In 1891 Christian activist Richard Ely, together with Reverend William D. P. Bliss, organized and launched the Christian Social Union of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Ely, as publisher of the union’s national periodical, was the most visible leader for what would eventually be called the “Christian sociology” movement.
An especially gifted reformer, Ely held as his core conviction that the kingdom of Heaven was Jesus’ utopian standard which could – thanks to the advancements of sociology – finally be realized through the judicious application of state policies. “The mission of Christianity,” he writes in Social Aspects of Christianity, is “to bring to pass here [on earth] a kingdom of righteousness.” He apodictically concludes, “God works through the State in carrying out His purposes more universally than through any other institution.”
Ely’s legacy is most apparent when we compare his ideology with today’s social justice gospel. His confidence in the power of the state over and above the power of the church to accomplish God’s will is, apparently, shared by more and more influential Christian leaders. A credo now advanced and popularized by the North American CDF Convention (NACC) and The Solomon Foundation’s Christian Standard.
One need not rehearse the countless biblical references, establishing the centrality of the church, to recognize how palpably untrue and dangerous this interpretation is. Suffice to say, Ely’s dogmatic mythology would, by necessity, defenestrate the entire book of Ephesians from the Bible, including Ephesians 1:22: “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”
In other words, the mission of the church is to bring all things under the authority of Jesus Christ, making the church – not the state – God’s preeminent institution for carrying out His purposes in the universe.
This, then, is yet another juncture where the sinews of our doctrinal framework are being tested.
Increasingly, churches and their pastors are surrendering to the zeitgeist of social justice Christianity – a vague notion that no church mission statement (at least churches of a certain type) can do without. Church-plants, especially, simply can’t exist without, somewhere on their website, making some reference to the fact they’re fighting for social justice. Take, for example, CDF board member/employee/church-planter Kevin Haah’s parish church-planting philosophy:
“We see a heart of God that cries out for the city and a city that needs more inclusive gospel-centered churches that loves their neighbors through mercy and social justice.”
These, ostensibly, RM church-plants claim that the social justice ideology sits at the center of Jesus’ mission, yet rarely do any of them go on to explain what it means. Social justice is not just the application of a handful of simple instructions given by Jesus at the sermon on the mount. No, it is a deeply doctrinal set of assumptions that most practitioners of social justice refuse to discuss. Furthermore, there is a not-so-subtle implication that any push back against social justice is a push back on love and faith, itself. They simply will not acknowledge that there is any credible argument underneath the dissent.
Meanwhile, what no one seems to notice, when you listen carefully, is the intention of these reformers to smash the wall between church and state. Next year’s NACC presenter, Danielle Strickland, seeks to make her congregation (and yours) the sacramental agent for transubstantiating state objectives into divine responsibilities. She invites all Christians to join the Social Justice Revolution, describing her work as:
“when we challenged legislative justice by changing laws, establishing trade unions, legislating the equality of women and redistributing wealth. And once you have those things, this is what it means to have ‘shalom,’ to have God’s kingdom come . . . to be at work loving Jesus loving justice” . . . “Social injustice on the earth exists,” she scolds, “not because God is unloving, but because God’s children refuse to share.”
Strickland’s “Shalom” doctrine promotes a vision of Jesus as history’s preeminent philanthropist and teaches, as an interesting corollary, that socio-economic injustices must be addressed as a precursor to encountering the coming of God’s kingdom.
CDF employee, Greg Nettle, reinforces that doctrinal belief here as he talks about the primary need of the church to release children from economic injustice around the world because children “can’t even begin to think about Jesus because of all the poverty” they face.
