. But basic to each of these issues will be evangelicalism's ability to agree on a definition of "social justice" itself. What, therefore, is involved in this discussion is not merely the issue of ethics, but also of hermeneutics. How are the Biblical texts to be read, so as to allow Scripture to act authoritatively in the church's life and practice? This chapter has suggested an approach for answering that question, finding in the dialogue between competing traditions a resource for Biblical reanalysis.

Using such an approach, I have attempted to spell out the direction such a Biblically defined interpretation of social ethics might take. The Biblical record seems to indicate equal billing for evangelism and for efforts at social justice. If efforts at social justice are to be effective, we cannot shy away from political involvement in the structures of society. If the individual is perhaps the focus for efforts in evangelism, the person as communal is the rightful focus of the church's social ethic. While love and justice are separable concepts in theory, in fact they are made inseparable for the Christian by their mutuality and indissolubility in God's self-revelation. Although" equality" is certainly an important standard of retributive justice that Scripture holds up, an inspection of the Biblical text reveals that "need" is the true locus of God's notion of social justice.

Whether such an analysis as the one I have offered harbingers the direction an evangelical consensus will take depends ultimately on its faithfulness to the Biblical record. It also depends on the willingness of those within the evangelical church to reassess and reinterpret their cherished ethical positions in dialogue with fellow evangelicals whose differing theological traditions push them in new directions. Given evangelicalism's common loyalty to Jesus Christ as Lord and to Scripture as authoritative, such reevaluation is possible. The agenda is set; evangelicals must now begin the task of dialogue and consensus building.

 

Notes

1. Vernon Grounds, Evangelicalism and Social Responsibility (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1969), pp. 4-6.

2. David Moberg, The Great ReversaL Evangelism Versus Social Concern (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972), p. 41.

3. William Brenton Greene, Jr., "The Church and the Social Question," Princeton Theological Review, July 1912, pp. 377-398.

4. Billy Graham, World Aflame (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), pp. 172-173; John W. Montgomery, "Evangelical Social Responsibility" in Our Society in Turmoil, ed. Gary R. Collins (Carol Stream, Ill.: Creation House, 1971), p. 15; Robert D. Linder and Richard V. Pierard, Politics: A Case for Christian Action (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 127; Mark Hatfield, Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Waco: Word Books, 1976), p. 68; Sherwood Wirt, The Social Conscience of the Evangelical (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 154; Bill Bright, "Foreword" to Save America by H. Edward Rowe (Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1976), p. 13; Richard Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 99.

S. Billy Graham, Peace with God (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1953), p. 190.

6. Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947), pp. 10, 26, 68.

7. Graham, Peace with God, p. 190.

8. Montgomery, "Evangelical Social Responsibility," p. 15.

9. Carl F. H. Henry, "Strife Over Social Concerns: Sixth in the Series `Evangelicals in Search of Identity'," Christianity Today 20 (June 4, 1976):32.

10. Judy Brown Hull, "In Praise of Holding Together," Sojourners 6 (February 1977):35. '

11. Cf. Isaac Rottenberg, "The Shape of the Church's Social-Economic Witness," The Reformed Journal 27 (May 1977):16-21; Jim Wallis, "What Does Washington Have to Say to Grand Rapids?", Sojourn ers 6 (July 1977):3-4; Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, "How Does Grand Rapids Reply to Washington?", The Reformed Journal 27 (October 1977):10-14; Isaac Rottenberg, "Dimensions of the Kingdom: A Dialogue with `Sojourners'," The Reformed Journal 27 (November 1977):17-21.

12. Evangelicals share a common commitment to a personal experience with Christ as Lord and to the Bible as authoritative, but they are perhaps as diverse as Christendom itself as to their theological roots. Other prominent traditions include Lutherans, Pentecostals, and a rising number of Roman Catholics.

