Just Distraction: What does the Bible say about social justice?

Katherine Ladd 19 Dec 19

A couple of years ago, a friend gave me his honest take on social justice: ‘It’s just a distraction for Christians who are scared of proper evangelism.’

It was a throwaway comment, but one based on important misconceptions that social justice is easy, optional and a distraction from ‘real’ mission.

In the twentieth century, the Western church became divided between ‘ecumenism and evangelism’: a sharp distinction arose between the liberal mainline which stressed social justice, and conservative churches which emphasised personal salvation. Social concern became pitted against the preaching of repentance. Over time, the ecumenical movement embraced an increasingly explicit universalism and the ‘Social Gospel’ under the teaching of figures such as Walter Rauschenbusch.[1] For many conservative Christians today, ‘doing justice’ is bound up with the loss of sound Biblical doctrine.

But what does the Bible actually say about social justice? Over the past few years my understanding has deepened from a vague sense that I should be loving my neighbour to a conviction that justice is a vital response to God’s grace to me (heart) and an essential characteristic of the Christian life (mission).

Heart

One of the most formative books I’ve read on the subject is Tim Keller’s Generous Justice. Keller notes that ‘mishpat’ – the Hebrew term for justice – occurs in its various forms over two hundred times in the Old Testament. It repeatedly describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor (the ‘quartet of the vulnerable’). God is frequently introduced as the defender of these vulnerable groups. Keller elaborates:

‘If God’s character includes a zeal for justice that leads him to have the tenderest love and closest involvement with the socially weak then what should God’s people be like? They must be people who are likewise passionately concerned for the weak and vulnerable.’[2]

God injected his concern for justice into the very heart of Israel’s worship and community life with texts like Deuteronomy 27:19 and Jeremiah 22:3.[3] Moreover, Israel was charged to create a culture of social justice for the poor and vulnerable because it was the way the nation could reveal God’s glory and character to the world. This is why God can say that if we dishonour the poor we insult him, and when we are generous to the poor we honour him (Proverbs 14:31).

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah and Micah all lamented that while the people attended worship, observed regulations and took pride in their Bible knowledge, they took advantage of the weak and vulnerable, thereby making their religious activity deeply offensive to God. This is consistent with the New Testament. Jesus adopts the Old Testament prophets’ use of justice as ‘heart-analysis’ – the sign of true faith.

Like Isaiah, Jesus’ criticism of the religious leaders in Mark 12 and Luke 11:39-42 teaches that a lack of concern for the poor is not a minor oversight but reveals something seriously wrong with one’s spiritual compass.[4] Perhaps most startling of all is the famous parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31. Jesus does not say that service of the poor is a means of earning salvation, but rather that it is a sign that true, saving faith is already present. His dreadful judgement to the goats – ‘When you ignored the poor, you ignored me’ – echoes the words of Proverbs 14:31, as above: ‘Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God.’ One’s heart attitude towards the poor reveals one’s heart attitude towards Christ.

Keller argues that a true experience of the grace of Jesus inevitably motivates its recipients to seek justice in the world. When the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, the result should be a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor.

Mission

Social justice also matters because it forms a part of God’s mission. When asked if he truly was the Messiah, Jesus replied:

‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.’ (Matthew 11:4-5)

Jesus’ ministry – with particular focus on restoring the downtrodden and poor – demonstrates that the coming of the kingdom involves total restoration of all of the fallen creation, not solely the spiritual. As Vaughan Roberts puts it: ‘Matter matters because God made it; it is ‘good’. He is interested not just in our souls but also in our bodies and the world we live in... his plan of salvation includes everything.’[5] Indeed, we need look no further than Colossians 1:15-20 to be reminded of Christ’s supremacy over, and ultimate reconciliation with, ‘all things’.

To participate in God’s mission, then, is to share in his desire to see all things reconciled to himself. So part of living out God’s kingdom here on earth is to model his concern for justice. Any distortion of doctrine to motivate social action is entirely unnecessary. The most traditional formulation of evangelical doctrine, rightly understood, should lead Christians to a life of justice.

John Stott famously propounded this view and confronted Billy Graham over the importance of social justice at the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization in 1974.[6] The Covenant which came out of this conference acknowledged:

‘We express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive… We affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbour and our obedience to Jesus Christ… The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead.’[7]

Stott later elaborated in his Christian Mission in the Modern World:

‘Social action is a partner of evangelism. As partners the two belong to each other and yet are independent of each other. Each stands on its own feet in its own right alongside the other. Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself. Both are expressions of unfeigned love...

How might this play out in practice? A couple of brief examples from my experience:

I regularly visit women who do sex work in central London, as part of an inter-church response to human trafficking. The visits involve listening to and befriending the girls, pointing them to sexual health clinics, sharing safety updates, offering free English classes, helping them access legal services etc. It’s an opportunity to help women who have been trafficked find a way out, and support those who want to leave the sex industry but don’t know how. This is reason enough to take part in the project – to protect women made in God’s precious image from violence and exploitation. But, by God’s grace, it has also led to natural opportunities to share the gospel. Many women have left the industry and been rescued from trafficking situations. Many women regularly come to church and have put their trust in Jesus.

Similarly, the church which I attend is in an area of great social need – many residents live on council estates, often with generational unemployment, and experience profound deprivation and the resulting social fallout such as drug, gang and knife crime. In response, the church runs a project to visit those who are socially isolated, puts on youth groups and football sessions and runs free classes to teach English as a second language. Hundreds of vulnerable people across the community have been blessed, equipped, loved and supported. Many have also joined the church family as a result.

Stott notes: ‘It is surely one of the most characteristic failures of Christians, not least of us those who are called evangelical Christians, that we seldom seem to take seriously [the] principle of incarnation. It comes more natural to us to shout the gospel at people from a distance than to involve ourselves deeply in their lives, to think ourselves into their culture and their problems, and to feel with them in their pains. Yet this implication of our Lord’s example is inescapable.’[8]

To love my neighbours as God has made them, I must be concerned for their total welfare, comprising soul, body and community. This is something only made possible through understanding the love God has lavished on me while I was lying spiritually dead by the Jericho road.

Social justice is not soft or easy, but hard, enduring, tough. It means walking alongside and committing to the needs of others, whilst mindful of their greatest need. Social justice is not optional, but an essential responsibility for Christians, emphasised consistently throughout the Bible, and rooted in the very character of God. Social justice is not a distraction from evangelism, but its partner in mission.

Just distraction? Social justice is the hallmark of a life saved by grace.

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[1] See Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, ch. 19.

[2] Timothy Keller, Generous Justice (London: Hodder & Stoughton), 2010 (p. 8).

[3] ‘Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.’ (Deuteronomy 27:19)
‘This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’ (Jeremiah 22:3)

[4] ‘As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets.  They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”’ (Mark 12:38-40)
‘Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also?  But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”’ (Luke 11:39-42)

[5] Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture (London: IVP), 2002 (p. 28).

[6] ‘When John Stott Confronted Billy Graham’, The Gospel Coalition,  https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/when-john-stott-confronted-billy-graham/ (08/05/13).

[7] John Stott, The Lausanne Covenant: The complete text and study guide (Online Edition), https://www.lausanne.org/content/lausanne-covenant-the-with-study-guide (09/10/11).

[8] John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World, (London: IVP), 2008 (p.43, p.40).

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