Why Persecution Is a Social Justice Priority


Persecution Social JusticeBrooke Parks at Persecutionblog asks an excellent question: Is Christian Persecution a Social Justice Issue? I believe that it is. At least, I believe that persecution is a justice issue. Parks is correct to note the limits of social justice. Parks points out that the goal of ministry to the persecuted is not to remove inequality. The goal is not simply to make the persecution go away. The goal, according to Parks, is “for the church to be the body of Christ to them and with them.” I completely agree. From the New Testament perspective, “Being the body of Christ to them and with them” is primarily an action of justice.  Caring for the persecuted is a fundamental expression of biblical justice. Perhaps the term “social” can be abandoned, but the idea of justice cannot. And here is why.

In the Old Testament, God Himself proved to be the one who would always “execute justice” and “love” the strangers and aliens among Israel (Deuteronomy 10). The revelation of God as the source of justice and love was supposed to govern Israel. Israel was expected to be like God, executing justice in her own midst, making sure that the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the powerless were not forgotten.  In addition, Israel was supposed to show love to those who came into her midst from the nations around. In this way, Israel, like God, was supposed to model justice and love.

When the time came for Israel to adopt a king, the Lord gave specific instructions for the king: (1) That the king should first read, study, meditate upon, and obey carefully God’s law (Deut 17:18-20); (2) Then, second, that the king would execute justice and righteousness. This function of the king was on splendid display when the Queen of Sheba came to call upon Solomon. She proclaimed,

because the LORD loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.” (1 Kings 10:9)

According to God, the king’s task was first to be just and, next, to execute laws of justice and righteousness for all of Israel.

When Christ came to establish His kingdom, He did so in righteousness. Christ was, of course, just. As He announced to John the Baptist, Christ also fulfilled all righteousness (Matthew 3:15).  Christ would later explain that basic discipleship—that is, a basic knowledge of what it means to follow Him—includes learning to be obedient to all His commands (Matthew 28:18-20, commonly called the Great Commission). Being obedient to Christ’s commands is essentially putting God’s justice and righteousness into action.

Christ came as a righteous king to establish God’s righteous kingdom. Consequently, Christ taught His followers that they must pursue righteousnessRighteousness Persecution and the kingdom as matters of first importance (Matthew 6:33).  Christ also taught His followers that their pursuit of justice/righteousness would lead them to be persecuted (see Matthew 5:10-12).

What all of this means is that to live the Christian life is to display God’s justice. Such a display will provoke persecution now just as it did when Christ and the Apostles ministered on earth. When Christ’s followers suffer persecution, they do so on account of righteousness (justice). They suffer for doing what is right in His name. It is His authority and His presence in His people which provokes the persecution.

So, in the New Testament, the first priority for social justice—that is, for feeding the poor, caring for widows, providing for orphans, and showing mercy to prisoners—is to minister to the persecuted and oppressed church. To use a common metaphor applied to the people of God in the New Testament, the first priority is to care for one’s own family—the family of God.

The idea of family first is evident in Paul’s instructions to Timothy regarding the care of widows:

But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Christians are to do good to all people, but, especially, we are to do good to those who are of the household of faith, according to the Apostle Paul (Galatians 6:10). Not surprisingly, the New Testament is replete with examples of Christians doing good for fellow saints who are suffering.

Most references in the New Testament concerning feeding the poor actually understand the poor to be persecuted and suffering Christians. The offering Paul took from the churches was collected to care for needy, suffering saints in Jerusalem (see 1 Cor 16:1-4, Rom. 15:25). Paul Himself was partly responsible for the persecution which put these saints in such a needy state (see Acts 9:1-13). Little wonder, then, that after his conversion he felt responsible for their care.

When Paul went before Peter, James, and John to validate his commission to preach to the Gentiles, they gave him the right hand of fellowship and encouraged him to continue caring for the poor believers as he had been doing in Jerusalem (see Galatians 2:1-10).[1] Likewise, the admonitions in the book of James concerning the poor also are references to the brother or sister among you, that is, to the poor and needy Christians.

