Francis Schaeffer on Social Justice

Francis Schaeffer and Social Justice.pngLetter TThe topic of social justice is one which ebbs and flows but always resurfaces in discussions of politics and ethics in relation to Christianity. Most recently the topic has been shifted to center-stage once again by the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel signed by such prominent figures as John MacArthur, Voddie Baucham, and Tommy Nelson.

In keeping with this vein of discussion, the following is an excerpt from Francis Schaeffer‘s 1984 book The Great Evangelical Disaster. It should be noted that Schaeffer was not one to advocate for a Christian withdrawal from the world, but rather for a robust engagement with society in order to influence it for the better. 

Schaeffer saw Christianity as an all-encompassing world-and-life-view that touches every part of life. Thus in in his book How Should We Then Live Schaeffer notes that Christians should seek a society based on the Bible as the only foundation which can provide an absolute by which we can live our lives and judge society, yet he also warns against a reliance on the government to bring about this state of affairs.

Schaeffer’s take on social justice comes not only within that context, but one which further observes there being a deep antithesis of worldviews present between the Christian and secular society. As Schaeffer states:

“It is a conflict on the level of ideas between two fundamentally opposed views of truth and reality. It is a conflict on the level of actions between a complete moral perversion and chaos and God’s absolutes… In the last sixty years the consensus upon which our culture was built has shifted from one that was largely Christian (though we must say immediately it was far from perfect) to a consensus growing out of the Enlightenment: that is, to a consensus that stands in total anithesis to Christian truth at every point- including the denial of the supernatural.”

It is within this perspective that Schaeffer’s points should be read, of a need for engagement with and a transformation of society to reflect the ideals of the Bible while not relying on government – and especially not secular government – institutions to bring that about, and of a deep conflict between the secular approach and that of the Christian:

It is comfortable to accommodate to that which is in vogue about us, to the forms of the world spirit in our age… Thus in another area we find that a large section of evangelicalism is confusing the kingdom of God with a socialistic program. This too is sheer accommodation to the world spirit around us. A clear example can be found in a newsletter published by a leading evangelical magazine. In a recent issue the newsletter featured the work of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), their social strategy, and their critique of society. As ESA explains:

Summarized briefly, this critique claims that the social problems Christians in this nation are most concerned about (i.e., crime, abortion, lack of prayer, secular humanism, etc.) are important, but are actually symptoms of much larger problems – unjust social structures in the United States – which underlie these legitimate Christian concerns.

The obvious answer, then, is to attack the causes of the disease so the symptoms will go away. ESA spends much of its educational effort trying to acquaint biblical Christians with crucial areas of basic injustices in society and the need to change these for the better.

What are these basic “unjust structures”? ESA believes that most of the (but certainly not all) stem from poverty and the maldistribution of wealth, both on the national and international levels.

Do you understand what is being said here? Remarkably, ESA is saying that “unjust social structures” and in particular “the maldistribution of wealth” are the real causes of evil in the world. According to ESA it is these things (e.g. unjust social structures/maldistribution of wealth) which cause “crime, abortion, lack of prayer, secular humanism, etc.” Just on a factual level this is foolish. There is crime at all levels of society irrespective of wealth; abortion is supported most strongly by the wealthy. And does ESA really believe that changing economic structures would solve the problem of “lack of prayer”? Here the gospel has been reduced to a program for transforming social structures. This is the Marxist line. It does not mean that those who take this position are Communists. But it does mean they have made a complete confusion of the kingdom of God with the basic socialistic concepts. In back of this stands the Enlightenment idea of the perfectibility of man if only the cultural and economic chains are removed.

But think further what this means theologically. What has happened to the fall and sin? ESA seems to be saying that changing economic structures is the means of salvation for modern man since only this deals with the basic “cause of the disease.” Ironically their program is not radical enough! The basic problem is that of the fall and sin and the heart of man. The basic problem is much deeper than social structures, and by not recognizing this ESA ends up with an understanding of salvation which is very different from what the Scriptures teach. Sin is the problem, and there is no greater sin than modern man’s willful defiance of God and his laws both in the area of ideas and actions.

