It is not difficult to find calls for the church to be “prophetic” especially toward the end of “social justice.” Of course we should favor social justice since nature and Scripture (e.g., Rom 13:1–7) both teach us that it is the function of the civil magistrate to enforce just laws. By implication, it is the duty of citizens in civil society to seek justice as far as lies within them. Yet we have yet to define “social justice.” It is evident in current discussions in the USA that there is not a shared definition nor is there a shared vision of how to achieve and maintain it.
HOW WE GOT HERE
One of the underlying reasons for these differences is eschatology. Arguably, through the 18th and 19th centuries, most Americans did not expect to achieve an earthly utopia through political or concerted social action. The pursuit of “happiness” of the Declaration of Indpendence was assumed to be relative. Even the Deists who founded the American Republic had some idea of an other-worldly heaven. Most Americans assigned their utopian hopes to the life after death. The higher critical (i.e., theologically liberal) movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries undermined among social elites confidence in the Scriptures and in historic Christianity. In the 1920s and 30s orthodox Christianity was exiled to the margins of society. Witness the denominational splits and the leftward theological and social movement of the “Mainline” Christian denominations.
For most people, however, on the ground, those discussions were postponed by the need to survive the Great Depression and World War II. After the war, with the onset of the Cold War, the process of the marginalization of historic Christianity continued thereby creating a vacuum. If what the church had said about heaven was no longer true what then? The Liberals had long been using Christian vocabulary but redefining its terms. The Scriptures were re-interpreted, selectively, in figurative terms. Heaven became a fixture of speech. Remarkably, even as the post-Christian West was winning the Cold War and even as the great Marxist enterprise in the Soviet Union collapsed (1989), versions of Marxism were capturing the hearts and minds of university students across the West. The remarkable prosperity of the post-Christian 80s did not satisfy the soul yet heaven no longer seemed credible. By the 90s many young people in the West had concluded that it was necessary, in the words of Eric Voeglin, to “immanentize the eschaton,” i.e., to bring a kind of heaven to earth.
Like the Liberal project in the early 20th century, that project too was postponed by war. Though the West had largely given up on old-fashioned religion, a significant number of Islamist Muslims had rekindled the ancient vision of a world dominated by an Islamic caliphate and they launched a remarkably effective sneak attack upon American civilians, plunging great sections of the world into what has become a long-running “War On Terror” since 2001.
As that war has begun to wind down, with the draw down of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, young people have turned again to the quest for “social justice,” fueled by Marxist categories and rhetoric. They inherited these categories but without the education to critique them. While the West was defeating Marxism across the globe and Soviet bloc nations were celebrating their deliverance from their Marxist overlords (who had murdered tens of millions of them) American children were learning their history from Howard Zinn and taking it as gospel truth.
This background helps to explain the shift our difficulty in defining social justice. During the modern civil rights movement it was generally agreed that social justice mean equal opportunity, that every citizen has the right to his civil liberties, that tax payers of all ethnicities and religions should have access to the public accommodations for which they had paid. It meant that every citizen has a right to vote. It also meant that every citizen has a right to compete for work and to secure economic betterment. Social justice, however, did not guarantee outcomes. Today, however, social justice is widely understood not to be about opportunity but to require equality of outcome. The role of Marxian Utopianism in this shift should not be ignored.
At the same time there were other massive social changes afoot. As has been noted in this space, we have been in the midst of a series of sexual revolution since the early 20th century. These both indicated and fueled the changing eschatology (from heavenly glory to earthly utopia). The American standard of living has grown remarkably so that even the American poor is relatively wealthy (as measured by ownership of disposable goods). The American family has been vitiated partly by the sexual revolution, partly by good intentions. As Robert Woodson and Thomas Sowell have long noted, the African-American family survived centuries of slavery and a century of Jim Crow only to be nearly wiped out by the Great Society (1965). Prior to the 1965, 70% of African-American families were two-parent households. Today 38.7% of those households are two-parent households. Another, sometimes neglected shift, was the change in immigration laws in 1965. For four decades America more or less closed her borders. Since 1965, however, and especially since 1989, the borders have become increasingly porous presenting new social and economic challenges with which policy makers are still wrestling.
