Christianity,  Theology/Bible

Why We Need a Debate about the Mission of the Church

Perhaps you’ve read the announcement about the upcoming debate between Albert Mohler and Jim Wallis. The debate will be hosted by The Henry Center, and they will be addressing the question “Is social justice an essential part of the mission of the church?” Jim Wallis will be arguing “Yes,” Mohler “No.” For more information about this event, go here.

Why is this question important? When evangelicals disagree with one another over this issue, that is one thing. But differences over this issue between evangelicals and progressives is quite another. Oftentimes the differences between progressives and evangelicals on this question are not only about the mission of the church, but also about the nature of the gospel itself.

Tony Campolo’s recent critique of the Southern Baptist Convention’s immigration resolution is a case in point. He felt that the resolution did not go far enough and focused too narrowly on “spiritual salvation.” Embedded in his critique, Campolo offers what he thinks the gospel is:

Salvation for the soul is important to Southern Baptists, as it should be for all Evangelicals, but most of us call for a more holistic gospel that not only explains the way of salvation from sin, but also explains the way to escape from social oppression. To simply tell the undocumented immigrants in this country that we want to save their souls, but we have nothing to say about the fears they have of deportation is a cop-out.  The Jesus that they love offers deliverance from both spiritual and social oppression, and the Southern Baptists should do the same.

I do not think that Campolo has a fair characterization of the resolution or of Southern Baptists, but that is not the main point here. The item I want to highlight is Campolo’s definition of the gospel. For him it is not merely “the way of salvation” but also “the way of escape from social oppression.” In other words, the gospel is not merely the promise of eternal life rooted in Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners. The gospel is also the promise of deliverance from poverty, from social inequality, from racial injustice, etc. on this side of the new heavens and the new earth.

Campolo’s view of the mission of the church is decisively shaped by what he thinks the gospel is, and that is why the aforementioned debate is important. We draw our view of the church’s mission in part from our understanding of what the good news actually promises. This no doubt is a part of what the Mohler-Wallis debate will be about.

On that note, I am also looking forward to the release of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s forthcoming book What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. D. A. Carson says this about the book:

Among the many books that have recently appeared on mission, this is the best one if you are looking for sensible definitions, clear thinking, readable writing, and the ability to handle the Bible in more than proof-texting ways. I pray that God will use it to bring many to a renewed grasp of what the gospel is and how that gospel relates, on the one hand, to biblical theology and, on the other, to what we are called to do.

The book is available for pre-order now from

There is much more that needs to be said on this topic, and I suspect we will do so in this space in future posts. But for now I will finish with one thing. The gospel is the message of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). It promises to believers forgiveness of sins through the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ (Romans 3:25-26), and it also guarantees believers eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (Romans 10:9-10). The church’s mission, therefore, is to make disciples by proclaiming that message in the power of the spirit (Matthew 28:19-20).


  • Christianes

    ‘the gospel’ is not the ‘way’ that people find relief from injustices in this world;
    but it does call Christian people to witness that God is offended by injustice to those who are marginalized and unable to care for themselves . . . the Bible speaks of them as ‘widows and orphans’.

    Maybe ‘the gospel’ is more than ‘how you get to heaven, period’ . . . maybe it also asks of us to be a compassionate response to those who are ‘lost and harassed and without a shepherd’ . . .

    to be ‘harassed’ in our world is be placed ‘outside the wall’ while the rest of us feast at the banquet table, and to be ‘harassed’ in this world is to know that those who could come and relieve misery feel that they have no obligation to do so, and that they feel this claiming it is not a concern of Christian people.

    No, we are ‘saved’ by binding up the wounds of someone who is on the side of the road, or by giving bread to the hungry, or by giving a cup of cold water to someone who says ‘I thirst’. No. That is not what ‘saves’ us. But that is what being saved calls us to do . . . ‘being saved’ makes us responsive to those who need the loving-kindness that Christ Himself would give them, Christ who ‘had compassion’, still does. If we serve Him, we will show others His Compassion.

    ‘Being saved’ pulls us out of self and places us as God’s servants to those ‘widows and orphans’ of our own time . . . we are being ‘transformed’ by the Holy Spirit to conform to Christ’s compassion for others. We are to leave ‘self’ behind, and enter ‘into Christ’.

