“Liberty and justice for all.” So we say in our pledge of allegiance to the United States of America. Those words were penned long ago in 1892 by Francis Bellamy. Now they seem somewhat prophetic of our present times as a cry rings out against injustice in our land. The buzz word for our society today is social justice.
A host of issues have captivated our public interest. Charges of mistreatment of minorities, prejudice against gays and transgenders, abuse of women. Accusations of police brutality and concerns with gun violence. Increases in poverty, homelessness, crime, and substance abuse. The demands for action are expressed in demonstrations and lawsuits, ribbons and slogans. The impact is seen in legal prosecutions, financial settlements, and termination of employment. People today have a heightened social consciousness, and along with that a variety of opinions that deeply divide us. We have 24-hour non-stop news programming, reporting stories and stirring the pot with opinionated pundits. And we have a fascination (perhaps addiction) with social media, in which anyone can easily post their opinions and release videos that go viral.
All of this puts the church in a challenging situation because we are being judged by how we respond to the social issues of our day. If we remain outside the fray and say nothing, we can be perceived as uncaring and irrelevant by those we are trying to evangelize and by our youth who are deciding whether or not to remain in the church. And yet if we actively engage the issues of our day and take a stand, we risk alienating many people because today’s social debates tend to be polarizing. So what are we to do?
Concern for Social Issues
The church would do well to talk about current events. This is not to suggest that we cut back on the things that are integral to fulfilling our mission as the church. Preaching the Word, evangelizing the lost, nurturing and equipping the saints are essential duties. But they do not preclude us from also dealing with other concerns, things that are dear to the people we want to reach for Christ. We often have some biblical wisdom to apply to life’s situations, perhaps some insights into a current issue that our secular culture cannot see. But even if we have little to say, at the very least our comments could demonstrate an awareness of the issues of the day, as well as convey a concern for those who are hurting.
Commitment to Biblical Righteousness
The church would do well to exercise its prophetic ministry and speak out against things in society we believe to be wrong. A word of caution however. A secular world calls out wrong-doers by name, often assuming a guilt that has yet to be proven. As the expression goes, people are tried and convicted in the media. A more cautious approach for the church would be to focus upon wrong actions. After all, not all allegations are subsequently proven, and not all alleged victims are entirely as they seem. We can speak against wrong even as we withhold judgment for the accused.
Perhaps the greatest service we offer is when we explain the truths of Scripture that are relevant to our day. People speak with great passion about justice and injustice, and yet strongly disagree on how to apply that to specific situations. Where some see injustice, others do not. The problem is different definitions of justice, based on personal feelings and cultural consensus. We in the church can offer a more substantial basis for determining right and wrong, the righteousness of God as revealed in Scripture.
Compassion for Hurting People
One of our greatest strengths in dealing with social issues is what we already do so well. A loving response to all situations, regardless of how we feel about the situation. Our benevolence ministries to the poor and needy. Our counseling ministries to those who are confused and distressed. Words of moral challenge spoken in a loving manner, following the example of Jesus (“neither do I condemn you, now go sin no more”). The church is in a position to work with all sides on any issue, even with those we believe are dead wrong. Our love and compassion do not mean that we condone the wrong that people do. We act with the same mercy and grace we have received from our heavenly Father, with the hope that people will be drawn to the gospel message being offered by the church.
For over three decades Johnny Pressley taught theology and New Testament at Mid-Atlantic Christian University and Cincinnati Christian University. He now serves First Church of Christ, Washington, North Carolina, as senior minister.