Several years ago, Anthony Bradley wrote an article entitled, “The Great Commission Christianity Keeps Blacks Away From Evangelicalism.” In the article, he challenges the assumptions of what he calls “Great Commission Christianity.” For him, this Christianity lacks the proper theological conviction to address societal ills rightly.
He summarizes the assumptions of Great Commission Christians (GCC), stating, “For GCC, the gospel is ‘the announcement of the good news of Jesus’ work to restore sinful image-bearers to the rightful worship of God.’ The kingdom of God is ‘the rule of God demonstrated on earth among a worshipping people.’ And redemption is ‘God’s work to free His people from slavery.’”
Bradley notes this view is not wrong. Without the above, one would have an incomplete definition of the Gospel. However, “its hyper-focus on saving individuals and the work of the church says nothing about the redemption of creation, which God is also reconciling to himself through Christ.”
He goes on to address the impact that truncated definition has on African Americans. He says,
Great Commission Christianity doesn’t typically preach a redemption of all creation. They never have. GCC preached a revivalistic, individualistic, truncated gospel to slaves on plantations and did not seek to free slaves from slavery. GCC did nothing to thwart and fight against lynching during Reconstruction. GCC did nothing to liberate blacks from Jim Crow. In fact, it was the opposite. It was typically GCC church members in the South that fought against the black church-led Civil-Rights Movement. Fast forward to recent American racial tensions, and you will find a parallel. GCC advocates were unable to respond well to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s no wonder that African Americans … who once aligned with Great Commission Christianity, "divorced" themselves from white evangelicalism.
In other words, there was an emphasis on salvation from the sin-marred world but an underemphasis on addressing the effects of sin in the world. There is an emphasis on turning from one’s sin but an underemphasis on repairing the impact of one’s sin. There is a spiritualizing of liberation and freedom that focuses on a person’s spiritual condition but easily ignores the bondage of that person’s physical condition. This understanding of the Gospel lacks the theological framework to lead followers of Jesus to be a people of justice in the world since justice is not the message. Personal conversion is the message.
This perspective is not only problematic for racial justice issues but also for any issue not deemed central to the mission of the church. For another tragic example, consider a recently released report. The Southern Baptist Convention released the third party-investigative report on sex abuse within the convention.
(Before I expound on what this has to do with GCC, please note the following is a recent addition to this article. I am still very much processing this recently released report. The report is heart-wrenching and left me angry and deeply desiring the Lord’s justice for the victims. Both the injustice they suffered, and the perverse reality that the name of Jesus has been so egregiously dishonored, leave me in a state of deep lament. See Dr. Russel Moore’s recent article, This Is the Southern Baptist Apocalypse, for a more insider assessment. Here at Until Zion, we intend to address issues related to this report more fully in upcoming posts).
Amongst the egregious abuses, actions, and cover-ups chronicled in the report was also deeply problematic theology. Several statements stuck out to me. When referencing an individual's perspective on the sex abuse accusations that came to light, the report notes this person stating: "This whole thing should be seen for what it is. It is a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel."
In response to those kinds of ideas, Russel Moore said the following about the orientation toward “missions”:
Southern Baptist missionaries are some of the most selfless and humble and gifted people I know. And yet the very good Southern Baptist impulse for missions, for cooperation, is often weaponized in the same way that “grace” or “forgiveness” has been in countless contexts to blame survivors for their own abuse. The report itself documents how arguments were used that “professional victims” and those who stand by them would be a tool of the Devil to “distract” from mission.
In other words, the “mission,” or commission for that matter, did not include addressing injustice. Rather, injustice, even within the ranks, was secondary to the true mission, which was evangelism and conversion. Once again, this understanding of the Gospel and Gospel ministry lacks the theological framework to lead followers of Jesus to be a people of justice in the world since justice is not the message. Personal conversion is the message.
Cosmic Redemptive Christianity
However, this view of Gospel ministry can be juxtaposed with what could be called “Cosmic Redemptive Christianity.” Bradley draws on a Gospel definition from Tim Keller, saying, “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.”
