Schaeffer and Social Justice

Considering the current discussion in evangelical circles regarding “social justice,” I thought it would be interesting to read what Francis Schaeffer wrote on the subject. Francis Schaeffer was certainly not one to advocate that Christians withdraw from the world, and he was well-known for his beliefs about what influence Christians should have on society. Here is an excerpt from his book, The Great Evangelical Disaster:

It is comfortable to accommodate to that which is in vogue about us, to the forms of the world spirit in our age. . . .

Thus in another area we find that a large section of evangelicalism is confusing the kingdom of God with a socialistic program. This too is sheer accommodation to the world spirit around us. A clear example can be found in a newsletter published by a leading evangelical magazine. In a recent issue the newsletter featured the work of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), their social strategy, and their critique of society. As ESA explains:

Summarized briefly, this critique claims that the social problems Christians in this nation are most concerned about (i.e., crime, abortion, lack of prayer, secular humanism, etc.) are important, but are actually symptoms of much larger problems – unjust social structures in the United States – which underlie these legitimate Christian concerns.

The obvious answer, then, is to attack the causes of the disease so the symptoms will go away. ESA spends much of its educational effort trying to acquaint biblical Christians with crucial areas of basic injustices in society and the need to change these for the better.

What are these basic “unjust structures”? ESA believes that most of the (but certainly not all) stem from poverty and the maldistribution of wealth, both on the national and international levels.

Do you understand what is being said here? Remarkably, ESA is saying that “unjust social structures” and in particular “the maldistribution of wealth” are the real causes of evil in the world. According to ESA it is these things (e.g. unjust social structures/maldistribution of wealth) which cause “crime, abortion, lack of prayer, secular humanism, etc.” Just on a factual level this is foolish. There is crime at all levels of society irrespective of wealth; abortion is supported most strongly by the wealthy. And does ESA really believe that changing economic structures would solve the problem of “lack of prayer”? Here the gospel has been reduced to a program for transforming social structures. This is the Marxist line. It does not mean that those who take this position are Communists. But it does mean they have made a complete confusion of the kingdom of God with the basic socialistic concepts. In back of this stands the Enlightenment idea of the perfectibility of man if only the cultural and economic chains are removed.

But think further what this means theologically. What has happened to the fall and sin? ESA seems to be saying that changing economic structures is the means of salvation for modern man since only this deals with the basic “cause of the disease.” Ironically their program is not radical enough! The basic problem is that of the fall and sin and the heart of man. The basic problem is much deeper than social structures, and by not recognizing this ESA ends up with an understanding of salvation which is very different from what the Scriptures teach. Sin is the problem, and there is no greater sin than modern man’s willful defiance of God and his laws both in the area of ideas and actions.

The socialist mentality as promoted by Evangelicals for Social Action and others, and endorsed by much of the evangelical world, is based up on a double error. First and foremost it is wrong theologically, fundamentally distorting the meaning of the gospel. But it is equally wrong in its naïve assessment of the redistribution of wealth and its consequences. The answer is not some kind of socialistic or egalitarian redistribution. This would be much more unjust and oppressive than our own system, imperfect though it is. To understand this all we need to do is look at the repressive societies which have resulted from attempts to radically redistribute wealth along socialistic or egalitarian lines. Every attempt at radical redistribution has wrecked the economy and the culture of the country where it was tried, and every Marxist revolution has ended in a blood bath. It has left the people with less, not more, as well as putting them under a totalitarian government. . . .

I would ask you to think back once again to the illustration of the watershed at the beginning of the second chapter. There I mentioned how the snow lying side by side when it melted would end up a thousand miles apart. And we saw how, in the case of Scripture, two views which seemed at first to be fairly close end up being completely different places, with disastrous consequences both for theology and the culture in which we live. Now when we consider evangelical accommodation to the socialist mentality, we really find the same thing happening. With its call for justice and compassion it sounds at first like it is the same as, or very close to, what Scripture teaches on justice and compassion. Those advocating the socialist mentality try to use all the right evangelical words and avoid any red-flag socialistic rhetoric. But what they are in fact talking about is “another gospel.” And when we look more carefully at what is involved, we find that the socialist mentality ends up in a completely different place, with disastrous consequences theologically and in terms of human rights and human life. A socialistic program is not the answer. And when a large section of evangelicalism begins to confuse the kingdom of God with a socialistic program, this is sheer accommodation to the world spirit of this age. Our response must be confrontation – loving confrontation but nonetheless confrontation. A line must be drawn. (Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster [Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1984], 111-115)

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