The Gospel Is the Center
What do we mean when we say “gospel above all”? Is that another way of saying “just preach Jesus” and avoiding the messy and uncomfortable conversations about injustice? For sure, some generations of Christians have been guilty of that in the past—using the cloak of “just preach the gospel” to avoid the awkward and uncomfortable implications of the gospel for social dynamics. Is that what we mean?
In short, no. Preaching the gospel of vertical reconciliation with God always produces horizontal transformation with our fellow man. We see this in all of Paul’s epistles. The gospel changes everything, upending power dynamics and tearing down walls of hostility.
Saying “gospel above all” means that the gospel of God’s work for us at the cross drives all those changes. As Paul says, the gospel is the power by which we have not only been saved but are being saved (1 Corinthians 15:1–4). Each of the horizontal fruits of the Christian life comes from driving our hearts deeper into gospel roots. Going deeper into the gospel changes our attitude toward every dimension of life, including racism (Galatians 2:1–14), justice (Luke 19:1–10), purity (John 8:1–11; Titus 2:8–11), and generosity (2 Corinthians 8:9; Matthew 18:21–34), just to name a few.
Spiritual fruits, while essential byproducts of growth of the gospel, can never replace the gospel itself at the center of the church. If they do, the power for true, heart-level change of any kind will evaporate.
The Apostle Paul says that if we try to bring about any change, in humanity or in society, by decentering the gospel, then we are building wood, hay, and stubble (1 Corinthians 3:12). It’s a great irony, but if we emphasize any fruit of the gospel more than the gospel itself, we lose not only the gospel but the fruit itself! That’s because the gospel and the gospel alone is the power of God (Romans 1:16), the grace for every good work (2 Corinthians 9:8).
No spiritual fruit, therefore, occupies the center of our church’s mission. Multiethnicity is not the center. Missions is not the center. Evangelism is not the center. Generosity is not the center. Social justice is not the center. The gospel is the center because in the gospel is the power for change for all of these things. In the gospel and the gospel alone are the resources for every good work.
The gospel is given to the church to proclaim. It is of first importance, Paul says, and all precautions should be taken so that nothing gets in the way of people hearing it. The local church must therefore be careful not to become overly encumbered with other matters that hinder their gospel proclamation.
The church also is commanded to make disciples, which means teaching believers to observe all that Jesus commanded, which includes justice. 
Those are principles Jesus and the Apostles taught explicitly. Teaching these principles is part of the discipleship calling, but prescribing the best policies to accomplish these is, for the most part, outside the calling of the local church.
The Church as an Organization vs. the Church as an Organism
It is helpful here to recognize the distinction between the church as an organization and an organism because the calling on each is different.
- As an organization, the church has a limited platform, reflecting an extension of the earthly ministry of Jesus. As such, our focus is on proclaiming the gospel message and teaching all things that Jesus commanded—again, those principles explicitly stated in Scripture. (This is the role of church officers and staff.) Whereas members can and should bring their perceptions of God’s wisdom into their respective areas of influence, church leaders must limit their platforms to what the Bible clearly says.
- As an organism, members of the church ought to infiltrate every dimension of society, bringing God’s wisdom and shalom into it. As Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not one square inch of the entire cosmos over which Jesus does not declare, ‘Mine!’” This is part of the creation mandate. (This is the role of members.)
The interpretation of social dynamics and the best policies in contemporary politics for accomplishing these principles are almost always an indirect application of Scriptural principles. At our church, we often refer to these as “dotted lines.” The church’s identity should be tied as closely to explicit scriptural values as possible, allowing for maximum unity among the members and maximum freedom in gospel proclamation.
The church’s identity should be tied as closely to explicit scriptural values as possible, allowing for maximum unity among the members and maximum freedom in gospel proclamation.
As an organization, the church preaches against injustice and for human flourishing for all. As an organism, church members seek to apply that in government, education, business, etc. The roles are complementary, but in most cases distinct.
