Bishop Matt Whitehead
Bishop Matt Whitehead, D.Min., oversees Free Methodist ministries in the Western United States and also in Africa and Asia. He was elected the lead bishop of the Free Methodist Church – USA at General Conference 2019. He previously served more than 20 years as the superintendent of the Pacific Northwest Conference after 17 years as a local church pastor.
by Bishop Matt Whitehead
“Hey, Father, what are you doing here?”
For over a decade, Pastor Mark Abbott and I walked downtown Seattle’s streets late on Sunday evenings. Once each month, we volunteered as street ministers with Operation Nightwatch, whose mission was to be the presence of Christ in our city’s downtown district at night. Our clerical collars identified us as pastors, so we were frequently mistaken for Catholic priests.
We talked and prayed with anyone interested — the homeless or others out and about in our city. Bars became a regular stop, and the patrons were visibly shocked to look up from their drinks to see two pastors. The bartenders gave us free soft drinks and were glad to see us because they knew we were a calming presence.
God’s call to go where people are hurting and marginalized is at the heart of Love-Driven Justice, the second value of The Free Methodist Way: “Love is the way we demonstrate God’s heart for justice by valuing the image of God in all men, women, and children, acting with compassion toward the oppressed, resisting oppression in all its forms, and stewarding Creation.”
The “Either/Or” Warning
Some suggest that evangelism is the work of the church and social action is an agenda of the world. This separatist belief has dismembered our mission by falsely convincing many of us that we are justifiably excused from much of what Christ came to do: bring His good news into the human condition through bold proclamation and compassionate action. Jesus did this and today sends His disciples out to do the same.
We must also be aware of a significant challenge as we think about our call to Love-Driven Justice: mistakenly believing that social justice is the gospel. Social justice focuses on “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. When we believe this to be the gospel, it becomes equally separatist and excuses us from evangelism, believing that social justice alone is the key to freedom for all. A holistic kingdom vision is rooted in right relationships with God, which flow into experiencing and promoting right relationships among people and in society.
In the turbulent times we’ve all faced since March 2020, the charged, polarized social climate has revealed our stark divisions along vastly differing lines of scriptural interpretation. It’s revealed a great need in our denominational family — the need for recasting our theology of justice that will lead to greater unity. Are we ready to embrace an all-encompassing theology of biblical, Love-Driven Justice — inviting us all to recognize our partial, selective versions of the gospel and embrace all of Jesus’ mission?
Recovering a Biblical Vision of Justice
Justice is a pervasive biblical theme that is often paired with righteousness. The Old Testament prophets cry out on behalf of a just and righteous God who demands justice and righteousness in His people. The Hebrew word for justice, mishpat, has in its root the concepts of fairness and equity for all, particularly the disadvantaged. So, when judges exercise justice, they don’t take bribes or treat the rich better than they treat the poor. The Hebrew word for righteousness, tzadeqah, means living in a right relationship, treating everyone with fairness, generosity, and equity. In his book “Generous Justice,” Tim Keller calls tzadeqah (righteousness) “primary justice.” It is “behavior, that if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice (mishpat) unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else.”
Jesus’ primary objective was not to establish a better society and thereby to accomplish deeper spirituality. He brought heaven to earth, thereby releasing deliverance, freedom, salvation, holiness, justice, and true righteousness. As His disciples, Jesus calls us to do the same. Our spiritual forefathers, John and Charles Wesley, proved that holiness contained the power that transformed 18th century England as converted people radically benefited the world around them.
Christine Erickson, the director of the OneLess ministry for children at risk, notes, “In contrast to social justice, which focuses on a temporal view of addressing injustices in society, biblical justice starts with the eternal in mind. It starts by seeing people as God sees them — recognizing that we are all created in the image of God. And it is incumbent upon Christ-followers to pursue physical and spiritual freedom for the oppressed so others can also become what God created them to be. If we have experienced freedom, how can we not pursue freedom on behalf of others?”
Biblical, Love-Driven Justice is the conjoining of evangelism and compassionate action. They are not mutually exclusive. As God moves toward us in compassion and mercy, we are transformed by His love and then find ourselves driven toward those on the margins of society. Jesus got up-close-and-personal with the marginalized, and there He demonstrated His grace, love, and mercy. In His going, Jesus preached the good news to all. He surprised many with His inclusion of the outcast, equitable treatment of the lowest and least, welcoming strangers, and embracing the “unclean.” To love from a distance is not in keeping with the character of Jesus. Love-Driven Justice is centered in Christlikeness and His clear example in the Scriptures. For us, His disciples, the implication is clear: we should mirror Christ’s method and message in our world today.
The Scriptures are full of references to God’s preference for the poor and God’s heart for justice and righteousness. There’s not enough space to list every reference but look at this sampling from God’s Word:
As to Foreigners:
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33–34)
As to the Weak, Fatherless, Poor, Oppressed:
Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.” (Psalm 82:3)
As to Our Obligation to Fairness and Equitable Treatment of Others:
Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31:9)
As to Defending the Oppressed:
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
As to Our Commitment to Be Merciful and Compassionate:
This is what the Lord Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” (Zechariah 7:9–10)
As to Our Call to Mirror God’s Holiness, Righteousness and Justice:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
As to Religion That Is Acceptable to the Father:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
Recommitting Ourselves to Model Jesus’ Love-Driven Way
“People blindness.” That’s what Dr. Delia Nüesch-Olver called us to recognize in a Light + Life magazine article from March 1997:
In America we don’t like to talk about issues of race or class, but there is an epidemic of people blindness. We need to learn to see the uniqueness of different people groups and use different methods and styles to reach different people. It takes effort to connect with people who are different from ourselves. But if we don’t do that, in reality we are saying that everybody needs to be like us, to do things our way if they want to find Jesus Christ in the Free Methodist Church. If we want to be like Jesus we need to take part in restoring sight and vision to those who have people blindness — helping them to see those people groups that are ignored in the past because of their accents, traditions, skin color or economic status.
