by John Ellis
I wrote and posted this article on my previous blog a few months ago (October 2019). It’s a topic that continues to concern me. And it’s a topic that exists within a larger cultural framework that prioritizes this earthly kingdom’s concerns over that of the Eternal Kingdom’s concerns. During a long phone call with a dear friend today, my overarching concerns were brought again to the forefront of my mind and I was reminded of this article; I told him that I would repost it and then send it to him.
Much of our phone conversation was undergirded by my friend’s desire to help his local church better respond to and serve those living in poverty. However, the article below doesn’t articulate some of the more specific things that he and I discussed, even though I told him that it did. I realize now that I was conflating another phone call with this article.
Shortly after I originally published it, a family member called me. Although the specific circumstances differed, his reason for calling me was essentially the same foundational concern as those of my friend. Like my friend, this family member had the desire to learn ways in which he and his local church could better respond to and serve those living in poverty. After today’s phone call with my friend, rereading this current article, and reflecting on the phone call with my family member, I’ve concluded that I should write a companion piece.
This current article is concerned with presenting a Biblical and theological argument for why Believers and local churches should busy themselves with the work of mercy ministries and the pursuit of social justice. The follow up article, which I’ve already begun writing, will be concerned with boring into the details and helping fellow Believers replace some of the cultural nuts and bolts that have unfortunately connected contra-Biblical worldviews with their approach to ministry. This, in turn, will help clear away some of the societal brush preventing churches from implementing practical ministry steps in this area. So, without further ado, below is the original article:
“Only they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” Galatians 2:10
This morning, I woke up to a flurry of Tweets excoriating Beto O’Rourke for advocating that churches and religious universities that oppose same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exempt status. One tweet pushed back by asking something along the lines of, “What is Beto’s plan to replace all the homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and other charitable services offered by churches that would be shuttered by their loss of tax-exempt status?”
There is much truth embedded in that question. Christ’s Church has a noble history of social activism as she seeks to care for the poor and oppressed. Men like William Wilberforce dedicated much time and energy to combatting social injustices. Many of the great reform movements of the 19th century were spearheaded by devout Christians. Today, the pro-life movement is guided by women and men who are devoted to protecting the “least of these.” Throughout this country, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and adoption agencies are sponsored and supported by churches.
However, while we are quick to laud the social activism of our past brothers and sisters in Christ, we often fail to acknowledge that much of the opposition our faith heroes faced came from other professing Christians. For example, William and Catherine Booth, the founders of The Salvation Army, were expelled from their denomination because of their social activism. Shamefully, many supposed ministers of the gospel not only defended chattel slavery but promoted it as right and good. True, George Whitefield built an orphanage in Georgia, but he did so through the forced labor, sweat, and blood of slaves. And there is still a sizeable segment of conservative evangelicalism that spends an inordinate amount of time insisting that pursuits of justice and mercy ministries are not the gospel.
Sadly, I’ve heard distrust and even condemnation for those who connect social justice and activism to the gospel from the mouths of men and women I otherwise respect. The dogged political positions of many conservative evangelicals are often at odds with social justice and mercy ministries. Even as they drop bags of groceries off at soup kitchens, their rhetoric and voting record displays where their true priorities lie – defending their own rights at the expense of others.
This group, who, to be blunt, check off most of the same systematic theological boxes as I do, often accuse those who write or speak about the injustices of racism, sexual assault, and poverty as watering down the gospel or, worse, adding to the good news of Jesus Christ. At best, they insist, churches concerned about social justice are wasting resources on things that are not our mandated mission. Playing the sophist’s game of semantics, they demand caged in definitions of words like “justice” that apply in all times and all places without any concern for context.
At worst, those who seek to love and serve the “least among us” are accused of heresies like the Social Gospel. Never mind that rarely, if ever, do those who also identify as conservative evangelicals and who are the targets of online mobs over their desire to pursue justice say that feeding the poor is the gospel. As I scroll through the rancor and, frankly, slander of brothers and sisters in Christ, I often wonder how the heresy hunters respond to Paul’s statement recorded in Galatians 2:10. But we’ll get to the Apostle who penned a large chunk of the New Testament momentarily.
It’s true that before he ascended back to the Father, Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples. Likewise, it’s true that in Romans 10:14 Paul asks the rhetorical questions, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?”
So, yes, speaking the gospel of Jesus Christ is not only essential, it’s commanded by our King and affirmed throughout his Word. But two things can be true at once. It’s also true that being a citizen of the Kingdom comes with Kingdom ethics. The gospel produces the fruit of gospel living.