Tim Keller says that we tend to think about this in terms of controversial issues, but we could really expand it beyond that. As a pastor, for instance, I teach the principles of justice and integrity. But when it comes to determining ethical practices in stock trading, for instance, that should be done as a dialogue with those Christians called to work in finance. I’m teaching the principles, they’re working out the nuances of what qualifies as unfair or unethical: What qualifies as insider trading? What is the difference in healthy vs. predatory lending practices? The same kind of dialogue should happen between pastors and politicians, with pastors advocating biblical principles and the electorate applying.
If a pastor feels called by God to engage in and identify themselves with the application of God’s wisdom in a controversial area, that is a worthy calling and they should pursue work there—but in most cases not as an officer or staff member of the church-as-organization. Both callings are honorable, but they are distinct.
Ironically, church leaders getting involved in the political outworkings of biblical principles often hinder the one thing we are directly commanded to do—disciple our members in the biblical duties of justice. The more we tie our proclamation to specific policies, the more likely it is that a church member can say, “Well, I don’t agree with that strategy for dealing with poverty,” at which point they will not hear our bigger point that Christians have to care about poverty and get involved.
The dividing line in the church for most of these discussions ought not to be between conservative and progressive approaches, but those who care about these issues and those who don’t. Those who care belong in the church and feel a profound sense of unity. Those who don’t and won’t follow Jesus here as disciples should feel uncomfortable. But the people of God should not be characterized by a particular cultural or political angle, or by a unified interpretation of every current event.
We see Jesus and the Apostles show this kind of restraint in their ministries. In Luke 12:13–21, for example, Jesus is asked to adjudicate a particular social justice complaint—one brother accused the other of leveraging his position to cheat him out of his rightful inheritance. If you know anything about the life and ministry of Jesus, you know he cares about injustice. He preached all the time about justice. He repeatedly condemned greedy exploitation, particularly by the powerful against the weak. And more than that, he declared that those in positions of power who did not use that power to lift others up were in danger of hellfire regardless of the fervency of their religion (Luke 16:19–31).
Yet instead of giving a specific—you might even say political—answer to the particulars of this case, we see Jesus withhold his judgment. He says, “Man, who appointed me as a Judge or arbiter over you?” (Luke 12:14), so that he could instead warn both of them about the idolatry of money. In other words, he showed restraint in the particulars so he could preach the gospel to both because the gospel was of first importance to both.
Furthermore, there were plenty of political and societal reforms needed in the first-century world, but we don’t see the Apostles prescribing overtly political solutions to any of them. And not because they weren’t smart enough to think of answers, either: I, for one, would have loved to read a letter from the Apostle Paul outlining his planned reforms for the Roman Empire! He could have. But in an act of incredible discipline, he chose not to.
Of course, the gospel they preached planted the seeds that would ultimately lead to these societal reforms. But the church, as an organization, kept itself focused on preaching the gospel and proclaiming those things that Jesus taught.
Which brings me to social media …
Social Media: To Post or Not to Post?
What does all of this mean, practically, when a racial tragedy occurs in our country? For instance, when a Black man is shot, what is the responsibility of church leaders in the realm of social media?
First of all, it is important for us to remember that social media is not the best place for these discussions. These kinds of discussions require trust and charity, and those things most naturally occur in personal interactions.
But in the context of social media, those working for the church-as-organization can (and in many cases should):
- Lament the loss of life.
- Lament the racialized context in which this happens. Why is race even a factor in these considerations? Why is our society in a place where we still even have to ask these things?
- Recognize the historical context in which these things happen. These events do not happen in a vacuum. Many people of color bring collective memories of many years of slavery, discriminatory laws, prejudice, and the racist narratives that undergirded them into these situations.
- Similarly, we recognize that whether or not there is a larger problem is not determined by this one incident. For years our African-American brothers and sisters have been telling us there is a problem, and we can enter that pain with them. We can admit that this is a historical reality that the U.S. has struggled with for several hundred years.