13. Quoted in "The Stand at Lausanne," Moody Monthly 74 (September 1974):21.

14. Howard Whaley, "The Church, the World Wars;" Moody Monthly 76 (October 1976):118-125.

15. George Sweeting, "We Need a Spiritual Awakening," Moody Monthly 72 (April 1972):20-21, 105.

16. George Sweeting, "America, Right or Wrong?" Moody Monthly 74 (August 1974):3.

17. Cf. "Church Flab and the Energy Crisis," Moody Monthly 74 (March 1974):20; "The Blessings of Not Having It So Good," Moody Monthly 75 (February 1975):19; "A Time to Give Thanks," Moody Monthly 73 (December 1973):21; "Problems: The People's Choice," Moody Monthly 75 (March 1975):21.

18. Carl F. H. Henry, "Evangelicals in the Social Struggle," Christianity Today 10 (October 8, 1965):3-I1; idem, Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964).

19. "How Did We Get There?", Christianity Today 17 (November 24, 1972):29.

20. "Watergate and Religion," Christianity Today 17 (August 31, 1973):28.

21. "The Marxist Never-Never-Land," Christianity Today 19 (December 20, 1974):20. Cf. "The WCC at Nairobi: Twenty-Seven Years Later," Christianity Today 19 (September 12, 1975):45.

22. "Some Things Are Always Wrong," Christianity Today 19 (March 12, 1976):38.

23. Cf. "A UN Seat for Christians?", Christianity Today 19 (November 8, 1974):29.

24. "Why Are People Starving?", Christianity Today 19 (October 25, 1974): 35. Cf. "Counting the Cost of Giving," Christianity Today 20 (January 30, 1976):21.

25. "Where Is Tomorrow's Food?", Christianity Today 18 (September 13, 1974):53.

26. "Provoking to Good Works," Christianity Today 1$ (December 21, 1973):23.

27. Cf. "The Place to Start," Christianity Today 18 (September 27, 1974): 3(-37, which denies Mark Hatfield's claim that "the present economic and political system of our society is unacceptable."

28. "Plain Talk on Viet Nam," Christianity Today 16 (May 26, 1972):27.

29. Lewis Smedes, "A Senator on Sin," The Reformed Journal 20 (July -- August 1970):4-5.

30. Ibid.

31. Cf. Lewis Smedes, "Pandering and Pornography," The Reformed Journal 20 (April 1969):5; Richard Mouw, "The Church and Social Specifics," The Reformed Journal 19 (July-August 1969):2-4.

32. Lewis Smedes, "Should the Church Speak on Political Issues?", Eternity, December 1967, p. 24.

33. Lewis Smedes, "Who Speaks for the Church, and How?", The Reformed Journal 17 (December 1967):6.

34. Lewis Smedes, "Comments on Vietnam;" The Reformed Journal 17 (July-August 1967):6-7. Fellow editor and faculty colleague James Daane is more willing than Smedes to directly address social and public policy. In a review of Sherwood Wirt's influential book The Social Conscience of an Evangelical in The Reformed Journal 18 (May-June 1968):19, Daane argues that churches can make specific social and political announcements for three reasons: (1) Protestants are not committed to belief in an infallible church and therefore can risk error. They do this in their preaching. Why not in their social involvement? (2) When individual Christians speak to public issues, Christ's church is identified with them. If individuals can nevertheless represent (and misrepresent) Christ in the public arena, why not the corporate church as well? (3) When individuals speak, they are willy-nilly acting corporately, for the Christian fellowship is one body. Doesn't the church have an equal right to that of individual Christians to make a corporate statement?

