How can we keep Proclamation and Justice in balance?

Mondays are for Discussion

Ed Stetzer had a great discussion at his blog last week. I got in on it so late that no one is going back there to read it. So I thought I would bring my comments over here in a slightly edited version

I have struggled with this question for the last 30 years. The church I planted and pastored for 17 years was in part an outgrowth of this struggle. I was sick of churches that proclaimed but did nothing and others that did something but proclaimed nothing.

Ed Stetzer, has asked which is to have priority, justice or proclamation? My own spin on this is that a wholistic reading of the gospels has to come down on the side of proclamation. I think any significant meditation on the life of Christ as a whole, not just selected parts, has to come to this conclusion. At the same time, the gospel is only truly evidenced by transformed lives that overflow with real tangible compassion for the poor.

One biblical warrant then, proclamation must be prior. But there is also strong reason based on church history, to be extremely cautious about moving justice to the foreground. Let me add a personal reason that, if we all reflect for a moment I think will have broader implications for the entire body of Christ because it is not just personal to who I am but to who we are as human beings.

Bear with me on some background that I know some of you know but others need to have to fully understand the direction of my thought.

Relevant personal history to stave off hate mail for what I am about to say:
The church I started and pastored for 17 years was multi-ethnic (23 countries of birth), started a food pantry that last year gave 23 tons of food to the poor, started a health clinic that last year served its 4000th patient, started a clothing pantry that puts warm clothes on the back of emigrees and appropriate clothing on the backs of parents going for job interviews. We negotiated with the local social service agency in our area to allow their housing coordinator to office out of our building. This year the church will open a dental clinic in the building. There is an eye clinic in the health clinic. And the church has begun to train other churches in how to start food pantries.

Out of this context, I wrote a devotional book, published by Broadman and Holman for those who are searching for a job (currently hoping to republish). The church leadership has received awards from the city for its work with gangs. All of this allowed us be highly personal in all aspects of these compassion/justice related issues. I love that God in his grace has allowed us to do all these things. They are part of the Kingdom of God coming near. But here is the difficulty.

While all of these things are good and laudable and biblical and Christlike they are not the gospel of repent and believe that Jesus preached. We love doing them; we should do them; we will continue to do them. But they are not the gospel itself.

Here’s a bigger problem however. All of these things that we do because of the love that Christ has given us through the gospel are things for which the culture loves us. And that, that thing that they love us for, is the hidden, intoxicating danger. EVERYONE, in the community loves that we do these things. They think that this is what the church and Christians should be doing. Even the atheists in town love us for doing these things. They smile at us. They pat us on the back. They tell us we are wonderful. They tell us that our church is a “real church.”

One mega church leader in our area says that if our church, which is five times smaller than his, disappeared, the whole region would feel the impact. This is intoxicating. And that is why, in some ways, it is easy to do. Who doesn’t like to be told that they are wonderful?

But proclaiming the gospel, the exclusive claims of the gospel, that there is salvation in no one else, that there is no other way to the Father except through Jesus, that hell is real, that heaven is only for those who repent and believe–that message will get you persecuted. And that’s why we will always tend to downplay proclamation in favor of activity.

That’s why we will substitute good deeds for essential proclamation. We love the pats on the back and we don’t like persecution. That’s why proclamation must be prior. That’s why so-called “missional churches” are just playing word games and deluding themselves if they are not evangelistically engaged. The data points of the gospel that Christ died our sins (1 Cor. 15:3) and that all men everywhere are commanded to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15) is critical and prior to everything else we do.

18 thoughts on “How can we keep Proclamation and Justice in balance?

  1. Marty, I haven’t met you in person, but if I do someday, I’m going to give you a big hug. You’re spot on, yet again. Faith without works is useless, and works with faith is not faith. I, like you, know Christians who never do anything with their faith. (Like the woman who told John Maxwell during one of his pastorates that she used her spiritual gifts by “attending church Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night….she was dead serious, too.) Then again, there are others who want to “do,” but not “be.” (There are many in my generation like this.)


  2. Great post, Prof! As someone who has engaged in social justice and outreach in ministry, I am in total agreement with you on this. Gospel proclamation MUST take precedence over social justice. In fact, such precedence is an indispensable aid to social justice. Without the urgency of the gospel to contextualize our outreach, we inadvertently (but nonetheless disastrously) communicate that

    (1) the act of outreach is God’s mission for the church and
    (2) the effects of outreach accomplish God’s ultimate good for the recipients of said outreach.