- However, we must pull back from playing judge and jury, particularly early on. We are hardly ever called or competent from our vantage point to play judge and jury on the particulars of developing current events.
Where I’ve Gotten It Wrong
Let me share a few examples of how I’ve learned, the hard way, about the importance of social media restraint.
The Iraq War
In 2003, I was on the Southern Baptist Resolutions Committee, and we were asked to make a public statement in support of the Iraq War. At the time, the mood in our country was hawkish. Nearly everyone was in favor of our military involvement in the Middle East—Republican and Democrat alike. This committee decided to vote to endorse the war, a decision that, at the time, would have been completely uncontroversial.
Though at the time I was personally in support of the war, I argued that the institutional church didn’t have any business weighing in on the strategic value of a particular military engagement (except in extreme circumstances). I suggested we make a general statement about our belief in “just war,” and urging our leaders to use wisdom, compassion, and restraint. Another man on the committee argued that if we didn’t connect our virtue with policy, our witness would be anemic.
In the end, I caved. Well, sort of. I didn’t vote in support of the statement, but I was too cowardly to vote against it. It passed 8-0, with one abstention. Just a few years later, the case for the Iraq War mostly fell apart. We had sullied our reputation and hindered our witness by lending the church’s name to a judgment we were neither called nor competent as the church-as-organization to make.
This one was much more fraught because it happened right in our own backyard. In 2006, a story broke about a group of white lacrosse players at Duke University who had allegedly gang-raped a Black woman hired to dance at a party. It exploded in the national media, partially because it seemed the perfect demonstration of rich, white, privileged kids with no regard for Black lives or bodies.
I wasn’t as active on social media back then, but in other public venues, I came out swinging. I railed against racial injustice, condemned the players and their actions, and called for the university to take swift action. As with the situation with the Iraq War, my actions were aligned with most of the public opinion at the time.
I was then approached by a few people connected to the case. They urged caution, saying there was more to the story than the initial allegations. I did not listen. We watched for the next nine months as much of the story unraveled. I regret having postured myself as judge and jury when I was neither called nor competent to do so. Not only had I acted rashly and with incomplete information; I had also done the church a disservice and created an unnecessary hindrance to the gospel.
Covington High School
Early in 2019, the Washington Post and other prominent news outlets circulated a picture of what looked like a smug high school kid in a MAGA hat, arrogantly standing down and disrespecting a grieving Native American man. It seemed like the perfect illustration of white condescension, so I took to the social media airwaves. The only problem was that the narrative wasn’t accurate. The student ended up receiving settlements from multiple news outlets after suing them for defamation. I was neither called nor competent to make that determination, and I should not have tied the church’s name to it.
We See Through a Glass Darkly
The interpretation of events and the best policies to address them often look so clear to us in the moment. But given a little time, we often see that what seemed right to us was not right after all.
Because we are fallen, our diagnoses and political solutions are often warped by our own limited vantage point, a failure to see all pertinent factors, and our own self-interest.
And you know what? That kind of fallibility is OK. We are human. We see through a glass darkly on these things. But we don’t have to tie the church-as-organization’s credibility to that fallibility, particularly when doing so encumbers us and hinders the proclamation of our primary message.
Because we are fallen, our diagnoses and political solutions are often warped by our own limited vantage point. But we don’t have to tie the church-as-organization’s credibility to that fallibility, particularly when doing so hinders the proclamation of the gospel.
Disciples of Jesus yearn to speak out against injustice. And they must. The gospel compels us to, and we fail at our post if we do not teach people the implications of the gospel on social questions! But for those of us who work for the church, we must focus our preaching and our messaging on what the Bible says directly and show restraint where it doesn’t. For instance …
- Christians must care about poverty relief. But is a state-mandated “living wage” the answer? Some Christians say it would help the poor; others say it would ultimately harm them. Should the church tie it’s message to one of those positions?