    • Christianes

      Correction: Above comment should be:

      “No, we are NOT ‘saved’ by binding up the wounds of someone who is on the side of the road, or by giving bread to the hungry, or by giving a cup of cold water to someone who says ‘I thirst’.”

  • RD


    You write that we aren’t saved by binding the wounds of someone on the side of the road. This is a clear reference to the Good Samaritan story. Yet, why did Jesus tell this story? What compelled him to relate this account of being a good neighbor?


    • Christianes

      That is a fair question, RD.
      My answer is that we are saved by ‘He Who Saves His People’, the meaning of the name given by the angel to Jesus

      This helps to explain why I wrote what I wrote and how it connects to HIM :

    • Daryl Little


      As far as I can tell, Jesus told that parable for one reason. To explain to a man, who his neighbour is.

      He already knew he ought to love his neighbour, but he was looking for a way out.

      What Jesus wasn’t doing, was explaining the way to be saved.

      There is only one.

  • yankeegospelgirl

    “Social justice.” A phrase with all sorts of connotations and implications. All I can say is “Thar be dragons.” But I will say this much: The people I hear talking about it most are liberals who like to guilt-trip conservatives.

    Quite frankly, my idea of fighting for social justice probably differs a little from theirs. Where they’re breaking out the violin for the bum in a cardboard box (who’s probably just going to spend the money you give him on drugs anyway), I’m thinking time might be better spent protesting… oh, let’s say… abortion! There’s a concept!

  • RD


    You’re right that abortion is a tragedy, however I’m a little taken aback by your flippant attitude concerning the poor and homelss.

    As Christians I’m curious about what our response to Jesus would be if we had an exchange with him similar to the exchange he had with the rich ruler in Luke.

    When the ruler asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life Jesus tells him to follow the commandments. When the ruler admits that he’s kept these since his youth, Jesus tells him that there’s only ONE thing he lacks…”Sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Come, follow me.”

    Would we respond, “You mean give everything I have to that bum in the cardboard box? Lord, don’t you know he’s only going to use my money to buy drugs???!!!”

    • yankeegospelgirl

      No, RD. Abortion is not a “tragedy.” Abortion is murder. Let’s keep our terminology straight here. A tragedy is a young mother who dies of cancer. A tragedy is a child who loses a limb in a freak accident. A murder is not a tragedy—it is an act of deliberate evil.

      • Christianes

        Sometimes a fetus is lost as a result of an operation that is done to save the life of the mother.

        That surgery is not ‘evil’, as the loss of the fetus is not the primary reason that the operation is performed.

        • Christianes

          Question: a woman is pregnant and the baby is growing in her fallopian tube instead of her uterus; the fallopian tube ruptures, and she needs immediate surgery to cut and tie it to stop the deadly hemorrhage. At this point, if she is in a state where certain ‘procedures’ have been put into law to delay any abortion (waiting periods, counseling, required viewing of foetus (unborn baby) during an ultrasound:

          is the woman to be written off as a ‘dead woman’,
          or is she permitted under the law to skip the ‘required procedures’ and to receive emergency surgery to stop her hemorrhaging, without which she will surely die?

          I was thinking about that possibility when I read Denny’s post celebrating Perry’s laws establishing certain required procedures for women before any legal abortion, and I wondered about the ethics of it.

          • yankeegospelgirl

            That is a very extreme and unusual case. In a general discussion about the ethics of abortion, we aren’t bound to assume that pro-choicers really JUST mean those kinds of extreme and unusual cases. If somebody is talking about how the woman needs to have “options,” odds are good he just is a pro-choicer.

            Here’s something else I’ve never understood: Why have even conservatives been known to make exceptions for rape and incest?

          • Christianes

            YGG . . . it is not an ‘extreme’ case, these kinds of pregnancies do happen and the rupture of a fallopian tube does happen . . .

            so what about the woman ?

            In your world-view, should she be left untreated to bleed internally? Or should her hemorrhage be stopped ?
            In either case, the fetus (unborn baby) will not survive.

            What are the ethics involved in your world-view ?

            This is the kind of moral and ethical question that must be addressed among the Christian conservative far-right. My own Catholic faith would not see a problem with an operation to save the life of the mother in a case like this.

            Your opinion concerning it ?

          • yankeegospelgirl

            If the woman is already bleeding, the child is almost certainly dead already, so it’s a moot question. If you’re asking what should be done if an ectopic pregnancy is discovered before the woman has begun bleeding, I believe the ethical to do would be to perform surgery if the fetus is dead or has ceased to develop. There have been cases where there simply isn’t a baby there because the nature of the pregnancy caused development to halt.

