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Six Great Ends of the Church: 5. The Promotion of Social Righteousness

Lessons: Amos 5:21-24; Luke 4:14-21

A seminary intern designed the banners hanging in our chancel this summer, some 15 or more years ago. The designs were adapted from artwork created within our denomination around that time. The fifth banner actually represents this morning’s passage in Amos: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”[i] Many of us can’t hear that passage without thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr.; in fact, if you thought those were King’s words rather than the prophet Amos’s, I’ll bet you’re not the only one. It is a fitting and beautiful image for the Promotion of Social Righteousness, the fifth of our Presbyterian “Six Great Ends of the Church,” which we’re reviewing this summer.

My first thought was that I preach on the promotion of social righteousness every other week – or more often – so this should be nothing new to you. But this particular term, social righteousness, probably isn’t familiar to most people. When we hear the word righteousness, we often think of self-righteousness, or maybe someone who’s attached to traditional morals. The term “social righteousness” grew out of the Progressive Era, a period of social activism and political reform in the United States that spanned the 1890’s to the 1920’s. The Progressive movement sought to eradicate problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and political corruption. Those problems included widespread poverty, a huge gap between rich and poor; exploitation of labor; a shrinking middle class. Which sound familiar.

The Christian Church’s response to the Progressive Era was the Social Gospel movement. The Social Gospel was grounded in the conviction that living according to the teachings of the gospel would transform society. That sounds familiar, too. The advocates of the Social Gospel worked to renew society, convinced that Christians can and should take political action to advance the coming of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.[ii] That action is social righteousness, and it looks like this: the hungry are fed, the poor are lifted up, the naked are clothed, those caught in poverty – including the crime, poor health, lack of education and hopelessness that poverty engenders – are freed to live as God intends for us all to live.[iii] It was during the Progressive Era and the Social Gospel movement that the Presbyterian Church adopted these Six Great Ends of the Church.

Then, as now, some people said the Social Gospel movement was too “political.” “Political” is in quotation marks because often what people really mean when they say the Church is being “too political” is that the Church is raising issues that make them uncomfortable. But here’s the thing: The reason this is one of the Six Great Ends of the Church is that a biblically-based faith demands it.

Jim Wallis tells the story of how he had a group of eager first-year seminary students scour the Bible for every reference to wealth and poverty, to injustice and oppression, and to what God expects from us as a response to injustice. They discovered several thousand verses on these topics. They found justice for the poor and vulnerable to be the second most prominent theme in the Hebrew Scriptures (what we usually call the Old Testament) – the first was idolatry, and the two were often related. In the New Testament, one of every sixteen verses is about the poor or the subject of money. In the first three books, it’s one in ten, and in Luke, it’s one in seven.

When they’d finished this project, they sat in a circle and discussed how the subject of injustice had been treated in the churches in which they’d grown up. Not one of them could remember even one sermon on the poor from the pulpit of their home churches. In the Bible, the poor were everywhere; yet the subject wasn’t to be found in the churches. That’s when they decided to try what became a famous experiment. One student took an old Bible and a new pair of scissors and began the long process of literally cutting out every single biblical text about injustice, the poor, caring for the vulnerable, welcoming the stranger, leveling the playing field, and so on.

It took a very long time. When he finished, there was practically nothing left of the books of the prophets. When the student came to this morning’s passage in Amos, he cut it out. He cut out the verses in Micah that we used in our call to worship. He cut out the verses in Isaiah that Jesus quotes in today’s Luke passage.[iv] In the New Testament, he cut out today’s passage and most of the Sermon on the Mount. He cut out many of the parables and the parts of Acts where the disciples share what they have and meet the needs of the poor. He cut out parts Paul’s letters, the verses where James says faith without works is dead, and much more.

When he finished, the Bible had shrunk to almost nothing and was falling apart in the student’s hands. Wallis started taking this Bible full of holes with him wherever he preached. He figured out that many people say they love the Bible, even base their life on it, and yet completely miss its most central themes.[v] As Desmond Tutu put it, the “social gospel” is just “the Gospel, period.” Tutu said, “When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.”