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When Social Justice Becomes Christian Idolatry

social justice christian idolatry

This fall, I’m speaking at a handful of church leadership conferences and workshops on the topic of the church engaging issues of mercy and justice. My hope is to do so while challenging church leaders to find a place of value for both exaltation (gathering) and incarnation (sending). Many today simply label it the “Genius of the AND,” stressing its superior stance over the tyranny of the either/or.

There are at least two distinct elements on the sending/incarnational side of our efforts. In order for us to rightly engage this discussion as it relates to the church and social justice, it’s important that we distinguish between the two: The first is a “missional” posture, which refers to becoming a missionary to those you might live by, work with, or have regular contact with. The second is a subset of “missional”…its posture and impact is intertwined with how a neighbor, co-worker, or friend might view us both individually and collectively…but its distinguishing mark is the action and focus of “social justice”: serving the poor, the marginalized, the abandoned, the oppressed.

While one certainly impacts the other, I want to distinguish the difference between the two efforts. If you serve the poor all day long yet you’re a jerk to your neighbor, you’re not a “missional” person. Likewise, you can orient your entire life around being a good friend, neighbor, or buddy at the pub…and completely neglect issues of justice. Thus, missing out on a key part of mission.

So let’s talk specifically about the “Serving the Poor” part.

I’m obviously a HUGE fan of serving those who can offer nothing in return (See my book). I think Jesus was, too (See His Book). It’s been THE common thread throughout what I’ve found to be transformational in my own life. So many things have informed my spiritual journey, but serving those in need has been the catalyst for the change I’ve always sought. There’s just something about it that forces me to search, makes me uncomfortable, and requires sacrifice that “traditional” discipleship efforts seem to lack. Yet we must keep perspective. And here’s something Jesus said that keeps coming to mind:

“You will always have the poor among you,
but you will not always have me.” – John 12:8

While there is a lot going on when Jesus says this and many reasons for Him saying it, this verse just sticks with me today. Why is this so important? Simply put, in all we do, we must be sure to cherish Jesus. The very reason we serve the poor is because of Jesus and His Gospel. Without this motivation, it is simply the good will of man.

So Jesus gives us a warning because serving feels good. While complicated at times, it can become our idol. Jesus reminds us that the best way to keep it in perspective is to make sure we cherish and adore Him. It’s the “Genius of the AND.” Something supernatural happens when we do that…things balance out…things get put in their proper place. Credit is given where credit is due. And all is good.