Gospel and Social Justice

It is often pointed out that the Apostle Paul did not explicitly attack slavery in his day but regulated relationships between Christian masters and slaves. Closer to our times, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), rightly acclaimed as one of the greatest theologians ever, was a slave owner. It appears that “though he defended the institution of slavery, Edwards nonetheless condemned the African slave trade” (The Great Theologians, 131). It is easier to see the inconsistencies of others rather than our own. Edwards didn’t always get it right and neither do we. However it ought to cause us to pause and reflect on social injustice in our time and see if we have blinders which need to be removed. Perhaps future generations will look back on our time and wonder why we didn’t get it with our false dichotomies, our enslavement to cultural forms of Christianity, our defense of the status quo, and the politicization of our faith where conservative politics and conservative Christianity often go hand in glove.


The owning of another person cannot be said to reflect biblical values or recognize the imago Dei (image of God) in others. Although slavery was regulated in the Old Testament, it was God's accommodation of the times in which it was practiced. Many have seen gospel implications or the logic of the gospel in Paul’s letter to Philemon which would have led to Onesimus’ freedom. Philemon became in Christ “more than a slave, a beloved brother” (16) and Paul anticipated that Philemon would “do more than what I say” (21). Further, Paul in the time of imperial Rome had little recourse in attacking social structures. He was not a social crusader but a preacher of the good news which leaves no domain untouched by Christ’s authority.


The extension of the gospel clearly has the power to undermine societal structures in establishing God’s reign in the hearts of the regenerate. However the gospel addresses the slave more than slavery, the poor more than it does poverty, the homeless more than homelessness, and the unjust more than injustices. In other words the gospel is directed to people. The church of Jesus Christ has no interest in or ability to establish God’s reign over society. That fact does not leave the church without a voice, without influence as the gospel goes forth, and without the desire to see God at work in society, in our towns and cities. Our God reigns and exercises His reign as He wills in our time.



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