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Rats & Garbage: Whether We Should Focus on Discipleship, Evangelism, or Social Justice

( [email protected] ) Apr 16, 2014 07:27 PM EDT

Rats & Garbage

The other day I wrote a blog about Christianity & the LGBTQ community, and ended with a P.S.:

On the practical level, we can't regulate morality for non-Christians. This is similar to how we Christians view pornography or prostitution: we acknowledge that it exists, we think it's a sin and we don't like it, but we also don't try to fight it. We can only regulate it for Christians. The Bible never says we should change the moral behavior of non-Christians: it says we should win them over for Christ. Once they are Christians, then we can speak into their lives regarding morality, but if we lead off with morality, then we are putting the wrong foot forward. We can't expect them to lead a life consonant with the Kingdom of God without them first submitting to the Lordship of Jesus. That's like expecting someone in a foreign country to follow the laws of the United States. No, grant them U.S. citizenship first, then we can ask them to follow U.S. laws.

Kristyn Komarnicki from Evangelicals for Social Action responded with this comment:

Thank you for your endorsement of love, and your helpful distinction between support a person and condoning what you consider to be sin. I agree wholeheartedly. But at one point you say Christians don't fight pornography/prostitution, only seek to regulate it for Christians. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a Christian, I do in fact fight pornography and prostitution. I fight sexual exploitation of all kinds, because it demeans human beings. My fight isn't about regulating it for Christians but about helping ALL people understand the need to eliminate it, because it is hate speech and dehumanizing abuse of our sisters and brothers, as well as of ourselves. I count many non-Christians as allies and partners in the fight against sexual exploitation.

I was glad she said that. I am open to correction, and in this case I admitted my incorrect view (though I stand by everything else in my blog, prior to the P.S.), because she is absolutely right that Christians fighting social ills is a good thing.

But as I have reflected further on this, though I do not disagree with Ms. Komarnicki's viewper se, I want to further nuance and expand it. It has to do with the fact that where there are rats, there's garbage. People's solution is often to try to keep killing the rats. There is something necessary in that, but if you want a more permanent solution, you need to take out the garbage. Because it is the garbage that continually attracts more rats. So it is with vices in our society. When you see things like prostitution and pornography, I had said in my P.S. that our job as Christians is to tackle the garbage, which is the fact that people are not submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Once they become true Christians (and I emphasize the true), the rats (prostitution and pornography) will disappear. Where I will change my previous statement is that I will now say that it is necessary to tackle the rats, not just the garbage. But where I stand by my previous statement is that I still think that to take out the rats without taking out the garbage is ultimately only a temporary solution. I'm grateful to the people-like Ms. Komarnicki-who kill those rats. How necessary they are! But fixing social ills (which even non-Christians do) without changing people's hearts is merely moralism, in the final analysis. And moralism-again, something even non-Christians can do-is not the same as the Kingdom of God where people follow Christ as King. It's like the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament: you can keep doing those and they alleviate the problem temporarily, but without Christ's once-and-for-all sacrifice (Heb. 10:1-14), those animal sacrifices will have to be endless. With Jesus, it's done. Over. Finished. We can keep fighting those sex traffickers but I'm afraid that the task will be endless unless and until people are submitted to Jesus.

Yesterday I wrote a blog about why missionaries are good for this world based on a CT article. A friend pointed me to the Stand to Reason blog which reviewed the same CT article. One point I loved about that blog (written by Amy Hall) is the conclusion:

the [Conversionary Protestants] didn't set out to create democracies; they set out to make disciples of Christ. But worldviews have unintended consequences as they work their way out through people's actions. Despite the truth of this, very little care is taken today to consider the consequences of undermining and replacing the worldview that created Western civilization with one that has a very different understanding of the human person and its value (to name only one area of disagreement). The problem described in the first point has led to the problem of the second. That is, because the truth of how Christianity shaped our society has been ignored, there's 1) an ignorance of which aspects of our culture are uniquely grounded in Christianity and 2) a false assumption that these beloved ideas will thrive in a new worldview when their foundation is discarded.

In other words, the Lordship of Jesus Christ led to democracy and the alleviation of poverty in these countries; it wasn't that democracy and poverty alleviation were the main objectives of the missionaries, they were consequences and outflows of mission. The Kingdom of God-the main thing that Jesus preached on-is what missionaries were trying to bring. Of course social justice accompanied the coming of Christianity, but it is a case of the order: which was first, the chicken or the egg? Is this the proverbial cart before the horse? I posit that fighting social ills as the primary action of Christians is a case of focusing on killing the rats rather than taking out the garbage. In other words, it is taking care of the symptoms instead of taking care of the root problem.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that social justice is bad or wrong or unnecessary. In fact I think we often need to lead off with social justice, because this is the universal language that everyone can understand, as I described in this blog. But if you don't move toward evangelism and discipleship, I'm sorry but people won't "know you are Christian by your love." They just won't, because even non-Christians can show love via social justice. Unless you explicitly talk about Jesus, people won't get it.

So this is how I think the interface between evangelism and social justice and discipleship ought to look like. All three need to be present, it's a matter of the order:

  1. When you go to a foreign country, lead off with social justice, not evangelism. Because if you haven't established trust with people, they will not listen to you, and you have no credibility with them. Social justice will help facilitate relationships, as well as to meet real needs that people have. You can't tell them about Jesus if they're starving or oppressed.
  2. Evangelism is next. You must articulate who Jesus is and the fact that his Kingdom is at hand. They must believe that Jesus is Lord of everything.
  3. After this is discipleship. This is living out day-to-day the reality that God has transformed your life and you are in obedience to him. Fruit of the Spirit must be manifest.
  4. Finally, it cycles back to social justice. Fruit of the Spirit is not just peace and patience and kindness and self-control; it is reaching out to the lost with social justice, then evangelism, and finally leading them to full discipleship.

As you can see, killing the rats (fighting social ills) is necessary, and in fact it often has to be first. But that doesn't mean it's the only thing we do, because the rats will just keep coming back. Not until we finally remove the garbage (people living for themselves rather than for God) will there be a final and permanent solution of the rats not returning.

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Allen Yeh (D.Phil., Oxford) is Associate Professor of Intercultural Studies and Missiology at Biola University in Los Angeles. He is co-author of Routes and Radishes and Other Things to Talk About at the Evangelical Crossroads and co-editor of Expect Great Things, Attempt Great Things: William Carey & Adoniram Judson, Missionary Pioneers. He specializes in the history of missions and geographically specializes in China and Latin America.