My spiritual birthplace was in a tiny Southern Baptist church in rural northwest Missouri. In the evangelical ethos of that time and place, spiritual maturity was defined in private terms. Confess Christ, get baptized, join a (cooperating Southern Baptist) church, avoid nasty sins (you know the ones I’m talking about), pray, read your Bible, tithe. And, oh yes, just prior to bi-annual revival meetings, be sure to verbally share your faith and invite others to church.
Certainly, elements of all the above contributed to my faith formation. But were they enough? I don’t think so. They were necessary but not sufficient. They emphasized a private piety that missed the communal nature of following Jesus.
Over the years, I have come to believe there is more to the Christian journey. The gospel is much more robust and this-worldly than I at first imagined. God’s shalom is about more than fire insurance, avoiding hell, at the end of our physical lives.
It’s time we said it out loud and said it often: Social justice is an integral part of Christian formation; it is not an add-on or optional equipment, like choosing a sunroof on your new Ford Escape. It’s time many of us grew up spiritually, immersing ourselves in a richer, deeper gospel of justice.
“Seeing Christ as nothing more than the guarantor of our way of life is indeed a cheap gospel.”
Retooling the average church curriculum to include biblical justice requires courage and effort. My guess is that most adult Baptist small groups across America focus on themes of comfort, not challenge. But let’s be honest. How many studies do we need reminding us that Christ can calm every storm? How many times do we need to hear that God can deliver us out of the lion’s den?
I mean no disrespect. But what about some small group discussions exploring racism, war, gun violence, capital punishment, creation care, global poverty and food insecurity?
But the need is deeper than the choice of topics. We must rethink our theological assumptions. Mature, justice-oriented discipleship needs a better hermeneutic, teaching us to read biblical passages in context.
My own journey provides two examples. How often have I preached from the first chapter of the prophet Isaiah — “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.” Imagine my surprise when I considered the context. The previous verse does not focus on private piety but on social holiness: “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
And that famous verse in Malachi 3:10? You know, the one we haul out every Stewardship Sunday: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse.” Why had I never noticed that an equally clear command is set forth in verse five of the same chapter? “I will be quick to testify against … those who cheat the day laborers out of their wages as well as oppress the widow and the orphan, and against those who brush aside the foreigner.”
Mature, justice-oriented discipleship requires an understanding of the communal nature of sin. When our definition of sin only involves private behavior, we can always point at other people (their nasty habits, not ours). But we also sin collectively. Sin adheres to structures. The institution of slavery never could have been sustained in the U.S. without a sinful bigotry poisoning the body politic. Today, racism is fueled by a corporate, mob mentality that denies the sacred value of each person.
Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our national selfishness. What other explanation can be given for the yelping insistence of some who value their personal rights over the collective health of others?
“God is calling us to the hard work of kingdom building.”
Mature, justice-oriented discipleship calls for a fuller gospel. The late Baptist ethicist Glen Stassen called it a “thicker” gospel.
By contrast, what is a “thin” gospel? An emotional church camp or revival meeting decision that focuses on the next 5 minutes instead of the next 60 years. Following Jesus is not a one-off — come and get your spiritual get-out-of-jail card and then resume your previous life. It is a continual call to follow the Suffering Servant Messiah as he carries out a radical regime change in the world.
In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren challenges us to consider a church curriculum of love. In so doing, we would explore important questions: What would it really mean to love a Muslim person? A gay person? A black or brown person? An undocumented immigrant? What would it mean to love others so much that we would be willing to challenge systems that oppress them?
Granted, these are tough topics and will create discomfort. But that is precisely the point. God is calling us to the hard work of kingdom building.
For many evangelical believers, a gospel dealing only with private righteousness is the easy way out. It is spiritual laziness. Seeing Christ as nothing more than the guarantor of our way of life is indeed a cheap gospel. We can spend our time reassuring ourselves that everything is alright the way it is. Or we can grow up.