CHICAGO Evangelical leaders Jim Wallis and R. Albert Mohler Jr., in a debate over the church's role in social justice, agreed that Christians have a duty to care for the poor but disagreed whether that task is part of the Gospel itself.
The debate hosted by Trinity Evangelical Divinity School's Henry Center for Theological Understanding was cordial and saw the two men agree on several issues but disagree on the debate's core question: Is social justice an essential part of the mission of the church? Wallis, president of Sojourners, took the "yes" position while Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, took the "no" position.
Good works are important, Mohler said in the Oct. 27 debate, but they are not the church's mission.
"Everything the church does is not its mission," Mohler said. "There are many things that the church is involved with that are not essentially its mission but are nonetheless what Christ's people do precisely because they belong to Christ."
When the apostles preached the Gospel in the New Testament, Mohler said, they were referencing God's redemption of sinners and not social justice.
"The Gospel is about how sinners who rightly deserve nothing but the eternal condemnation of God nonetheless are redeemed by His decisive act in Jesus Christ to redeemed sinners," Mohler said.
Wallis disagreed with Mohler's definition of "Gospel," saying the Gospel is about both personal salvation and social justice, and he argued that it's important not to separate the personal aspect of the Gospel from its application.
"Justice is integral to the Gospel itself," Wallis said.
Conservatives and liberals each have gotten the Gospel wrong, Wallis added.
"Too many liberals have a social cause but have dropped the altar call no more conversion," Wallis said. "Too many conservatives have an altar call but no more mission to the world. We must move away from an either/or Gospel. It's time for both/and biblical thinking."
Mohler agreed that ministers must preach about justice, but not because it is more significant than other subjects but because it is part of the "whole counsel of God," to be dealt with alongside other subjects.
"The church, therefore, is going to be armed to know what justice is and how to act justly," Mohler said. "... I do believe what the New Testament presents is the Gospel and its implications."
Both men quoted from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.
"We are instructed," Mohler said, quoting Matthew 5:16, "'Let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven.'"
Wallis called the Sermon on the Mount "the Magna Carta of the Kingdom" partly because it "reverses all the world's values." A former student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Wallis told how he and his classmates during the 1960s searched the Bible for all the verses about the poor. Leading that list in importance, he said, was Jesus' words in Matthew 25: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these ... you did for Me."
"Here is the Son of God, saying, 'I'll know how much you love me by how you treat them those who are left out, left behind, those who are most forgotten," Wallis said.
Wallis examined the church of his childhood, saying that it was correct doctrinally but "but made the mistake of what I would call ... an atonement-only Gospel."
"It was purely a private faith," Wallis said. "A Gospel message that doesn't even try to change the world only works for those who don't need the world changed."
Mohler said Christians "must be concerned with human suffering" and must be "agents of alleviating and, where possible, ending that suffering."
"But the Bible clearly presents the greatest suffering as the suffering of the unrepentant sinner for eternity," Mohler said. "The greatest, most urgent, and only essential mission of the church ... as charged in the New Testament is the message of the Gospel. This is genuinely what is hope to the hopeless."
The church's mission, Mohler said, is to do "that which only the church can do, and that is to herald the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and ... to declare salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord."
The two men rarely asked questions of one another but did make an exception toward the end of the debate when discussing Luke 4:18-19, which Wallis called Jesus' "mission statement." In that passage, Jesus said, "The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Wallis referenced two churches in the Chicago area, one of them Bethel New Life, which he said are fulfilling that passage.
"What they are doing is they are bringing good news to the poor every single day," Wallis said. "They're bringing health and wellness and jobs and fairness. They're bringing good news to poor people, and in the middle of that they proclaim Christ, and people come to Christ because they see the good news."
Mohler asked, "What is the good news they're bringing if it isn't Christ?"
"They're bringing health care to people who don't have it," Wallis answered. "That's good news to people who are poor and don't have health care."
Said Mohler, "I want them to have health care, but I don't think that's what the text is talking about."