The Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has announced a debate later this fall between Jim Wallis and Al Mohler. They’ll take opposing positions on the question, “Is Social Justice an Essential Part of the Mission of the Church?” The debate is slated for October 27, 2011 at 7:00 pm, and you can find more details at the Henry Center website. This is a really important question the answer to which really turns on some important definitions.
I would take the “yes” or the “no” position depending on how you define social justice and church. If by social justice you mean what Wallis usually means, something along the lines of redistribution of material wealth by government coercion, then I would take the negative. If you also mean the church to refer to the church as an institution, then again, I would take the negative, particularly if by social justice you mean a political program to engineer a state of affairs in which all have equal shares.
But if by social justice you mean a state of affairs in which each is rendered what is due by the appropriate parties, then the church does have a role to play (even if it is not a primary or “essential” part of the church’s mission). In the sense of the institutional church, it seems that the role is to pursue its primary responsibilities of proclaiming the Gospel in Word and Sacrament and exercising church discipline. That’s the way in which the institutional church promotes social justice, by doing its appointed task as part of the variegated social order. It would be hard to say in that regard that social justice is an essential part of the institutional church’s mission. It would rather be more like a secondary consequence or effect.
If we consider the church as an organism, however, consisting of all the individual members in their particular callings and offices, then promoting social justice becomes more clearly central. Promoting social justice would presumably be more consciously central for some callings than for others, at least in terms of the legal and political rules of the game. But each member of the congregation is called to manifest justice in their own dealings with others. They are, in fact, called to grow in the virtue of justice as an individual Christian.
What I’ve found, though, is that progressive and transformationalist Christians are often very quick to dismiss the kinds of distinctions I’m talking about here, and pursue in rather simplistic and straightforward way the pursuit of their vision of the right social order. Questions about the limits of the institutional church’s authority and responsibility are of little interest; whatever authority or structure that can be used must be pressed into service in promoting social justice. Nevermind if doing so in fact undermines rather than promotes a truly just society. This is why in my book Ecumenical Babel I note that the distinction between church as institution and church as organism is so important for reform and renewal of the church’s social witness.
In this regard, the exchange between Calvin Seminary professor Calvin Van Reken and denominational leader Peter Vander Meulen is instructive. In examining this exchange, you see Van Reken make precisely the kinds of distinctions I endorse here in addressing the question of “The Church’s Role and Social Justice.” You also see Vander Meulen run roughshod over such nuance in “The Church and Social Justice.” Van Reken’s essay on “The Mission of a Local Church,” wherein he identifies the ministries of “mercy,” as they are sometimes called to be a secondary calling of the church, is also helpful.
I should add that to the extent the institutional church has a role in promoting social justice directly in material terms, it follows that there are particular responsibilities that adhere to different offices. In this case, the role of the deacon would be that which has primary responsibility (rather than say the preaching pastor or teaching elder).