Question: What role should the church have (if any) in advocating for social justice (fighting racism, helping the poor, etc.)?
The church’s primary task is making disciples (see the Great Commission of Matt 28:19-20). We do this by giving verbal witness to the gospel. As Paul said, "So then, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God" (Rom 10:17). When the gospel changes hearts, it also changes lives. Those who have been influenced by the gospel are more likely to live upright lives, be committed to the institution of marriage, be better parents, avoid destructive addictions, shun racism and elitism, be kind neighbors, extend mercy to the poor, and be responsible citizens.
The best thing that believers can do to improve society, then, is simply to preach the gospel and be the visible church in their communities. In so doing we become salt and light, "a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden" (see Matt 5:13-14). We become an influence for good beyond all proportion to our numbers.
We have a special obligation to care for the needs of those within our local church body and for fellow believers beyond our local body. Whatever we do for the least of our Christian brothers, we do for Christ (see Matt 25:40). Jesus gave his disciples the "new commandment" that we "love one another" (see John 14:34-35). This does not mean that believers only take of each other. Their love and good deeds also spill out beyond the circle of the church. As Paul put it in Galatians 6:10: "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Gal 6:10).
Sadly, many churches, particularly those in the traditional mainline Protestant denominations, often place more emphasis on doing good deeds (the "social gospel") than on the ministry of evangelism (verbal witness to the Biblical gospel). In recent years, this attitude has also crept into many evangelical churches. Some want to be socially relevant. Others naively think that simply by doing laudable good deeds they will win unbelievers to Christ. This view does not take into account the reality of sin and the hardness of men's hearts. We also do not find this pattern for evangelism in the New Testament. When Paul and the apostles went into a new city they did not build a platform of good works, but they simply preached Jesus and watched as the Lord won converts to himself. Again, we will do the most social good by addressing the long-term spiritual needs, not merely the immediate physical needs, of men.
Indian evangelist K. P. Yohannan makes this point as only a third world evangelist can, when he writes: "There is nothing wrong with charitable acts—but they are not to be confused with preaching the Gospel. Feeding programs can save a man from dying from hunger. Medical aid can prolong life and fight disease. Housing projects can make this temporary life more comfortable—but only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can save a soul from a life of sin and an eternity in hell!" (Revolution in World Missions, p. 113).