How the Church gets Justice Wrong (and How to Begin Getting it Right)

There is no better time to explore the relationship between making disciples and living as disciples in the world, or the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

At their simplest levels, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission follow the distinction between law and gospel. A young lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40).

 

Although God’s Word is not a manual for cultural transformation, good theology creates a horizon for reimagining our relationships with one another as well as with God. Likewise, toxic theology, or even good theology perverted in the service of empire and ideology, has had disastrous cultural effects.

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. Evangelicals score high marks for charity (giving what we do not owe), but, in comparison with other traditions, evangelicalism has lacked the depth of theological reflection on justice (giving what we do owe).

Part of this is due to the tendency in the church’s history to separate the Great Commission given to her from the Great Commandment given to all human beings. Some culture warriors on the right have claimed recently that “social justice” is code for secular humanism. Its very mention should raise “Red” (i.e., Marxist) flags.

Today, however, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, toward collapsing the former into the latter, or the Great Commission into the Great Commandment. Both of these extremes exhibit a tendency to undervalue the distinct importance of both callings, as if everything that is worthwhile for Christian engagement must somehow be subsumed under the church’s commission and ministry. Both of these extremes separate the Great Commission from the Great Commandment.

There is therefore no better time to explore the relationship between making disciples and living as disciples in the world, or the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

At their simplest levels, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission follow the distinction between law and gospel. A young lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40).

Jesus was simply repeating Moses (Lev. 19:18; Deut. 6:5). The second is like the first not only because it summarizes the second table of the law (love for neighbor), but because love for God is inextricable from love of fellow image-bearers. Of course the Great Commission is also a command, but it differs from the Great Commandment in several ways.

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