Response to Timothy Keller, Generous Justice, by Ed Neufeld

Response to Timothy Keller, Generous Justice, by Ed Neufeld

Timothy Keller, Generous Justice, 2010

Some years ago I read Keller’s The Reason for God, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Generous Justice is as thoughtful and readable as The Reason for God. Keller capably explains justice, social justice, and social righteousness, as developed in the Bible. “Generous justice” means equity and a fair life also for the poor and disadvantaged, for foreigners and those from the “wrong” race. The ways of God call us to all of this, he insists, and correctly. He calls for more than just giving them money, he wants them restored so they have the same chances as his intended middle class readers. He acknowledges the difficulty and complexity of this, but nevertheless affirms that God calls us to no less. He observes that the Bible weaves together private morality and social justice, and he makes a convincing case for this being so. This is close to the center of his book, to establish that private morality and social justice are biblically inseparable. He succeeds.

My response to Keller will take up only one concern: are churches and believers called to bring God’s generous justice to the unbelieving poor and oppressed in our cities and neighbourhoods? Generous Justice answers this with a resounding “yes,” but Scripture indicates “no.” God may well call individual believers to this; Keller refers several times to an acquaintance of his who worked in a Baltimore area called “Sandtown” to improve those people’s lives. Another well-known example would be William Wilberforce, who devoted many years to having slavery outlawed in Britain. Scripture supports such individual callings.

But the call to the churches in Acts and the NT Letters overwhelmingly reflects these words of the Lord: “This is my command, that you love one another as I loved you. By this will all people know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” God’s people must certainly bring this social justice to one another, and that includes churches in other places in difficult circumstances, as Keller observes. But Acts and the NT Letters are conspicuously disinterested in the unbelieving poor and oppressed in the neighbourhoods of the various churches. This Keller does not acknowledge.

Here lies a fundamental question about the mission of the church. Is the mission of the church to be God’s new alternative society, or it is to bring God’s ways into our unbelieving society to reform it? Keller’s book emphasizes the latter, but the Scripture emphasizes the former. The church will influence society around it no matter how we answer this question; that is not the issue. The question is: does Scripture teach God’s people to be God’s new society, or does it teach God’s people to better the world’s society? Which does Scripture emphasize? Put yet another way: where does God call his people to practice social justice?

Keller does take up this question in a few places. And he intentionally extends generous justice beyond Israel (and thus beyond the church) with three OT precedents: with Moses’ call to care for the foreigners, with the prophecies of Amos against unjust pagan nations, and with Daniel advising a pagan king to turn from his sin and oppression. And he extends generous social justice beyond the NT church primarily with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

I will take these up, but first let us survey Acts and the NT Letters, and then will take up the OT and the Gospels. Moses and the Prophets and Jesus will not all be calling us to something that Acts and the NT Letters ignore, and it is in Acts and the NT Letters that we see most clearly where God’s people focus their care.

Acts and the NT Letters

Acts refers often to church collections to help the poor, and to the selling of believers’ possessions so they could help the poor. This usually happened in Jerusalem, but in Acts 11–12 we read about the Antioch church taking a collection to help the churches in Judea. In each instance in Acts, without exception, the gifts went to other believers. Believers shared with believers. There will have been poor people in Jerusalem outside the church, but we read nothing about church resources going that way. There will have been poor unbelievers in Antioch outside the church there, but when the believers in Antioch collected money for the poor, it was to send to Judean believers, not the unbelieving poor in Antioch.

At the end of Acts 2, we find a paragraph describing the new life of the three thousand who repented and were baptized as a result of Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Luke highlights their life together, meeting together at the temple, praying together, eating in each other homes, selling possessions to care for each other, and praising and thanking God. This paragraph surely describes a kind of golden age, an ideal body life that we have not matched since, not even in other NT churches. Observe what this ideal Spirit-empowered church did not do, or at least it is not worthy of mention: they did not do miracles and signs, only the apostles did that; they did not evangelize the unbelievers around them, and they did not share their possessions with unbelieving poor. Some of this may well have happened, but Scripture does not find these worth noting in the essentials of their life. The essence was entirely communal; expressions of enthusiastic and selfless life together. And the unbelievers were impressed; Luke includes that.