The key phrase in this definition that is missing from the GCC definition? Jesus “restores the creation.” By omitting the restoration of the cosmos, GCC too often lacks the necessary framework for social engagement––an engagement that bears witness to this coming restoration.
Noting the reformed theologian Gerard Van Groningen, Bradley goes on to say,
…that the creation—the “cosmos”—includes industry, technology, recreation, the arts, education, commerce, politics, and so on. This is God’s ‘cosmic kingdom.’ As a result, black lives matter to God. Poverty matters to God. Gun violence matters to God. Racism matters to God. Divorce, child abuse, genocide, sex trafficking all matter to God.
And to add, sexual abuse in the church and the cover-up of that abuse matter to God.
Renowned theologian John Stott argues something similar when reflecting on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount phrase, “Blessed are the righteous.” Too often, when addressing righteousness, we assume righteousness to be a matter of personal righteousness. However, Stott points out,
Biblical righteousness is more than a private and personal affair; it includes social righteousness as well. And social righteousness, as we learn from the law and the prophets, is concerned with seeking man's liberation from oppression, together with the promotion of civil rights, justice in the law courts, integrity and business dealings, and honor in home and family affairs. Christians are committed to hunger for righteousness in the whole human community as something pleasing to a righteous God (Sermon on the Mount, Stott. p. 45)
That is, biblical righteousness that does not include liberation from oppression “...the promotion of civil rights...justice in the law courts...integrity and business dealings…honor in home and family affairs,” the protection of the vulnerable from would-be abusers, or proper recourse against abusers is not true righteousness.
Similarly, a Gospel that limits its scope to personal conversion, and relegates works of mercy and justice as secondary or tangential, is a truncated Gospel. A Gospel that cares only for the sins of the individual, but ignores the sin embedded in the systems and structures in which we all exist, is a truncated Gospel. I wonder if we can even call that truncated Gospel, the Gospel. Why?
Ultimately, Bradley notes,
Until Christ returns, observes Van Groningen, the antithesis between God and Satan "must be recognized and dealt with spiritually but also in all aspects of social and cosmic activities . . . as believers seek to execute their spiritual, social, and cosmic mandates." This is why Christians do not have to ask whether or not certain justice issues in society are ‘gospel issues." For Cosmic Redemptive Christianity, God bringing justice here and now is one aspect of announcing the redemption of God’s cosmic kingdom under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, there is far more to say (and I will say it in future posts) about truncated perspectives on the Kingdom of God that limit our capacity for justice now in the midst of the already/not yet.
(Also, though not the main focus of this post, there is an opposite error. Some preach a Gospel of justice and social engagement but then do not preach personal conversion and individual transformation. For them, sin is too often only societal and systemic and rarely personal. As a result, the notions of God’s judgment, wrath, and our personal need to be set free from the bonds of sin are too easily ignored or minimized.)
For now, we must ask ourselves simply, what Gospel do we preach? Does our Gospel proclaim, in both word and deed, the redemption and restoration of individuals and the whole of creation? Does our Gospel message testify to God’s redemptive power by confronting our personal sin and the injustices, brokenness, and sinfulness of this world's systems and structures?
I realize most Christians believe justice is essential. Few would say, “Justice is unimportant to the Christian life.” In fact, there have been times when Christians were at the fore of significant social reform throughout history.
However, functionally, I wonder how central we make the necessity of social engagement and the demands of justice part of our core discipleship. For example, there are clear imperatives about sharing the Gospel with friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors for many churches. The hope is that this proclamation bears witness to the redemption and salvation found in Jesus. The imperative to proclaim must remain!
But are there equally clear imperatives in our churches about testifying to cosmic redemption? Are we discipling, or being discipled, in such a way that our Gospel message proclaims a Kingdom where, “black lives…poverty…gun violence… racism…divorce, child abuse, genocide, sex trafficking” and sexual abuse all matter to God? And not in a secondary sense, but in a central and necessary sense. Ultimately, the question for us to answer is: what are the very real, tangible, and consequential ways we are testifying to cosmic redemption?