          • yankeegospelgirl

            I haven’t read the text of the law(s) you’re referring to, but I suspect they’re written in a way that would allow for emergency medical action. They were set up to discourage elected abortions. But as I said before, by the time the woman is bleeding, odds are high there isn’t an abortion involved because the child is already dead.

  • Ty

    What if Al Mohler defends the historic gospel pronouncement (which is not to say that Jim Wallis does not, I do not know) but stops up the social implications of this gospel. If we proclaim Jesus as Savior (which is Mohler’s stance) but not as Lord (which is Wallis’ stance) then we fail to see the full ramifications of the gospel. Jesus, the crucified Messiah, has risen from the dead and now reigns as Lord and Savior, using his power to forgive rebellious sinners and give them eternal life (new creation, resurrection life) which will then work its way out in social issues. Does not the death, resurrection, and enthronement of a man (divine, but still a man) have ramifications on what happens in this physical life as well? Isn’t it dangerous to say that everything is spiritual, including the mission of the Church, without realizing that this whole world is messy, especially humans, who are indeed a conglomerate, holistic being.

    Also, I do not at all want to give the impression that Mohler and Wallis are in two distinct camps without overlap. That is ridiculous to think, especially if one is aware of Mohler’s track record in speaking out against political issues. Once again, I am not familiar with Wallis’ works and cannot speak for him, thus I must give him the benefit of the doubt that he also embraces the orthodox gospel. All I am saying is that perhaps both men are representing both sides of the coin while at the same time, denying that that coin even exists. This is why debating is good and wholesome for the church.

  • David

    Every time I hear about “social justice” (and I don’t hear about it that much nowadays) I wonder what the expression is meant to mean. It usually seems to be about pushing some left wing redistributive political programme claiming that this is somehow the essence of Christianity.

    I would note that social justice is much less often heard since the political left dumped the poor in favour of “minorities” (i.e. gays and Muslims).

  • Donald Johnson

    If there is a claim of salvation without an inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, then it is a false claim. Jesus proclaimed this. So it is not an either/or thing, it is a both/and thing. Yes, we are to proclaim the gospel as a priority, but it is also not just words or thoughts.

  • Paul

    I really think, as Donald said, that this is a both/and proposition. I read the great commission, and I read the account of the Christians at Antioch, and how they were called Christians due to the way that they acted, and I have to wonder if a big part of the great commission isn’t the works, or social justice aspect of it. Of course, we are not saved by our works, but faith without works (or rather, the fruits of that faith) is dead. Take all of that with the verse in Ezekiel (the exact verse escapes me at this late hour) that states that Israel was given over to the Babylonians precisely because they did not care for their widows, elders and orphans, and I am led to the conclusion that social justice is a key component of how faith is supposed to bare itself out.

    Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that I think that my worldview rubs off on the way that I read my Bible. But, then again, if there wasn’t compelling philosophy on both sides of this debate, there wouldn’t be a debate in the first place.

  • Kris

    Are these debates ever productive? I feel like these things end up becoming the catch phrase “preaching to the choir.”

    As a side note making things right, or justice, is integral to what God is doing in the world – there shouldn’t be any debate for us on that. I think the real discussion is what that looks like in the day to day life of the church. More than often the question of “is it essential to the gospel?” is primarily semantics.

  • JohnnyM

    When I hear social justice, I think of those who want to use government as the vehicle for change, when the best vehicle for any kind of true social justice is the Church.

  • RD

    Daryl and Christianes,

    The Jewish fellow asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, i.e. how do I get saved, gain heaven, find assurance that I will participate in God’s coming kingdom, etc. As I read this, the man asked a very direct question about the way to salvation. He wanted Jesus’ understanding of what was required in order for a person to be saved. Jesus responded by telling him to love God and love his neighbor.

    When the young ruler asked Jesus the same question Jesus told him he needed to keep the commandments and take care of the poor. Again, Jesus’ reply was a direct response to a question about the way to eternal life.

    Matthew 25 is the only place in scripture where Jesus directly addresses what the final judgement will be based on. What is the criteria the Jesus provides for gaining eternal life?

    All three examples show Jesus directly expounding on eternal life. All three are directly tied to some aspect of a “social gospel”.

