By Clarence L. Haynes Jr., Crosswalk.com
We are living in a day and age where social movements and spiritual movements often get mixed in together. Sometimes they are so intertwined that people can be confused and automatically assume that one is feeding into the other. One of those ideas is liberation theology. It is critical to understand what liberation theology is and to know if it is Biblical. Is it oil and water which will never mix, or is it cake and ice cream that compliment each other? With the rise of social movements in our society, it makes sense to address this topic from a Biblical point of view.
What Is Liberation Theology - Meaning?
The concept of liberation theology was birthed out of Roman Catholicism, primarily centered in Latin America. The main focus behind this theology is the poor and oppressed. The idea is your faith is truly demonstrated when you focus on aiding the poor and oppressed by engaging in political and social activities. There is a great emphasis placed on the societal structures that lead to this type of oppression, and liberation theology seeks to address those things to change them. The goal is to seek liberation through political and social change.
Another important aspect of this teaching is to view and interpret scripture through the eyes of those who have been oppressed. Some would go so far as to say that this is the only way to view scripture. Out of this initial movement, there have also been others such as black liberation theology and feminist liberation theology. These movements again address the issues faced by blacks and women in our society, seeking political and social remedies to change these problems.
Is Liberation Theology Biblical?
Now that you know the basics of what liberation theology is, is it biblical? Whenever you consider anything social, political, or whatever it is, the important thing to do is not to interject your opinions into it but to see how God views this. This requires us to look at these things through the lens of Scripture, which allows us to remain objective. Let's do the same with liberation theology.
Should We Be Concerned about the Poor and the Oppressed?
The answer to this question is a resounding yes. The idea of helping those in need is core to the doctrines of Scripture.
"If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: 'The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,' so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land." – Deuteronomy 15:7-11
"If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth." – 1 John 3:17-18
As you can see, it is biblical to help those who are poor and in need. It is consistent in both the old and the new testament. We should not look down on anyone who finds themselves in these circumstances. I believe it is our responsibility not just to help them with their immediate need but to help provide answers that solve their longer-term need. It is the old expression you give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach him to fish he eats for the rest of his life. We need to be giving people fish to help them with their short-term needs and teaching them to fish so they can learn how to support themselves.
Should We Seek to Change the System?
This is probably the most challenging aspect of liberation theology. According to liberation theology, one of the problems is the system. The socioeconomic system is the vehicle that holds down and prevents the poor and needy from getting out from under the oppression. Since the system is the problem, we need to change the system. This could be through revolution or even seeking to get laws changed. I want to pose the question, is this aspect of liberation theology biblical? I will admit that this can be a slippery slope, and people can see this on two sides. The problem many who ascribe to this theology face is that they look at every situation through the lens of liberation theology. While that may be okay if you want to be an agent of social change, that does not always align with the true message and mission of the gospel. Here is one of the clear distinctions between liberation theology and the message of the gospel. Liberation theology seeks to affect change from the outside in. Change laws. Change policies, and eventually, the people will change. The gospel works from the inside out. It says change the heart, and the people will change.
The question is, if we only preach a social gospel, is that really the gospel at all? While it is important to address the physical and social needs of humans, that alone does not address their sinful condition. Whether a person is rich or poor, or they see themselves as the oppressor or oppressed, every person has a sin condition that can only be dealt with through Jesus Christ. My fear is that liberation theology seeks to change laws and systems without a genuine focus on dealing with sin and changing men's hearts.
Should We Use Liberation Theology?
Should we ignore social issues in favor of the gospel, or should we make social issues part of the gospel? I would say that sometimes dealing with or addressing the social issue can open the door to presenting the gospel. Especially to the groups who feel they are in the oppressed category. However, we must make sure that is what we are doing. Regardless of how much social or political change we can affect, if we have not dealt with the condition of a man's soul, have we really helped them? Remember what Jesus said,
"'What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?'" – Mark 8:36
How does it benefit someone to help them out of their physically oppressed condition if we leave them in their spiritually oppressed sinful condition and never give them the opportunity to change it? While we may have done something good in one instance, we have not dealt with the most important issue. If we don't address their sin condition, then we have not served them properly. This does not mean you don't address the social issues, but that you can't stop there. We must seek to address social issues, but it cannot be without presenting the gospel as well. If we just focus on the social, then we have focused solely on the temporary and forgotten the eternal. We cannot address social concerns and forget about a person's eternal destiny. This is the hope of the gospel--not just change and transformation in this life, but the hope of glory and eternal life.
So let's go back to the original question. What is liberation theology, and is it biblical? There are aspects of liberation theology that line up with Scripture. Remember these words of Jesus.
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'" – Matthew 25:34-40
The one thing we must remember is that the change we seek cannot just be of social status. If there are issues in our society that need attention and change, then we should work to change them. However, we must make sure we are also addressing the spiritual needs of our society and that we are giving them the real hope that comes from the gospel. If we don't do that, then we have not really given people the gospel at all.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/J.S. Winborne
Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, teacher, author, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He has spent more than 30 years serving the body of Christ in various capacities and is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose. If you have ever struggled to try to find God’s will, this book will help you discover the different ways God leads you into his perfect will. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.