There have been other massive changes that seem to have have made heaven less plausible. Deconstructionism permeated the English-speaking universities in the late 80s and early 90s. When I got to the UK to do my doctoral work, it was the topic. Everything, even medieval and Reformation studies, was being done in light of postmodernism. Anyone who talked about objective reality was regarded as backward and possibly suspect. In other words, the university had taken a radical turn toward the subjective (my experience, my truth, your experience, your truth). What is truth or heaven to subjectivism?
We should also mention the rise of the internet. At first, in the USA, email users could only communicate with users within their service provider (AOL or CompuServe). Then, someone flipped a switch and we could talk to each other. Then there were websites. At first the web was just text (at least for me from 1993–97). The Millennials, of course, have been raised with the internet which shapes their world. It has put a world of information and a world of suffering at our fingertips.
Then there is the envronment. Scaremongers had been threatening an apocalypse since the 1960s. First it was Rachel Carson who, in 1962, terrified the world about DDT. Then it was Paul Erlich’s Malthusian overpopulation scare. In 1968 he predicted that there would be mass starvation in the 1970s and 80s. It did not happen but the Malthusian myth persists. In the mid-1970s we were threatened with a new ice age. In the early 80s, as the Regan administration sought to end the Cold War (by winning it), we were treated to nightly warnings about “Nuclear Winter.” In the early 2000s, after he left Washington, Al Gore began touting “Global Warming.” None of his dire predictions have been fulfilled and now people warn ominously about anthropogenic “climate change.” For nearly 60 years alarmists have bombarded succeeding generations of young people with apocalyptic, mostly bogus claims about what models (because models never err) tell us will inevitably happen.
Both, along with the long war and the other factors surveyed, have had the effect of driving the desire to fix things in this world. Messianic politicians have long promised many things but just as the internet was taking over, just as the education system was collapsing (as predicted in the 1950s), in what turned out to the mid-point in an exhausting war on terror, a charismatic, “post-racial” president promised them:
Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment – this was the time – when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.
In a way, the turn to an earthly utopia of equal outcomes was predictable. Marx had, after all, turned Hegel on his head. He laid out an eschatology, a vision of the future that was entirely earthly, that assumed (and required) prosperity provided by private property and capitalism (however abusive that system might have been at points in the 19th century. How abusive capitalism really was in the 19th century is a matter of debate. Lest we assume that our kinder, gentler capitalism is superior to that of the “Robber Barons” and steel magnates, perhaps we should ask the children building our iPhones in Chinese factories or stitching our clothing in Vietnam or Bangladesh?) and sketched a utopian earthly future of fueled by resentment, envy, and achieved class warfare.
Enter the renewal of “the Social Gospel” movement now combined with Marxist ideas of class consciousness, where every group seeks to position itself as the victimized proletariat (promised by Marx to be the winners in historical pinball game of history). As in the early 20th century, Christians are once again invoking the Reformation doctrine of threefold office of the church to call the visible, institutional church to take up its social responsibility in our new age. In some ostensibly confessional Reformed and Presbyterian quarters, one of the first steps toward lashing the church to this agenda has been to discredit the alternative by smearing as racist (on the basis of private, unpublished correspondence) the principal advocate of the alternative view from the early 20th century. The demand for justice cannot be slowed by little things such as anachronism. It is in this context that we must evaluate the renewed call for the church to take up her prophetic office.
Above I sketched some of the background to explain how and why, in our late-modern period, it seems plausible to so many to regard the institutional church as an agent for social change. On the face of the New Testament, this would seem rather implausible since neither Jesus nor the Apostles preached a message of “social justice,” which I defined in part 1. This absence of a clear, unequivocal message of social justice in the New Testament has led to some rather clumsy attempts to wedge a message of social justice into the New Testament. One sees interpreters doing this to Paul’s letter to Philemon concerning the slave Onesimus. It is reasonable to interpret Paul as intending to persuade Philemon to free Onesimus but if Paul intended to upend the institution of Greco-Roman slavery, he whiffed. Recently I heard an attempt to interpret 1 Peter 2:21–22 through the lens of social justice but that interpretation must be judged a failure since it quite misses Peter’s intention altogether. For an alternative interpretation see this commentary. 1 Peter 2:18 is quite clear and it must condition our understanding of Peter’s use of Christ as example.
