Note to leader: Prior to the class, provide for each student the article “Compassionate Evangelicalism” from Christianity Today magazine (included in this study).
It was the shot heard down the hall—and beyond.
Joel Carpenter tells how, at a heated moment in their discussion about the church’s failure to bring meaningful change to society, the small group of evangelicals cloistered at the ymca in Chicago heard a gunshot in the hallway. It was a sign—a violent act in a seedy flophouse in a rough area in a tough community in a troubled nation in desperate need of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Remember 1973: the preceding decade had witnessed Vietnam, hippies, the emergence of the drug culture, riots, civil rights marches, the assassination of the leading change agents, and in that year, the unfolding of the Watergate scandal and the eventual fall of a presidency. The shot echoing in the hallway of the Chicago “Y” could have represented all that was wrong with society. It could have shut down the meeting in fear, but instead it seems to represent the galvanization of the evangelicals present to change society.
To many in that group in 1973, the church appeared fearful, withdrawn, and ineffective in bringing positive change. But, in the 30 years since, Carpenter contends, much has changed. And the evangelical church today is a force reborn to the causes of its roots. The same church that called individuals to repentance rallied a nation to abolition and prohibition. Early evangelicals in the United States were social activists and, Carpenter contends, are again increasingly so. But what is the evidence of that?
[Q] Carpenter says today evangelicals “agree about the need to pursue the ‘righteousness that exalts a nation.’” What form do you think that righteousness should take? How much should Christians focus on:
(1) personal moral behavior,
(2) social concern, or
(3) political and legal action?
Can you make a case that any one of these arenas is off limits to the church?
[Q] Carpenter says the turmoil of the 1960s “dashed the idea that evangelicals could focus on personal salvation and character formation and leave the right ordering of society to a trustworthy, pro-Christian government.” If that’s true, why isn’t “personal salvation and character formation” enough? If Christians are growing in Christlikeness and spreading the gospel, will not society also be changed for the good?
[Q] Carpenter says the delegates at the conference succeeded “perhaps beyond their wildest dreams.” What are some examples from each of these three arenas (personal moral behavior, social concern, and political and legal action) that the church has had significant impact in the past 30 years?
Leader: You may wish to divide the group into three teams and have each team make a list for one of the three arenas.
[Q] What are some ministries in your community that demonstrate increased involvement of the local church in social justice issues?
Discover the Eternal Principles
Teaching point one: When we care for the needy, we give testimony to our faith in God.
“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24).
This oft-quoted passage from Amos, cited in the article, was a dictate delivered by the layman prophet to Israel. The nation at the time was prosperous and powerful, but also morally bankrupt and socially corrupt. God said their worship was offensive. A better testimony to Israel’s covenant relationship with God would be fair treatment of all people and characteristic righteousness in all their relationships, both heavenward and earthly.
God’s commands to Israel always included a “neighbor” element. The nation’s relationship with God should have been evident in Israel’s treatment of the poor. God never intended his covenant to exclude people outside Israel. In fact, provisions were made for anyone who wished to live a righteous life to have a place in Israel’s worship relationship with God.
God intended the nation Israel to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. God entrusted to Israel the message of salvation; but by their selfish hoarding of fellowship with Yahweh, their frequent turning to pagan religions, and their mistreatment of the poor, the Israelites effectively shut down the spread of the worship of Yahweh outside Israel and gave Yahwehistic religion a bad name, even among some Israelites. Israel misrepresented the heart of God.
God has always had concern for the poor, the hurting, the needy. In Old Testament times, God told his people to give offerings, part of which would pay for the care of the needy. He instructed farmers to leave the corners of their fields unharvested, and to allow the poor to come and gather food. He provided guidelines for the widow to be given a place in her deceased husband’s family, and that a son should be provided so she would have property and income. God intended that no one be left out.
The righteousness that exalts a nation, as it is stated in Proverbs 14:34, was not a personal ethic only, but a national way of life. To be personally, individually right with God required fair and ethical treatment of all people. That, carried out on a nationwide scale, lifted not only the standards of religion but the standard of life.
But all too often in Israel’s history, that ideal proved idealistic. The religious people were just as greedy and self-centered as the corrupt sinners. They worshiped almighty God and ignored needy humans. Eventually, they ignored God, too.
The indictment begun by the prophets, Amos and others, was amplified by Jesus. In his time, the Pharisees represented the best and worst of Jewish religion. Eager to preserve the covenant relationship between God and the Jews, the Pharisees held tightly to the Law. They simultaneously expanded their interpretation of the commandments and tightened the rules such that ordinary people had little hope of remaining even ceremonially clean. In their zeal for pleasing God, they abandoned the spread of their faith. The Pharisees invested their time in personal, spiritual improvement at the expense of their neighbors, the poor, the lost, and the faithless.
To these very faithful, very religious men, Jesus spoke the harshest words. He regularly criticized those who claimed to be righteous but ignored the needy.
In one of his last teachings, Jesus underscored the ethic of his earthly lifetime—that faith is borne out in service, especially in the treatment of the poor.
[Q] Why do you think social justice seems to be the focus of some churches more than others? Is it that some churches are uncomfortable with the term itself? Or are there legitimate reasons for staying away from social justice issues?
[Q] Carpenter categorized the church 30 years ago in these terms: liberal Protestants focused on social justice, and conservative Protestants focused on evangelism. Has that changed dramatically since the Chicago Declaration in 1973?
[Q] Are there ever legitimate reasons for the divorce Carpenter describes between social justice and evangelism?