Justice and the gospel: Bruce Longenecker on Paul and the poor.

Posted on November 24, 2011

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Joel Willits offers a review of my former colleague Bruce Longenecker’s recent book Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World (Eerdmans) over at Euangelion. I have not yet seen a copy, but Bruce was working in these directions before he left St Andrews for Baylor, and I think I can guess something of how the argument goes: although there is not an enormous amount of emphasis in the NT texts on Paul’s ongoing concern for the collection for the church in Jerusalem, or for caring for economically-disadvantaged members of the community, there is some; if we consider the then-prevalent assumption amongst devout diaspora Jews (like Paul…) that charity was an essential component of acceptable worship, then we can reconstruct on the basis of the evidence we do have a picture of concern for the poor, and particularly concern that the gentile churches should relieve the poverty of the mother church in Jerusalem, as being central to Paul’s vision of his own mission, and of the Christian identity of the churches he founded.

Rather like Finney refusing to allow someone to profess Christianity without committing to the abolitionist cause, Paul could not conceive of a church that was not involved in (what we would now call) social justice; it is as intrinsic to the gospel as worship, discipleship, and mission – actually, it just is worship, discipleship, and mission, in Paul’s view.

As Joel points out, this is a timely reminder. Joel himself has recently offered a substantial review of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s What is the Mission of the Church?, which is only the latest of a stream of publications arguing that social justice, whilst perhaps commendable, is no part of the core business of a Christian community. I understand the concern that, sometimes, justice has been perceived as an easier and less costly practice than other forms of gospel witness, and so has been allowed to displace them. The answer to this, though, is not so to swing the pendulum as to neglect this aspect of gospel witness instead.

The bloodless conquest of the Empire by the early church was in large part achieved by a sustained and serious practice of social justice; bishops took the title ‘lovers of the poor,’ and lived it so well that, over a century or so, they constructed a new and previously-unimagined political power-base that propelled them to positions of prominence in almost every city of the Empire (Peter Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity, is very good on this; start around pp. 90-100). Human hearts were conquered by the fearless witness of the martyrs; but the culture was conquered – whilst the church was still a minority movement – by a faithful practice of social justice.

Paul consulted once with Peter and James and John about the ethical implications of belief in Jesus; one thing only was agreed to be non-negotiable by all four of them: ‘remember the poor’ (Gal. 2:10). This is at the heart of the gospel.

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