Most churches’ statement of faith includes something like, “the Bible is the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.” As a group, conservative evangelicals wholeheartedly affirm the sufficiency of Scripture to govern our conduct – our ethics.
Demonstrating this, we send representatives from our congregations to Washington D.C. every January to participate in the March for Life. We condemn things like transgender ideology and same-sex marriage. We preach against self-serving marriages that terminate in divorce. We take great pains to cull out the objectionable elements of profanity and sexuality from our entertainment. We encourage these ethics from our pulpits. In short, there are many areas of our lives in which we strive to live out our Kingdom’s ethics. Except, for many of us, it seems, when it comes to tackling things that have been categorized under social justice and mercy ministries.
For the record, I am adamantly opposed to abortion. I weep for those trapped and oppressed by the transgender lie. I believe that it is rebellion to attempt to define what God has already defined – namely, marriage. Likewise, I worry over the flippancy with which many of my fellow Image Bearers enter the covenant of marriage. And, I, too, think that prioritizing the pursuit of holiness over entertainment is an important part of our Kingdom’s ethics. I believe that the Bible clearly commands Christians to adhere to those ethics. However, it also hasn’t escaped my attention that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is chock full of commands to care for the oppressed and the poor. In His Word, God clearly reveals that pursuing justice is an important part of His ethics. In turn, this means that social justice and mercy ministries are to be an important part of the ethics of Christ’s Church.
Furthermore, and make no mistake, social justice and mercy ministries are not disconnected from the making of disciples. I’m an example of the inverse of that.
Even while an atheist, I read the Bible. In fact, I took a perverse pleasure in the realization that I inevitably knew more of the Bible than the Christians who shared the gospel with me. Engaging in apologetics for atheism, I would use the Bible as I tauntingly poked holes in Christianity. Most of the time, before making their retreat, the Believer would quietly tell me that I just needed more faith and that they would be praying for me. A few times, the individual would attempt to argue me into the Kingdom. That never ended well.
As much as I enjoyed attempting to shake the faith of well-meaning Christians, my Bible reading was more for my sake, though. It helped confirm in my mind that Christianity was a sham. Beyond just searching for more apparent contradictions, my Bible reading allowed my self-justifying smugness to build as I thought to myself, “At least I practice what I preach.”
Much of this was driven, in part, by experiences I’d had growing up in conservative Christianity. One of the more glaring examples that stood out in my mind happened one summer in college while I was working for a tree service company in Pensacola. The main climber, Hugh, was a gentle, kind man who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. He was also living below the poverty line. There were lunch breaks where he would sit with no food while happily conversing with the rest of the crew. His explanation for his lack of lunch was always the same – he wanted his two daughters to be able to eat something special for lunch that day. Doing so required pinching pennies elsewhere, as in, his own lunch.
We were all poor. The man we worked for, a professing Christian, was a greedy man who took advantage of his worker’s desperate need to not miss a paycheck. Rent was due. Food was required. Gas to get to work had to be purchased. In life under the poverty line, missing work to find a better job isn’t really an option. The loss of any pay carries with it the potential for disaster for those living in poverty.
Unlike the rest of the crew, I had a safety net. While my parents were not even close to being wealthy, I didn’t have to worry about food for my lunch or gas for my car. My opportunity to receive a college education was a luxury that my co-workers didn’t have. Having been raised in a specific privileged context, that summer was enlightening for me.
I didn’t work for that tree service company long, but during my time as an employee I had more than one conversation with Hugh about his need to find a better job. Several times, I cautioned him that our boss was taking advantage of him. Each time, Hugh would cheerfully respond that he was helping the boss build his business. One day, he would always assert, the boss would reward him.
Later, back at college, I heard that Hugh had fallen out of a tree and broken his back. The job was off the books. He had been doing a favor for the boss. For his part, since Hugh was no longer of any use to him, the boss promptly forgot all about Hugh, leaving him to deal with the consequences of the accident all on his own. Hugh fell through our nation’s sizeable cracks because he could no longer be exploited for financial gain.
Over the next year and half, my final three semesters at Bob Jones University, I thought about Hugh. As I began to find my footing on an intellectual and rhetorical foundation for atheism, I thought about Hugh. I thought about the rhetoric of men like Rush Limbaugh, who had risen to great prominence at that time, and his blatant defense of the rights of the wealthy with little to no regard for those who don’t really have a path forward in the system deceptively called the American Dream. I thought about the conversations I’d had with died-in-the-wool political conservatives who believed and promoted the concept of the self-made man as they laid the responsibility for poverty on those toiling under the scourge of economic lack. “In America,” I was told, “those who are willing to work hard will succeed. That’s one of the things that makes America the greatest nation on earth.”
