Jim Martin. The Just Church: Becoming a Risk-Taking, Justice-Seeking, Disciple-Making Congregation. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2012. 288 pp. $14.99.
Over the last decade in the evangelical church, we’ve witnessed a rise in awareness and concern for issues of violence, oppression, abuse, and injustice—both locally and globally. As Jim Martin writes in The Just Church, “The church at large [seems] to have moved from almost complete silence on the subject of justice to a remarkable verbosity—to the point where lately church and ministry literature and websites are seasoned with worlds like justice, poverty, hunger, trafficking, slavery, and abolition” (xvii). The evangelical church in particular is noticeably becoming more acutely aware of issues of justice in culture and society.
Martin serves as vice president of church mobilization for International Justice Mission (IJM), a Christian nonprofit human rights organization doing remarkable work to combat human trafficking and other forms of abuse in countries worldwide. In such a position, Martin is well placed to recognize the welcome shift in attention that has brought issues of justice and oppression into focus among evangelical churches in the West.
Fight Against Injustice
Martin doesn’t wish to add to the voluminous literature of statistics on injustice. Instead, his primary interest is “to tell the story of how and why the church is engaging in the fight against injustice” (xx). The church’s call to justice is “not God sending his church out to a place where God cannot be found. Rather, God is inviting us into the place where he is already at work” (xxi). Too often, Martin believes, the church is caught up in the pietistic pursuit of God through worship, liturgy, and programs. “The wonderful promise, however, is that for the church that is willing to learn to do good and seek justice, God is very willing to be found” (xxiii). In this way, Martin argues the ministry of justice is about both discipleship and also mission.
The first half of The Just Church focuses on providing a basis for Christian involvement in social justice efforts, primarily by framing the work of justice as a path of discipleship that builds faith. Getting involved in justice is risky and hard, and failure is inevitable. But this provides an opportunity for the testing of our faith, which will lead to greater dependence on God and grow us in faith. Martin offers considerable advice on disciplines for growing in faith, urging Christians to put their faith into action as risk-takers for God.
Martin believes comfortable Western Christians need to be shaken out of their comfort zones and challenged to take “missional risks,” and he argues the church should provide more opportunities for them to do so. This leads to the second half of the book, which outlines IJM’s Dive program to support churches in building justice ministries. Acknowledging the difficulties in launching a justice ministry, Martin points out that while “the church’s desire to leap immediately into action is understandable, most often such leaps are impractical and unhelpful” (101). Rather than such immediate action, Martin suggests the church instead “build biblical justice into its ministry DNA” (102). The church needs to be prepared to engage in long-term justice work rather than merely satisfy its understandable desire to have an immediate effect. The Dive program includes three phases for churches who desire to get involved in justice ministry: Encounter, which involves educating the congregation about injustice and the biblical call to engage; Explore, where churches explore the needs, talents, and callings in their own communities and in the broader global scene; and Engage, in which churches choose an area of engagement and begin concrete action. The section ends with a helpful chapter telling eight real-world stories of churches who have gotten involved in justice efforts.
Martin concludes by encouraging readers not to use his book as a “GPS” to guide them to specific end goals, but to “begin this journey without an end point in mind—without a fixed idea of what sort of justice ministry destination you might arrive at” (234). Doing so will allow God to guide individuals into places that will best serve their unique gifting so that they can have maximal effect in the world.
God’s Heart for the Oppressed
Scripture doesn’t hesitate to depict the harsh reality of violence and oppression, and God’s people are called to fight for justice and mercy for all people, since all are made in God’s image with inherent dignity and value. Throughout the entire Bible, God is portrayed as one who is just and merciful in his dealings with all people, and who cares especially for the vulnerable and oppressed as “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Ps. 68:4-5). Theologians from a wide variety of backgrounds (from Gustavo Gutierrez to Nicholas Wolterstorff to Tim Keller) have concluded that God has a special place in his heart for the poor and vulnerable. Indeed, part of Israel’s vocation was to enact social justice, not for its own sake, but because in so doing Israel would reveal the character of God to the surrounding nations as a city set on a hill.
God’s people were intended to be a society reflecting his heart for the vulnerable, as he called them to “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech. 7:9-10). This expectation culminated in the coming of the Messiah, who is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s intentions for his people.
In his ministry, Jesus revealed God’s heart for the weak and showed that bringing freedom for captives and relief to the poor and oppressed is integral to his divine mission. His ultimate act of liberation was his substitutionary death and victorious resurrection, which set his people free from slavery to sin and death. Yet his teachings and his example show us that the proclamation of the good news of Christ’s saving work should be accompanied by tangible acts of love, service, and mercy toward others if the gospel message is to be recognized in its full power. The call to fight oppression in The Just Church is one we can be thankful the church is increasingly heeding.
Not Another Burden
One caution concerning The Just Church is that it might be easy to come away feeling like justice ministry is yet another burden—another guilt-inducing expectation to place on the shoulders of Christians since they’re not out changing the world or, as Michael Horton describes it, “making touchdowns for Jesus.” It’s clearly not Martin’s intent to motivate with guilt, but this is an important caution for readers nonetheless.
The command of the aforementioned Zechariah 7:9-10 is a law before which we’re individually and corporately guilty, unless we fulfill it perfectly. According to Jesus, God’s law requires us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27) and even requires us to be perfect, as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Unquestionably, we fail and are guilty. But notice God’s response to his people’s failure, and the result.
When Israel fails and continues to rebel against God’s law, God threatens judgment, but then pours out grace and restores them. Zechariah envisions God’s grace leading to true repentance and a people who fervently pursue justice and mercy for all people. The result is that nations of unbelievers will come asking about the Lord (Zech. 8:20-23); God’s people giving thanks, worshiping him, and working for justice and mercy will be a light to the nations (Isa. 49:6).
God’s grace changes the hearts and actions of his people. Forgiven of the law they didn’t keep, they are motivated by grace to obey the law that they once ignored and violated. Recipients of grace are empowered to be agents of God’s grace and to obey James’s call to practice “pure religion” (James 1:27) by caring for the most vulnerable.
We Love Because He First Loved Us
Rather than a burdensome “new law” to carry out, the work of mercy and justice should be seen as a joyful, free response to God’s lavish grace toward us in the gospel. His grace motivates repentance and change, and only by proclaiming his merciful response to our sin and failure will we find the fuel for loving and serving others in action and in truth. For those who have received the overwhelming grace of God and are motivated to become agents of grace toward the oppressed, The Just Church will prove a valuable resource, offering believers both vision and also concrete guidance for getting involved in the fight against violence and oppression on any scale. Whether across the globe or in our own neighborhoods, abuse and oppression can be found if we open our eyes to see it, giving us the opportunity to show love to our neighbors not just “in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).
Justin Holcomb is a pastor at Mars Hill Church, where he serves as executive director of Resurgence. He is also Adjunct Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Lindsey, are the authors of Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. He is also the editor of Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction. You can find Justin on Facebook, Twitter, and JustinHolcomb.com.