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Those who believe that Christianity is being co-opted by a leftist ideology tend to throw around the term “social gospel”. To bring the gospel into conversation with social problems like racism or poverty, in their mind, is a distortion of the Christian faith. Jesus came to die for our sins by taking upon himself the wrath of God. Salvation, in this context, is personal—it is reconciliation with God for all who believe. Therefore, applying the gospel to social issues is to confuse justification and sanctification. The problem with this perspective?—it isn’t biblical.

Luke sets the gospel within a much larger political and social context. References to Caesar and Herod aren’t for historical information, they show the oppressive demonic forces opposed to God’s kingdom. Same with the religious leaders and their obsession with moral and religious purity. The political and religious context of Jesus’ ministry unmasks a web of systems that dehumanize and destroy. Otherwise, why would Jesus take the time to heal lepers, sending them to the High Priest to show they were clean? Why does the book of Acts refer to Paul’s conflict with the idol makers in Ephesus if the gospel doesn’t have socio-political implications? Doesn’t Paul undercut the dominant cultural categories of the day in Galatians when he writes in Christ there is no male/female or Jew/gentile or slave/free? More importantly, when he says in Ephesians that our struggle is no longer against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers, was he serious?

The gospel isn’t just personal because it’s not only about me and Jesus. Relegating faith to some abstract self untouched by culture is to render the gospel powerless, turning the cross into nothing more than ornamental decoration. It also provides justification for living however we want; or worse, it baptizes a white, Western, way of life as THE Christian way of life.

In my part of the world, those opposed to listening to the voices of African Americans, undocumented immigrants, and refugees, are the same people who put their trust in capitalism. They see the God of the bible present in the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith. They think they are somehow beyond any form of ideology even as they give allegiance to money and, implicitly, corporate power. The writings of French sociologist Jacques Ellul speaks about money, not as a neutral form of exchange, but as a demonic force—what the bible calls Mammon. According to Ellul, the prophetic task of the Christian community is oppose the “new demons” by renouncing the powers of this world by living a life of sacrificial love. This isn’t a soft form of love that social gospel opponents rail against, it’s a strong love that confronts the powers of this world. Speaking of the prophetic task of the Christian community, Ellul writes:

The Christian should serve as intermediary or mediator between the powerful and the oppressed. The Christian is the spokesperson appointed by God for the oppressed. Those who are imprisoned need an advocate. Those who have been dismissed from the world’s memory…need an intercessor…The Christian is necessarily on the side of the poor—not to incite them to revolution, hatred, and violence, but to plead their cause before the powerful and the authorities. If need be, the Christian must break down the doors of the powerful and declare the claims of love and justice.

Ellul, Essential Spiritual Writings, 132

The Christian community must listen to the voices of the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized. We must oppose every form of hatred, every form of racism and bigotry, and every attempt to silence. This begins with confession—listening to the poor and the oppressed, and confessing our participation in sinful systems that pay hommage to the idols of power and wealth. We must raise our voices against every injustice, every form of oppression, and every attempt to kill and destroy—following the way of Jesus Christ who by his death “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” (Colossians 2:15) Our task is to testify to this good news—the powers of this world have already been overcome.

Call it what you want—I call it the gospel.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

21 Comments

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Could you please fix the first sentence? Thanks.

  • Jason says:

    No strawmen survived this assault.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    “References to Caesar and Herod aren’t for historical information, they show the oppressive demonic forces opposed to God’s kingdom.”

    Exactly. Today we would call this Big Government. You want to say it’s Walmart, but they’re pikers compared to the coercive power of the state. Not too long ago we had a McDonald’s built in our town in part due to the threat of eminent domain. (I can’t believe anyone I know would eat there regularly.) How many corporations have SWAT teams?

    Someday one of you will explain why you think a system of coercion run by sinners is going to be less oppressive than a system of free exchange run by sinners. Because the same people (if we’re extremely lucky) are going to be running those systems.

    • Jason Lief says:

      Why do you make the assumption that I believe a system of coercion run by sinners is a good thing? Ellul’s critique is expansive and includes oppressive government. He’s opposed to every form of ideology and wrote the book on Christian anarchy. In my context those who are worried about the social gospel focus on two issues: immigration and sexuality. Where’s the outrage over greed? Why not take people to task for loving money?

    • Marty Wondaal says:

      Listen Matt, you don’t know everything about me, so don’t judge. Your bigoted assumption (I know you are referring to me) that I eat at that McDonald’s is incorrect. I only drink the coffee there, because, until last month, it was $.99 for a large (free refills).

      You do, however, tangentially, bring up a Social Justice issue. The McDonalds Corporation, which already has enough money, raised our price to $1.71 a cup (still refillable,at least). So my Social Group spends an additional $3.60 every time we meet. That is not Justice, that is Piracy. But what can we do? Starbucks and Dunkin are even more expensive, and too crowded. Even if there was a local independent coffee shop in our suburban Culture Desert that wouldn’t work either. Those places are usually dirty and the people there don’t like people like us.

      I long for the day when Justice flows down like a hot cup of sensibly priced coffee.

      Sorry for my tone. My brackets are trashed, and I’m irritable.