Further, the care of widows and orphans—which is called by James a “pure and undefiled religion”—is care for widows and orphans in the household of faith. These issues—typically called issues of social justice—are primarily issues of Christians acting rightly toward fellow brothers and sisters of the faith. They are issues of justice within the household of faith.

When the New Testament speaks of visiting prisoners, it means that Christians are responsible to remember (Hebrews 13:3) and care for fellow Christians who have been thrown into prison on account of Christ (cf. Hebrews 10:34). In fact, Peter made sure the early church held to an important distinction in categorizing imprisonment:

Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name (1 Peter 4:15-16; cf. 1 Peter 3:17).

John love persecutionIn the New Testament, issues of justice begin with the household of faith. As the household of faith learns to love one another rightly and, thus, executes the justice of God rightly so that God’s righteousness is on display, the world begins to see what justice and love actually are like. The whole world begins to know that Jesus Christ is present because of the way the Church loves one another (John 13:35). In this way, the Church witnesses to the world of Christ’s love.

So, it is important that the church exercises “justice” in caring for the poor and suffering Christians. In this way, ministry to the persecuted is the first order of “social justice” business. Our love for one another is crucial to our witness before the watching world.

Brooke Parks’ question has to be answered affirmatively: “Yes!” Persecution ministry is the foremost and primary act of social justice. Parks answered the question negatively, but only with regard to the non-biblical idea that justice concerns equality. Parks is correct to say that the goal of persecution ministry is not to bring society back into some arbitrary notion of balance or equity.  Rather, the goal of persecution ministry is to display the righteousness of God in the face of world’s unrighteous desire to be rid of Christ by executing His people.

See also:

http://www.heritage.org/research/commentary/2014/5/christian-persecution-an-injustice-for-all

 

[1] For fuller discussion, see Thomas Schreiner, Galatians, in the Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, published by Zondervan.

Who Really Cares About “The Least of These”? Matthew 25:31-46


What could be more obvious than the fact that Christians must take care of the outcast, the poor, and the prisoners?  Ministries of mercy like feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and clothing the scantily clad are services expected by Christ of His followers. As Matthew 25 makes plain, the righteous will engage in these ministries, while the wicked will proved to have neglected them in the end.

Covenant paradigm social justice care for poor persecuted persecution

New Testament Concentric Care

But obvious facts don’t always capture the complete story. So it is with Jesus’s instructions concerning “the least of these” in Matthew 25:31-46.  At the end of the narrative, Jesus casts out the wicked for having neglected the care of the naked, the strangers, and the thirsty, for He says “as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” –A strong word indeed which demonstrates Jesus’s presence with the poor. But which poor, any and every poor person on the planet?

It seems to me the rest of the story is told in the positive version of Jesus’s instruction about caring for “the least of these.” Back in 25:40, Jesus praises the righteous for the ministries of mercy they have completed:

“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

The use of the term “my brothers” is not insignificant. Grant Osborne notes, “It is unlikely that unbelievers would be called ‘my brothers and sisters.’” Osborne notes further that Jesus calls his followers his brothers and sisters earlier in Matthew’s gospel (12:48-50).  What is the significance of “the least of these” being a reference to those in the covenant community? There are at least 3 significant consequences for reading the text this way.

First, it means the world will be judged for how it relates to Christ and Christians—particularly those in need. Jesus cares for, loves, and has committed himself to his followers. When the world rejects, despises, persecutes, and oppresses his sheep, He rightly assigns them to a proper judgment. Osborne sums up clearly this point concerning the thrust of Matthew 25:

“So Jesus’ message is that the world will be judged on the basis of how it treats those ‘little people’ whom God is sending to it.”

