As we approach the subject of social justice and what the role of the church should be in pursuing justice in the world, it is going to be important for us to define these terms—what is social justice—and also it is going to be important to understand that there is a God-centered approach to social justice and there is a man-centered approach to social justice.
As a church that desires to be God-centered, we of course want to strive to pursue social justice with a God-centered perspective at all times.
The man-centered approach sees the government in the role of savior, bringing change on earth through government policies and social activism. The God-centered approach views everything through the lens that God is just. This means that He is right. He is fair.
It also means that He hates the ill-treatment and oppression of people and of all that He has created. He hates lying, cheating, and other forms of mistreatment of others. The fact that God is just means that He can and will judge between right and wrong and He will administer justice in accordance with His standards.
The justice of God means that Christ as Savior will bring heaven to earth when He returns. At His return, Christ will restore all things and execute perfect justice. Until then, Christians express God’s love and justice by showing kindness and mercy to those who are suffering and where wrong is being done.
For our purposes as the church, it is helpful to recognize what social justice is NOT:
Social justice is NOT salvation. Let’s be clear. Unequivocally Christianity is first and foremost about God and the saving work of Jesus. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a grand story of redemption, free grace, and the glory of Christ. Social justice is by no means a replacement for evangelism and should not overshadow the importance of this life on earth over the eternal life. Concern for the physical must not ignore concern for the spiritual.
Social justice is NOT a political agenda. While sometimes there may be political implications, and advocates will take political positions, social justice itself is not about politics. Yes, you do hear certain political persuasions using social justice as a means of promoting a political platform. That does not mean that is what social justice is about.
Social justice is NOT socialism. Social justice is not about socialism. While some social justice advocates may promote a pro-government/liberal/social (choose your favorite buzz-word) agenda, to reduce the entirety of social justice to such a belief is overly simplistic (and promotes a man-centered view of social justice).
Social justice is NOT about economic inequality. Some strong advocates of social justice might disagree with this point, but biblical speaking—which is the only perspective I desire to have on this issue—that is not what social justice is about. The Bible instructs us to meet the needs of the poor, but we cannot infer that it is wrong to be rich. God blesses people with riches so that they will be generous toward His kingdom and provide even more opportunities for meeting the needs of the oppressed.
Social justice is NOT about utopia. It is not about seeking some unrealistic, unachievable society in which there is no wrong. As long as sin persists, injustice also will. This does not excuse us from being concerned, however. We should strive to eliminate injustice as long as we live as a way of glorifying God.
For the purposes of the church, what IS social justice?
Justice is rooted in the character of God. It’s established in the creation of God. It’s mandated in the commands of God. It’s present in the kingdom of God. It’s motivated by the love of God. It’s affirmed in the teaching of Jesus, reflected in the example of Jesus, and carried on today by all who are filled with, moved and led by His Spirit.
Pragmatically, social justice is about addressing injustice. Quite simply, social justice is observing a wrong in society and seeking to rectify that wrong. Simple as that. Human trafficking, for example, is clearly an injustice. Promoting an agenda of social justice seeks to end human trafficking around the globe.
Social justice is about loving your neighbor. We know as Christians that we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Second to loving God, this is the most important command Christ gave and we ought to take it seriously. Concern over social conditions—concern for the person and the community—is an important aspect of loving our neighbor.
Social justice is about humanizing people. Social justice recognizes the inherent worth of every human being, who are all created in the image of God. Issues like slavery, racism, and poverty dehumanize people by diminishing from their God-given worth.
Social justice is about defending societal rights. Proverbs 31:8-9 calls us to defend the rights of the poor and needy and to speak out on behalf of those who are oppressed.
Social justice is about freedom. Freedom for every individual. It is a reflection of the freedom Christ has offered us from our sin. Social justice wants every individual to experience a life free from oppression and injustice and poverty.
“Justice” might be the single best word, both inside and outside the Bible, for capturing God’s purposes for the world and humanity’s calling in the world. Justice is, in fact, the broadest, most consistent word the Bible uses to speak about what ought to be, and it has been used throughout centuries by Christians and non-Christians alike to describe vital areas of human and divine concern.
