Social Justice and the Great Commission
Jesus commissioned his disciples to go out into all the earth and make disciples by teaching the nations what He first taught them. But what exactly does it look like for the church to fulfill the Lord’s command? I surmise that most people define the Great Commission as a call to spread the good news about the person of Jesus and the works He performed. Moreover, when churches envision carrying out the Great Commission in their local context, they often emphasize conversions and discipleship. While it is true that the Great Commission involves verbal proclamation of the gospel and the intentional discipling of new believers, limiting the Great Commission to preaching and teaching truncates what God has called us to accomplish through this mandate. We need to add actions to our words.
My contention is simply this: If we limit the Great Commission to preaching and teaching, we make the mission of the church strictly about salvation and spiritual formation. However, a holistic fulfillment of the Great Commission must include a concern for the entire person—both soul and body. In other words, not only should we care about the spiritual well-being of the nations, we must also care about physical well-being of the nations as well.
There has been debate within the Church on the nature of its mission. Some schools of thought within Christianity have argued that the Church’s mission is only spiritual—namely, that it is only called to the ministry of the word, prayer, and the administration of sacraments. The Church is not to seek cultural transformation through social justice. This doctrine is called the “Spirituality of the Church.” 1 Others have argued that the scope of the mission of the Church is not only to concern itself with spiritual matters but also with whatever form of oppression people may endure. This view makes social justice and cultural influence essential to the mission. We call this position Transformationalism or Neo-Calvinism, and the logic of Jesus’s Great Commission supports this position..
Matthew records Jesus’s words to his disciples at the moment He commissions them to reach the nations with the good news. He makes it clear that they are to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” 2 Notice that the command from Jesus isn’t to simply “tell them about me” or “preach the gospel.” The command is to baptize them in the name of the triune God, and train new disciples in all things that the Master taught them.
Notice also that the disciples are to teach the people in order that they may observe what Jesus taught. There is a clear end goal of obedience in the Great Commission. Jesus expects His disciples to do all that He taught them to, and by extension, replicate their lifestyle of obedience by teaching it to others. Therefore, at the heart of the Great Commission is the command to participate in creating Christ-followers that bear His image in the way that they live.
As disciples ourselves we cannot teach others to live in a way that is itself foreign to the way that we live; for a teacher cannot teach a student what he does not know. It may be the case that we can pass on information about behavior that is consistent with Christian life without actually doing said behavior. However, if we are not regularly practicing what Jesus commanded it will only be a matter of time before we are exposed as frauds. 3 We expect people to behave in accordance with what they believe. This is why we are usually shocked when we hear of supposedly devout Christians caught in scandals that expose their vices. We all innately believe that hypocrisy is bad, and that we should practice what we preach.
No matter how much Christians may preach and teach about Jesus, they are not carrying out the Great Commission if they do not obey all that Jesus commanded. The Great Commission is fulfilled in its truest sense when a life of obedience to Christ is coupled with a life of proclamation and teaching. When unbelievers encounter the Christian whose life is a living example of what Christ taught, they encounter the most compelling argument that can be offered for faith in Christ. If the Spirit is working to draw an unbeliever to saving faith, the unbeliever will by God’s grace “see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” 4
Most Christians would think what I have argued for thus far is reasonable. Few have problems with the idea that the Great Commission is fully fulfilled when we, through lives of obedience, teach others to obey the teachings of Christ. However, controversy erupts when we begin to define what Christian obedience is. I suspect that most would limit obedience to personal holiness. That is to say, when we think about what obedience looks like in the Christian life, often it is envisioned as liberating ourselves from our own moral vice. Rarely do we see the need to alleviate the suffering of others as equally essential to obedience as our own holiness. However, Jesus’s commands to his disciples for their righteousness consists of more than just admonitions to avoid sin. His words contain a call to love and care for the other, and loving the other means concerning yourself with what concerns the other. Therefore, if another is suffering, we should be concerned to do whatever we can to liberate him or her from that suffering.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” 5 Jesus teaches that obedience to God’s law can essentially be boiled down to treating others as we would like to be treated. Indeed, loving God rightly causes us to love others as we should. If we are loving others as we should, we will treat them as we would ourselves.
But why is this teaching vital? What makes this command significant is that it allows us to empathize with each other. It causes us to be sensitive to the plight of others because we can “put ourselves in their shoes” and understand their circumstances. I believe that our Lord’s teaching has enormous implications for the Church’s role in social justice. Simply put: if I were suffering and needed help, I would want anyone who can help provide me relief to actively help me. Therefore, following the logic of Jesus’ teaching, I should seek to help alleviate suffering in all its forms for others because that’s how I would want to be treated.
