Social Ethics for the Gospel-Centered
Lessons learned from Russ Moore’s journal article:“The Kingdom of God in the Social Ethics of Carl F. H. Henry”
P.J. tibayan | JANUARY 16, 2019 | 6 MIN READ
How shall we follow the Lord Jesus as Christians in our tumultuous socio-political context today? Every generation of Christians in every geographical context answers this question with their churches and lives. Various Christian teachers and self-centered tendencies within complexify, confuse, and discourage me from clarifying my stance and moving forward confidently.
Am I too political? Am I losing the Gospel? Is it OK for me to be indifferent to some of the pain and injustice brought to my attention?
Thankfully Dr. Russell Moore, president of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, feels and understands the tension. He clarifies the issues so that we can confidently, clearly, and courageously follow Jesus in my church and in our society.
In 2012, Moore published “The Kingdom of God in the Social Ethics of Carl F.H. Henry: A Twenty-First Century Evangelical Reappraisal” in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.
The main idea is that a proper understanding of the kingdom of God eschatalogically (doctrinally dealing with end times), soteriologically (doctrinally dealing with salvation), and ecclessiologically (doctrinally dealing with the church) effectively guides a Christian social ethic.
For my edification and for those reading, here are the key lessons I took away and hope to internalize for gospelizing and discipling my church and neighbors for the sake of the nations.
The Kingdom, Social Ethics, and Eschatology
When you apply the kingdom of God eschatalogically to social ethics, you will avoid isolationism on the one hand and triumphalism on the other.
If you remember that the end-time kingdom is “already” here in some sense then you will not disengage or isolate yourself or your church from social involvement (Mark 12.31, Luke 10.25-37) because you know that the people of the world need the good news of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, if you remember the kingdom has not yet consummated the end times then you will avoid triumphalism, overconfidence, and a short-sightedness that ignores the eternal condemnation of the unbelieving (John 3.36).
The Kingdom, Social Ethics, and Soteriology
Salvation necessarily includes initial, progressive, and final salvation (my own categorization).
Initial salvation includes conversion, justification by faith alone (Rom 3.21-31, 5.12-21, Gal 1.8-9, 2.15-16), and personal regeneration (Eph 2.1-5). Progressive salvation includes “sanctification,” better called “transformation” (Phil 2.12-13).
The first error Christians can make here is embracing a socio-political gospel (or the “social gospel“ that Christianity is defined by social action rather than by doctrines about and experiences with Jesus) because it erases initial salvation by confusing it with progressive and final salvation. The opposite error is following an “evangelism-only Christianity” that excludes the necessary implications and applications of progressive salvation of living out a life in which all aspects are transformed by the Gospel.
Therefore, reject the socio-political gospel and embrace the sola fide gospel (the gospel of justification by faith alone). At the same time, reject the notion that evangelism alone is our mission. Our mission is a discipleship that is holistic in pressing through from initial salvation to progressive salvation (Matt 28.19-20).
The Kingdom, Social Ethics, and Ecclesiology
The doctrine of the local church is crucial for discipleship and ethics, both personally and socially. When one understands the church as an embassy and expression of the kingdom of God but not its fullness, the church can avoid two corresponding errors.
The first error is being consumed by a burden for the world and its socio-political brokenness that you neglect the primary importance of building up your local church. The opposite error is to be consumed exclusively by spiritual and (truncated) ecclessiological concerns that you neglect gospelizing your particular socio-political (historical-cultural) context of sin and brokenness (e.g. Islamic societies may understand the immorality of LGBT issues but not the rights of women that the Western societies understand, and vice versa).
Churches and their members, therefore, ought to reveal truth and a true politic in their churches (John 13.34-35, 17.21, Eph 3.10). Simultaneously, churches and Christians must speak and engage their socio-political situation prophetically and confidently (Matt 14.4, Acts 17.16-31; 24.24-25).
To summarize, local churches and their members should engage, preach, and focus.
First, engage your society while realizing this world will be inevitably broken in some ways until Jesus returns. Second, preach the gospel of justification by faith alone centrally while applying the gospel and the common grace it enables to every area of the Christian’s and society’s life. Third, focus on truth-filled, confessional, disciplined, grace-filled, holy, and healthy churches that speak and engage their socio-political context. If we don’t we will confuse the gospel with good works on the one hand or cut off common and saving grace to our neighbors on the other. Worst of all, we will not follow Jesus faithfully. But if we engage, preach, and focus we will clarify the gospel, adorn it with the necessary good works, and channel common and saving grace through our engagement.
Russell Moore concludes, “What matters is that evangelical Christianity embrace a Kingdom vision that leads to the mystery of Christ and love for his church” (397).
I would only add, from this matrix of love for Christ and his church, let us love our neighbors to the very same gospel-driven degree that we love ourselves.
P.J. Tibayan is a pastor-theologian of Bethany Baptist Church in Bellflower, CA, where he lives with his God-fearing and beautiful wife and their five children. He writes at gospelize.me and helps lead The Gospel Coalition LA Regional Chapter and the Shepherd LA Conference (for pastors). He is currently a doctoral student (DMin) in Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary working on the book of Revelation.