Social Justice in Theology and Practice (with Martin Charlesworth)

Martin Charlesworth leads Barnabas Community Church in Shrewsbury, which is part of the ChristCentral family of churches in Newfrontiers. Martin also heads up the Jubilee+ organisation, helping local churches to build capacity for social action. In this hangout, Martin shares both the theology and practice of social justice. 

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A Theology of Social Justice

  • In the Nazareth manifesto of Luke 4, Jesus summarises his mission. Part of this mission is 'declaring the year of the Lord's favour'.
  • This links back to the passage that Jesus was quoting from Isaiah 61, and ultimately to the idea of the year of jubilee, described in Leviticus 25. 
  • The implication here is that there is some kind of socio-economic blessing that comes with the gospel. 
  • In the Old Testament, it is jubilee. In the New Testament, it will be even more (hence Jubilee+).
  • To see what this looks like in the New Testament, consider the way the early church acted. They shared resources to meet needs within the Christian community itself.
  • It starts in the church, but it moves out and blesses everybody (see Galatians 6:10).
  • In Galatians 2:10, Peter and Paul came to an agreement that remembering the poor is intrinsic to church planting
  • In those cultures, around 50% of the people in every community would be in poverty.

Cultural Questions Regarding Social Justice

  • The myth of the undeserving poor. Cultural attitudes towards many on benefits divide them away from the rest of society. 
  • Social Care. The care of aging and disabled people is going to become a very big issue in the next few years. There is an epidemic of loneliness and there will be a black hole in the provision.
  • The declining capacity of local authority to provide care. This decline is permanent and will not be changing any time soon. It presents both a need and an opportunity for the church.
  • Immigration. This is a very timely issue. Where does the church stand? What can the church do? What issues are rising?
  • Refugees and asylum seekers. As a nation, our capacity in this area is becoming increasingly stretched, and the church will be more and more on the forefront of this.
  • Key issues for the church to focus on are building community for people and imparting life skills of many types.
  • Life skills relate to many different areas of poverty. These  issues are not resolved by government grants, but by working with people very closely.

What Can the Church Do?

  • Since the financial crash of 2008, there has been a big increase in church-based social action projects.
  • People are beginning to notice the church in a fresh way.
“Just as it looked like the church was losing the moral arguments, we have an opportunity to win the social arguments.” (Martin Charlesworth)
  • Church-based projects are the bridge that can connect us into our society.
  • A key for connecting the two things is doing good networking around the projects that we are involved in.
  • We need to relate well to civil leaders, and try to meet with our MPs and our councillors as much as we can.
  • There is a role for advocacy and campaigning.
  • Research is also important.
  • Social action is part of mission - it is at its strongest when it is connected into the church.
  • What you do depends on your scale. It is better to do small things well than to do big things badly.

Q&A

1. Should the provision of food be linked to willingness to work? (2 Thessalonians 3:10)
  • The context of Thessalonians is someone inside the faith community who is making a conscious decision to adopt a lazy attitude.
  • Paul is saying that in this situation, there can't just be ongoing support. There needs to also be accountability and challenge.
  • When dealing with people outside the church, the verse doesn't apply directly, but it does give us the principle of not causing dependency.
  • This is a debate in foodbank communities. Should it be seen as long-term provision or emergency provision?
  • It is best to see it as emergency provision, but to link to other organisations to which you can signpost people who have longer-term needs.
2. Does this apply to church plants or just to existing churches?
  • Peter and Paul's agreement to remember the poor in Galatians 2:10 doesn't seem to make this distinction.
  • If helping one needy person is all that a church plant has the resources to do, then it should help that one person.
  • In time, your capacity will increase.
  • Put care for the poor into the DNA of your church plant.
3. Should churches make a point of having the visibility of the church brand on the project?
  • The highest priority is to do the work.
  • God will lead us to the needs that we are to get involved with through the prophetic and through what giftings people have.
  • But once we are doing the work, there is a strategic benefit in making it public and letting people see the good things that the church is doing.
4. What are one or two issues for which now is a key moment in campaigning and advocating on a national level?
  • It depends on your area of interest.
  • Human trafficking.
  • Maybe soon campaigning for the support of immigrant communities will be become a prominent thing.
  • Environmental issues - environmental degradation has a disproportionate impact on the poor.
  • There are campaigns run by organisations such as Tearfund and Care.
  • There are also lots of local issues to get involved in.
5. Can you recommend ways to research local needs and explore what God would have us do?
  • The simplest way is to talk to your local councillors. They will have much more knowledge than a local MP and will be able to tell you what is going on in the community.
  • You could also do surveys.
6. Do you think that the gospel is not preached when we work with the poor?
  • Often it is not.
  • There is an integrated mission and model implied by Jesus' words in Luke 4 and by his own ministry.
  • There is a risk that social action can become non-evangelistic.
  • Church leaders need to keep an eye on this and make sure that (in ways that are appropriate to the ministry) evangelism is happening.
  • Social activists are not always evangelistically gifted.
7. How can we work effectively with other churches of different denominations?
  • This is a good aspiration to have.
  • It depends on what the project is. Some projects (such as Street Pastors) are designed to be multi-church.
  • Don't enter into contractual agreements with other churches that prevent you from expressing your faith.
  • We need to make sure that people, finances and other resources are managed responsibly.
8. How do you get involved in working with refugees?
  • Talk to your local council and discuss what refugee situations exist in your community.
  • The issues are very varied in different communities across the country.
  • You may want to get involved with national organisations like ForRefugees, or local organisations like The Boaz Trust in Manchester or the Refugee Support Network in London.
9. What things might we be doing in well-intentioned ways that are actually counter-productive?
  • Causing people to become dependent on you. 
  • You need to make a judgment call with people about how much help will be truly helpful to the person.
  • This issue has been particularly highlighted with food banks, but it actually applies to many different kinds of help.
  • We looking to help people to take responsibility for their lives, little by little, in ways that are possible given their circumstances.
10. Does refugee status prevent a person having a career in their original profession in the UK?
  • It depends on the profession and whether their qualifications are transferable.
  • It also depends on whether they have been granted asylum. A lot of people are in no-mans-land while they are waiting for the decision.
  • For more specifics, talk to people who are involved in refugees work on the ground.

Recommended Resources

Martin has also written a book, along with Natalie Williams, which we would recommend if you want to go deeper into this topic:

Note - If you buy a book using the affiliate link above, Broadcast will receive a commission from Amazon to help more churches get planted, at no additional cost to you.