If we are talking about something in the Christian world that we weren’t discussing last year, and if it has become the most important thing ever, then it is quite possible we’re caught up in a movement, which like every other fad, typically has a short shelf life. These fads are usually driven by sentimentalism and pandering for broader cultural acceptance. Such is the case with much of the conversation surrounding “social justice” in Christian ministry today.
When I attended seminary in the early 2000s, the major issues of the day were almost completely internal to Christianity and distinctly separate from the larger cultural struggles. We were introduced to N. T. Wright and the New Perspective on Paul. We were wrestling through the implications of the so-called “Federal Vision” theology. The issue before us had to do with justification by faith alone. We were talking about the covenants, grace, the gospel as the forgiveness of sins, and Christ’s active and passive obedience. As students, the ministry was all about how to reconcile people to God first and foremost through the preaching of Christ. We were being confronted with very serious theological challenges to how people are right with God.
Fast-forward fifteen years and the discussions have dramatically changed. The discussions are almost entirely driven by the larger cultural struggles of systemic racism, gender equality, social justice, intersectionality, all the questions that the university has made the issues of our day. The question is how this shift is changing the nature of pastoral ministry. What are the consequences of moving the emphasis from the vertical to the horizontal, making our reconciliation with one another the central issue of gospel ministry?
Loving our neighbor is without question to be the pursuit of every Christian. The problem arises, however, when much of the discussion is intricately tied to the larger cultural challenges with regard to race and gender. Many are borrowing from cultural assessments and remedies and inculcating these as answers into the gospel ministry.
For instance, important to any progress in racial reconciliation is the culture’s acceptance of the oppression narrative according to which the system is said to be inherently flawed in that it gives power to oppressors and denies it to the oppressed. As a solution, oppressed groups are supposed to find commonality and identity with others as they intersect in familiar places of oppression. Finding a common ground in oppression and victim status is the goal. The more people find intersecting identities as victims, the easier it will be (it is said) collectively to overturn all forms of systemic oppression.
The question is what the church is to do with this secular assessment. Many now, borrowing the culture’s secular ideological diagnosis, evaluate the church and her history the same way. As with the culture, now systemic church oppression is assumed. Church history and church structure are now under intense scrutiny since the “oppressors,” historically speaking, are those who held power.The same systemic problem must be present in the church. For there to be any genuine progress, it is argued, similar conclusions that are reached in the culture must follow for the church.
Though many in the culture see the solution to injustice through the overthrow of “the system” most in the church recognize that this would be an unbiblical conclusion. This leaves many social justice advocates confused over their end goal for the church since they have adopted this cultural narrative. For these erstwhile revolutionaries two things appear to be absolutely necessary for the moment: 1) exposure of those who are viewed as oppressors through this cultural lens; and 2) pursuing a massive campaign of awareness (being woke) to systemic oppression.
Genuine abuses should always be handled in a distinctively Christian manner according to God’s word but there is a distinctively Christian way of evaluating oppression and abuse that is often not shared by cultural assessments. When the world’s concerns become “the” pursuit of Christian ministry, it is important to think through the consequence of what is happening.
A brief survey of the current interest of churches, seminaries, and Christian organizations in their topics and conferences, demonstrates how things have radically shifted to the collective concern of oppression. Here we often see the out workings of intersectionality in the church. Oppressed groups are to come together at common points of intersection, join hands and stand up against all forms of perceived oppression.
Anyone who does not share in a particular victim group status is required to listen and sympathize. As the culture labors to empower the oppressed over “oppressors” who, in most cases, are those who hold a position of authority apart from being a member of some designated victim group, so the pursuit in the church should be the same.
None of this, of course, of this is a distinctively Christian way of solving abuse and oppression. That Jesus gave an entire parable exposing that the needy, when delivered, can easily become oppressors should provide us sufficient warning.
A certain man enjoyed the forgiveness of a great king, and then, after he was forgiven, went and became the biggest oppressor of all by throwing his hands around the neck of a lesser offender. So the application: We were oppressive to God himself by disregarding his law. He forgave our sins by the blood of his son. The gospel of the forgiveness of sins never produces a collective joining of hands against other brothers and sisters in the body of Christ who have offended us. Those forgiven will refuse to treat their brethren as the world treats its own.
Christopher J Gordon–Escondido, CA