I got my first job when I was fifteen bagging groceries at the local grocery store in my neighborhood in St. Louis.
Even though my official title was “bagger,” I soon realized that half of my actual job entailed collecting shopping carts from the parking lot and bringing them back in the store. Like most of the other baggers, I hated collecting carts and would try my best to avoid doing it. Despite the misleading title of “bagger,” my job description did clearly outline that half of my responsibilities were to collect carts. In the same way, people have conflicting ideas about what the “job description” of the Church is supposed to be.
We are currently in a moment that has brought the need for reform and justice into sharp focus. Yet many Christians are divided as to what our role should be with respect to this movement. Many Christians are partnering with protestors and participating in non-violent demonstrations while calling on other believers to do the same. Yet, there are still many Christians that feel that prophetic engagement in pursuit of social justice is not in the church’s “job description.”There are still many Christians that feel that prophetic engagement in pursuit of social justice is not in the church’s 'job description.' Click To Tweet
There are even many prominent evangelical leaders that go so far as to say that perceiving social justice as an integral component to gospel witness is a pollution of biblical orthodoxy. On the other hand, there are many Christians that prioritize the necessity of human flourishing while denying the universal lordship of Jesus and the authority of Scripture. So clearly, it is necessary to clarify the “job description” of what it means to be a Christian.
Jesus clarified that the entire law hangs on the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” He demonstrates the inseparability of this command with the next by saying that “the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”1 Our Lord makes plain that a Christian’s lifestyle is marked by a commitment both to a relational God and to the flourishing of all people. Let’s clarify how the church is called to relate to culture, empire, and the oppressed.
Seeing in Color
“I don’t see color.” “When are we going to get past race?” “The best way to get past race is to stop talking about it.” Sentiments such as these are not uncommon to white American evangelicals. However, they are very foreign to Scripture. After creating humanity in his image, God called humanity to fill the earth and to cultivate it, a process that was well-underway at the beginning as evidenced in the Table of Nations.2 The Lord fulfilled his promise to “pour out his Spirit on all flesh” when the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost and magnified itself through the languages of “every nation under heaven.”3 While many white, American evangelical Christians embrace a “colorblind” worldview, the Bible makes it clear that God sees us in the colorful diversity in which he created us.
We are not meant to “get past” race; diversity is not a temporary roadblock but an eternal reality: “There was before me a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.”4 We must reject the unhealthy extremes of denying cultural differences on the one hand and imposing our perceptions of our neighbors on the other. Rather, we must embrace the particularity in which God has created us as we seek to learn from our fellow image-bearers in common destiny.While many white, American evangelical Christians embrace a 'colorblind' worldview, the Bible makes it clear that God sees us in the colorful diversity in which he created us. Click To Tweet
Governmental systems are paradoxically depicted in Scripture both as being divine institutions that Christians are called to submit to as well as demonic principalities opposed to the kingdom of God.5 Understanding that God is sovereign over everything, and that sin and darkness govern much of social systems, it is not surprising that Christians are called to avoid the evil one as we are sent into the world, sanctified in truth.6 Due to the influence of evil on societal systems, God’s people are called to testify to his Kingdom through prophetic engagement.7 Protesting injustice and advancing legislation that empowers the most marginalized are not rooted in a political or social agenda—the work of activism is a biblical agenda. Many people are leaving the church because they are deeply concerned about issues of justice and feel the church is not a conducive place for justice work. Justice is the work of Jesus and the purview of the church. We must preach on justice, teach on justice, and fight for justice on the authority of the Word of God and the Good News of Jesus Christ.
In the same way that much of white, American evangelicalism tends to advance the agenda of empire, this worldview also tends to place blame on the most marginalized for their oppression. This movement tends to give the benefit of doubt to the most powerful and wealthy while holding with suspicion ethnic minorities, prisoners, and sojourners. However, the Scripture makes clear these are precisely the types of people with whom God closely identifies. Moreover, how we treat these marginal communities is a direct reflection of our relationship with Jesus.8 God makes it clear that religious services that take place in the context of excessive privilege attained on the backs of the poor and oppressed are a stench so foul that God turns his face away from it.9 Rather, religion that is pure and undefiled before God is defined principally by the empowerment of the most marginalized in society.10 The Bible specifically identifies and uplifts the most oppressed of the world.
For that reason, it is entirely biblical to declare that “Black Lives Matter.” If someone is uncomfortable with this saying, they are also uncomfortable with the Bible. The Bible says: “I am black and beautiful.”11 Throughout history, black skin has consistently been denigrated by European, Middle Eastern, and Asian civilizations, modern, and ancient. In God’s providence, the race of people whose skin color is explicitly referred to in the Bible is black people. Not only that, but black skin is consistently highlighted throughout the Bible in a positive way. This is in direct contrast to the leading depictions of black skin in ancient Roman, Hellenistic, and Near Eastern civilizations.It is entirely biblical to declare that 'Black Lives Matter.' Click To Tweet
As a pastor and seminary professor deeply committed to the universal lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of the Bible as the divine Word of God, and the unequivocal call on the church to fight for justice for the most oppressed, I encounter many people becoming increasingly disenchanted with the church. However, the Scriptures have made it clear what “pure religion” is. Therefore, what so many people think they are disenchanted with is not the church at all. They are repulsed by the same kind of oppressive religious nationalism as is the Lord.
So let us please never make the mistake of allowing “impure religion” to ruin the powerful, life-giving gospel that comes only through faith in Jesus. Even Frederick Douglass, a freedom fighter who experienced the horrors of slavery, understood the distinction between Christianity and Christendom: “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.”12
The gospel opposes empire and stands with the oppressed. Advancing black dignity, working for justice, and empowering the oppressed are not the purview of a social or political agenda; rather, these are simply elements of the job description of being a Christian.