In Acts 20 Paul speaks to the Ephesian elders. He warns and urges them about their internal life, about how they should guard themselves and the flock. Paul does not promote any venture on their part into unbelieving Ephesus around them, either evangelistic or social. He reminds them how hard he worked to serve the church, and urges them to continue in that way.

The NT Letters are the same. Nothing suggests a different direction. The Letters in different ways refer to helping the poor and the needy, and Keller cites some of these. But in the NT Letters, as in Acts, in every single example, the money of God’s people goes to others of God’s people. There are no exceptions, nor is there any instruction to take collections to give to the poor of that city who are outside the church. (On p135, Keller refers to 2 Cor 8:13-14, 1 John 3:16-17, and Gal 2:10, and on p140 to Acts 2, 4, and 6. Keller uses all these to build his case for evangelism and social care together, outside the church, but they all clearly indicate believers caring for believers.)

In the NASB, the NT Letters use the word “neighbour” ten times, eight in Paul’s letters and two in James (Rom 13:8, 9, 10; 15:2; 1 Cor 6:1; 10:24; Gal 5:14; Eph 4:25; Jam 2:8; 4:12). Every one of these refer to fellow believers, and in the context there is no doubt about this. Three of these quote “love your neighbour as yourself” from Lev 19, which all indicate other believers.

This is not exclusive: “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). “May the Lord make your love overflow and increase for each other and for everyone else” (1 Th 3:12). Good things go out from the church to the world around it. But these are the only two instructions like this in Paul’s 13 Letters, and there is nothing like this in the other NT Letters. James and 1 John are adamant about helping the poor, but they both have in mind poor believers, and leave no doubt about that.

Roman cities had huge social problems. Poverty, abuse, cruelty, oppression, and injustice existed in every city that got a NT Letter: Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, Colossae, Philippi, Thessalonica, Crete, and so on, including Jerusalem. Nothing indicates that when the gospel was preached, trusting in Christ included tackling the social problems of that city. There is no command or instruction in any NT Letter that believers should care for unbelievers around them, or reform them in any way. All the emphasis was on how the believers live together before God, and treat one another.

On page 139, Keller states that evangelism is the most radical ministry possible to a human being. He goes on to argue that evangelism is inseparable from “doing justice,” by which he means addressing the social inequities of the people hearing the gospel. But evangelism is not the most radical ministry possible to a human being. The most radical ministry possible is to love and serve one another as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.

Here is my challenge to the unpersuaded: divide a sheet of paper into three columns, and on the top of each column write these phrases: 1, clear instructions to serve and help unbelievers; 2, clear instructions to evangelize unbelievers; 3, clear instructions to love and care for each other. Read through all the NT Letters, Romans to Revelation, and every time you get to a command or instruction that fits into one of these three categories, put a check mark in that column. I have done it, and will tell you what you will find. In column 1 you will have the two instances in Paul mentioned above and not much more, in column 2 you will not have anything, and in column 3 you will have about one hundred checkmarks: instructions to love and care for each other. That is where we are to live out social justice. But don’t take my word for it.

Moses and the Prophets      

Most of Keller’s work on Moses develops his basic thesis that private morality and social justice are inseparable in the Bible, beginning with Moses. In this Keller is wonderfully convincing, regarding Moses and regarding the Bible as a whole.

On p23 Keller takes up our question: Israel’s laws were primarily for relationships between covenant people, but can we apply this to society at large? Keller says yes we can, and for precedent he cites Daniel who called an unbelieving king to repent of his cruelty toward the oppressed, and he cites Amos, who shows God holding unbelieving nations to account for their oppression, injustice, and violence. He elsewhere uses the teaching of Moses about foreigners to aim our generous justice to society at large. I will make some wider comments about Moses and the Prophets, and then take up his examples.

