“Gospel issue” should not be shorthand for “you must be passionate about all the same things I’m passionate about.” Nor should it be synonymous with notions of “building the kingdom” or “transforming the culture.” By the same token, preachers must be careful lest they allow CNN and Fox News, not to mention Twitter and Facebook, to set the agenda for their weekly pulpit ministry. If pastors in our day let cultural concerns crowd out the preaching of new birth, repentance, and justification by faith alone, it wouldn’t be the first time in the church’s history that the “gospel” became more social than gospel.
There is a simple, straightforward answer to the question posed in the title of this post: it depends.
Is social justice a gospel issue? That depends on what we mean by “social justice” and what we mean by “gospel issue.”
What Is Social Justice?
I’ve written before that social justice a nebulous term, unassailable to some and arousing suspicion in others. For some Christians, if you aren’t into social justice, then you must not care about racism or abortion or sexual assault or inequality or the imago dei itself. Conversely, if you put in a good word for social justice around other Christians, they may assume you hug trees and hate police officers. The term has no shared meaning, or at least no precise definition we all agree on.
As far as we know, the term “social justice” dates to the 1840s when it was first used by a Jesuit philosopher named Luigi Taparelli (1793-1862). Taparelli was a strong supporter of Papal authority and a conservative Catholic who argued that social inequality was not a violation of justice but a byproduct of justice, which he understood to be the right ordering of constitutional arrangements. Taparelli’s use of “social justice” bears little resemblance to how the term is used in common conversation today.
Before we can evaluate the connection between social justice and the gospel, we have to know what we mean by the former. If “social justice” entails specific policy proposals, certain candidates Christians should (or shouldn’t) support, and definite conclusions about economic and racial disparities, mass incarceration, immigration reform, and a host of other debatable topics, then we ought to be extremely cautious about linking something as politically prescriptive as social justice with something as universally salvific as the gospel.
Of course, Christians can (and should) have biblically informed convictions about policy proposals, candidates, and any number of controversial subjects. I would never wish to shut out Christian citizens and Christian thinking from the thorniest problems of our day. Some arguments are better than others. But we must distinguish between good and bad arguments and Christian and non-Christians positions. On the right, I sometimes hear that if you care about abortion (which, according to the Bible, is a sin) you must support Trump, while from the left, I hear that if you care about racism (which, according to the Bible, is also a sin) you must never support Trump. While I certainly have my opinions about our President, the church must not go beyond its God-given authority and power in binding the consciences of her members to positions or conclusions that honest Christians can disagree on.