For years, I had heard that with hard work anyone could succeed. For years, I had heard that those who struggled economically in this country had mostly themselves to blame. For years, I heard about all the flaws of the lower class; a tsk-tsking that didn’t even attempt to mask the judgmental tone and spirit. I had begun to see the world differently, though. The tragedy of my co-worker Hugh was one of the things that began to lay bare the awful deceit of much of what I had been taught about the American Dream and our responsibility to others (or, lack thereof).
As I began to pay attention to the suffering in the world around me, I realized that many of the ethics related to social justice that I had been taught were clearly contradicted by the Bible.
Sadly, though, in my rebellious mind, I was unable (unwilling) to separate the hypocrisy of professing Christians from actual Christianity. Taking the Bible’s apparent contradictions, ethical quandaries, and philosophical stumbling blocks, I combined them with the self-serving politics and ethics of many Christians I knew who apparently didn’t actually believe the “good parts” of the Bible. Doing so helped me solidify my rejection of my Creator.
It’s no hyperbole to claim that certain political and economic positions are integrated into Christianity in this country. That’s true now and it was true when I was growing up and it was true when I was a professed atheist. God and Country was the aesthetic and philosophical framework for the Christianity around me. Unfortunately, in many ways and instances, it still is. When I was an unbeliever, that framework actively worked against the gospel I was hearing.
If those who claim to believe the Bible give evidence with their life that they don’t actually believe it, why should I surrender my autonomy? Why should I submit to God when those telling me to submit only submit when, where, and how they choose?
Mercifully, in His great love, God broke my pride and brought me to the end of myself as my twenties came to a close. Through repentance of my sins and faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, I submitted myself to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Over the subsequent years, I have been asked on a fairly regular basis what happened to me. What was it that caused me to take such an extreme path away from my upbringing? People, often parents praying for openly rebellious teenagers or adult children, want to know what things pushed me so far to one extreme.
Obviously, my own rebellion is the overarching answer. Submitting to God was out of the question because I wanted to rule over my own life. That being acknowledged, though, the hypocrisy over racism and poverty that existed (and still does) across large swaths of conservative Christian America played a large role in my rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If you think about it, this is odd, because many conservative evangelicals preach the importance of maintaining a good testimony. And for good reason.
If your unbelieving neighbor knows that you are cheating on your wife, it’s not likely that he is going to listen to whatever you have to say about the gospel. If your co-workers know that you are deceitful in your business practices, they will most likely laugh at your attempts to convert them to Christianity. If your children know you to be a liar, what you say about Jesus will likely go in one ear and out the other.
The medium is the message, right?
While Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum fails to account for the work of the Holy Spirit in reference to the spread of Christ’s Kingdom, the quote’s truth still resonates when talking about the gospel. It’s true that since our sanctification will not be completed in this life, the medium will never be perfect when we share the gospel. But that reality doesn’t excuse dismissing the important role that living the Kingdom’s ethics plays in making disciples. And, make no mistake, how we respond to the injustices of society as it relates to things like racism and poverty is an important part of our King’s ethical expectations and commands.
Providing far more than a clue, the book of James tells us in black and white what the Kingdom’s ethics are regarding social justice.
As chapter 1 closes, the famous definition of true religion spills onto the page that, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27).”
Ironically, that verse often ties progressive Christianity and conservative Christianity together through their willful ignorance of parts of it. Progressive Christians have the tendency to gloss over the “keep oneself unstained from the world” bit. They are not my audience with this article, though, so I’ll simply point that out and move on to the neglect of “visit orphans and widows in their affliction” bit.
Like most literature, the Bible rarely says everything at once. It would be interpretative malfeasance to assume that with that verse James is limiting Christian ethics to visiting orphans and widows. In fact, ignoring the verse and chapter divisions that weren’t put there by James to begin with brings the reader directly to James’ command to not be a respecter of persons. In no uncertain terms, James condemns treating the poor differently than the rich. Moving forward, and building on that, James has much to say about how the well-to-do are to view and treat the impoverished. Later, he writes these sharp words of prophetic condemnation:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. James 5:1-5
Coming towards the end of the Bible, James’ words do not introduce a new theme to the Book. Read Amos. Pay attention to how God commanded His people to provide social safety nets for the poor in the Pentateuch – things like leaving gleanings for the poor to come collect. Do a word study and note how often God’s concern for the treatment of the poor and oppressed is put front and center by the Bible’s writers. And then come back to James and place all of that in the framework of James 2:14-26 when he warns us that “faith apart from works is dead.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ produces the fruit of gospel living. God’s Kingdom comes with Kingdom ethics. As the physical evidence of God’s expanding Kingdom, and as local embassies representing our King, local churches should provide opportunities and avenues for Believers to live out Kingdom ethics in matters of justice and mercy ministries. And this brings us back to Paul.