In Deuteronomy 4, Moses explains Israel’s role before unbelieving nations: See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

Grasp the central lines: “Observe these laws carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” Israel was to be God’s alternative society, living in God’s ways. God’s plan was that others would see and be captivated by how well Israel lived, obeying those decrees, by how they treated one another within Israel. Israel would look like a great nation, wise and understanding. That was the result God intended. When Jesus tells his followers that they are a city set on a hill, and that others will see and be impressed, Jesus has the same perspective in mind (Matt 5). In John 13, Jesus put it this way: “By this will all people know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Keller is surely right when he shows how often social justice of one kind or another occupies Moses and the Prophets and other OT writings. Social justice cannot be separated from private morality. But in Moses and the Prophets, this was to shape Israel, God’s alternative society. Moses gave no instruction that Israelites should go to the unbelieving nations around them and persuade those people to live in God’s ways. So also the Prophets. The Prophets often preached against social injustice, but it was always to covenant people. They did not preach that outside the borders of Israel and Judah.

Keller mentions how often Moses refers to helping the “foreigners” in Israel, along with widows, orphans, and Levites. Keller mentions foreigners to show that believers should care for unbelievers. There were indeed a good number of Canaanites living in Israelite society. But in Deut 12 Moses insisted that there would be no idols or idolatrous worship places in Israel. So foreigners normally became worshippers of Yahweh, people like Rahab, and Ruth from Moab, and David’s loyal soldier Uriah the Hittite. These foreigners were economically disadvantaged, like widows, orphans, and Levites, but spiritually they had converted to Israelite faith. Every Israelite man was entitled to a piece of inherited land, by which they fed themselves. But foreigners, as Levites, had no inherited land with which to support themselves. And foreigners did not have family, they were not from an Israelite clan, and so missed out on family connections that would have otherwise provided economic help. Most foreigners worshiped God, so they do not show us people caring for unbelievers.

In Amos 1-2, Amos preached against six surrounding nations: Syria, Philistia, Phoenicia, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. In listing their sins, God did not hold any of these nations to Israelite standards. Amos went on to preach against the Israelites for oppressing one another, but that is not what Amos said to these six nations. Each of these six faced God’s judgement because of their cruelty and greed regarding other nations. None of the six were condemned for anything happening internally, as Israel was, but only the unusually harsh and horrible way in which they plundered other nations. Note also that Amos wrote against these other nations, and most of the prophets included speeches against other nations, but Amos did not go to any of these six nations to preach this there, nor did any other OT prophets go to unbelieving nations to preach (except Jonah). The prophets wrote against other nations for the sake of God’s people, so that God’s people would know that God was the judge of every nation, and would hold these other nations accountable for their inhumanity toward their enemies. God’s people need to know this.

Daniel did speak to Nebuchadnezzar about his cruelty and oppression. Note how this came about. The Babylonians forcibly took Daniel from Jerusalem to Babylon when he was young, specifically to be an advisor to the king. In Dan 4, he was interpreting for the king a dream that only Daniel understood. Daniel concluded the interpretation with: “be pleased to accept my advice, O King, and turn from your sin and oppression.” Daniel gave good advice to the king, nothing more or less than his job, that which he had forcibly been taken to Babylon to do. May we serve God as faithfully in our setting. But the story does not support Keller’s use of it.

Jesus and the Gospels

Among other things, Jesus was a prophet, calling Israel back to God’s ways as the OT prophets had done before him. When Jesus sent out the twelve, he told them not to go to Gentile or Samaritan towns, but only to the lost sheep of Israel. There were Gentile towns in Galilee, but disciples should ignore these. When a Syrophoenician woman asked help for her daughter, Jesus said, “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” He relented because of her persistence, but we must not lose his opening line. Jesus was calling Israelites, the covenant people of God, back to God. So when Jesus speaks about rich people inviting the poor to their banquets, and so on, Jesus and the rich ones he addresses, and the poor who would be invited, are all God’s covenant people. He is calling them all back to the decrees Moses spoke about in Deuteronomy 4.

After Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus told the apostles to make disciples of all the nations. Only then did the good news about the kingdom go beyond those who were already covenant people. And at that stage we enter the world of Acts and the NT Letters, which we have already surveyed. 