Here the Christian Standard offers up its own version of the same sentiment with LOVEtheLOU’s more formalized “demonstration before declaration” principle, used by church planter, Lucas Rouggly. And through the power of carefully curated narrative, Publisher Jerry Harris, once again, presumes to tell church leaders that we should all live and operate a certain way because social science tells us we must. To be sure, any perceived indifference to the plight of the “have-nots” is denounced as a sign of dead faith, far and wide:
“I saw article after article listing St. Louis as one of the worst places to live,” Lucas says. “And at the same time, I saw articles about where the most churches per capita were. And they are right here . . . in St. Louis. That was the thing that broke my heart. It means the church has lost her voice in St. Louis.”
Therefore, using community health and wealth statistics as metrics for determining church effectiveness, LOVEtheLOU reduces its spiritual focus to more, shall we say, material aspirations by:
- Paying youth ($40 per Saturday) to participate in youth mentoring programs
- Providing business development and oversight
- Providing affordable housing
Disturbingly, LOVEtheLOU – operating from a shallow pool of doctrine – presents an anodyne version of Christianity which omits any overt recognition of Jesus Christ:
“What if we don’t even say the name Jesus on our website and just say love?” Rouggly asks triumphantly.
“If you are looking for a Christian mission whose website proclaims the gospel, speaks about Jesus” . . . “you won’t find it at LOVEtheLOU.com,” praises the Christian Standard.
In fact, in a recent FOX affiliate television interview of LOVEtheLOU’s staff, its director – after multiple opportunities – fails to make even a single reference to God, Jesus Christ, Christianity, or the church.
Ironically, the CS’s spotlight of this ministry ends with a scriptural plea to “let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” But if Jesus is never openly acknowledged – if He is confined to the shadows – how, exactly, will anyone know to whom the glory belongs? It seems to me that all this do-goodery without any public association with Jesus Christ is the very definition of lighting a lamp and hiding it under a bowl.
Jesus, not good works, is the lamp. Good works are the beams of light emanating from the lamp. Good works are only good because they demonstrate the virtues of the lamp. And it is the job of the church to place that lamp in society’s most elevated positions of visibility. If Jesus Christ is hidden, the works cease to be good, and the church fails. Which is to say, the CS unwittingly indicts the very ministry it attempts to endorse, by highlighting the obvious contradiction between how the ministry operates and its own scriptural raison d’être.
The point is, whenever you hear a Christian speaker using words and phrases like “equality,” “the have-nots,” or “intolerance” it’s a tip-off – warning bells – that we are about to forfeit our most effective spiritual weapons, not to mention our most important biblical truths. And the exegesis will be of a special kind – a sort that obscures all specifics that run counter to the noble vision of the social justice activists. As exemplified above, social justice warriors leverage cultural contexts and worldly influences to craft their theology and interpret Scripture. They never allow Scripture to speak for itself.
These self-styled Kingdom-entrepreneurs, are little more than modern day priests of Statolatry. Harris, Strickland and the rest, call all Christians into a kind of idolatry that filters the Word of God through the lens of political agendas; elevates the government above the church as the unchallengeable and irreproachable steward of every human being; and positions the state to take God’s place as dispenser of all good things – and those good things, however defined, usually involve men with guns, courts, judges, prosecutors and the like – all of whom are powered by the state.
This emerging, conventional wisdom is a gross inversion of the truth found in Ephesians, which directs the church away from weapons of legal or physical force, and toward such eternal things as truth (elsewhere mentioned as sound doctrine), faith, and the Word of God.
This, then, is the key difference: the social justice gospel is an imposition of faith in compliance with judicial fiat; the gospel of Jesus Christ is an invitation to faith in relationship with a loving God. The New Testament church was not commissioned to address world poverty, wealth redistribution, homelessness, LGBTQ discrimination, or racial injustices – it was commissioned to glorify Jesus Christ in open public by bringing all men, and all those things, under His authority. Do that, and the Kingdom you seek will begin to unfold.
Terry Sweany serves as Senior Minister of Playa Christian Church. He received his Bachelor’s in Christian Ministry from Cincinnati Christian University and a Master’s in Marriage, Family, & Child Counseling from Hope International University. He and his wife, Patty, reside in West Los Angeles.