The Prophetic Office Of The Church
Our Lord Jesus Christ has three offices: Prophet, Priest, and King. This is an ancient Christian way of understanding the person and work of Christ. In the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) the Reformed churches confess this threefold office (triplex munus):
31. Why is He called Christ, that is Anointed?
Because He is ordained of God the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; and our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of His body, has redeemed us, and ever lives to make intercession for us with the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by His Word and Spirit and defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.
Our Lord Jesus, of course, is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophetic office, which began with Moses. God the Son, in his pre-incarnate state, revealed through Moses the office of prophet that was to be patterned after Moses (Deut 18:15–22). The function of the prophet was to announce only God’s Word to the people. The Lord gave to the people a test to determine a true prophet from false prophets. If the word they spoke came true, it was from the Lord.
The office of prophet was part of the establishment of the temporary, Old Covenant (Mosaic), theocracy. In this temporary, national people of God, the Lord instituted on top of his moral law (revealed already in nature, in the garden) temporary civil (political) laws and temporary ceremonial (religious) laws. The rabbis counted 613 of them. In Galatians 3:15–29 the Apostle Paul characterizes the entire Mosaic period of redemptive history as distinct in character from the Abrahamic in that it was a temporary addition to the permanent Abrahamic covenant of grace. Like Moses, the prophets led this national, temporary people and administered the Mosaic covenant until the people demanded a king.
That national people had distinct, temporary civil and religious duties and the line between them was nonexistent We know this from the explicit teaching of Hebrews 7:11–14:
Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well. For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests (ESV; emphasis added).
According to Hebrews, the religious life of Israel was fundamental to her entire existence. When the priesthood changed, the law changed. The entire system rested, as it were, like an inverted pyramid, upon the priesthood. God sovereignly transferred the priesthood to Jesus because he alone brought perfection and with it an end to the daily offering.
National Israel was a theocracy. That state only was divinely commissioned to enforce religious orthodoxy. That state only was commissioned to conduct religious wars with surrounding nations (e.g., the Canaanites). Indeed, that people was commissioned to wipe out Canaanites and to inhabit their land. Throughout Christian history many (perhaps) most Christians have fail ed to see the unique, temporary nature of that arrangement. As Paul explained in Galatians 3 and in 2 Corinthians 3 the New Covenant is new relative to Moses not Abraham. Indeed, Jeremiah (himself an Old Covenant prophet) contrasted the old covenant in which he served with a future New Covenant. Virtually the whole of the New Testament book of Hebrews is taken up with the contrast between the old, inferior Mosaic covenant with the superior New Covenant. The old covenant priests offered daily sacrifices but the High Priest of the New Covenant, Jesus, offered himself as the sacrifice once for all.
One way of understanding the Medieval and Byzantine church is to see it as a re-institution of the old testament, theocratic state and sacrificial system. The Reformation was then, in that light, a return to a New Testament understanding of the temporary nature of the Mosaic theocratic system. To be sure, the Reformation was a child of 1,000 years of theocracy and few sixteenth-century figures could imagine a world without a state-enforced religious orthodoxy. It would not be until the 18th century, until after a century of religious wars over which church would be the state-church, that the West began to re-think that assumption seriously.
