• The division that drives us

    Posted by Steve

    31 March, 2011

    There is an age old debate within the Christian faith; one that will not ever be permanently resolved this side of the second coming. It's the contentious "battle" between social justice and evangelism - global justice verses personal salvation; social worker verses street preacher.

    As someone who pours the majority of their energy into the field of international development and advocacy for the poor, I obviously have a propensity towards social justice a significant expression of my Christian faith. And to be honest it took me a very long time come to terms with those who couldn't see my side of the coin as clearly as I could. I recall conversations in years gone by where I've debated Christians who I know are more focused on the evangelism "side" of things than I am; but nothing I said was particularly effective in changing their minds, and nothing they said ever convinced me of the need to advance the gospel more overtly than I already was. My conviction was that God's Spirit would work through my life, deeds, love and (yes) words to draw people to himself, much as He did me when I saw others serving their community and confronting injustice so selflessly.

    However, after just a few years of existence in this conundrum, I've been led to a new understanding of the gospel and how the church shares it with the world.

    God, you see, made me a particular way. I am furiously tormented by the injustices existing around the globe and grieve for the people who, through no fault of their own, live through poverty and degradation. How then do I relate to others in the church whose inspiration may not be the same?

    One possible way is continued conversation, debate and teaching from either side of this apparent division until we each arrive in a harmonious centre. The problem is the "centre" for each group is different! I've seen some great examples of this "centre" at work, at specific Christian festivals or denominations, only to have others emerging from those places questioning whether or not "the gospel was preached" because from their viewpoint evangelism was apparently absent.

    The reality is that there is no centre. As much as we would like to arrive at the same place and move the entire church family forward in unison, we appear destined for misalignment and dispute. But what if that is the right way to be? What if that is how God's true character, righteousness, compassion and holiness are truly revealed in the world - through a dispersed and often disjointed body of believers. What if the "centre" is more like a "circle"?

    Let me elaborate a little.

    There are very few areas within the Christian faith where there is complete cohesion. Even when we look at some central truths of Christianity where there is agreement, discussion can move to closely linked, yet more contentious, issues that quickly lead to disagreement. But despite these differences, but I rarely disagree with their perspectives in their entirety. Instead, I only feel compelled to express them differently.

    If I believe in God's completeness and consistency, and also accept my own limited understanding and fallibility, I can more readily see the truth of God's Kingdom and love in those whom I might otherwise experience disconnection with.

    I'm reminded of the Chinese "ying and yang" symbol; where the completeness of the circle is only seen when these two opposite and equally intriguing parts are brought together. Richard Rohr uses this symbol to explain the beautiful difference between male and female, and how only when they are together do you get a full and genuine image of God in whom we are all created. Generally speaking, men and women can often be polar opposite in their perspectives and personalities, but we all bear God's image. Perhaps it's the same in this instance; perhaps only by seeing both our social justice and evangelism "shapes" combined do we see the true reflection of what God is up to in this world.

    In a recent interview about the 'Whole Church', Chris Wright said that "the Church must also be whole by being a community of reconciled sinners, who knows what it is to be reconciled to God and to one another".

    This division between social action and evangelism drives us in living out the gospel, and as we are reconciled to each other - despite these differences - our witness bears more integrity. I would not be nearly so aware of my own passions and God-given sense of justice if I had not grown up in a context where that was strangely absent. I found new sense of purpose in my faith through the challenge of how Christians should respond to global poverty and the systematic injustices that prevent people from living full lives. I have equally discovered meaning as I have interacted with Christians who have different perspectives than me - some of them emerging from backgrounds where embracing a personal salvation through Jesus not given enough emphasis.

    Now yes, there are a number of significant theological issues and debates that often underpin these positions and these issues deserve our persistent and prayerful exploration. But surely we have missed the unifying power of God's Kingdom if we allow our different theological answers to overshadow the fact that the Gospel has brought us miraculously to a place where we are asking the same theological questions. The questions we struggle with reflect our unity even though we sometimes arrive at different edges of the same circle.

    Those who drive their interactions with others from a purely evangelistic agenda will always challenge me; they will always ask me, "at what point do you actually tell someone about Jesus?" And I will always challenge those who sometimes approach people only as souls to be saved without any regard for the physical injustices that torment their well-being, especially since Jesus spent so much time addressing these same things. But until we realise and accept that we are simply sitting in different parts of the same circle, rather than the other side of a fence, or the high side of a see-saw, we will miss valuable opportunities to edify each other as we seek to bear witness to the redemption, salvation and restoration that we all agree permeates the teachings of Jesus.


    Steve Cooke works with World Vision's advocacy team and is a member of the Micah Challenge Campaign Strategy Group. He is passionate about helping Australian churches better understand the issues facing developing nations, and to make informed responses to poverty and injustice.