She had not regularly attended church for a while. She still believed in God but she had been unable to find a church where she felt comfortable. She explained that she was particularly bothered by the fact that the Church wasn’t doing what it should, that it had lost its focus. When I asked her what it was the church should be focused on her answer was heartfelt. “They should be doing more for the poor!”
Her answer was heartfelt, but it was wrong. It revealed a lack of knowledge about the mission of the church and the teachings of the Bible. I wish I could say that she was alone in her erroneous thinking but she reflects a viewpoint commonly held by members of the millennial generation. Social justice has surpassed God Himself as the focus of worship. How did this happen?
Scripture teaches that Christians should be characterized by how they care for fellow Christians, not by how they care for those who are outside the faith. Jesus said it Himself, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." (1) The prioritization of the needs of fellow believers is addressed by the Apostle Paul as well, “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" (2) It seems the clear message of these passages is overlooked. The focus instead appears to be on the misapplication of other verses, misapplication that supports the world's idea of what religion should be.
One of the greatest misapplications of scripture is of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25.. In the story Jesus says that His followers will receive their eternal inheritance because “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."He then says that those who were not his followers did not do these things.
His followers are said to ask Jesus when it was that they did these things to Him. Jesus replied, “to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me(emphasis added). The term "brothers of mine" is important. It means that the evidence of faith is in how people treat those who follow Jesus, not how they treat those who don't.
Similarly, when those being condemned for lack of faith (the goats in the parable) asked Jesus when it was that they failed to do deeds of kindness to Jesus, He replied, “to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” The term "least of these" is important. "These" is a limiting word, it refers to a subgroup. In the parable, the subgroup that is separate from the unbelieving "goats" are the believing "sheep." Jesus is again making it clear that the evidence of faith is the treatment of His followers. Jesus' followers are His representatives on earth. When we are kind to them, we are kind to Him.
The other commonly misquoted verse is from the letter of James, who wrote, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (3).” At first glance it seems that he is saying that the job of the church is to take care of widows and orphans. These are noble endeavors, but this is not James’ point. Just prior to this verse James attacked those who say they are religious but who are critical or foul in their speech, calling that type of religion “worthless”. He is making the point that true religion is not about words, but actions. The reference to widows and orphans is an illustration of that point.
James also railed in his letter against those who give honor and respect to those who are wealthy. He attacks the worldly practice of giving to those who can give back to you. By using "widows and orphans" as his example, he is making it clear that giving to those who can't give back is a truer expression of faith. He brings this home in the same sentence in which he mentions widows and orphans, saying that true religion also means "keeping oneself unstained by the world." (I find it interesting that no one ever quotes these words!)
Later in his letter James gives additional instructions that clarify his intent by writing, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” His use of the term “brother or sister” is a reminder that it is fellow believers we are to serve. Other passages, such as Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 5 provide additional support for this idea.
If scripture is so clear that our focus is to be on the needs of fellow believers, why is there such an emphasis on social justice? I believe that the current emphasis on deeds of social justice by the Church arises out of a need for people to feel good about themselves and a desire to perform external acts of kindness that are recognized by the outside world. Further, community service does not require spiritual transformation or personal purity. We can feed the poor and still be "stained by the world." It is much easier to spend a few hours a week in community service than it is to love your brother, sacrifice for your family and set aside sinful desires!
Rather than being called primarily to community service true followers of Christ are called to be active participants in the community of faith. We are to be loving, serving, encouraging, challenging, and even rebuking one another as we strive to be better, kinder and purer people, people who more patient, more forgiving and more loving members of the family of God. The church can and should serve the community, but it is this that should be our primary focus.
1- John 13:35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another ESV
2- Gal 6:10 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. NASU
3- James 1:27
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. ESV