    So non-believers end up thinking that God merely wants to meet their needs. Are the needs of the poor, marginalized, and outcast often legitimate before the face of God? Absolutely. Has God worked through the Church to meet those needs? Absolutely. However, if gospel proclamation is not the horse pulling the social justice/outreach cart., then we’ll have folks with filled bellies, clean water, and justice who are damned for eternity. So when Jesus heals the paralytic (Mk. 2:1-12), he frames the healing to give a broader vision for his God-given authority to forgive sins. Here, the man’s need for forgiveness was the horse pulling the cart of his healing.

    Also, if gospel proclamation doesn’t frame outreach and social concern, then we merely arm sinners with more material and status with which to sin more. So to provide loans for micro-finance in Africa without preaching the gospel to would-be business persons merely provides sinners with more raw material with which to sin more. Am I saying that we should only help folks who receive Christ as Lord and Savior? NO WAY. BUT it is incumbent upon Christ-followers to frame the aid we are giving to people by preaching the gospel. Among other things, this conveys the idea that Christ’s lordship empowers Christians to share resources.

    The same lordship makes demands on unbelievers concerning how they live in light of their needs being met. This is why Jesus tells a lame man he healed to stop sinning or something worse would happen to him (Jn. 5:14). The man’s repentance would occasion responsible stewardship of his miraculous restoration! The same thing is implied in Lk. 11:L24-26 when Jesus strongly suggests that if righteousness does not fill the void left after a demon has been cast out, then the demon would return with his friends to bring worse ruin on a person.

    The prioritization of gospel proclamation–along with its promise of forgiveness and demand for repentance–fully fleshes out Jesus’s long-term vision for kind of outreach and social concern he calls his people to. All else is well-meaning but woefully short-sighted.


  3. Marty,
    I think you have parsed well the Scylla and Charybdis of the issues. Either without the other is in vain. Even so, the priority does land on the proclamation for me though I don’t think it is ever an either-or. I picture them in tension almost like the two ends of a rubberband in which they pulls on each other. As we have compassion on the poor, our hearts should be moved to communicate the gospel. As we proclaim the gospel, our efforts should be aimed at the whole person.

    I’ve often wondered if somewhere in here was a big piece of where the Pharisees went wrong. I’m backfeeding some thinking here but much of hyper-conservative Christianity today tends toward the same direction as Phariseeism as I see in the New Testament. Reading about their lives and excessess has been like me looking in a mirror more often than I want to admit.

    I think this topic is VITAL for today’s church. Thanks for engaging the discussion.


  4. Sean, welcome to the conversation brother. it would be interesting to hear from a denominational and seminary leader like yourself on how some of your people are dealing with this balance. How are faculty at the seminary helping students with these kind of issues?


  5. I’ll try to be brief and contribute to this conversation. I believe there is a constant tension between these two and that there is the need to remain focused maintaining a proper balance.

    Yet, I think everything ministry has it’s emphasis. When we are true to what we are called to do it bears much fruit. It appears that that is your testimony. I say, be what you are. We cannot be all things to all men. Not every church will be evangelistic at its core. Some, water, some plant.

    All of this would work much better if the body understood this an would then work cooperatively and not competitively.

    Our mission is to creatively introduce the gospel of the kingdom, equip the local body through teaching and be a resource to the body. We understand this, we live for this, we do it unapologetically. The body is organic, I encourage you to be what God made you. You’re complimenting the whole body. Who are we to say we have no need of you?


    1. Nolan, thanks for joining the conversation brother. Good to have you aboard. I think you bring up a good point/principle: Be who you are, and you are right, there is always a tension here, (See Sean’s comment above and reference to Greek mythology)

      I like your second point evn more. Our witness would work so much better if we worked more cooperatively as churches and celebrated the diversity of our ministries. Great point.

      Minor push back: I think all of us need to continually work at being more effective and faithful on the evangelistic front as we concentrate on being who we are uniquely in and for our communities.


  6. As I worked through the thread, I came to realize that we are not being presented with an either/or choice; we are being directed to a both/and. In short, my hands and feet must reflect what my mouth is saying, my mouth must be explaining and supporting what my hands and feet are doing–all consistent with the Word of God.

    I must present Romans 12:2 in all aspects of my life and walk.


  7. Marty, you’ve done a great job of addressing a critical issue — we tend to do, or at least prioritize, what we get pats on the back for doing. We all have to do deep soul searching to make sure that our priorities are in line with God’s.