The socialist mentality as promoted by Evangelicals for Social Action and others, and endorsed by much of the evangelical world, is based up on a double error. First and foremost it is wrong theologically, fundamentally distorting the meaning of the gospel. But it is equally wrong in its naïve assessment of the redistribution of wealth and its consequences. The answer is not some kind of socialistic or egalitarian redistribution. This would be much more unjust and oppressive than our own system, imperfect though it is. To understand this all we need to do is look at the repressive societies which have resulted from attempts to radically redistribute wealth along socialistic or egalitarian lines. Every attempt at radical redistribution has wrecked the economy and the culture of the country where it was tried, and every Marxist revolution has ended in a blood bath. It has left the people with less, not more, as well as putting them under a totalitarian government. . . .

I would ask you to think back once again to the illustration of the watershed at the beginning of the second chapter. There I mentioned how the snow lying side by side when it melted would end up a thousand miles apart. And we saw how, in the case of Scripture, two views which seemed at first to be fairly close end up being completely different places, with disastrous consequences both for theology and the culture in which we live. Now when we consider evangelical accommodation to the socialist mentality, we really find the same thing happening. With its call for justice and compassion it sounds at first like it is the same as, or very close to, what Scripture teaches on justice and compassion. Those advocating the socialist mentality try to use all the right evangelical words and avoid any red-flag socialistic rhetoric. But what they are in fact talking about is “another gospel.” And when we look more carefully at what is involved, we find that the socialist mentality ends up in a completely different place, with disastrous consequences theologically and in terms of human rights and human life. A socialistic program is not the answer. And when a large section of evangelicalism begins to confuse the kingdom of God with a socialistic program, this is sheer accommodation to the world spirit of this age. Our response must be confrontation – loving confrontation but nonetheless confrontation. A line must be drawn.

It should be noted that Schaeffer is dealing with a particular vein of social justice advocacy, one which – according to his evaluation – replaces the message of the gospel with a denial of sin and an assertion that man may be perfected if only his environment be made suitable. This is the Social Gospel, and it should be rightly condemned for its replacement of the true gospel with one of societal reform.

Schaeffer’s evaluation seems apt, at least regarding his specific target. An approach which asserts that equanimity of wealth will result in a decline of secular humanism and a rise in prayer is an approach with no common ground to the Bible. Against this particular target Schaeffer’s accusation of a profound antithesis seems appropriate.

The question for the reflective Christian, however, is whether this particular target is the only target out there. Provided that Schaeffer’s critique is valid towards ESA of his day, does it follow that all Christian groups advocating for some level of social justice promotion fall into that same sharp antithesis.

Should those who view a concern for social justice as being a ‘good work’ which will naturally flow from the true gospel of Christ crucified be categorized with this group? Can a Christian, while not believe that the environment can produce perfection, believe still that the Christian in exercising dominion should create a more fit environment, or who believe that an individual’s environment has some influence on how their fallenness is manifested (and that perhaps this manifestation can take less socially destructive forms depending on that environment)? Can it be asserted that a people soaked in the true gospel will transform their social structures while not reducing the gospel to such a program? Does any consideration of social justice fall into the trap of the Social Gospel?

Along with Schaeffer the attentive Christian must rebuke any system which would reduce the gospel to a program for societal reform, which would deny the reality of sin, which would argue that a change of environment will result in a change of heart. These notions have no place at the Christian table. 

But what of those who deny all of these things along with Schaeffer, yet still maintain that a heart transformed by the gospel will want to work for societal reform? Here – at the very least – the question becomes one of means and methods, of good and bad arguments rather than Christian and nonChristian positions, and that is much messier and much more nuanced discussion, but one which must be had if we are not to do a disservice to our brothers and sisters in Christ.



A member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society. Ordained PCA. MDiv.

May or may not be a Time Lord.


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