RPM, Volume 18, Number 41, October 2 to October 8, 2016

How Do We Do Social Justice? (VII)

Which Jesus: The Revolutionary of the Reformer?

By Ron Gleason

The title of David Wells' new book puts our current dilemma within what historically has been called evangelicalism into perspective: The Courage to Be Protestant. That's a provocative title in "our time" because it should require us to reflect—seriously—upon what it means to be a Protestant in the 21st century. The point to which modern day evangelicalism has devolved gives us a very accurate snapshot of what Protestantism isn't in the 21st century. When the Evangelical Theological Society is welcoming open theists warmly, you know evangelicalism is in deep trouble. Personally, I've come to the point in my life where I no longer want to be called an evangelical. The term Christian will do, Presbyterian Christian is acceptable, or Reformed is adequate; anything except evangelical.

In our time, people like Brian McLaren, Jim Wallis, Rob Bell, and Jeremiah Wright would qualify for the moniker evangelical. You might as well add Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann to the list. I tell you this because in a number of our latest issues we've been studying how the modern Church might be more effective in actually helping Christians find ways to alleviate poverty. In order to make our case, we have examined a number of biblical texts and concepts. What never ceases to amaze me is that as soon as you start down this biblical path there is the ubiquitous pomo (maybe even a Christian pomo) who wants to start a discussion about Iraq, Republicans, or the Christian Right. Excuse me? What is the topic again? Almost inevitably, whatever McLaren, Wallis, or Kristen Bell say or write is absolutely true—relatively speaking, of course—while the exegesis of others goes pretty much unnoticed. I'm not just talking about my exegesis of passages, but also those of our rich Christian heritage that have painstakingly and accurately laid out the text for us.

What is all the more ironic in these discussions is that emergent pomos even care. Why should they given their presuppositions? Why do they care? Why, for example, does Bri want us to care for the planet and to be concerned about poverty? In other words, from what inviolable standard are we to judge everything to be relative? Or, from which relative standard are we to judge McLaren's musings to be inviolable? It is this ridiculous back-and-forth that is rapidly becoming incredibly tedious. In fact, David Wells' words aptly describe McLaren, Wallis, Bell, Miller, Pagitt, and Anne Lamott: "They began as rebels and ended up as little-minded conformists. Postmoderns are not boring—at least not yet—but they are very trivial." 1 Indeed. Tedious is their default setting.

That being the case, I'm convinced that the best way to proceed is to set forth the biblical case and let the pomo emergents rant. Don't get me wrong: I am more than willing to discuss matters with them, but they ought not to expect me to answer in the frivolous, flippant, relativistic manner that they do. As Wells reminds us, "it is important to remember that culture does not give the church its agenda. All it gives the church is its context. The church's belief and mission come from the Word of God…. It is not the culture that determines the church's priorities. It is not the (post)modern culture that should be telling it what to think." 2

I mention this precisely because it is the trajectory—and has been from the outset—of McLaren's theology—if you can actually call what he does theology. For example, his cutting-edge character, Neo, an ole Bri knockoff, keeps urging us towards a "new framework,"—which, by the way, is the recurrent theme in Bri's new book—in which we ask, "not which religion is true, but which religion is good." 3 This is one of the primary reasons that Bri disdains what he calls the conventional doctrine of hell. It's conventional, you see; contextual, but certainly not biblical. His desire is for everyone in our postmodern culture to forge their private, subjective, contextualized understanding of Christ. For this and a host of other reasons, his book A Generous Orthodoxy is neither generous nor orthodox. It is anything but generous to traditional, historical Christianity and his musings do not qualify for what the Church has judged to be orthodoxy. "The author has apparently no respect for those who have gone before him and who contributed the classical understandings of Christian faith." 4 When I read McLaren, Wallis, Bell, and other emergents I am left with the distinct impression that Christianity has very little to do with truth—except what they deem to be truth; to be for the greater good of mankind. Their works are about everything except truth. To coin Doug Groothuis' words, they have "truth decay."

Private and Social Ethics

Scripture speaks clearly about both what we are to do as individuals as well as socially. God does not give us two sets of universal standards or norms; one for the secularist and another for the Christian. All are held to the same standard. Sodom and Gomorrah were not judged by a different standard of righteousness by God, but rather by the one standard that God applies across the board—universally.

Therefore, whether we are "doing" individual ethics or social ethics, our source for such decisions is Scripture. A problem arises, however, because so many today are almost totally bereft of a biblical worldview. Moreover, "We the people" have capitulated and abdicated so much over such a long period of time that we are flummoxed when the government doesn't step in and perform acts of mercy that truly belong to the domain of Christ's Church.

