03.01.19

Excursus: Evangelical Hearing Impairments

We’ve now worked our way through the Law, the prophets and the wisdom literature tracing the theme of justice in each. It’s a general survey; much more could be written. But I trust that it’s clear to every fair reader that the Bible has a great deal to say about the topic and God’s people are clearly obligated by their God to pursue justice according to His word.

But such clarity raises a question.

Why don’t many evangelicals hear the Bible telling us these things?

Someone may wonder why I single out “evangelicals” on this question. Well, frankly, it’s because the only resistance I see comes from some professing evangelicals, Fundamentalists, conservative and Reformed types. They appear to be the only ones making anything that looks like an argument against the pursuit of justice in some arenas. So-called “liberals,” while they may have other significant problems, are not against the biblical teaching or its social application. The lion’s share of Black Christians, while there are exceptions, are not uncomfortable with justice. Indeed, the survival of Black people and the Black Churches has depended on a strong justice ethic. The Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition of social teaching and reflection on social justice. As far as I can tell, they gave us the term.

So what’s the deal with those evangelical Christians who bristle at the notion of “justice”?

I want to suggest that some evangelical, conservative and Reformed types suffer from a hearing impairment. Their ability to hear the Bible on these vital truths and to apply the Bible to justice issues in our day has been injured by the preaching and theology typical to their circles. When expositors and theologians fail to make tight connections between biblical teaching and ethical notions of justice then their hearers and readers walk away with something short of biblical understanding.

Here are five possible sources of the impairment:

We may teach our hearers to flatten the words “justice” and “righteousness” to always mean justification and imputation.

Evangelical suspicion of works-righteousness creates a nervousness about Christian duty. It’s often the case that the evangelical preacher will spend more time explaining to his hearers that a straight-forward command of the Bible does not mean “justification by works” than they spend actually explaining the command and the duty to obey it in Christ. When that happens, people begin to conflate “do justice” with “you’re justified.”

Sometimes preachers preach doctrine where the Bible preaches duty. They replace the doxology of Christian living with the theology of Christian history. Both duty and doctrine are vital; they cannot substitute one for the other. Attempting to substitute doctrine for duty or duty for doctrine is like giving birth to twins and saying, “Only one will do.” No. The mother and father leave the hospital with both children counting themselves doubly blessed. So it should be with our preaching of both sound doctrine and the solid duty that comes from it.

Preachers may fail to hear the important distinction between “faith” (conversion) and “the faith” (the entire Christian life upon conversion).

If you only hear “faith” and fail to recognize that to be a Christian is to enter an entire life and worldview–to join “the faith”–then you will tend to think discipleship is Jesus plus very little else except the things we want to add to Him. Inevitably things will boil down to a matter of personal preferences and the good life becomes a baptized version of the American dream. People think of themselves as Christians merely because they at some point believed; but they do not recognize that when they believed they were also supposed to “follow the Way” and follow the pattern of sound words. If we break “faith” apart from “the faith” we likely leave out large parts of Christianity’s ethical framework. The consequence is our audience may lose a wholistic sense of the Christian life, including a proper understanding of Christian ethical teaching. They lose the ability to even hear it.

Some preachers and Christians have all but lost the category of moral uprightness, integrity, equity, righteousness and justice.

Some Christians show they have no principled concern for righteousness and justice. They may resort to these categories as a matter of self-serving political interest, but not because the categories are right in themselves. We have stumbled our way into an unprincipled ethical pragmatism.

Let me illustrate this is by directing our attention to a justice issue nearly every evangelical will recognize: abortion. I was recently interviewed by a researcher working on religious liberty and other justice issues. We’d discussed several topics at length before we turned to abortion. After discussing a number of justice and liberty issues on that topic, he asked me this question: “Given all the other problems we’ve discussed in society and with the current President, if Roe v. Wade were overturned would the election of Pres. Trump have been worth it?” I had to take a long hard pause. Clearly abortion is unrivaled in scale and evil. But as I reviewed the litany of problems we had discussed, it occurred to me that to answer “yes” to that question would suggest a lack of principle on all the others and on process. It was a face-to-face encounter with ethical and political pragmatism.

Ending abortion is the greatest justice goal in the world today. But are we Machiavellian about that goal? Does the Bible allow us to argue that as long as the ends justify the means then it’s right or just? I think not. Only the unprincipled pragmatist would answer an unqualified “yes.” Evangelicalism has been discipled into this pragmatism and that pragmatism contributes to its hearing impairment on justice issues.

We should all grieve that and wonder if our preaching has not contributed to it.

Some fear that by acting out their faith they will actually lose their faith.

They do not fear this with every form of activism–witness anti-abortion demonstrations and protests against gay marriage. But they do fear this with “justice issues.” Some Christians are trained to hear any emphasis on activism as an indication of “compromise,” “liberalism,” “Marxism,” “the social gospel,” and abandoning the priority of the gospel. The inward-focused pietism of evangelicalism, which at its best gives great power and dynamism, can at its worst drain the Church of its explosive, outward power. The result can be a “do-nothing Christianity” that checks out of justice concerns in favor of an entirely inward emphasis.

The conception of the good life has been hijacked by a conservative version of the prosperity gospel or a liberal version of unbiblical freedom.

In these visions, middle class aspirations and idolatrous concern for political influence or libertarian freedom stand in the place of justice biblically defined. So when some Christians hear the word “justice” they think GOP or Democrat, red state or blue state, meritocracy or redistribution. When biblical passages are expounded they are too often “heard” as endorsements of political and philosophical platforms rather than an in-breaking of an entirely new kingdom paradigm for Christian people. But that hearing problem is really the kind of partisanship and partiality the Bible condemns precisely because it leads to injustice.

Conclusion

All of this argues for a carefulness with preaching and theologizing. We need to return to the texts with a fresh commitment to allowing the texts to interrogate what we’ve assumed and perhaps inherited from sources outside the text. We need to preach the scriptures against the tendencies and idols of our particular people so that our people learn to hear the Bible in those areas where they need it most. If evangelical preachers and theologians don’t suspect and address these hearing impairments, they’ll continue to produce “evangelical JOCs”–Justice Optional Christians.

But if evangelical preachers and theologians are humble enough, they might even take a cue from a non-evangelical like Barbara Brown Taylor when she writes:

The problem is, many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do.

HT: @HappySonship

Amen.


Other Posts in This Series:

  1. Prolegomenon: On Authority and Sufficiency
  2. What Do We Mean When We Talk about “Justice”?
  3. Justice in All It’s Parts (part 1 and part 2)
  4. The Gospel Combines All Aspects of Justice
  5. Genuine Social Injustice
  6. Secular Approaches to Justice
  7. Justice Begins with God
  8. Justice as Worship in the Prophets
  9. Wisdom to Live Justly
Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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