Micah 6:6-8 describes what the Lord requires of the God-centered person:
“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
To translate that exhortation in our day we might say something like this: So what if we come to you with well-orchestrated music, and instruments of praise? So what if we lift our voices and our hands and even bow down to our knees as we sing our songs of praise? Will the Lord be pleased with our gathering every week to confess our sin as we take communion and talk about how much we love Him and are appreciative of what He has done in our lives? He has shown us and told us (in His Word) what is good—to do what’s right for those who suffer, to show kindness and humility as you walk with the Lord God.
To pursue justice is to “know God.” How do we know this is true? Psalm 9:16 says, “The Lord has made Himself known through executing justice.” Knowing what God cares about, such as acts of justice, is a way for us to know Him.
In the book of Jeremiah we encounter a powerful story in which God condemned the injustice of Judah’s king. Jeremiah was called to declare against King Shallum: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages…”
Then God angrily contrasts Shallum with his own father, the good king Josiah, saying, “Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 22:15-16).
God was talking about social justice. He is greatly concerned with how we treat each other, our use of material wealth, and the extent to which we care for the marginalized. In fact, through the prophet Jeremiah, God said that living justly is what it means to know Him.
Knowing God isn’t just about studying Him from a distance, or seeking Him in a vacuum. To know God’s heart and His plan, to be in relationship with Him, we need to be with God, pursuing His desires in the world; namely, pursuing justice.
What should be the corporate church’s involvement in society?
Local churches from denomination to non-denomination will differ on the answer to this question, and we believe there is room for difference in this issue. Speaking for Oasis Church, we want to emphasize that the primary work of the church is not to promote social justice, but it is to warn people of divine justice.
The church’s primary business is not to call society to be more righteous but to tell people in society of the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ.
The church’s primary work is not to tell people who to elect to public office, it is to tell those in every nation of the One who elects for eternal life.
The primary work of the church is to be a means to the kingdom of God and to nurture the Christian faith in the community of believers.
As the church, we need to see justice in a larger theological frame of mind than merely saying, “This is a good thing to do” or “This is the right thing to do.” The larger theological frame is that God is glorified when His fallen creation is to any degree rectified—that is, drawn into a closer alignment with His own justice, His own righteousness, His own attributes. And we should celebrate every good thing that is done in Christ’s name.
The New Testament is noticeably silent on any plan for governmental or social action led by the church. The apostles launched no social reform movement. Instead, they preached the Gospel of Christ and planted churches. Our primary 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.
Justice is our concern because it is God’s concern, but it is not easy 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 pronounces the end of injustice and every cause and consequence of human sin. We have a lot of work to do in this world, but true justice will be achieved only by the fulfillment of God’s purposes and the perfection of God’s own judgment.
Until then, the church must preach the Gospel, and believers 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 His justice.
God has made it abundantly clear that He loves all people with perfect love. Therefore, harming any person means harming someone God loves. Ignoring him or her means ignoring someone God loves. If we have the power to help someone God loves, and we choose not to, we are refusing to help God.
Proverbs 14:31, Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.
Proverbs 19:17, Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.
There is direct reciprocity between God and those He loves. To harm one is to harm the other; to love one is to love the other. Someday our Lord will ask us whether we loved the people he loves.
Matthew 25:40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
A covenant is a sacred agreement, stronger than a promise. God has made a covenant between Himself and His creation. God is redeeming His creation. The Bible tells us that God has a preferential option for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger.
That shouldn’t surprise us or offend us, because we do too. Don’t we treat preferentially the person in greatest need? Don’t emergency rooms treat a broken bone before a common cold? Don’t we give food to the starving before helping the hungry?
A preferential option is not preferential love; rather, it is a natural part of the economy of life.
Jesus gave preference to the skeptic and the sinner over the self-righteous. He gave preference to the poor over the rich. He gave preference to everyone who was living along the path that led to His Father’s love.
Jesus doesn’t command us to help the poor, care for the afflicted, speak for the voiceless… all because it’s a thankless task that God doesn’t want to do. He commands us because we are meant to participate with God in service that will bring us true fulfillment and liberate others.
Justice is humanity collaborating with God in a covenant of love and care for all people. And God is inviting us to begin the journey toward justice where He is already.
He is just (2 Thes 1:6).
Where there is justice, there God is.