RPM, Volume 18, Number 40, September 25 to October 1, 2016

How Do We Do Social Justice? (VI)

By Ron Gleason

Choosing Secular Ways Instead of Scriptural Ones to Help the Poor

Just last weekend I heard another one of my evangelical colleagues praying for revival. For much of evangelicalism today, revival is the default setting or doxological panic button. For every ill in society, we need revival, so the evangelical mantra goes. Don't get me wrong: I'm not against revival per se, but it seems to me that what we need substantially more is reformation. Once true reformation occurs, then—and only then—should we be talking about revival; and then only about a specific kind of revival. Historically, the Second Great Awakening was thoroughly Arminian and the modern Church is still reaping the saccharine, effeminate whirlwind that it produced. To make matters worse, the modern Church is without a compass when it comes to engaging the culture. Ironically, evangelicals don't know what's wrong with the culture because they don't know what's wrong with the evangelical church. On fewer occasions have the saved been so lost.

During the Second Great Awakening, revivalists like the now infamous Charles Finney "reviled churches for their formality and openly attacked their piety, liturgy, and clergy…. Finney and his followers orchestrated man-made revivals using techniques and manipulations designed to be entertaining and reproducible at any time and place." 1

In his latest book, David Wells issues the same verdict against modern evangelicalism. He writes, "In the last two or three decades evangelicals have discovered culture. That actually sounds more flattering that I intend. I would welcome a serious discussion about culture. We should be exploring what it is and how it works, rather than just looking at polls to see what is hot. A serious engagement with culture, though, is not what most evangelicals are about." 2 What, then, does Wells believe evangelicals are "about?" "They want to know what the trends and fashions are that are ruffling the surface of contemporary life. They have no interest at all in what lies beneath the trends, none on how our modernized culture in the West shapes personal horizons, produces appetites, and provides us ways of processing the meaning of life…. Pragmatists to the last drop of blood, these evangelicals are now in the cultural waters, not to understand what is there, but to get some movement." 3

All of the foregoing is a kind of prelude to what I want to continue to say about Christians "doing" social justice. As often as not, if Christians speak about biblical methods, evangelicals are so steeped in pragmatism and so used to denigrating the Old Testament or ignoring it altogether that the tendency is to throw up our hands and say, "It's too complex. Too much water is over the dam; you simply cannot reverse the welfare problem in America." It surprises me that some pastors will take that approach and yet lament the immorality and poverty in our country. Therefore, as a Reformed pastor, I'm going to continue to lay out what I believe the Bible teaches on this matter and let the reader decide.

We have been saying that the Church is under no obligation to dole out money or food indiscriminately. A little later on, we'll talk more about a difficult term: discrimination, and look at its positive use. It doesn't always have to connote racism or bigotry. That needs to be said, because anytime Christians attempt to exercise biblical discernment these days, there is always the bleeding heart theological liberal who wants to scream "Foul!" It simply is not the case that the Church must be a spiritualized form of the government.

Calvin Beisner has concluded that 1 Timothy stipulates only two categories of people who are eligible for ongoing support from the Church. He writes, "In sum, Paul considers eligible for systematic financial support by the church only those who (1) have been left alone, unable to care for themselves and depending solely on God (5:5), or (2) are rending service to the church, whether preaching and teaching (5:17, 18)." 4 He continues, "Connection with the church must be seen not as a means of financial gain, but as an opportunity for service." 5 This notion is all but lost on most evangelical churches today. In fact, it's a rarity to find a great deal of exegesis or biblical reference occurring in modern evangelical writings. Perhaps that is why David Wells wrote the following concerning classical theological liberalism: "Liberals said Christianity was about deeds, not creeds. They said it was about life, not doctrine." 6

