Throughout history, different degrees and forms of liberation theology have emerged within Christian circles. This has been true of Christian circles in America and beyond. The Church of Jesus has faced Black Liberation Theology, Women’s Liberation, and the Civil Rights movement. Today, we are witnessing a rebirth of many liberation ideas under the banner of social justice. With all of these different brands of liberation theology—why are we not arriving at the ultimate goal of liberty?
Liberation Theology Is Fueled by Politics Rather than Theology
Liberation theology often embraces Marxist ideas which emerge through the political streams that find their way into Christian circles. Today’s social justice movement is politically motivated on three fronts: race, women, and homosexuals. American culture has been through the slavery debate, Jim Crowe era, and the Civil Rights movement. We know what it looks like to fight over the color of a person’s skin. However, if anyone should know better—it would be the Church of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the political race debate has now found its way into conservative evangelical circles and it’s a very hot topic that’s dividing people. Many are crying foul and claiming that “White Privilege” exists in evangelicalism and is driving a systemic racist approach to the local church and denominational life.
Throughout our American history, we have witnessed the fight over the equality of women. The Women’s Liberation movement championed the idea that women are equal and should be treated as such in all areas of life and culture. Sadly, the culture bought into the ideology of the Women’s Liberation movement and it led women astray from God’s intended plan. Suddenly, we are now revisiting these ideas within evangelical circles as many are suggesting that the evangelical system is guilty of systemic oppression and injustice against women. This has become another very hot topic and one that’s gaining steam quickly.
While homosexuals have been beating a drum for equality and acceptance within the American culture for years and now that they’ve reached legal recognition in society, they’re demanding the same within the Church. That’s why conferences like the recent Revoice event (2019 is already being planned) are becoming more popular. Should we normalize the lifestyle of homosexuality and accept the false category of LGBT Christianity in the Church? This is one more extremely hot debate that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. They are using social justice as their platform to speak to these issues of equality and acceptance.
These three groups are turning to political strategies (intersectionality, religious affirmative action) and demanding to have their voices heard regarding equality, acceptance, and empowerment. They are demanding for a whole new hierarchy of leadership within the local church and denominational structures. We continue to hear politics, elements of Marxism (especially as it pertains to equality and economics), and an enormous amount of pragmatic strategizing rather than biblical theology at the center of these heated conversations. Politics cannot force unity and bring about the results of the gospel. We must remember the dangerous results of the Civil Rights movement  and the Women’s Liberation agenda that resulted in placing people in positions that led to oppression rather than liberation. Anytime we seek to change God’s plan that’s rooted in creation, it will never lead to liberty. Sin always leads to oppression. We must not turn our backs on the sufficient gospel of King Jesus.
Liberation Theology Produces a Victimhood Approach to Life
Many look to James Cone as the father of Black Liberation Theology. In his book, God of the Oppressed, he writes:
The hermeneutical principle for an exegesis of the scriptures is the revelation of God in Christ as the liberator of the oppressed from social oppression and to political struggle, wherein the poor recognize that their fight against poverty and injustice is not only consistent with the gospel but it is the gospel of Jesus Christ.” 
Not only is this a socially charged statement—it’s completely out of step with the gospel of Jesus. The hermeneutical approach of Cone leads to victimhood where people complain about injustice and demand to be liberated. In the history of American politics, this leads people to run to the government rather than to God for such liberation. It often encourages the cry of victim rather than encouraging hard work and perseverance through difficulties. When we teach people that they’re victims of sinful behavior and that they’re owed something as a result—it creates a posture of welfare and affirmative action rather than hard work and a fixation on the God who will make all things new at the return of Christ. Are we expecting for paradise to appear through social strategies and political ideas or are we looking forward to the city whose builder and designer is God (Heb. 11:10)?