The Good Samaritan and the Sheep and the Goats

As I understand Keller, the primary means by which he extends NT generous justice beyond the church into the unbelieving world around us is the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 (pp 62-77). Keller briefly considers the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25) for this purpose (justice beyond the church), but he sets it aside. In that story, the Judge who is the Son of Man says, “in as much as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers or sisters, you did it to me.” Keller rightly takes “my brothers and sisters” to indicate other followers of Jesus, and so he concedes that the Sheep and Goats parable does not extend generous justice to all. But for him, the Good Samaritan story does extend this to all.

Let us compare the Good Samaritan to the Sheep and the Goats, the parable about final judgement at the end of Matthew 25. Both stories tell us that eternal life is at stake, and both require helping the needy. Here are three differences between the two stories.

One, the Sheep and the Goats, requiring aid to needy believers, is the last teaching of Jesus in Matthew. That is, Matthew the writer deliberately puts helping needy brothers and sisters in a prominent position in his Gospel, which Luke in his Gospel has not done with the Good Samaritan. This proves little, but is worth noting, because believers are generally more attracted to the Good Samaritan story than the Sheep and Goats story.

Two, the Sheep and Goats story has in mind ongoing practices, our habits of life all viewed together. Did we help needy brothers or sisters, or did we not? The Good Samaritan story has in mind a single incident. Followers of Christ must imagine a lonely scene in which we come upon a needy unbeliever from an enemy race. Will we act compassionately? It is a different question than the habits of life, no less crucial, but different nonetheless. The follower of Christ will respond that way in that setting. Compassion will trump our objections. But that story stops short of making the poor in our cities the responsibilities of the churches. At that point we have confused the two parables, and they are not the same.

Three, in the Good Samaritan story, Jesus is not really interested in asking, “who is my neighbour?” Jesus changed that to “who was a neighbour? Go be a neighbour.”  Saying “everyone in need is my neighbour” still answers the wrong question. “Who was a neighbour” could be rephrased, “what kind of person are you? What kind of person am I? Am I the kind of person who would stop in a setting like that as the Samaritan did?” That is the question, and it is important, for eternal life hangs on it. But “all the needy around me are my neighbours” is not in view in this story. 

Some years ago, a large river 25 miles from our home gradually but severely flooded its banks. People from our churches drove to riverside homes to help them fill sandbags and pile them around their homes to protect them from the rising water. More recently, our church partnered with another church to sponsor a Syrian Muslim refugee family that we established in our town. Some of our congregants worked diligently to care for these people, and a respectable amount of money came from church collections to help this Syrian family find its way. This is the kind of thing that the Good Samaritan story encourages. Individual believers have many of their own stories about similar events. As we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially the household of faith. The love that believers have for one another is never exclusive. It flows from a generosity of spirit that will come out toward everyone. Nevertheless, the Bible leads us to focus on being an alternative society. That is at the center of our instructions, our call.

To the unconvinced, I repeat the challenge on page 3 above. Read all the NT Letters, watching for and noting those three instructions. If you find something different, kindly inform me.

Again, I assume individual believers are indeed sent outside the church by God to do the kind of justice work that Keller describes. I hope I have not discouraged any such servant. In Scripture, God does not call ordinary believers to be evangelists, but he certainly calls and gifts some to be evangelists. The same will be true for justice workers of various kinds, and other ways of serving God.

In these remarks I have taken up a different matter: the mission of the church. Where does Scripture consistently call God’s people to practice generous justice, in the world or among God’s people? The mission of the church, and the individuals in it, is to love one another as Christ loved us, so that the world will know that we are his disciples. This is not exclusive, but it is the overwhelming emphasis throughout Moses, the Prophets, the Gospels, Acts, and the NT Letters.

If this response is correct, then Keller’s book has added a needless load to churches and believers. Serving one another as our Lord taught us is daunting enough. If the Lord calls us to bring this to the unbelieving world as well, so be it. But if he does not, let us drop it, for the sake of the faithful. Jesus reprimanded leaders of God’s people who in misguided zeal added unnecessary burdens to his people (Matthew 23, Mark 7). Such teaching discourages the faithful, and distracts us from our central call. Let it be enough that we do what the Bible says.