The churchâ€™s mission is not social justice if, by such equity we mean the punishment of wickedness and the reward of virtue. One way to substantiate this assertion is by looking for the word â€œjusticeâ€ in the churchâ€™s corporate witness. A word search reveals in the Belgic Confession, for instance, that justice appears in the discussion of Godâ€™s treatment of sin and the remedy in Christ (Article 20) and in the work of the magistrate (Article 36). A similar use of the word occurs in Calvinâ€™s catechism where he talks about the justice of God in punishing sin (Q. 154), and penalties for stealing (Q. 205). Calvin also speaks of justice in connection with the second petition of the Lordâ€™s prayer (Q. 269), and the respect for justice that accompanies sanctification (Q. 290). In the Westminster Confession, â€œjusticeâ€ appears only in chapter three on the eternal decree (3.7), providence (5.1), the work of Christ (8.5), justification (11.3), the function of the civil magistrate (23.2), and the last judgment (33.2). If the earliest Reformed Protestants believed the church should promote social justice, they were remarkably silent both about that part of ecclesiastical duty and the very idea itself.
If by social justice, like the way that Peter Lillback used it on the Glenn Beck show, one means various ways to improve a personâ€™s material circumstances, such as education for the ignorant, relief for orphans, welfare for the poor, food for the hungry, and medicine for the sick, the matter of the churchâ€™s duties is contested. Word and deed advocates insist that the church carries out such work indiscriminately, that is, it provides welfare to everyone irrespective of their standing within the church (no matter whether a given congregation has the capacity to provide medical or educational assistance). Word and sacrament advocates in contrast hold that diaconal work is an important and necessary ministry but that the churchâ€™s role in alleviating misery extends only to the saints (except in extraordinary circumstances). Even then, the diaconateâ€™s commission is not nearly as broad as the welfare stateâ€™s. Diaconal work is not an excuse, then, for the church to establish hospitals, orphanages, schools, and kitchens under the oversight of the church. The doctrine of sphere-sovereignty has long put limits on the church and given many of these functions to the family.
By the way, why exactly should the church be involved in the work of humanitarian relief or social justice when a perfectly good nation exists â€“ in the United States, anyway â€“ for carrying out such functions? Political conservatives may well object to the idea that the American government is perfectly good or whether the state should have nanny-like responsibilities. The Bible may not vindicate the political conservative position, but given the affinity of Mr. Beck and Dr. Lillback to the Republican party, and hence to some form of conservatism, one might think that objections to the culture of dependence fostered by the welfare state (one of the many unintended consequences of good intentions) might occur to anyone who thinks the church should give out aid as freely as the state. In fact, Paulâ€™s counsel to Timothy in his first letter (chapter five) indicates that the apostle himself was well aware of the problem of giving assistance to the undeserving poor (in this case, widows).
So if the churchâ€™s mission is not social justice or material welfare (beyond the work of the diaconate), then why is the church constantly tempted to pursue social justice? In his interview with Beck, Lillback implied that the problem of social justice comes when it is part of a liberal theological package. What he fails to see is that the churchâ€™s involvement in social reform and political activism is the way by which churches become liberal. In other words, no good form of ecclesial social justice exists. Even if the church still preaches the gospel, social justice is the means by which the church loses sight of her purpose and the significance of her message. The reason is that to argue that the church has an obligation to pursue a political or social agenda (or even a program of material welfare), the church has already become confused about the gospel and its benefits. In the words of the sociologist, Peter Berger, social justice is a form of â€œworks righteousness.â€
Three historical examples might help to make this point plausible. The first comes from the reunion of the Old and New School Presbyterians in 1869. The language of the plan for reunion was lush with references to the political circumstances of the United States after a grueling Civil War. The implicit logic was that the nation needed a Presbyterians to unite as much as it had needed to avert southern secession. Here is how the report put it:
The changes which have occurred in our own country and throughout the world, during the last thirty years â€“ the period of our separation â€“ arrest and compel attention. Within this time the original number of our States has been very nearly doubled. . . . And all this vast domain is to be supplied with the means of education and the institutions of religion, as the only source and protection of our national life. The population crowding into this immense area is heterogeneous. Six millions of emigrants, representing various religious and nationalities, have arrived on our shores within the last thirty years; and four millions of slaves, recently enfranchised, demand Christian education. It is no secret that anti-Christian forces â€“ Romanism, Ecclesiasticisim, Rationalism, Infidelity, Materialism, and Paganism itself â€“ assuming new vitality, are struggling for the ascendency. Christian forces should be combined and deployed, according to the new movements of their adversaries it is no time for small and weak detachments, which may easily be defeated in detail. . . .
Before the world we are no engaged, as a nation, in solving the problem whether it is possible for all the incongruous and antagonistic nationalities thrown upon our shores, exerting their mutual attraction and repulsion, to become fused in one new American sentiment. If the several branches of the Presbyterian Church in this country, representing to a great degree ancestral differences, should become cordially united, it must have not only a direct effect upon the question of our national unity, but reacting by the force of a successful example on the old World, must render aid in that direction, to all how are striving to reconsider and readjust those combinations, which had their origin either in the faults or the necessities of a remote past.