    When Paul rehearsed his Ephesian ministry in Acts 20, the emphasis is heavily on proclamation — preaching, declaring, and “testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (v. 24). At the same time, he modeled a lifestyle that taught the Christians that “we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive'” (v. 35). This, to me, is holistic mission.

    Some people find Christopher Wright’s language helpful (The Mission of God, IVP Academic, 2006). Wright is a “holist” and is uncomfortable with speaking of the “priority” of evangelism. He believes that “the language of ‘priority’ implies that all else is ‘secondary’ at best (317). Wright prefers, instead, to speak of the “ultimacy” of evangelism, rather than its primacy. in the context of the HIV/AIDS crisis, Wright suggests that a holistic response includes compassionate care for its victims, education, and engagement in the political and economic dimensions of the crisis. Christian reponse is not complete, however, without “sensitive evangelistic witness” which is “the ultimate thing, the thing that holds all the other imperative responses together within a truly Christian worldview in which death is not the ultimate thing” (439).

    I would also add that, while it is not either/or, the body of Christ as a whole needs to be intentionally witnessing the gospel in both Word and deed, individual parts will inevitably find themselves focusing on one or the other.


  8. The gas pedal and the brake on a car have contradictory functions (not that evangelism and justice are contradictory) but within the context of a car’s purpose both are necessary to have a fully functioning vehicle. The body should do both, but I suspect that a lot of maintenance and repair will be required. The #1 sign that evangelism has had it’s intended effect in your life is if you love, which I think includes justice at some level. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

    PS. Send someone to Plainfield to start a missional church.


  9. John: Brevity, clarity and wisdom. Romans 12:2 is the perfect verse for the discussion. Thank you brother.

    Anthony: Good to hear from you brother. Not sure I completely agree with Wright, (but I also haven’t read him like you have), but I do like the word “ultimacy.” Good post. I like what you say here.

    Doug: “A fully functioning vehicle” not a bad metaphor for the church. My organic friends will balk at the mechanistic picture but that is not what you are driving at (pun intended). A fully functioning body needs to be involved in both evangelism and compassion ministries. One without the other is going to wreck (another pun intended).

    P.S. I am looking for a church planter in the Montgomery/Aurora area right now. I’ll let you know when God raises him up.


  10. Thanks, Marty. I also do not completely agree with Wright, but the book has many excellent insights and is well-worth working through. My biggest criticism is that he assumes that the mission of the church includes every aspect of the mission of God. I believe there are some areas of God’s mission, such as the redemption of creation, which set the agenda for Christian ethics, but are not within the domain of the church’s mission. Wright is an ethicist and I think he sometimes confuses ethics and mission.


  11. Anthony,

    “I believe there are some areas of God’s mission, such as the redemption of creation, which set the agenda for Christian ethics, but are not within the domain of the church’s mission.”

    Would you please define “redemption of creation”

    Thank you, John


  12. Good question, John. I can’t define it, because I’m not sure what it will ultimately look like. The idea of “redemption” comes from Romans 8:18-25 where Paul seems to be saying that the “redemption of our bodies” will have some kind of parallel in the larger creation. My point was that, while God values the creation so much so that he will eventually redeem it (whatever that will look like), we should value and care for it, too. IMHO, creation care differs from mission, however, in that it is not the task that Jesus has specifically sent the church into the world to do.


    1. Anthony, I like the humility and the distinction you make in your answer. Redemption of the creation, “is not the task that Jesus has specifically sent the church to do.” I agree.

      It will be part of the progressive effect of our redeemed lives through the preaching of the gospel but it will not be fully realized this side of the second coming of Christ. But if our lives are truly redeemed, if the life of Christ is truly flowing in us, we will care about and for the creation in ways different from how we did prior to our conversion.


  13. I think we have to go back to Gen. 1:26-28 here to get a sense of what our original (pre-Fall) task was and realize that a part of our transformation from glory into glory involves a resumption of our stewardship of Creation. It is part of our calling and like other portions of our transformation is a striving rather than an accomplishment.

    Sounds to me as if the conversation is beginning to take on a tripartite nature: proclamation/justice/stewardship and the Lord says, “Care for all aspects of My Creation.”


    1. John, I think you’re right. And whether you meant to or not I think you got them in a right order (in my opinion).

      Proclamation is primary and leads
      Justice is secondary and follows because all people are made in God’s image.
      And Stewardship is third because it doesn’t always involve people who are the pinnacle of God’s creation.

      All must be companioned together, because Jesus is Lord over all and expects us to reflect that Lordship in the activities of our lives.


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