After defending his apostleship and the gospel that he preached by relating how he was given the stamp of approval by James, Peter, and John (although, Paul is quick to point out that his authority comes directly from Jesus and he didn’t need anyone else’s approval), Paul includes the statement, “Only [James, Peter, and John] asked us to remember the poor, the very things I was eager to do. (Galatians 2:10).”
Paul was intent on defending the gospel he preached; the purity of the gospel was at stake. The Galatians were threatened by those who were adding to and perverting that gospel. Sound familiar?
Yet, even with our contemporary familiarity with that question, a discontinuity exists: Paul didn’t find the pursuit of justice and mercy ministries a threat to the gospel. In fact, the three “pillars” of the fledgling church, to use Paul’s description of them, went so far as to insist that the preaching of the gospel must also include providing for the poor. In his commentary on Galatians, Philip Ryken makes clear that, “Helping the poor is not the gospel, but it is one necessary result of the gospel. … A gospel-preaching church does not forget the poor – especially suffering Christians around the world – but remembers to care for them. And when it came to the poor, the apostle Paul set a good example [emphasis added].”
Throughout history, Christ’s Church has often been a beacon of hope for the oppressed and suffering of this world. Realizing that the gospel demands gospel living, many Christians throughout the ages were the tip of the spear when it came to social justice. Shamefully, in our current context, many conservative evangelicals are rejecting the heritage of justice and mercy left us by brothers and sisters in Christ extending all the way back to the human writers of the Bible. The bickering over what is and what is not the gospel as it relates to social justice and mercy ministries often betray hearts that are clinging to the lie of Cain that they are not their brother’s keeper. For many evangelicals in America, their supposed right to store up riches in the here and now, James’ last days, trumps any calls to protect and serve the oppressed. That mindset is great sin. It is a wickedness that flies in the face of Paul who was desiring to work out his salvation with fear and trembling through obedience to the ethics of God’s Kingdom.
Churches that do not encourage nor provide opportunities for members to engage in social justice and mercy ministries are damaging the witness of the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to love and serve others, especially the oppressed.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Here’s a definition of justice as it relates to racism: being made in the Image of God brings with it the God given right to being treated with dignity and respect. Racism does the exact opposite. Hence, racism is injustice. Combatting racism fits snugly within God’s definition and expectations for His justice.
 Almost a decade and a half ago, I took a class on how poverty affects education. The class was part of my training for my work in an art’s integration program for title 1 schools. Many things about that class were eye-opening for me. One of the things that stood out for me was the realization that there is a difference between being poor and living in poverty. Poor is lack of money. Poverty is a cultural trap shaped by variables that individuals have next to no control over. My family, while poor, could not be categorized as living in poverty. My siblings and I knew that we had options. We knew that we had safety nets. We knew that our family’s financial situation didn’t determine our future. Though poor, our parents insisted on making sure that we ate fruits and veggies, got plenty of sleep, and had nearly unlimited access to books – our parents made choices for us that helped determine our abilities and that provided us tools to succeed in whatever career path we chose (within reason, of course – helping me become an NFL QB was outside my parents’ parenting abilities). By and large, though, kids living in poverty do not have options. They are raised in an environment that is a cycle of deprivation including a lack of a safety net and options. That cycle is also often shaped by varying degrees of violence around them. Unless an outside force intervenes, kids who grow up in poverty enter adulthood without the cognitive, emotional, and even physical tools necessary to break the cycle. Poverty is a trap that is next to impossible to pull yourself out of all on your own.
 As somewhat of an aside (I debated putting this in the main body of the article), this passage reminds me of my time working for a Home Depot in California. The store didn’t meet the profit margin that corporate believed was enough for that year. So, workers’ hours were cut. During an argument with my store manager about it, I asked what those who were depending on those hours to pay their rent and buy food were supposed to do. He responded by telling me that they can do a better job and earn a promotion to manager. Singling out a man who was kind, diligent in his work, and dependable but who I knew didn’t have the cognitive ability to be a manager, I asked, “What about so-and-so, can he ever become a manager?” The store manager immediately responded, “Of course, not! He doesn’t have the necessary management skills.” To sum up, this kind, hard working man’s life was made harder because stockholders’ returns weren’t high enough – more riches weren’t able to be stored up during these end times. What’s more, this kind, hard-working man was denied access to the economic game because, through no fault of his own, he lacked the requisite skills to ever be promoted to manager.
 Philip Ryken, Galatians (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 48.