The essential point to under here, however, is this: when we invoke the prophetic office of the church, we must invoke it in light of the New Testament. When we see the mainline denominations and increasing numbers of evangelicals and ostensibly confessional Reformed folk call the visible church to take up her prophetic mantle to speak to the social ills of our age, we are witnessing people ignoring the progress of redemptive history. There is a reason why our Lord Jesus, the Prophet, the Priest, and the King said nothing to the powers of this age, even when he had opportunity, about their oppression of the poor or their manifold injustices. That was not his office. He came proclaiming an eschatological kingdom, a heavenly kingdom, which had, in his person, descended into history in a unique way. He healed, he raised the dead, and he spoke the truth but he never fundamentally challenged the political or economic status quo. If that troubles you, then perhaps you have replaced the Jesus of Scripture with the Jesus sought by the crowds on Palm Sunday, the Jesus in whom Judas hoped? When Jesus disappointed the crowds and the revolutionaries, they turned on him and cried out for Bar-Abbas. They wanted someone to deliver them from Roman oppression not a suffering Savior, who must die for the sins of his sheep but that was the message that Isaiah the Old Testament prophet preached: “Behold, my Servant shall act wisely” (Isa 52:13–53:12). This is why the Apostles, the heirs of Jesus’ prophetic mantle, repeatedly refused to challenge the socio-economic status quo. Yes, they said that we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29) but they held no protests and no boycotts. They went to prison for the gospel, they were stoned and beaten for the gospel, and they died as martyrs (witnesses) for the gospel of Christ but not as revolutionaries. They were emissaries of the Kingdom of God and of the Kingdom of Heaven. Their weapons were spiritual: the Word of God, the sacraments, and the keys of the kingdom (Matt chapters 16 and 18 [all]).
So far we have considered how we got here, what social justice is and what is the prophetic office of the church but we have not considered the Old Testament prophet Samuel. Samuel was one of the greatest of the Israelite prophets because he was the last of the prophets before the Kings and in him we see the truly theocratic nature of the Old Testament (Mosaic-Davidic) prophet office. Nowhere is the theocratic nature of Old Testament prophetic office more clear than in 1 Samuel 15:24–33:
Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of Yahweh and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before Yahweh.” And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of Yahweh, and Yahweh has rejected you from being king over Israel.” As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, “Yahweh has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before Yahweh your God.” So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul bowed before Yahweh. Then Samuel said, “Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before Yahweh in Gilgal.
This was not personal revenge for a slight. Samuel was fulfilling the revealed Word and will of God, which King Saul had refused to do. This gruesome, bloody, typological episode illustrates very well the necessity to be careful about invoking the “prophetic church” in the interests of this social cause or that. It will not do. It is not possible to go back to the Old Testament theocracy selectively as folk are wont to do. When we invoke the prophetic office of the church to speak to immigration, gentrification, or income disparities, we are diminishing the prophetic office of the church: to announce the inauguration of the heavenly Kingdom of God in the person of Christ (Mark 1:15): “Behold, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Christians as individuals and groups are free to speak to social ills and issues as they will but the mission of the institutional church is controlled by Scripture alone (sola Scriptura). The Kingdom of God is inaugurated. It shall be consummated and in the interim the Roman Empire has passed away. The Holy Roman Empire has passed away and countless other kingdoms and duchies of this world have come and gone. The gospel of the resurrection is still true. The gospel of the impending return of Christ is still true and Christ is still reigning over all of them but that reign is not civl nor political. The God of peace was soon to crush Satan under the feet of the church in Rome in AD 55. Some of them were martyred in AD 65 but Christ was reigning even as they died for him.
We cannot resurrect Samuel without bringing with him his sword still dripping with the blood of Agag but the bloody cross is empty and the wrath of God against his elect has been exhausted there. Christ our King is ascended and our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:230). Our message is the reconciliation of all of God’s people, from every “tribe, tongue, people, and nation” (Rev 5:9), the cancellation of the record of debt (Col 2:14), and the tearing down of the wall of hostility (Eph 2:14) by the death of the Son of God (Rom 5:10). Social goods shall surely follow from this message, as they have always done, but they will not come through the re-institution of Samuel’s bloody war against Agag.
So very interesting to explore how Pietism is the root of Liberalism and the social gospel/justice movement. It is a man centered gospel concerned with meeting our earthly felt needs through our subjective experience rather than bringing glory to God by obeying Him, as He has ordained, through the objective means of grace in Word and sacraments. I can hardly wait to read the next post.
