In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and as protests raged across our country, I found myself in recurring conversations with pastors and Christian leaders, who, instead of leaning in, chose to disengage with the cultural moment. Whether online or in person, I repeatedly heard the line: “The church just needs to focus on the gospel right now and how the gospel changes hearts.” Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Mike Ramos. Anti-Asian racism. In the face of these tragedies, many evangelical churches channeled their responses toward the spiritual to the detriment of all else, and unless they can be convinced otherwise, they will continue to take this stance with the next tragedy (which we all know is likely).
The tendencies of many American churches fail to heed Scripture’s demand on the people of God to collectively and continually work toward a more just society. Exacerbating this failure is a pervading hyper-individuality. When a community is ravaged by injustice, too many pastors reduce the priority of the church to getting individuals right with God. But the Christian faith encompasses so much more.
God intends his people to be integrally involved as a collective in civic space—repairing, rebuilding, and restoring structures and systems—so that all peoples may flourish. The church exists as an institution for greater social good, and we need to recapture ecclesial responsibility for systemic justice and meaningful change.
God’s People as Alternative Society
From the beginning of Scripture, we see God redeeming not a scattered collection of isolated individuals, but reforming a whole people into an alternative society, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9). Their visible presence and just way of life amid ancient empires bore witness towhat life looks like with God as king (Deut. 4:5–8). Tim Keller observes that, in the Old Testament, “Israel was charged to create a culture [systems] of social justice for the poor and vulnerable because it was the way the nation could reveal God’s glory and character to the world.”
Much of Old Testament Law orients toward structures that systemically provide a better life than people otherwise experienced in the ancient world: more humane treatment of the poor, foreigners, widows, and other vulnerable populations; more equitable use of land and resources through laws of gleaning and forgiveness of debt; and cities of refuge and restrictions on punishments. These are all hallmark characteristics of Israel’s legal tradition.
However, God’s people also continually fail to follow God’s law. So God raises up prophets to call out Israel and guide them back to personal and social righteousness. Showing blatant disregard for the hurting renders religion worthless. True religion, on the other hand, as Isaiah declares, loosens the chains of injustice (58:6–7). God calls his people to actively break systems of oppression and create new spaces with just laws.
In the New Testament, the calling remains, and the church in Acts 2 strives to obey by committing to prayer, education, equitable relations, and the provision of housing, clothing, and food. The church prays and hopes for spiritual and systemic change (Acts 4:23–31), liquidates resources to give away (4:32–37), and actively seeks the healing of their community (5:12–16). Scripture paints the church as a community of justice, and this means having a concern for the poor and working toward fair systems and equitable policies for all.
Building Better Systems
Practically, there are ways for churches to build and promote better systems both inside and outside of our walls:
We can implement diverse leadership and share power: Leadership in every church should reflect community diversity. We can assess the demographics of our local community and make sure voices are equally represented and decision-making power is shared. Consider the appointment of Greek Jews to oversee food distribution in Acts 6. Up to this point, Aramaic-speaking Jews constituted the majority and Greek-speaking widows went overlooked and neglected. Realizing the oversight, Greek-speaking Jews are commissioned into leadership. They instinctively keep Greek-speaking widows’ interests in mind and know how best to care for them. We all have our cultural blind spots. If we truly desire to care for the poor and disadvantaged among us and promote healing across ethnic communities, we need to raise up leaders from those communities to direct our church’s ministries and relief efforts.
We can preach systemic justice from the pulpit: Pastors should be trained to see issues of justice throughout Scripture and to approach it both exegetically and homiletically in any passage they preach. If a church only hears about systemic justice one or two times a year, it is easy to regard it as insignificant. Congregations need to hear justice addressed repeatedly to counteract the formational agenda and power of this world and to truly embrace a communal identity as the body of Christ that cares for social good.
We can incorporate systemic justice within whole-life discipleship: Churches can disciple their congregants to identify social-spiritual gaps and understand their own roles in bridging them. Congregants can be trained to collectively use their voices, resources, and platforms to effect real change in society. They can be taught about healthy engagement with protests and marches. The goal is for people in our churches to be equipped to both call out societal injustices and abuses of power and repair and restore what has been damaged. They must understand the necessary balance between calling out and calling in, between critique and engagement.
We can listen, lament, and legislate: As Lisa Fields and the Jude 3 Project advocate, churches can unite around legislation for criminal justice reform, the death penalty, voting rights, education, immigration, and other issues. As the And Campaign’s newest book, Compassion (&) Conviction, attests, the church can participate in “civic and cultural engagement that results in better representation, more just and compassionate policies, and a healthier political culture.”
God calls us to step confidently into the civic space while staying rooted in the gospel of Christ crucified. In this way, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the church can truly be the church.
Dr. Michelle Reyes is the vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative as well as an author, speaker, and activist in Austin, Texas. In 2014, Michelle and her husband co-planted Hope Community Church, a minority-led multicultural church that serves low-income and disadvantaged communities in East Austin. Her forthcoming book with Zondervan on cross-cultural relationships is called Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures.