Debate: Is Social Justice Essential to Church's Mission?

Two evangelical heavyweights went toe-to-toe in a theological debate Thursday evening, presenting both sides of the question as to whether social justice is an essential part of the mission of the church.

Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners, took the “yes” position, while Dr. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, took the “no” viewpoint.

The debate took place at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, Ill., a northern suburb of Chicago. The discussion was held at the Henry Center for Theological Understanding, as part of the school’s Trinity Debates forum, and streamed live on the Internet.

Wallis stressed the importance of churches getting involved with social justice issues while Mohler said the Christian Church, as a whole, will be involved in social justice issues more as the result of its members becoming disciples of Jesus.

Although the debate never really turned into a heated exchange, the discussion also became an exercise in attempting to define the Gospel and its relation to social justice.

Wallis published a post-debate reflection on the Sojourners website Friday.

“If the atonement-only gospel churches in the America – like my Plymouth Brethren and his Southern Baptist – were on the wrong side of both the Civil Rights movement and are still generally not involved in issues of justice, maybe something is wrong with their theology and not just their practice,” Wallis stated.

“The same was true in white South African churches that also had an atonement-only definition of the gospel. They, too, were on the wrong side of justice and were the bulwarks of the apartheid regime, completely opposed to Christian leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, just as white evangelicals in America were opposed to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he continued.

“Conversely, churches that have been on the side of justice, such as black churches both in the United States and South Africa, were always the ones to say that justice was integral to the meaning of the gospel and not just an implication of it. That should tell us something,” he posted.

“If justice is only an implication, it can easily become optional and, especially in privileged churches, non-existent,” according to Wallis.

North American evangelicals have seen a revival of interest in social justice issues, Trinity officials stated. Wallis’ view lines up more with “a growing sentiment among many today that Jesus preached ‘good news to the poor,’ and was indeed among the poor and marginalized. Therefore, this viewpoint should renew the church’s understanding of the Gospel and its mission, according to Trinity.

Mohler said during the debate that the question of whether social justice is an essential part of the mission of the church is a dangerous question to answer without a careful definition of terms.

Trinity outlined the “no” position held by Mohler and others as being one that has a critical eye for a transforming “blueprint and vision of ecclesial ministry.”

“This blueprint conjures up concerns about 20th century liberal Protestantism and a watering down of the gospel’s message of salvation. The defining mission of the church, for them, continues to be the sharing of the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ to all nations, generations, and social classes. The issue of social justice, though important, is not to be considered as an essential part of the mission of the church,” Trinity stated in a precursor to the debate.

“We need a larger theological frame than merely saying ‘this is a good thing to do,’” Mohler said during his first segment of the debate. “The larger theological frame is that God is glorified when His fallen creation is to any degree rectified … that is drawn into a closer alignment with His own justice, His own righteousness, His own attributes.”

“We should celebrate every good thing that is done in Christ’s name,” he continued. “Christ’s people must be agents of human flourishing precisely because flourishing was God’s intention for His human creatures in Creation.”

Master of Theology student Tyler Whittman watched the debate and told The Christian Post that both participants went beyond the “well framed” question and eventually dug deeper to the heart of the issue.

“We will be clear about the church's mission only if we're clear about the Gospel that defines the church. Justice – God's justice – is indispensable for followers of Christ,” said Whittman, who attends Southern Seminary. “The weightier question over the relationship between social justice and the Gospel is a bit more complicated.”

“The primary difference of opinion here is part of a larger discussion among evangelicals right now about what the Gospel is,” he said. “Some people believe that the Gospel includes ‘social justice’ and others believe that Kingdom work is part of what it means to be a disciple, while the Gospel is something more fundamental.”

“The primary disagreement is over the precise definition of the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Whittman explained.

Trinity's Dr. Chris Firestone moderated the debate.

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