Scot McKnight, New Testament professor and author of The King Jesus Gospel, recently explored an intriguing theme regarding Paul, liberty, and the Kingdom of God. At the heart of this was the question of whether Paul and Jesus were “on the same page” in regards to social justice.
Jesus was overtly social. He spoke against injustice, elevated the poor, challenged His followers to be agents of healing in a world plagued by physical, spiritual, and social disease. His parables are replete with imagery of people breaking through social barriers to embody love (the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, etc) and he backed this up with his life (eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, conversing with and restoring the Samaritan woman, even violently overturning the tables of the temple moneychangers).
Then we get to Paul. Paul seems to instruct women to be silent in church, and submissive to their husbands. He even instructs slaves to be obedient to their masters. Where in all of this is social justice? I loved what Dr. McKnight had to say:
…Paul’s ecclesial vision is a social vision and not simply a spiritual vision. Paul’s gospel creates a new creation community in which justice flourishes. Justification, for instance, is a tool Paul developed for the battle over whether or not Gentiles had to become Jews: Paul’s message was that both Jews and Gentiles were admitted by faith.
That is, Jews didn’t need to be Gentiles (as many would say they need to be today if they find Jesus as Messiah) just as Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews. Paul’s community embodied unity for Jews and Gentiles, not by making them drop their ethnic identities but by making them one in their differences.
Paul’s gospel eviscerates social hierarchies, and the theme here is that in Christ there is “freedom.” Even the household regulations, so often used by slaveowners, are embedded in a narrative of transformation through the gospel story of Jesus: if Jesus stands with the owner, he also stands with the oppressed one. Inherent to Paul’s gospel is that both slave and free are made in God’s image and are now in Christ, giving each a new identity.
The freedom we have in Christ means the follower of Jesus is driven to explore more and more freedom. Freedom is both spiritual and social to Paul — what happens in Christ finds expression in the community.
Paul’s narrative is new creation: we look not to the past but to the kingdom to define our narrative, and we look to new creation to define how the church is to embody the gospel.
In other words, Paul’s “gospel” is only understood through the spiritual AND social dimension found within the gospel of Jesus. Though oppression exists, Paul does not validate that state; rather, he speaks into the midst of it. To the oppressed, his message is that Jesus stands in solidarity with the downcast. Through Jesus, our identities become transformed and we become unified not by our circumstances, but in spite of them. We become One.
That has immediate ramifications for the church. We, as a transformed people, are to be people who transform. As Dr. Scot McKnight phrases it,
Put together this means this: the Christian life is an extension of grace: From God through the Son to the Church to others in the church and world. It is all grace.
Now in social justice terms: the graced community of Christ becomes a grace extending community in Christ, and that means it creates justice, peace, etc through the grace of God at work among them.
Social justice is not just something the Church does, it is a natural extension of who the Church has become.
How do you see social justice linked to the Christian life? Do you agree with Dr. McKnight, that the social aspect of the Church is a necessary extension of a community that has been transformed? Leave a comment and let us know your thought!