The Common Good

What Doing Justice Means for My Church (Part 1 of 5 by Rich Nathan)

I've always wanted to be part of a church that seeks to be and to do everything the New Testament calls the church to be and to do. I've described this kind of church in the past as a holistic church, or a church that works on all eight cylinders. In other words, it is not enough if my church is known as a great worship center, or a great preaching church. The New Testament demands more.

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright gets us right to the heart of the matter when he says:

For generations the church has been polarized between those who see the main task being the saving of souls for heaven and the nurturing of those souls through the valley of this dark world, on the one hand, and on the other hand those who see the task of improving the lot of human beings and the world, rescuing the poor from their misery. The longer I've gone on as a New Testament scholar and wrestled with what the early Christians were originally talking about, the more it's borne in on me that distinction is one that we modern Westerners bring to the text rather than finding it in the text. Because the great emphasis in the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transformed the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work. That draws together what we traditionally call evangelism, bringing people to the point where they come to know God and Christ for themselves, with working for God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That has always been at the heart of the Lord's Prayer, and how we've managed for years to say the Lord's Prayer without realizing that Jesus really meant it is very curious. Our Western culture since the 18th century has made a virtue of separating our religion from real life, or faith from politics. When I lecture about this, people will pop up and say, "Surely Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world." And the answer is no, what Jesus said in John 18 is, "My kingdom is not from this world." That's ek tou kosmoutoutou. It is quite clear in the text that Jesus' kingdom doesn't start with this world. It isn't a worldly kingdom, but it is for this world. It is from somewhere else, but it is for this world.

Social justice is simply a commitment on the part of Christians to improve the lot of human beings in this world, particularly the lot of the most marginalized to whom God shows particular concern. The God of the Bible is both a God of justification (declaring us right with God) and justice (putting the world to rights).

Social justice was the historic practice of the evangelical church before the 20th century. It would have been unthinkable for leaders like John Wesley or William Wilberforce to consider someone to be a good follower of Jesus Christ who was not actively involved in improving the social conditions of people in this world.

Doing justice is one of the major themes throughout scripture. God hates religion without an accompanying commitment to social justice:

I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! ( Amos 5:21-24)

I have several hopes for my church regarding social justice. I hope that we become a church that breaks out of the boxes that church tradition tries to impose upon the evangelical church -- namely, that evangelical churches are not supposed to be involved with improving the social conditions of people in this world. My hope is that members of Vineyard Columbus would seek to walk in the shoes of those whose perspectives are shaped by poverty, racial oppression, and personal suffering. My hope is that the tilt of the hearts of Vineyard Columbus members would be toward the poor (and not just the rich), toward the sick (and not just the well), and toward peacemaking. I have a hope that Vineyard Columbus would not exist for itself, but for Christ and for the world.

Rich Nathan is the pastor of the Vineyard Church in Columbus, Ohio, which is the co-sponsor with Sojourners of next week's Justice Revival. Click here for more details.

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