One of the themes that runs throughout all of Scripture is that of the advocate: when someone speaks on the behalf of others.
- We see it when Abraham pleads for God not to destroy Sodom (Gen. 18).
- We see it with Moses going before Pharaoh on behalf of the enslaved Israelites (Ex. 7).
- We see it when Moses pleads with God not to kill the Israelites after they’ve disobeyed God yet again (Ex. 32).
- We see it when Esther risks her life and pleads for the persecuted Israelites in Persian captivity before the king (Esther 7).
- We see it with Jesus praying for His disciples, and those disciples who would come later – the Church universal (Jn. 17).
- We see it with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, whom Jesus calls “The Advocate” who will testify about Him (Jn. 15) and who intercedes for us (Rom. 8).
- We see it when Barnabas brings Paul to the Apostles, when the early church is still afraid of him (Acts 9).
- We see it when Peter defends the salvation of the gentiles (non-Jews) at Jerusalem, after a Roman family is received with forgiveness into God’s kingdom (Acts 11).
- We see it when the Apostles ask Paul to “remember the poor,” which he was eager to do (Gal. 2).
- We see it with Jesus, who “always lives to intercede” for those who come to God through Him (Heb. 7).
Not only do we see it exemplified in Scripture, but it’s also commanded for us to be advocates too – Proverbs 31:8 tells us to “Speak for the mute, and for all who are destitute.” We are to “Pray for those who persecute [us]” (Matt. 5:44), and for “all those in authority” (1 Tim. 2:2). A well known biblical passage to social justice workers is Isaiah 1:17:
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
And Jesus commands us to “Beseech [or pray earnestly to] the Lord of the harvest, that He may send out workers into His harvest” (Matt. 9:38).
Even these incomplete lists should be enough to cause us to pause and consider what it means for us. It is clear that God is asking us to be advocates – for those who don’t know Him (and for Him to them), and for those who face injustice in our society. And though certain streams of Christianity, such as the Catholic and Social Justice streams, are traditionally better at these than others, the whole Church – Christians in every denomination and stream – must become advocates to the lost (2 Cor. 5:20) and for the oppressed (Is. 1:17).
It Must Start in the Church
But before the Church can effectively call Outsiders to become Insiders, before it can be a light to the nations, it must be an inclusive place to those already inside it.
We must be honest about our failures and shortcomings, repenting for our sins of abuse, or the covering up of abuse, or exclusion, or oppression. We must repent when we’ve said, explicitly or implicitly, to people or other streams of Christianity: “I don’t need you.” We must repent when we’ve thought, even unconsciously, that others weren’t worthy of the Gospel and the freedom it brings, because they looked or acted differently than us, or maybe didn’t speak the same language or eat the same food, or didn’t meet our socio-economic standard of living to be considered friends, or even peers, let alone brothers and sisters in Christ.
Most of us can look around at our church gatherings, whether it be a Sunday morning worship service or a Friday night youth service or a Thursday morning women’s gathering or a whatever, and see people who are left on the outside. And it doesn’t really matter why they’re on the outside. It matters that we include them. That we advocate on their behalf with the rest of our group to be inclusive; like Barnabas did for Paul.
It takes us being aware of our surroundings and being willing to step out of our comfort zones. It means even being willing to leave our group – more than temporarily if need be – so that we can connect with someone who’s been excluded. Because here’s what I’ve noticed: we most often aren’t even aware that we’re excluding others. We just like being with our own friends a lot.
It also means being advocates of God’s grace, love, and hope; being aware of who around us needs to hear a word from Him, and could use a prayer, a touch, or a listening ear.
Advocacy as a Spiritual Discipline
Why do I call advocating a spiritual discipline? You won’t find it with the disciplines listed in Foster, or Whitney, or Marjorie Thompson. But it’s something we all need to engage in and make a regular part of our spiritual lives. I call it that because it’s not something that comes natural to us. It takes practice. Discipline, if you will. And like the classic disciplines, when we advocate on behalf of someone else we engage in an activity that is profoundly spiritual. When we advocate for belonging, for reconciliation, for relationship, for justice, we touch the heart of the Trinity Himself.
And I can’t help but think that Jesus will one day say to us “when you advocated for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.”
Who in your church can you be an advocate for? Who in your neighbourhood or community? Who in your city? Ask the Lord to open your eyes, and He will show you. Then step out and act.