“Matthew 25 scares the hell out me,” was the response of a pastor friend to the question of what he had learned during his recent sabbatical. Reading with new found clarity where Jesus thrice states we will be judged by our compassion towards “the least of these” had unnerved this seasoned pastor. And, observing social ministry and social justice in a missional context allowed him to see with fresh eyes God’s passion for compassion.
Social Ministry and Social Justice Defined
Social Ministry and Social Justice has a variety of definitions and expressions. For the purpose of this article we define Social Ministry and Social Justice as follows:
Social Ministry involves ministries designed to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of individuals Jesus referred to as “the least of these.” Some examples include addressing the needs of the poor, the homeless, the hungry, orphans, widows, the handicapped, sick, and outcast.
Social Justice involves working through political and societal systems to right the wrongs perpetrated by individuals, organizations, and society upon “the least of these.” Some examples include lobbying for legislation that addresses economic and racial injustice and becoming involved in causes that alleviate the inequalities in education, healthcare, and housing.
Another way to consider the differences between these two approaches to demonstrating compassion to “the least of these” is that Social Ministry addresses the symptoms of injustice while Social Justice addresses the cause. Social Ministry provides short term solutions, Social Action strives for long term solutions.
An imperative in the teaching of Jesus is to live in accord with God’s character: “Be compassionate, as God is compassionate.” God’s passion is compassion. To live as Christ is to identify with the longings, hunger, and injustices of the poor and meek. Both Social Ministry and Social Justice are a means for demonstrating a form of compassion that pleases God, but by using different methods. Proverbs 21:3 speaks to God’s passion for both: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”
Typically we see individuals, churches, and even denominations express a clear bias towards either Social Ministry or Social Justice. Their preference may be influenced by a variety of factors including personality, life experience, calling, passion, location, vision, and opportunity.
But, Social Ministry and Social Justice should not be an either/or proposition but rather a both/and for individuals and churches. Jesus practiced both Social Ministry and Social Justice. When he fed the hungry, healed the sick, and raised the dead he practiced Social Ministry. When he disrupted the Temple merchants and challenged the domination systems of religious and political leaders he practiced Social Justice.
Other noted examples of individuals who embraced both Social Ministry and Social Justice include Martin Luther, Saint Francis, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa.
It is sometimes noted that these individuals advocated “passive resistance” to social injustice when in reality there was nothing at all passive about their efforts. Like Jesus, each actively and creatively resisted social injustice but advocated doing so non-violently. And, each paid their own price in experiencing some form of persecution and even violence. Persecution for the cause of justice is inevitable.
Today, most churches offer a vast array of needs based ministries. Yet, often in our social ministry efforts we fail to make an intentional connection between the Great Commandment and the Great Commission leaving those we help with physical bread but not with the bread of life, with physical healing but not spiritual healing, with met needs but without the Gospel.
And, at times our social justice tactics, while good intentioned, have been counterproductive if not damaging to the cause of Christ. The arch of Christian history demonstrates that all too frequently we have been on the wrong side, at least initially, of the key social issues of the day. Colonization and empire building, slavery, and Native American, African American, and women’s rights are notable examples of where Christians have used scripture to justify injustices.
Fortunately, God enlightened believers stepped forward to provide an alternate application of scripture to these social issues. Which begs the question, how will future generations, possibly more enlightened than we, view our biblical perspective on the social issues of today?
In pursuing individual and church sponsored Social Justice and Social Ministry we must be careful to ask what Jesus would do in our context today. He might once again disrupt the Temple, teach the wrongness of violence, and heal the sick, but his guiding principle would remain……to be passionate about compassion as the primary virtue of a life centered in the character of God.
Posted on April 10, 2018