Now this reunion had not addressed the theological problems that had created the Old School-New School split in the first place, namely the teaching of the New Haven Theology and the denial of the federal theology on which the Presbyterian Churchâ€™s confession depended. By the 1860s those doctrinal problems seemed to be insignificant compared to the pressing needs of the nation. This was the church of Charles Hodge, by the way.
Only four decades later, the ecumenical spirit that led Old and New School Presbyterians to lay aside differences prompted American Protestants more generally to join hands to form the Federal Council of Churches. And the reason for this amazing act of ecclesial generosity was not a church synod or council that had steered a path through the polity, sacramental, and doctrinal divisions among American Protestants. Instead, the reason for unity was social justice, namely, the need for the churches to address antagonisms within the American economy and the nationâ€™s politics that were dividing citizens of the United States along class lines. So the Federal Councilâ€™s first act was to write a new creed, a social one:
We deem it the duty of all Christian people to concern themselves directly with certain practical industrial problems. To us it seems that the churches must stand â€”
For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.
For the right of all men to the opportunity for self-maintenance, a right ever to be wisely and strongly safeguarded against encroachments of every kind.
For the right of workers to some protection against the hardships often resulting from the swift crises of industrial change.
For the principle of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.
For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational disease, injuries and mortality.
For the abolition of child labor.
For such regulation of the conditions of toil for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.
For the suppression of the “sweating system.”
For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practicable point, and for that degree of leisure for all which is a condition of the highest human life.
For a release from employment one day in seven.
For a living wage as a minimum in every industry, and for the highest wage that each industry can afford.
For the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.
For suitable provision for the old age of the workers and for those incapacitated by injury.
For the abatement of poverty.
To the toilers of America and to those who by organized effort are seeking to lift the crushing burdens of the poor, and to reduce the hardships and uphold the dignity of labor, this Council sends the greeting of human brotherhood and the pledge of sympathy and of help in a cause which belongs to all who follow Christ.
Mind you, this statement, approved by the Presbyterian Church in which Benjamin Warfield was a minister, failed to supply proof texts for these proposals, thereby avoiding the â€œthus, sayeth the Lordâ€ motivation that social justice needs. Even more telling was that these churches believed they could unite on points of public policy even while divided on liturgical, polity, and doctrinal matters that the Lord had indeed commanded. In other words, the social and political problems of the hour were obscuring the churchâ€™s basic teachings and practices.
A similar understanding of the relationship between the religious and the social, or the theological and political is at work recently in the Manahattan Declaration, the very statement that Lillback recommended to Beck at the end of their interview, when he said:
I would like to tell all of your listeners and Glenn, you personally, that you need to put your signature on the Manhattan Declaration. Chuck Colson spoke to me about this some months ago and he said, “Would you help me sign it?”
And I had the privilege of being one of the first 100 signatories. And basically, he said this â€” we need to bring together the movement of people across this country who are willing to die for what they believe in. And the things that are being challenged where the government is going to come to force us out of the convictions are the sanctity of life, our definition of historic marriage and our resounding commitment to protect rights of conscience of religious liberty.
In the Manhattan Declaration, not only have the differences among Protestant denominations been placed in the background compared to the pressing social demands of the sanctity of human life and religious liberty. Also Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodoxy are now united in the name of Christ and for the sake of the gospel to advocate certain moral and social causes in the public sphere. One paragraph from the Declaration supplies the â€œthus, sayeth the Lordâ€ part that the Federal Council missed:
We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered, beginning in New York on September 28, 2009, to make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities. We act together in obedience to the one true God, the triune God of holiness and love, who has laid total claim on our lives and by that claim calls us with believers in all ages and all nations to seek and defend the good of all who bear his image. We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person. We call upon all people of goodwill, believers and non-believers alike, to consider carefully and reflect critically on the issues we here address as we, with St. Paul, commend this appeal to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
The specific public questions that demand a Christian response are as follows:
Because the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion are foundational principles of justice and the common good, we are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in their defense. In this declaration we affirm: 1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life; 2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and; 3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.
Meanwhile, these Christians who disagree on the gospel â€“ and hence worship God in different communions â€“ are agreed that the matters they address are on the order of the very gospel that divides them. The Declaration states:
We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our rightâ€”and, more importantly, to embrace our obligationâ€”to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.
These examples indicate that when churches engage in social or political programs invariably they lose their theological bearings and become liberal â€“ as in, they lose sight of what is orthodox. (I personally do not think that everyone who signed the Declaration sees the tension between their own churchâ€™s faith, and the problems of cooperating with Christians who are not in fellowship with their communion. I also donâ€™t know why they could not have formed a committee or association to pursue these matters without appealing to Christ or the gospel. One obvious reason is that a non-religious appeal lacks urgency and purposefulness.)
Conceivably, a historical example might be found that disproved this rule about social and political involvement generating liberalism â€“ though the state churches of Europe would seem to vindicate this point in spades. But behind the historical record is a theological principle, namely, that when a church confuses the benefits of redemption with the comforts of a better life or the equitable workings of the state it has misunderstood the significance of the message it proclaims. Calvin, for what itâ€™s worth, called such confusion, a â€œJudaic folly,â€ as in confusing the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly one.
So what Beck needs is a better account of why social justice is code for liberal theology. Lillback missed a golden opportunity when he failed to tell Beck what the confession of his own denomination teaches about the mission of the church:
Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (WCF 23.3)
P.S. Apologies to NORM! if this is more scholarly than blogs tend to be.