Social Justice or the Great Commission?

Okay, this is a long one. Prepare yourself.

There are certain articles that can’t be summed up. So let me challenge you to read this as thoughtfully and carefully as it was written. Don’t knee jerk along the way. Read the whole article and then respond. In the words of Jesus, "Those who endure to the end shall be saved." (Okay, so I took that way out of context, but you get the idea.)

There’s a growing movement today in youth ministry that centers around what has come to be nicknamed "Social Justice". Much of the movement has its roots in an eschatological (doctrine of "future things") viewpoint which purports that Christians are called to "Christianize" the world on every level to prepare the way for the return of Christ. From Christianizing government, media, families, newspapers, to pretty much everyone and everything else. Believers who believe this think that it is our responsibility to change the world on every level so that Christ can come back and rule a world that is right and just. Now just to clarify, there are many who are into social justice today, not because they hold a certain end times view, but because they have a heart for the poor and oppressed. But regardless of that fact, the term social justice has its roots in a very specific eschatological belief system.

On the other side of the ledger are those Christians who believe that things are going to go from bad to worse in the end of days. They are convinced that when Christ returns to this world, he is not going to return to order but to disorder, not a Christianized world but a chaotic one. These believers are convinced that our mandate is to save everyone we can from, as the Bible puts it, "the coming destruction."

There are endless debates raging in Seminary hallways and the theological blogospere about which view is right and which view is wrong, but the purpose of this article is not to try to solve that brainy debate. The purpose of this article is to ask a simple question to youth leaders … which should we be focusing on: social justice or the Great Commission? In other words, which is more important – feeding the poor or saving a soul? Now before you accuse me of positing a false dichotomy, please hear me out.

First, I want to make something crystal clear, I truly believe that we as Christians are called to make a difference on every level. Unlike many white bread, Ivy League bloggers who wax eloquent about things they know not, I was raised by a single mom in a tough neighborhood without a lot of money. I never knew my dad. He and my mom were never married. When he found out she was pregnant he skipped town. My mom almost had an illegal abortion (it was before Roe v. Wade) but decided to bring me into the world instead. She scrapped and scraped to feed my brother and me. She raised us in, shall we say, financially depleted conditions. Suffice it to say that I speak from experience when it comes to the whole poverty issue.

Maybe it’s because of my background that I have a heart for the poor. As a matter of fact last year at Dare 2 Share we had the privilege of collecting over 100 tons of canned food to feed the poor in cities across the nation. This school year we hope to collect even more than that! One of my personal goals is to go way beyond collecting tons of canned food in every city that we travel to, and raise awareness in each city on the poverty issues facing their communities. I truly believe that if cities can rally around feeding the poor they will be better for it. There’s something about generosity that changes a person and a city at its core.

Secondly, having said all of this I’m convinced that the last and lasting mandate of Jesus must prevail at the end of the day. Jesus’ final words on planet earth didn’t center around feeding the poor or transforming cities from the outside in. He told his closest followers to "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." In his final words he didn’t utter a peep about feeding the poor, Christianizing government or bringing social justice to planet earth.

Why? Simple, because our primary objective is to "make disciples of all nations". This means that #1 item on every Christian’s agenda should be the salvation of lost souls. We must, as the old hymn compels us, "rescue the perishing."

But before you write me off as a heartless fundamentalist, I do believe that, while it is not our primary mandate to make the world a better place by feeding the poor, it must be way up high on our "to do list." It was for Jesus and the disciples. Jesus and the twelve carried a money bag with them to feed the poor. While Jesus’ purpose according to Luke 19:10 was to "seek and save that which was lost" – so he fed the poor, healed the sick and touched the hurting along the way. Even the apostle Paul (who has also been accused by some of being a heartless fundamentalist) made feeding the poor a high priority. I love this passage in Galatians:

"And the leaders of the church had nothing to add to what I was preaching. (By the way, their reputation as great leaders made no difference to me, for God has no favorites.) Instead, they saw that God had given me the responsibility of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as he had given Peter the responsibility of preaching to the Jews. For the same God who worked through Peter as the apostle to the Jews also worked through me as the apostle to the Gentiles. In fact, James, Peter, and John, who were known as pillars of the church, recognized the gift God had given me, and they accepted Barnabas and me as their co-workers. They encouraged us to keep preaching to the Gentiles, while they continued their work with the Jews. Their only suggestion was that we keep on helping the poor, which I have always been eager to do." Galatians 2:6-10

One of the reasons I like this passage so much is because it seems to give us the order of priority we are to follow. Like Paul, our primary responsibility is to preach the gospel. But also, like Paul, we have a legitimate duty to help the poor and hurting. We should be eager to do that very thing.

So enough of the either/or debate. We are to do the Great Commission and feed the poor (I choose not to call it "social justice" because of the eschatological implications. My goal is to stay "neutral" when it comes to a strong eschatological stance other than to focus on the one thing that we all agree on … Jesus is coming back someday and we must all be ready for it). We are to preach the gospel and change the world … in that order. Our primary mandate is to "make disciples of all nations" and way up high on our “to do” list should be to help those who are less fortunate.
Now I know there are folks out there who are thinking something along the lines of “wait a minute, Jesus told us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength – and to love our neighbors as ourselves ... so how does the priority of the Great Commission fit in?”

Simple. The most loving thing we can do for God and others is to share the gospel. We show God that we love Him by obeying His command to go and make disciples, and we show our love for our neighbors first by telling them the good news.

What does all this mean for you? If you are totally into feeding the poor (a good thing) don’t forget to share the good news of the gospel in the process (the most important thing). And if you are totally into evangelism don’t forget the very thing we should be eager to do, feeding the poor. We aren’t here just to preach the gospel, and we aren’t here just to feed the poor. We are here to do both.

As a matter of fact I think that one "feeds" the other. The gospel is such good news that we should want to share it and everything with everyone we can. When we realize how much Jesus loves us we want to give the Bread of Life and Wonderbread sandwiches away. I remember when on June 23, 1974, I trusted in Jesus as my Savior everything was better. Food tasted better. My insignificant little life felt truly significant for the first time. The joy of Christ overwhelmed me so much that I couldn’t help but share, not just my food, but the gospel of Jesus with less fortunate bodies and souls.

So back to my original question: Which should we be focusing on: social justice or the Great Commission?

The answer is … YES! We focus primarily on the Great Commission, and as a result of that comes a heart and a responsibility to feed the poor and help the oppressed. When you really think about it, what’s to argue?
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Greg Stier is the President and Founder of Dare 2 Share Ministries in Arvada, Colo., where he works with youth leaders and students, equipping them to be effective in sharing the gospel. Dare 2 Share has impacted the lives of more than 250,000 teenagers across the country. With experience as a senior teaching pastor and in youth ministry for almost 20 years, he has a reputation of knowing and relating to today’s teens. Greg is widely viewed as an authority and expert teen spirituality. He is known for motivating, mobilizing and equipping teens for positive change. For more information on Dare 2 Share Ministries and the GameDay youth conference tour for 2006/07, please visit www.dare2share.org.