This is precisely the mantra of Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Don Miller, Doug Pagitt, and the rest of the emergent tribe conversation thing. The main problem is that the longer the "conversation" exists, the more Bible believing Christians have ample cause for alarm. Most recently, the cardinal Christian doctrines that have been called into question by the Emergent church crowd include the atonement, hell, the Second Coming of Christ, homosexuality, and the questions of inerrancy and infallibility will not be long in coming. David Wells describes it this way: "Emergent—at least those who read theology—seem to have stumbled on the postliberals, and this is what is now driving this new understanding of the function of Scripture." 7 It would seem that emergents who read theology are truly few and far between. In fact, it is precisely the sloppy or non-existent exegesis that characterizes and typifies the writings of Wallis and the emergents. Even though they might not use the precise words that Wells uses, it is more than patently clear that Wallis and McLaren, especially in Wallis' and McLaren's latest books, are more about deeds than creeds, although McLaren in particular has long eschewed any creed after Nicaea. 8 This is a very clear and discernible trend in Wallis and McLaren and it is rather surprising to me that serious Christians even give them a second look; in fact, serious, discerning Christians don't. The emergent movement is particularly attractive to the children of mega-church adherents, who received no spiritual legacy from their parents, who were busy being entertained to death. Wells is correct when he says that "Emergents are doctrinal minimalists." 9 In one sense, they are only mimicking what their parents taught or didn't teach them about how full of doctrine Scripture actually is.

It is essential that we fully grasp the above because a lack of scriptural truth will be crucial for developing any type of Christian notion of social ethics. Part of the major problems with Wallis and McLaren (and others) is precisely their lack of appreciation of Scripture, even though they may make, at times, make tangential, albeit tortured, reference to the Bible. How can we expect to derive anything that resembles a biblical worldview vis-ˆ-vis the many social issues that face us today or, a personal ethics, for that matter? Having said that, I want us to understand the concept of poverty from a biblical perspective. There are many good books on the subject, but it seems that each generation has to look at the data anew. Therefore, let us proceed to our further discussion of what Scripture says about poverty and how it should be handled.

More Principles from the Book of Ruth

We've already investigated two principles about Old Testament gleaning from the book of Ruth. As we do this, we will listen to what George Grant wrote a couple of decades ago, but which is still applicable for us today. First, Grant pointed out, it was a law in Israel that required hard work and second, that in ancient Israel charity was almost always done on a private basis. 10 It is his third principle that brings us into a discussion concerning "discrimination." He writes, "Biblical charity knows nothing of promiscuous handouts to sluggards." 11 To the modern mind, this sounds harsh, but it isn't. If Ruth worked, she ate—and so did Naomi; if she sat around waiting for the government to step in and save her, she would be very hungry. This is not unjust, because the author to the letter to the Hebrews reminds us of the following: "For since the message declared by angles proved to be reliable and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?" (Heb. 2:2-3). Laziness is a sin according to the Bible, so that those who chose not to work suffered the consequences of their sinful choices. Moreover, Grant reminds us that biblical discrimination, "far from being a villainous vice, is very often a venerable virtue…. Whereas the Bible explicitly condemns racism, unfairness, and oppression, it condones discrimination." 12 Examples of divine discrimination are readily available. God chose Abram's seed and rejected the surrounding nations. He discriminated between Jacob and Esau (cf. Gen. 25; Rom. 9:13). The wolves must be distinguished from the sheep; the goats from the sheep; and the tares from the wheat. That is not to say that we never care for needy wolves, goats, or tares, but that discrimination and discernment are of the utmost importance. Next week, Lord willing, we'll continue along these lines.


  1. Bradley Heath, Millstones & Stumbling Blocks, (Tucson: Fenestra Books, 2006), p., 74.
  2. David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), p. 3.
  3. Ibid.
  4. E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), p. 204.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Wells, TCBP, 5.
  7. Ibid., 16.
  8. See for instance, A Generous Orthodoxy where he does this repeatedly.
  9. Wells, TCBP, 17.
  10. See George Grant, Bringing in the Sheaves, (Atlanta: American Vision Press, 1985), pp. 80-81.
  11. Ibid., 82.
  12. Ibid.
Subscribe to RPM
RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. Click here to subscribe.