Why Social Justice is Not a Category of Ecclesial Thought

It’s an intentionally provocative title, so let me clarify what is and isn’t meant. But first let me say that this post will not explore in any great detail the relationship between the Church and the state, though such talk will nonetheless be inescapable. I will not here entertain acceptance of or defend against various charges of various church groups (Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant) such things as caesaropapism, erastianism, or theocracy. I am vary narrowly focused on one particular thought, a thought that animates much of mainline U.S. Protestant Christianity (and, because they apparently don’t want to be left out, is animating more and more of evangelical U.S. Protestant Christianity) as well as quite a swath of U. S. Roman Catholic activists. And because I am so very narrowly focused, it is crucial that I state what I mean by “social justice.”

By what is meant I’m referring to that sort of thinking which seeks, as its immediate end, the alteration of political (and also social, usually the social by way of the political) structures and processes toward some proximate end (alleviation of poverty, race/gender/sexual orientation equity and political rights or advantages, etc.) by primarily social and political means (demonstrations, “community development” [euphemistically so called, but really mass political organizing], voter campaigns, editorials and other media utilization, etc.). By what is not meant are such activities as homeless shelters, free health clinics, manning soup kitchens, food pantries, clothing drives, sewing shrouds for deceased babies, etc. Now there can be overlap between the two, especially when some of these outreach locations are used for political organizing, or when backers of the latter efforts form PACs or lobby government to achieve former ends. But generally the distinctions are quite clear: on the one hand is the use of political means for political ends (ostensibly for the alleviation of human ills); while on the other hand are the use of social (here more often personal) means for the alleviation of human ills.

And it is precisely on this divide of endpoints that social justice is not a category of ecclesial thought.

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The Dead Ends of Protestantism

On a message board for former church of Christ (Restoration Movement) converts to Orthodoxy, a thread was started by those who wondered about ever having doubts about Orthodoxy. I gave the following reply, which I want to explore a bit more in this post:

For myself, when it comes to the Orthodox Church, I have never had any real doubts. I had already investigated Rome, and had gone into and was on the way out of Anglicanism. I knew that the rest of Protestantism was a dead end. So by the time I got to Orthodoxy, it didn’t have to prove itself on the terms of Rome, Canterbury or the Protestants (since all those arguments had fallen apart under their own weight): all Orthodoxy had to do was to establish itself on its own terms.

So, when I began investigating the Orthodox Church in 2000, and for the next couple of years or so, I listened to Orthodoxy on its own terms. I didn’t try to make Orthodoxy Protestant or answer my objections. I wanted to see what it had to say, why it said what it did, whether its teaching held together and was consistent, and whether that teaching truly was old. I was satisfied on all counts.

I want to discuss a bit more what I mean by these “dead ends” of Protestantism. But in so doing, I will be speaking primarily out of my own narrow range of experience, that of the Restoration Movement churches and the Episcopal church.  Before I get to these critical remarks, let me first ensure that I quite clearly state my appreciation for my experiences with these two Christian groups.  I would not have been quite so ready for Orthodoxy without my background in the Restoration Movement.  And although the Episcopal church served primarily as a negative catalyst for Orthodoxy, I nonetheless gained much by (as Fr. Martin Thornton schematized) the Benedictine and triadic shape of Anglican liturgy and prayer: the Mass, the daily office and personal devotions.  Although I was not so strongly shaped by particular liturgies (I see now why so many decry the BCP ’79), I was quite strongly shaped by this schema of worship and devotion.  And I would not have had such formation apart from my time in the Episcopal church.

That said, there are most definite dead ends in Protestantism.  These dead ends are exemplified primarily by a divorce from the Church and are symptomatic in sola scriptura, a disconnect from the lived history of the Church, and the attempt to critique the Church from starting points outside the Church’s life. I’ll discuss each of these three related items in turn.

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