Second, it means Christians, too, will be judged not just for their ministries of mercy to the poor but for their concern explicitly for the persecuted poor. Christ, obviously, is concerned for His sheep. Why would Christians neglect them? The New Testament expects Christians to care for family first and then extend that familial love to the strangers and aliens among them. Too often we skip over the Christian family in our witness to evangelize the needy in the world. Is it not possible to accomplish the latter without neglecting the former? Jesus did not neglect his own in his extending mercy to the world. Neither should we.

Third, it means that the presence of Christ abides in the midst of the persecuted church. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus first framed the kingdom people as the poor and the persecuted. The first Beatitude states that the kingdom belongs to the poor. The last Beatitude completes the thought, stating that the kingdom belongs to the persecuted. The poor, persecuted follower of Christ is the one with whom Christ—himself destitute and persecuted—identifies (cf. Matthew 5:1-12 and Beatitudes). The summary of the Beatitudes is a “Beatitude reprise” in which Jesus proclaims that those persecuted on account of Him are the blessed in the earth who ought to be rejoicing.

So the conclusion of the matter is that if we care for Christ at all, then we will care for the impoverished and persecuted church in whose midst He dwells in love.

Why Caring for the Persecuted Is a Christian Priority


So our friends and family back east—especially in Kentucky—are experiencing one of the toughest winters on record. Even now, there is snow on top of ice on top of snow. Out here in California, we are experiencing a drought, although we got a few sprinkles overnight (and snow in the mountains). And, so far, the drought has not caused a famine in the land.

Christian needs ministryImagine if it had. Imagine a drought so bad that it caused a famine in which food became scarce and lives were being lost (like the 2011 drought—and famine—suffered in the Horn of Africa, from which thousands died, and 90,000 kids are still in danger). In a situation like that, would a Christian be obligated to share food with others? If not obligated, then wouldn’t the Christian at least want to share food with others to keep them alive?

Feeding the poor is an on-going ministry need and a need which nearly everyone agrees ought to be met. What’s more basic than food and water, right? And Christians—where possible—are obligated to help secure these necessities for those in need.  But there is a Christian hierarchy for meeting physical needs. Consider the severe principle Paul lays down to Timothy:

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8).

In its context, this verse is speaking of caring for widows in your own family. Don’t have the church (or the government!) provide for your widowed mother, grandmother, or aunt—take care of her yourself because you are her family. If you don’t take care of the need in your own family, then you don’t understand the faith.

This idea of taking care of family first is found throughout Scripture and throughout the New Testament. In fact, it is such a basic notion that to fail in this regard would be not just falling below the gospel standard of morality—but below even the standard recognized by the pagan culture. Everyone knows that family comes first.

Because family comes first, Paul actually views caring for poor and needy Christians as a priority over caring for poor and needy non-Christians. Does this sound strange? Harsh? It shouldn’t.  This principle is woven from the fabric of basic familial priority: Feed your family first. Paul says it this way in Galatians:

“So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Returning to our hypothetical drought and famine, we can think of the matter this way. If we were living through a famine, we would naturally feed ourselves and our own families first. It would be neither heroic nor laudable to feed our neighbors’ kids, while allowing our own to starve. Each father must provide for his own.

In Galatians 6:10, Paul is not intending to drive a wedge between serving the needy church and serving the needy pagans. The command is “do good to all.” So, there is no diminishing of social justice, feeding the poor, or loving our neighbor. Yet, there would be something terribly dysfunctional if we were to concentrate our care on those outside the faith, while we left our own faith family to starve, suffer, and die.

The world will not be sure that you are Jesus followers if you simply love the poor and feed the needy.   Jesus made this point plainly for His disciples in John 13:35: “By this,” Jesus says, “all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” The need hierarchy of the New Testament demands that we take care of our brothers and sisters suffering on account of Christ. Loving one another will itself witness to the world that we are Christians.

As Tom Schreiner writes in his commentary on Galatians: “A hierarchy is established, so that a priority is assigned to those who are fellow believers.” Our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world are fellow believers. How do we make them our priority?