- Christians must care about healing the sick. Is universalized healthcare the best way to help that?
- Christians should care about equal voting rights for all. Are voter ID laws a helpful protection against voter fraud, or are they inherently discriminatory?
- Christians must care about refugees and immigrants. But does the Bible prescribe the exact process and specific numbers?
These are all very important questions that Christians should think deeply about. But the church-as-organization should refrain from attaching its authority to particular answers in the “dotted line” realm. We must, of course, speak out against derogatory comments about any race, warn about the abuses of power, and decry the culture of death and the disregard of the rights of the weak. But which candidates we should vote for or which policies best rectify our society’s problems is not the domain of the church-as-organization.
The church must speak out against derogatory comments about any race, warn about the abuses of power, and decry the culture of death and the disregard of the rights of the weak. But which candidates we should vote for is not the domain of the church-as-organization.
There is no indication that Simon the Zealot had to renounce zealotry as a political opinion and take up “Tax Collector” politics when he became Jesus’ disciple. But I am quite confident that if he had social media, Jesus would not let Simon post in a way that identified Jesus’ band of 12 and their movement with zealotry.
There Can Be Exceptions
There are times when the line between some scriptural value and the most just policy is so clear and the need so extraordinary that a local church feels compelled to take a stand. If, for example, you were a German pastor in 1940, you need not only to speak about the value of Jewish lives but also oppose Nazism as Bonhoeffer did. Tragically, much of the evangelical church sat on the sidelines for the Civil Rights movement. Furthermore, pro-life legislation, anti-discrimination laws, and religious freedom protections are often clear enough that churches may feel justified in calling for support of particular measures.
These exceptions should be chosen carefully and only with the consent of a church’s directional elders. In 2011, for instance, our elders wrestled with whether or not to officially endorse “Amendment One,” an NC constitutional amendment upholding marriage as an institution between one man and one woman. We had been clear about what the Bible taught about marriage, and we thought perhaps we should let people connect the dots toward this amendment on their own. But it seemed like a key societal moment of sufficient gravity that perhaps an official endorsement was in order. After much prayer and counsel, we decided to officially endorse it.
Only eternity may determine whether or not that was the right decision. I simply tell that story to say that there can be exceptions, the justification of which may even be clearer than our struggle with Amendment One.
In such cases, those exceptions should be made by a collective action of church leadership, after much reflection, counsel, and prayer. They should not be made at the individual discretion of one or two (passionate and well-intentioned) church leaders.
Whether we like it or not, social media is a teaching arm of the church. And our members have a right to expect their leaders to use it as such.
Whether we like it or not, social media is a teaching arm of the church. And our members have a right to expect their leaders to use it as such.
Our gospel is too precious and our mission too urgent to let anything get in its way. As my friend David Platt says in his book Before You Vote: Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask:
“There are certain issues on which every Christian should agree (abortion is a sin, homosexuality is a sin, not caring for the immigrant is a sin, etc.) but there is no political method for resolving these issues upon which every Christian has to agree. However, there is a clear spiritual method for resolving these issues upon which every Christian should agree, faith in Jesus.”
 “Justice” includes things such as:
- Liberty and justice for all in equal measure without partiality (Leviticus 24:22; Isaiah 33:15; Proverbs 31:8–9; James 2:9).
- The value of all human life (Genesis 1:26–28; Psalm 139:13–15).
- The duty of the rich to care for the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7–11; 24:17-22; et al.).
- The sinfulness of racism and discrimination (or as the Bible calls “any partiality”) (Leviticus 19:15; James 2:9).
- The value of religious liberty (2 Timothy 2:1–4).
- The sanctity of marriage and God’s designs for gender and sex (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:1–11; Ephesians 5:21–33).
- The responsibility of governing leaders to lead in ways that promote human flourishing and care for the earth (Proverbs 28:2–3; Romans 13:1–7).
Note: Many of these ideas are taken from my book: Above All: The Gospel is the Source of the Church’s Renewal.