35. Lewis Smedes, "Where Do We Differ?", The Reformed Journal 16 (May-June 1966):10.

36. Ibid., p. 9.

37. Lewis Smedes, "The Evangelicals and the Social Question;" The Reformed Journal 16 (February 1966):12.

38. Lewis Smedes, "Suffering: The Christian Style of Life," The Reformed Journal 19 (February 1969):11-13.

39. Lewis Smedes, "A Modest Proposal to Reform the World," The Reformed Journal 21 (February 1971):14. .

40. Smedes, "Who Speaks for the Church, and How?", p. 7.

41. Jim Wallis, "The New Community," Post American 2 (September October 1973):1.

42. Jim Wallis, "Interview: Carl Henry on Evangelical Identity;" Sojourners 5 (April 1976):29.

43. Wallis, "What Does Washington Have to Say to Grand Rapids?", p. 4.

44. Wallis, "Interview: Carl Henry on Evangelical Identity," p. 30.

45. Ibid.

46. Cf. Jim Wallis, Agenda for Biblical People (New York: Harper 8c Row, 1976), p. 134.

47. Wallis, "What Does Washington Have to Say to Grand Rapids?", p. 4.

48. Jim Wallis, "The Move to Washington, D. C.;" Post American 4 (August-September 1975):4.

49. "Capital Flight," Newsweek, 7 February 1977, p. 77. Copyright 1977 by Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

50. Rus Walton, One Nation Under God (Washington, D. C.: Third Century Publishers, 1975).

51. David O. Moberg, Inasmuch: Christian Social Responsibility in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1965).

52. Mark Hatfield, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

53. Wallis, "What Does Washington Have to Say to Grand Rapids?", p. 4.

54. Hull, "In Praise of Holding Together," p. 35.

55. Moberg, Inasmuch, p. 98.

56. Jacques Elllul, The Theological Foundation of Law (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1960), p. 86; Emil Brunner, Justice and the Social Order (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945), p. 1; cf. James Booker, "Durrenmatt's Concept of Justice," Christian Scholars Review 6 (November 4, 1977):317-325.

57. Foy Valentine, "Engagement-The Christian's Agenda" in The Chicago Declaration, ed. Ronald Sider (Carol Stream, Ill.: Creation House, 1974), pp. 67-68.

58. Cf. Ron Sider, "Is God Really on the Side of the Poor?", Sojourners 6 (October 1977):11-14; Stephen Charles Mott, "Egalitarian Aspects of the Biblical Theory of Justice," Selected Papers of the American Society of Christian Ethics: 1978.

59. Henry, "Evangelicals in the Social Struggle," p. 6. '

60. Hatfield, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, pp. 131-150.

61. Moberg, Inasmuch, p. 39; cf. pp. 29-58.

62. Walton, One Nation Under God, p. 64.

63. Cf. Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950), pp. 2-3

64. Ibid., pp. 4-5.

65. Wallis, "Interview: Carl Henry on Evangelical Identity," p. 32.

66. Smedes, "Where Do We Differ?", p. 10.

67. Carl F. H. Henry, quoted in "Interview: Carl Henry on Evangelical Identity," p. 32.

68. Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-Nineteenth Century America (New York: Abingdon, 1957).

69. Wallis, "What Does Washington Have to Say to Grand Rapids?", p. 3.

70. Wallis, Agenda for Biblical People, p. 132.

71. Ibid., p. 102.

72. Paul B. Henry, "Love, Power and Justice," The Christian Century 94 (November 23, 1977):1089.

73. Wes Michaelson, quoted in "Interview: Carl Henry on Evangelical Identity," p. 30; cf. Wallis,

Agenda for Biblical People, p. 123.

74. Wolterstorff, "How Does Grand Rapids Reply to Washington?", p. 13.

75. Ibid.

76. Billy Graham, "Why Lausanne?", mimeographed address of July 16, 1974, p. 12, quoted in Ronald Sider, "Evangelism, Salvation and Social Justice: Definitions and Interrelationships," International Review of Mission 64 (July 1975):251-252. In the discussion of evangelism and social justice, I find myself in general agreement with Sider's formulations and have been influenced by them.

77. John Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 153.

78. Samuel Escobar, "Evangelism and Man's Search for Freedom, Justice and Fulfillment" in Let the Earth Hear His Voice, ed. J. D. Douglas (Minneapolis: WorldWide Publications, 1975), p. 311.

79. Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals, p. 97; cf. pp. 86-135.

80. Escobar, "Evangelism and Man's Search for Freedom, Justice and Fulfillment," p. 316.

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