    • Matt Huisman says:

      Fair enough – you’re throwing the book at everyone. But I’m pretty sure Jesus was not an anarchist and being anti-system is almost certainly a very problematic system.

      Money and capitalism have made everyone’s material well-being astoundingly better. If you want to tell us that they haven’t necessarily made us better people – OK. But you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater when you recite lines like “money as demonic force rather than neutral form of exchange”. The money – the system – has done a lot of good that you seem to take for granted.

      • Jason Lief says:

        But capitalism is an ideology, and as such, it is a destructive force the same as socialism. The mechanisms of capitalism are grounded in greed and self profit, hoping that somehow looking out for my interests will spill over into looking out for the interests of others. This is not compatible with the gospel. If money were merely a means of exchange, that would be one thing, but it isn’t – it’s a spiritual force that pervades everything we do. It is the basis upon which we label and judge everything. That is at odds with the gospel. Also, I’m not throwing the book at everyone…I think the gospel does, correct?

        • Jason says:

          Has anyone ever defined capitalism that way? If your beef is with free market ideology, you could at least familiarize yourself with someone like Hayek. Likewise if you wanted to interact with Reformed theologians like Michael Horton in their criticism of Social Gospel (Left or Right) you could do that. Much easier to build strawmen and light them on fire with a butane torch, though.

      • Matt Huisman says:

        Now that I think about it, money is a ‘medium’ of exchange – so either you’re on to something with that spiritual force angle or you used Google translate when reading Ellul.

  • Helen P. says:

    Spot on! This is reminiscent of Crossan’s, “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.”

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    No doubt we all have a lot of listening to do, Jason. I would suggest if the description above is your idea of an accurate description of the majority of those to your right politically/theologically, then you also have not been listening very well. Simply put, you are way off in substance and nuance. Whether you care or not will go a long way to illustrating whether or not you are willing to practice what you preach. This post is mainly red meat for your ideological tribe, and does little to advance Christian discourse. Disappointing.

    • Jason Lief says:

      Thanks for your response. Actually, I’m afraid you’re not paying attention if you think I’m not listening, or posting red meat for my “ideological tribe”. Jacques Ellul takes on ideology in all of it’s forms. Oppressive government and leftist ideology is just as much a part of the new demonic as money. Unfortunately, I rarely hear people who are opposed to the social gospel take on greed–they’re too worried about who’s having sex with whom, whether urinals are located in bathroom stalls, or whether tax payers have to pay for birth control. Christians should oppose ideology in all of it’s manifestations–right, left, red blue, etc. Ellul’s critique is widespread and spares no tribe.

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        Confirmed, you don’t want to listen. I wasn’t speaking at all about Ellul’s critique, but about your rhetoric. Carry on being convinced that you don’t need to listen more carefully. Thanks.

        • Jason Lief says:

          But…the rhetoric of the post is based upon my reading of Ellul, which was the point of my response. And, if you read my responses to others, you’ll see I find leftist ideology just a problematic, in part because I DO listen to my conservative friends who remind me not to become a leftist a-hole. It might help with the former, but not much can be done about the latter…

    • Jessica Groen says:

      Eric, anyone with a teaching career and who has earned graduate degrees, which only can be completed through years of close listening to the texts and ideas of a variety of other writers and thinkers, is a professional and constant listener. Scholar writers have an 80%:20% ratio in the activities of listening:writing in their careers, a ratio which they practice for decades.
      I recommend you listen to Ellul also. Also this podcast episode, by a pair of contemporary Christian scholars, Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burn, is worth taking your time to listen to as you wrestle with acknowledging the truth expressed in Lief’s essay: https://soundcloud.com/passthemicpodcast/on-social-justice-and-the-gospel-part-1

  • William Harris says:

    Living in the land of Steve King, I can understand these comments. But…

    Most of us take our politics from the sociological community where we live. It is not surprising that a person from Ann Arbor has a certain politics, or for that matter that the Dutch dairy farmer also has a certain political framework. We’re embodied, and the challenge for us within the scope of our own life is to manifest and promote the reign of God. The press of acting justly towards our neighbor or of acting for the good of our community is common. Likewise the resistance to the powers of this Age is common to us in our varied sociological settings. E.g. we all struggle with Ellul’s technology (techinque) as it actively seeks to stop our growth into Christian maturity. And technique is but one of the Powers with which we must do.

    So if we face a common task, albeit expressed differently, what is the role of confession? isn’t that a form of perfectionism, one more leftover of individual pietism, of me and Jesus?

    So, too, consider the notion of opposition, itself an inherently reactive stance. If I oppose I do not really have to change, the problem is always with the Other. And to the extent we oppose abstract causes — those general national, international problems– we are only importing our own pre-existing values. Our sociology reigns.

    Rather than think in terms of the political, why not think in terms of diverse voices, that the task of God’s People is to pursue justice and the good of the neighbor in the context of their particular sociological settings? We are open to the seduction of power, money, and the other idols and principalities of the age, what we need is not opposition, but a common cause, a commitment to confess Christ in our public lives as well. This will look different depending on where we are, and I would think that’s ok, perhaps even what God seeks. This finally why opposition doesn’t work, it muffles the summons to proclaim and act on Resurrection.

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