    • Christianes

      Hi RD,

      Can this help, as my own words fail?

      ” Love as the Samaritan loved the man he found
      beaten up by robbers,
      somewhere on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.

      To love is to open our hearts to people
      to listen to them, . . . to wish deeply that they may live and grow . . .
      It is to forgive, and to be compassionate.

      But by ourselves we cannot love in this way.
      Jesus came to take away the dynamics of fear
      that close us in upon ourselves
      as we try to cover up our vulnerability and inner loneliness.

      He only asks that we follow Him,
      opening our hearts to Him in a personal relationship,
      trusting and believing in Him,
      – as the One sent by the Father” (Jean Vanier, ‘The Body Broken’)

  • Paul

    JohnnyM and Derek –

    In response to this…”When I hear social justice, I think of those who want to use government as the vehicle for change, when the best vehicle for any kind of true social justice is the Church.”

    I can’t speak for everyone on the Christian left. However, I can tell you that I just want to see certain things done. If the church is better equipped to handle it, then so be it. If the government is better equipped, then so be that, too. And no, the Church can’t do anything about something like immigration reform (as an example), except make it’s stance known. But, find me 10 different churches and you’ll find 10 different views on the subject. My church will tell you that compassion toward someone just trying to feed their family is much more important than the rule of law. Another church might tell you that by breaking the laws put in place by God-ordained leaders that those people are sinning and we should send them back home. So, in such a situation, the hope needs to be that government will make the right decisions, because they’re the only dog in the fight.

    Personally, I want my government to make good and moral decisions for its populace. And in doing so, some of the key points that crowd into the social justice tent are going to get covered.

  • Derek

    Paul, the problem is that you and Tony Campolo and many of your left wing friends – both in the church and out of the church – have invested huge amounts of time and energy trying to redistribute money through government, effectively coercing giving by a certain set of individuals (e.g. U.S. taxpayers) rather than through the agency God established, sanctioned and ordained through the giving of the Holy Spirit – that is, the Church. The government has been tasked with a different sphere of responsibilities (see Romans 13) than the Church has (to punish wrongdoers). We don’t have the right and nor should we assume that God will bless our efforts to direct and in some cases to outsource the Church’s responsibilities onto a secular government, just because Tony Campolo thinks they would do a better job than the church.

    The book “Who Really Cares?” by Arthur Brooks (he has also debated Wallis too) has some really powerful empirical data to show that there is a big difference between the charitable donation habits (including both service and monetary giving) between right wing religious types and left wing religious types. Right wing religious types give more generously on both counts. Read the book or even a good summary of the book if you doubt me.

    • Derek

      I also note that even within the God ordained agent of social justice (the Church), the Bible requires us to be thoughtful and careful about how this is done. Paul explicitly breaks this down in I Timothy 5 where he asks the church to stop giving to able bodied and younger widows, because it enables idleness and other vices. In this passage he also explains that as Christians, our “social justice” priorities should start with our family and then move out to our church. I’m quite certain that Paul would approve of social justice efforts in an area like civil rights for minorities and the unborn, but I find no place in the NT where society wide social justice – or income redistribution – is elevated to a higher priority than to meeting needs in our family and church. This is why I believe that Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo have gone off the rails and have put the cart before the horse.

  • samuel

    christians in politics is nothing more than romonisim the catholic church . infact if you read 1st kings its jezebel religion notice that whore church jezebel represented right in with ahab the king and god sent his prophet and blasted that thing to bits . the religious right is just a deception its jezebel religion . weather or not you do you better be mindful of them less well of than your selves or repent and go back and read the bible god judge them that opress the poor . in fact paul said that we may have a little left over to help out our brothers and sisters . …. gods not impressed with your money he dont need it .all the chemicals of your phyisical body pilgrim are worth about 80 cents and you put a ten doller hat on that 80 cents and you think your some one . beleave me the best this condemmed world has to offer is nothing more than raw surige with wipped cream on top . there is no diffrence in the eyes of god than me a man been saved from before the world was than a drunkard or prostitute just got saved an hour ago . we need to come down of our intellectual high horses and let reality sink in a bit .

  • samuel

    derek not a clue sorry not a clue talk about carnal thinking , wretched misrable naked blind and dont even know it . lord have pitty yyou people have no idea whats beginning in the earth already do you , the judgements of god . you people have elivated the church above god you spiritual idiots .

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