In comment #23 of his blog post, “On the Bible and Civil Government,” John Mark Reynolds says:
I have never been sure what the phrase “social justice” means.
I am for justice.
Like him, I am also for justice. I suspect that Professor Reynolds and other conservative Christians are reluctant to use the expression “social justice” because it has been co-opted by progressive Christians (think Jim Wallis), academic elites (think Martha Nussbaum, author of Sex and Social Justice), and radical activists (think William Ayers, who edited a book called Handbook of Social Justice in Education). I sympathize with this reluctance, but we should not be afraid to reclaim “social justice” as a biblical principle and theme.
For a definition, go no further than my selected reading of scripture for today:
‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’ (Deut. 27:19).
[God] executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing (Deut. 10:18).
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27).
Recently radio and television host Glenn Beck instructed Christians to abandon their churches if they hear the code word of “social justice.” I, for one, expect to hear this biblical principle and theme sounded out in Christian colleges and churches, as Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says in his clear-sighted commentary, “Glenn Beck, Social Justice, and the Limits of Public Discourse“:
To assert that a call for social justice is reason for faithful Christians to flee their churches is nonsense, given the Bible’s overwhelming affirmation that justice is one of God’s own foremost concerns.
What we should oppose, as Mohler says, is the political captivity of the Gospel from the Christian Right or the Christian Left, although “social justice” tends to be the province of the Christian Left:
The last century has seen many churches and denominations embrace the social gospel in some form, trading the Gospel of Christ for a liberal vision of social change, revolution, economic liberation, and, yes, social justice. Liberal Protestantism has largely embraced this agenda as its central message.
The urgency for any faithful Christian is this — flee any church that for any reason or in any form has abandoned the Gospel of Christ for any other gospel.
I share Mohler’s well-articulated concern:
As I read the statements of Glenn Beck, it seems that his primary concern is political. Speaking to a national audience, he warned of “code words” that betray a leftist political agenda of big government, liberal social action, economic redistribution, and the confiscation of wealth. In that context, his loyal audience almost surely understood his point.
My concern is very different. As an evangelical Christian, my concern is the primacy of the Gospel of Christ – the Gospel that reveals the power of God in the salvation of sinners through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The church’s main message must be that Gospel. The New Testament is stunningly silent on any plan for governmental or social action. The apostles launched no social reform movement. Instead, they preached the Gospel of Christ and planted Gospel churches. Our task is to follow Christ’s command and the example of the apostles.There is more to that story, however. The church is not to adopt a social reform platform as its message, but the faithful church, wherever it is found, is itself a social reform movement precisely because it is populated by redeemed sinners who are called to faithfulness in following Christ. The Gospel is not a message of social salvation, but it does have social implications.
Faithful Christians can debate the proper and most effective means of organizing the political structure and the economic markets. Bringing all these things into submission to Christ is no easy task, and the Gospel must not be tied to any political system, regime, or platform. Justice is our concern because it is God’s concern, but it is no easy task to know how best to seek justice in this fallen world.
And that brings us to the fact that the Bible is absolutely clear that injustice will not exist forever. There is a perfect social order coming, but it is not of this world. The coming of the Kingdom of Christ in its fullness spells the end of injustice and every cause and consequence of human sin. We have much work to do in this world, but true justice will be achieved only by the consummation of God’s purposes and the perfection of God’s own judgment.
Until then, the church must preach the Gospel, and Christians must live out its implications. We must resist and reject every false gospel and tell sinners of salvation in Christ. And, knowing that God’s judgment is coming, we must strive to be on the right side of justice.
Books that are worth checking out:
- Michael Sandel (editor), Justice: A Reader
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs
- Karen Labacqz, Six Theories of Justice: Perspectives from Philosophical and Theological Ethics
- Robert Solomon & Mark Murphy, What Is Justice? Classic and Contemporary Readings
- Christian Buckley & Ryan Dobson, Humanitarian Jesus: Social Justice and the Cross