The Golden Rule isn’t just that we shouldn’t do evil to people because we wouldn’t want them to do evil to us. It also encourages us to advocate for those who are vulnerable knowing that if we were powerless, we would want someone to advocate for us. Therefore, the Church must concern itself with the welfare of the widow, the orphan, the unborn child, the slave, 6 or the oppressed ethnic group. We recognize how we would hypothetically like to be treated if we faced these same circumstances, so we work to help those who are facing them in reality.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus present further evidence that Jesus expects His disciples to care for those in need. Jesus tells of a rich man who went to hell because of his greed and apathy toward the poor—specifically Lazarus. Lazarus was so destitute that the text says that he was “covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.” 7 He lived in such filth that “Even the dogs came and licked his sores.” 8 The rich man didn’t even bother setting aside leftovers from his luxurious meals to feed the starving Lazarus.
Lazarus suffered immensely and the rich man did nothing to help. Can the church afford to follow in the rich man’s footsteps? Can the church say that the mandate found in the Great Commission is only to teach and preach the gospel while there are “Lazaruses” all over the world? If we turn a blind eye to those in need, then we may show that we ourselves do not have authentic faith. As James writes in his epistle, “Faith without works is dead.” 9 We must take care not to define authentic religion strictly as the teaching of doctrine. After all, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” 10 The widow and the orphan are the vulnerable in society. An essential part of Christianity is advocacy in society for those who are vulnerable.
When we speak of obedience to Christ, we must recognize that his commands extend beyond what has been recorded for us in the Gospels. Jesus set an expectation for us to live off every word from God’s mouth. 11 The Apostle Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness;” 12 and again, having the Old Testament scriptures in mind, he writes, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction.” 13 Consequently, all the Bible is our Lord’s commands to us.
So, when we look at the testimony of scripture concerning justice, and God’s covenant people’s relation to it, what do we find? Overwhelmingly, we find that God calls his people to pursue justice for those in need. All that the Lord requires from us is that we “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.” 14 When Israel was unfaithful to her covenant with God, His refusal to accept the sacrifices or hear the prayers of the Israelites was because they were perpetrators of oppression. In response to their evil, God admonished them to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” 15 Similarly, God indicts the Israelites for possessing a spirituality devoid of justice. In the book of Amos, He commands them to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” 16 Like James’ definition of true religion, God was unimpressed with the religiosity of the Israelites because the true essence of religious devotion—loving God and loving people—was lost in their practice.
A consistent and thorough Christian witness within culture must not only preach the gospel and teach doctrine—it must also learn how to pursue justice in its context. I fear that many Christians today have a spirituality that is like that of the Amos’s Israelites. Many have become content with measuring spiritual maturity by the amount of time spent praying, Bible reading, and fasting, instead of by how much they love people being oppressed all around them.
The logic of the Great Commission requires Christians who are obedient to the Jesus’ commands to teach all nations of these commands. We cannot teach people to obey the Lord if we have not been faithful ourselves. Our Master expects us to pass on to new disciples what we know and practice. Practicing Jesus’ commands includes caring for the poor and the vulnerable. This means that the need to work to alleviate human suffering is necessarily intrinsic to the Church’s mission. Therefore, the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church is wrong. The Church cannot believe that its only duty is to preach the gospel. When the gospel truly takes root in a culture, its followers will work tirelessly to meet all the needs of the people around them—both spiritual and physical.
- More on this can be found at http://www.opc.org/OS/html/V7/3d.html. A critique can also be found at: http://journal.rts.edu/article/owning-our-past-the-spirituality-of-the-church-in-history-failure-and-hope/. ↩
- Matthew 28:19 ↩
- We will not be perfect people, of course, but we should strive to do as well as we can. ↩
- Matthew 5:16 ↩
- Matthew 7:12 ↩
- The FBI states that human trafficking is believed to be “the third-largest criminal activity in the world.” It is vital that we recognize the atrocities committed in the past, and those continued today. https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/civil-rights/human-trafficking ↩
- Luke 16:20-21 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- James 2:20 ↩
- James 1:27 ↩
- Matthew 4:4 ↩
- 2 Timothy 3:16 ↩
- Romans 15:4 ↩
- Micah 6:8 ↩
- Isaiah 1:17 ↩
- Amos 5:21-24 ↩