If we’re honest, James Cone’s idea that Jesus came as a Liberator to fight against poverty and injustice is not only off base—it’s simply heretical. It creates a different gospel than the gospel of Jesus. Therefore, when we hear people discussing social justice from the lens of Cone or cultural Marxism—we should stand in opposition. Did Jesus promise us a safe life without hardships and oppression? The Bible promises us pain and suffering for walking in the footsteps of Jesus. That promise came from Jesus and the apostle Paul (2 Tim. 3:12). Christians will be the recipients of great injustices and tragic persecution, but we are not called to cry victim—instead we’re called to count it all joy (James 1:2-4; Romans 5:1-5).
While the Church of Jesus should stand in opposition to injustice and care for the poor—we must not encourage the victim mentality that flows from liberation theology. Furthermore, the Church has a mission that centers on the gospel and from the gospel flows a commitment to biblical justice. If we’re committed to being champions of social justice, local churches will turn into a humanitarian organizations that care for the needs of the poor and oppose injustice while ignoring the greatest need of reconciliation for broken sinners to a sovereign God. We must avoid such mission drift. We must likewise avoid misusing the Bible to make such claims as James Cone. There is a much better hermeneutical approach to studying the Bible.
Jesus Did Not Come as the Liberator—He Came as the Savior
When the angel spoke to Joseph, the words were not, “She will bare a son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he shall come to be the Liberator of poverty and injustice.” Instead, the angel said, “He will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). When Jesus ministered, he called the outcast, the unclean, the poor, and the lowly to serve alongside him. He called a bunch of misfits to himself and then sent them out with the gospel that would turn the world upside down. Jesus spent time with publicans and sinners. Jesus did not call many wise, nor many mighty, nor many strong (1 Cor. 1:26-31). When Jesus was preparing to leave, in his Great Commission, he didn’t commission his followers to go and be champions of social justice. Instead, he sent people out to make disciples (through the gospel—Matt. 28:18-20).
The way to change a culture is not by preaching sociology and politics—it’s by the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). It’s not the message of James Cone or any Civil Rights leader that sets the captive free—it’s the message of the cross. If Jesus came to set captives free from poverty, injustice, and oppression—many people would have considered his mission an utter failure. Especially those early followers who were cast down from the temple pinnacle, dragged out of the city and clubbed to death, boiled in large basins of boiling oil, exiled to Patmos, crucified on crosses, stabbed with spears, fed to wild beasts, and burned at the stake—all while experiencing poverty and injustice. Was Jesus’ mission a failure then and does it remain a failure today?
The answer is absolutely not. Jesus came to reconcile sinners to God (Rom. 5:10). Jesus was successful in his work. He did not fail (John 18:9). He fulfilled the will of the Father. Jesus accomplished what the first Adam could never do. Jesus was the prophet greater than Moses, the priest greater than Melchizedek, and the king greater than David. Jesus cried out, “It is finished” in his dying moments and accomplished the work of redemption (John 19:30; John 8:32-36; 1Peter 2:24). While many Christians will suffer injustice and oppression in this life, one day when Christ returns he will bring an absolute end and final conclusion to all injustice, oppression, sin, death, and tears—for the former things will have passed away.
Until then, we long for his return and we must seek to change the culture through the hearts of men, women, boys, and girls (2 Cor. 5:17). The way to true change is from the inside out. It may be possible to convince people to tolerate other ethnic groups and to work alongside women, but it will never be possible to deliver the Kingdom of God through the lens of secular political strategies. The dream of Martin Luther King Jr. will never be realized in this life. So long as sin fills the hearts of people—oppression, racism, injustice, and brokenness will fill the land. Liberation theology is like a well without water as it provides false hope. Liberation theology produces victimology that replaces biblical theology. Only in Christ’s rule when he returns will every knee bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord and only then will we see no more death, pain, tears, oppression, racism, injustice, and brokenness because those former things will be passed away (Phil 2:5-11; Rev. 21-22). Only through the gospel will people experience true liberty. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
Even so, come Lord Jesus!
- James Cone, God of the Oppressed, (Ossining, NY: Orbis Books, 1977), 81-82.
- NOTE: Not everything the Civil Rights movement did was bad. In fact, through those days, many injustices were brought to the surface. However, the system as a whole was driven by politics rather than theology. It’s important for Christians to admit this rather than embracing everything within the movement without proper discernment.