“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”: Christians and Social Justice

It is through the gospel that the Spirit creates, grows, and expands Christ’s church. Already in Acts 2, we see the Great Commission playing out on the ground. At Pentecost, the Spirit empowers Peter to proclaim Christ as the fulfillment of the Scriptures, convicting many of their sins and opening their hearts to receive the good news.

Those who believe are baptized (with examples in Acts of whole households being baptized along with a believing parent). “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Any program for missional outreach that omits these elements—or even makes them subordinate to humanly crafted initiatives—is a mission different from the one Christ ordained for his church.

Christians are free, however, to take up vocations that are not given to the church as a special institution but still ordained by God. The Great Commission doesn’t call us to be parents—or even to marriage. In fact, the examples of Jesus and Paul underscore this point!

Nevertheless, marriage and the family are divinely ordained institutions. The Great Commission does not provide a roadmap to peace in the Middle East or domestic economic policy. Yet even as it is written on the conscience, the Great Commandment and the institutions God established in creation retain their divine authorization.

Salvation—redemption and reconciliation—cannot be achieved by our good works, but we were saved for good works; and since God does not need them, the only place for them to go is out to our neighbors who do. 

All believers participate in the holy vocation as prophets, priests, and kings. Through their witness to Christ and the mutual admonition, instruction, and service through diverse spiritual and temporal gifts, all members exercise this holy office. Some are also called to particular offices as pastors, elders, and deacons. However, all believers are also called to common offices, instituted in creation and the Great Commandment rather than in redemption and the Great Commission.

When we are fulfilling our daily callings that contribute to the common good, and when we care for our children or elderly parents, work as volunteers for a women’s shelter, render pro bono legal advice or medical treatment, we are—as Luther put it—the “masks” that God wears to love and serve our neighbors.

Even the baker is a means through whom God provides us, and all people, with daily bread. None of these callings is included in the Great Commission, yet these are only the tip of the iceberg of vocations to which God calls all people—Christian and non-Christian—in the Great Commandment.

By its mere existence in the world—what one Christian sociologist has recently called “faithful presence”—the church witnesses to a new creation whose undying life it has already tasted. God has given some Christians great opportunities to lead remarkable reforms in society.

Like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, however, Paul clearly distinguishes this from the church’s calling. Pastors and elders oversee church discipline, but they have no authority to discipline the world. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (1 Cor. 5:9-13).

Too often today, even though people come regularly to church, they find that they are not supported sufficiently in their longing to know better what they believe and why—and yet, they are expected to find their ministry in the church rather than their calling in the world. Instead of being in the world but not of it, they become of the world but not in it. Paradoxically, it is only when the church is doing something other than engaging in social justice missions that it actually shapes its members to go out “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God” (Mic. 6:8). The gospel does not relieve us of the duty to love God and neighbor. Our good works as believers receive their direction from the law, but can draw their strength only from the gospel. 

Social justice is not a conversation that anyone can opt out of: every day we are engaged in secular rituals that either support or threaten the good of our neighbor. I am called to love and serve my neighbor. 

Ultimately, I am called to do this because my neighbor is created in God’s image. As God’s image-bearers, especially those whose voices are ignored or marginalized, these neighbors are God’s own claim upon me and my life. Through their cries, I hear God’s call, “Adam, where art thou?” And I dare not generalize or deflect this summons, replying with Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

 

Read Part 2, How the Church Gets Justice Wrong (and How to Begin Getting It Right)


Adapted from Michael Horton, “Justification and Justice: The Great Commission and the Great Commandment,” Modern Reformation, Sep/Oct 2011. Used by permission.

Photo of Michael Horton

Michael Horton

Michael Horton (@MichaelHorton_) is the Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. The author of many books, including Core Christianity, he is also the host of the new Core Christianity radio show, a daily Bible question-and-answer show broadcasting nationwide. He lives with his wife Lisa and four children in Escondido, California. 

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