Dr. Clark, Thank you for having the courage to write on this matter. So many are intimidated to speak to the issue for fear of being misunderstood and falsely labelled. But the conversation has to start somewhere and I think that, at bottom, the principle issue is what the church is to be to the world. We are to give the means of grace, put the gospel on display and let that supra-cultural message permeate the hearts and lives of Christians so that they can go out and be salt and light in the world. I appreciate your emphasis on Christians “seeking justice [in the secular realm] as far as lies within them.” This is the issue so often missed and/or neglected. Paul says this very thing in Gal 6:10: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” There is only so much I can do in my life. I am certainly to do good to all “as I have opportunity.” But “doing” should always be combined with the doing of “prayer.” Too often, proverbial fistfights break out on social media about social justice at the theoretical level when time could have been better spent by actually doing good in my own “sphere of influence” and especially by praying to the God who can sovereignly changes man’s hearts (including my own). I find Kuyper’s distinction between the institutional church and the organic church helpful. What I am to do as an individual Christian in the public square is important and necessary. And yet what the institutional church as “church” is to do is administer word, sacrament, and prayer for the building up of the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph 4:12–13). I thank God for WSC for giving me these time-honored, Reformed principles which allow me to tease out what I am to give and be to my people in the church and what I am to give and be to the culture as an individual Christian. So thanks again for speaking to these issues. Your contributions help an ordinary minister like me to focus on the ordinary means of grace. All the best.
With the modern “missional movement” which has influenced Reformed churches, the ordinary means of grace is seen as too confining an agenda for the institutional church. “Missions” more often than not refers to local churches sending teams into underprivileged areas of their communities to do “handyman evangelism”. From what I have seen, fences are painted, weeds are pulled, but the Gospel is only implied. I can’t point to any of the recipients of the help ever being interested in attending our church or expressing any interest in anything spiritual. Why would they? We are perceived as just another social service organization.
Amen! It gives the impression that Christ was concerned with helping people with their earthly needs, not with reconciling condemned sinners to the Father so that they might have everlasting life.
Grammar,definitions and commands once again take a back to relativism and Cain like obedience. The term missions should be reserved for the function of spreading the gospel like witnessing, planting churches
and great commission obedience. Acts of temporal good to the neighbor are not missions. Maybe pre or post missions, but not missions.
Social justice is skin deep. Many of not all of these mainline churches have lost sight entirely of the sovereign regeneration only the Spirit works. These folk must have control and can’t bear to follow God’s ways and see God work slowly and steadily in the hearts of men and women. They then are content to offer their own sacrifices of social justice in the name of gospel and missions.
It’s much easier to externally manufacture this type of change and tack God onto it. Pragmatic results soon replace the deeper, lasting work of the Spirit that churches which cling to the ordinary promises of the means and vocation are marginalized as unloving flat earths. The sad thing is a lot of churches in otherwise somewhat sound bible believing denominations are like Esau falling for these lies and abandoning their inheritance for a pot of stew.
Before I came to Christ, when I saw Christian groups out helping people with their earthly needs, I would think, those are real Christians! Look! they are doing what Christ did when he cured the sick and fed people. I just thought Christ was a kind man with a message that we should care about the poor, and we should follow his example. I’m afraid that to the unsaved, who don’t understand who Christ is, the social gospel is only perpetuating this misunderstanding, which is not the true gospel.
If only these churches which emphasize social justice were confined to mainline or evangelical churches. I am a member of a PCA church. Every year at our General Assembly there are numerous overtures from the presbyteries promoting this year’s preferred area of social justice emphasis. This year there are multiple overtures calling for studies of domestic violence. Our “Reformed” denomination can’t point its finger at any other which emphasizes social justice.
Machen called modern Liberalism a different religion altogether from the Christian faith. Liberalism replaced Christ, our God incarnate, who came to save us by living the perfect life we cannot live, and die the death for sin we cannot die, and was resurrected to prove He accomplished it, so that we might be eternally reconciled with the Father and resurrected to eternal life as well. Liberalism replaced Christ with a human, social justice reformer, whose example we should follow. His life and death was an identification with the poor, and a supreme example of self sacrifice for us to follow. If Christ was not God incarnate, and was not resurrected then neither will we be resurrected. Then improving this world is all that there is. 1 Cor.15 12-19 That is the legacy of the Higher Criticism of Friedrich Schleiermacher and social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch. This is another gospel which has replaced the true gospel, not only in mainline churches but, as you point out is threatening the PCA, and it is also making inroads into other Reformed churches. The enthusiasm of many, who identify as Christians, to trade in the true faith for the mass of earthly pottage that is the social gospel\justice movement is alarming.