Nearly 24 years later, her message is equally as compelling. We need fresh, loving eyes that see opportunities for gospel transformation among the many people groups that God has brought to live among us.
In a proper understanding of Love-Driven Justice, modeling Jesus focuses on the recipients of the gospel proclamation: the poor, the prisoners, the disabled, and the oppressed. Remember, it was in the synagogue in Nazareth that Jesus quoted Isaiah to announce His mission and who was to receive His good news:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)
This declared prophecy was Jesus’ commission from the Father, His assignment to His disciples – which extends to us. These are our marching orders, and holy love is the cadence to which we march.
Additionally, in Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus challenges us with a vivid reminder that our judgment hinges on how we treat those in need. Using the imagery of sheep and goats, Jesus makes the startling statement that as we minister to those in need, we are ministering to Him!
If that weren’t enough, Jesus says this in His Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43–48).
The people of Jesus’ day talked themselves into selective neighboring by misinterpreting Scripture, which led to the self-justified hatred of “outsiders” (non-Jews). The Word of God said “love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18) but never said to hate one’s enemy. That was a human add-on. We cannot hide any longer behind false smoke screens of misinterpretation of Scripture, believing that we are somehow self-justified by our inequitable treatment of others through selective neighboring.
Jesus must be our primary source of interpreting what the Scriptures ask of us.
Rebooting Our Thinking About Equity
Love-Driven Justice is active, not passive — movement, not stagnation. Progress on societal issues of equity for people of color since our founding in 1860 does not mean our work is finished. In the same way, even though B.T. Roberts wrote “Ordaining Women” in 1891, that doesn’t indicate we have arrived at a place of real equity for women. Just because our social structures are far different than millennia ago when prophets wrote does not change the meaning of “foreigners.” Our work is not finished.
Roberts saw the egregious discrimination against non-whites (African Americans and Native Americans), which disturbed him deeply. In his definitive work on B.T. and Ellen Roberts, “Populist Saints,” Dr. Howard Snyder tells a story reported by B.T. Roberts’ son, Benson, providing insight into the character of his father:
Roberts was traveling by train, as he frequently did. At one stop a group of about 10 well-dressed young African Americans boarded the train and entered his car. One of the passengers was incensed to see these black youth and insisted the conductor put them in second class.
“They have first class tickets,” the conductor explained.
The passenger grew irate and said he shouldn’t have to ride with [expletive deleted]. At this point Roberts intervened, defending the young men and women. He “urged their cause convincingly, as he well could do,” Benson wrote. The youth took their seats, and the train went on.
When the train reached their stop, the youth gathered around Roberts and … sang him “a most beautiful song” — a private concert. Roberts learned that these young men and women were the famed Jubilee Singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
It would be unthinkable to deny a person of color a seat today on a train, bus, or plane. But though we may agree on that singular point, we are still divided over other matters of equity. Today, we engage more insidious forms of “selective seating” where people of color are not offered opportunities to lead, given equal opportunity to share their insights, or treated with the same dignity offered to whites. Inequity is alive and well.
Silence in the face of inequity was not B.T. Roberts’ way, and it is not The Free Methodist Way. Love-Driven Justice positions itself in places where false accusation, inequitable treatment, unjust and oppressive systems, and active, unjustifiable harm to others do their evil work. Love-Driven Justice speaks for the voiceless unborn, the trafficked, and those physically abused behind closed doors. Love-Driven Justice advocates, gets involved, and speaks up. Honestly, we are not yet fully awakened to biblical justice, mercy, and truth in our church, and we must search our hearts to see our barriers to equity and tear them down.
Revisioning Our Future
Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction. (Proverbs 29:18)
Vision comes from God and unifies the people of God. Perhaps one indicator of disunity is that we have, in many ways, cast off the restraint that prophetic vision gives us. I, along with Bishop Linda and Bishop Keith, am committed to casting God’s vision.
Wherever you find yourself on the social or political spectrum we’re asking you to consider recasting your theology – realizing that justice is a biblical issue birthed in the heart of God. We call you to recommit your life to modeling Jesus’ Love-Driven ways – knowing that Christ in you is the hope of glory for the poor, oppressed, widow, fatherless, foreigner, and orphan. And finally, we implore you to rethink your understanding of equity. Equitable treatment of all people is God’s way of justice, driven by holy love.
Joshua stood before the people of Israel and said, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. … But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). Friends, what will we choose – collectively as a family of Christ’s disciples? As for your Board of Bishops, we are committed to serving the Lord through Love-Driven Justice.
Bishop Matt Whitehead
Bishop Matt Whitehead, D.Min., oversees Free Methodist ministries in the Western United States and also in Africa. He was elected the lead bishop of the Free Methodist Church – USA at General Conference 2019. He previously served more than 20 years as the superintendent of the Pacific Northwest Conference after 17 years as a local church pastor.
Thank you, Bishop Matt, for this very clear call to Biblical justice. I am with you 100%. God very clearly laid Proverbs 31:8-9 on my heart years ago. By His grace, I’ll continue to speak up for the poor and needy.