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How can Fellowship Baptists more fully embody God’s heart for justice?

By Terry Maples, CBFVA Field Coordinator

On March 3 CBF Virginia was privileged to partner with First Baptist Church in Ashland, Virginia, in Mission Possible at nearby Randolph-Macon College. Through interactive encounters and by highlighting a natural symbiosis between the arts and justice, college students were challenged to connect to God’s mission in the world.

I observed firsthand the excellent investment CBFVA and other partners made in this experience. The intent of Mission Possible was to shape and form faith in those who engaged worship, breakout sessions, and exhibits. Presenters increased awareness about God’s heart for justice. Raising consciousness about what God seeks to accomplish in the world is high priority for CBF Baptists.

FBC’s pastor Josh Hayden led a session called “God’s Heart for Justice.” After explaining the terms righteous and justice come from the same root word, Josh defined justice as “how to bring equity and wholeness, putting God’s love into action.” He unpacked two scripture passages—one from Old Testament and one from New Testament. They are summarized below:

Isaiah 58:1-14

  • Justice is inherently relational. Isaiah speaks to exiles and calls them to deeper justice lest they miss out on the “heartbeat of God.”
  • People fast outwardly while simultaneously exploiting workers – and the enslaved do the same things their oppressors do. Do not pass the wrong you experience on to others.
  • Do not say one thing with your mouths then say something different with your behaviors.
  • All are made in the image of God. With our actions we confirm or deny this truth.
  • Loose the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free—feed, clothe, house, and empower the oppressed.
  • Keep orienting your hearts toward other people. Stay in relationship with individuals from whom you want to run. In doing so, the light of righteousness breaks forth.
  • When we practice justice, we earn the new names repairer and
  • The by-product of practicing justice is greater joy!

Luke 4:14-30

  • Jesus arrives in Galilee and attends temple on Sabbath. The scroll is handed to him and he reads from Isaiah.
  • Jesus speaks to Jewish people who are under Roman occupation. The words from Isaiah are Good News for these oppressed people.
  • Jesus announces himself as the fulfillment of this Isaiah passage, i.e. Jesus owns it as his mission statement. His claim is not well received by the “home crowd.”
  • Jesus says, “I’ve come to bring freedom and justice for everyone—even oppressors! In the Year of Jubilee everything is restored.”
  • People speak well of Jesus until he starts lifting up examples of how God works through non-Jewish people. When the Jews hear these words they try to run Jesus out of town.

Soon after Mission Possible, I met with CBFVA’s intern Mary Jo Dailey, a student at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, to unpack her Profile in Ministry report. One thing in particular about the report stood out—two lengthy sections on Conversionist Ministry and Social Justice Ministry. Here are the markers listed under each category:

Conversionist Ministry:

  • Assertive individual evangelism
  • Precedence of evangelistic goals
  • Concentration on congregational concerns
  • Law orientation to ethical issues
  • Theologically oriented counseling

Social Justice Ministry:

  • Aggressive political leadership
  • Support of unpopular causes
  • Openness to pluralism
  • Active concern for the oppressed
  • Interest in new ideas
  • Concern for social justice
  • Support for women’s pastoral leadership

The need for seminary students to reflect on these two approaches to ministry is crucial. While students likely lean one direction or the other, both “being” and “doing” are essential to holistic ministry. The Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40) demands attention to our faith development in two directions – nurture both the capacity to love God (vertical dimension) and the capacity to love neighbor (horizontal dimension).

How do these two understandings impact local congregational leadership? What are the implications? If a church’s pastor focuses primarily on conversion, i.e. getting people to make professions of faith, then the church will likely define the mission of the church as “reaching people for Jesus Christ” with primary concern for the vertical dimension of their faith. Spiritual goals will be more transactional in nature with emphasis on heaven and hell. If a pastor’s focus is on social justice, the church will likely define the mission of the church as “being God’s heart, hands, and feet to the world,” emphasizing horizontal dimensions of faith. “Doing” oriented church leaders encourage their congregations to focus on fair and equal treatment of people, i.e. we have a role in fixing and redeeming broken systems in the here and now.

Lest you assume this is all theoretical thinking, a real-life story illustrates how these two understandings often collide. Once upon a time I visited a young pastor who was about to be fired by the congregation he was serving. Had he committed some grave moral indiscretion? No, but, according to the deacons, the pastor’s efforts to move the congregation outside the walls of the church and into the community were ill-advised and had not been well-received by church members. The pastor was told, “This church doesn’t believe in these liberal ideas about serving in the community. We decided a long time ago this church exists to preach the word, offer Sunday school classes, and meet each other’s needs through the Deacon Family Ministry!” Clearly, this congregation’s predominantly vertical focus could not abide the pastor’s more holistic understanding and approach to kingdom ministry.

I believe the conversionist-social justice continuum is wide; leaders and congregations fall somewhere in the sequence. We need both types of ministry. Often, however, we become myopic and neglect one or the other category of ministry. Do we not reduce the Gospel to something less than Jesus expects when we forget one dimension or the other? How local churches understand, interpret, and exercise their roles in the world determines whether people engage the Good News of the Gospel or turn away from it.

CBF Baptists believe in forming together. We are passionate about nurturing faith in God through Jesus Christ AND we are committed to helping folks understand God’s heart bends toward justice. We work to form relationships (both vertical and horizontal) and to foster justice (equity, wholeness, God’s love in action). Our Christian calling demands spiritual formation—shaping and forming disciples who serve the world. God bless our efforts to make God’s love visible and tangible to all.