To summarize what we've learned up to this point: We have been focusing on the biblical notion of "gleaning" from the Old Testament and we have derived that recipients of biblical charity were to be diligent workers. There was no place for the lazy or the sluggard. It is safe to say that those who were entirely or severely disabled were excluded from this arrangement.

Second, we took due note of the fact that with the exception of the Levitical disbursements for the needy, biblical charity was privately dispensed.

Third, we ended last week by stating that biblical charity was also discriminatory. That is to say, "Biblical charity knows nothing of promiscuous handouts to sluggards." 5 This corresponds to what we are taught in 2 Thessalonians 3:10. 6 Grant continues and reminds us of this essential point: "In Acts 20, the Apostle Paul admonished the elders of the Ephesian church to exercise discriminatory oversight in their congregation." 7 This leads me to ask this: how many of our postmodern churches and emergent conversationalists are taking the requisite time to train their Elders and Deacons so that they function as Scripture prescribes? It's one thing to carp that what I'm writing won't work; it's quite another thing to train your Elders and Deacons and try it. I agree wholeheartedly, therefore, with Grant when he writes, "In this day of institutionalized guilt and federalized pity, we must make certain that we measure our conceptions of justice, mercy, and compassion against God's standards in Scripture. Justice that does not discriminate between the worthy and unworthy is not true justice, no matter what the ACLU says. Mercy that does not discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving is not true mercy." 8

Proverbs 6:6-11 is particularly instructive in this regard. "Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man." In Proverbs 19:15 we read, "Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger," and in 21:25-26 this wisdom is imparted to us: "The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor. All day long he craves and craves, but the righteous gives and does not hold back." The spiritual lesson is this: "Willing to labor long and hard, the gleaner was the recipient of regular charity. Unwilling to lift a hand, the sluggard was not." 9 These texts are not the Christian Right speaking, but rather the voice of God. Christians ought to say "amen" to these scriptures across the spectrum of Right or Left because they are God's words.

This is a far cry from what our government welfare programs envision. Not only have they been failures in terms of actually solving the various problems associated with poverty, but in the process, they have created wards of the state, dependent on it for subsistence rather than producing free men and women and liberating them both from poverty as well as government handouts.

Our fourth point on how churches can begin to administer biblical aid to those in need is taken from Deuteronomy 23:24-25: "If you go into your neighbor's vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. If you go into your neighbor's standing grain, you may pluck the ear with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor's standing grain."

This text is highly instructive vis-ˆ-vis modern congregational charity to those in true need. In the first place, we are not to be stingy with our aid for sustenance. If a family is in need of groceries, we should supply that to them out of the wealth of blessings that the Lord has bestowed upon us. Giving a family a couple of packages of "ramen" soup just won't cut it. Deacons and their congregations should ensure that the food pantries are well stocked for those who are in need.

Second, there is a caveat or disclaimer attached to the Deuteronomy text. Whoever ate the grapes was not allowed to stuff extra grapes in their pockets/bags. That is to say, you couldn't eat your fill and then take some for the road. This doesn't mean of course that if we give people food they have to eat it in our presence before they leave the church! This is a silly qualification to have to make, but remember: we are dealing with pomos and other Emergent church folks as I write this. They are very thin-skinned folk, ready to cry "Foul!" at the drop of a hat.

Third, you can't harvest what isn't yours. Don't put the sickle to the standing grain. That is illegal. Beisner summarizes this way: "Gleaners were not to harvest a surplus above their own immediate needs that they might sell at profit; that would be theft." 10 Beisner's comments are worthy of reflection. What was to be gleaned was simply what was needed. It should not be the case that the farmer should raise his crops only to have a gleaner come along and take what he hadn't worked to raise and sell it. That constituted theft.

These principles should be discussed among Elders, Deacons, and their respective congregations. Among our goals for Christian charity ought to be the presentation of the gospel, recognizing that regeneration is one of the greatest needs of those seeking charity. Moreover, another goal ought to be to teach those in need to support themselves and, later, their families and others. In other words, we should be striving to extricate them from the realm of poverty and make them independent when it comes to looking to others for aid. We should certainly be aiming at getting them "unhooked" from their dependence on state-controlled welfare.

What did people do when there was no governmental "safety net"? The short answer is they fended for themselves, family helped, and the church stepped in as well. Now, just about the only expectation is that "Government Man" will come to the rescue. Isn't it time we got back to biblical thinking and acting? Isn't it time that we got serious about having a biblical worldview for ourselves and passing it on to others?


  1. David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), p. 101.
  2. Ibid., 98.
  3. Ibid., 86. Italics mine.
  4. Ibid., 87.
  5. George Grant, Bringing in the Sheaves, (Atlanta: American Vision, 1985), p. 82.
  6. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.
  7. Grant, BITS, 83.
  8. Ibid., 84.
  9. Ibid., 85.
  10. E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001), p. 208.
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.