by John Ellis
For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him. Genesis 18:19
The most frequent questions I field of late are about social justice and the gospel, and the ongoing dustup over social justice within conservative evangelicalism. People want to know which “side” I’m on and if I’ve signed any statements. In answer to those two questions, I don’t think that I’m on any “side” and I haven’t signed any statements about social justice, nor do I intend to (that’s not to say that it’s wrong to do so).
For a little over two months, I’ve been studying and researching intersectionality with the intent to write a post about why I believe that the #MeToo movement is not a good ally for conservative evangelicals who are opposed to the objectification and abuse of women (which should be all conservative evangelicals). To be honest, I’ve lost some interest in that project. Mainly because I’m tired of reading black feminist literature of the 80s and 90s and recently published intersectional sociology books (I’m currently reading Intersectionality by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge), as well as black feminist poetry of the 70s.
Of course, intersectionality and social justice can be related, but they don’t have to be. On the other hand, the current iteration of the old heresy called the social gospel is directly and purposefully intertwined with intersectionality. Therein, I think, lies much of the confusion and avarice on both sides. Defining terms is always important, and in the conversation about social justice amongst conservative evangelicals it’s vital.
Too often, we talk past each other and construct straw men while discussing the “other side” with “our side.” Some of the people I know who are the most adamantly opposed to any connection of social justice with the gospel are some of the most generous people I know with their resources and time as they seek to alleviate the suffering of those who are less privileged. Some of the people I know who most adamantly promote social justice within the context of the gospel are some of the most committed people I know with calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus.
What’s true, though, is that more of us need to do a better job of listening to each other and sharing our concerns with humility and charity. Likewise, many of us need to be honest about our own culturally-created blind spots and be open to rooting out those areas in which we are out of balance. Regardless of which side of this debate you believe yourself to be on, if you believe that you have no blind spots and are completely balanced and correct in all your beliefs and thoughts regarding social justice and the gospel, then you need to repent of your pride.
Frankly, this post (which I hope will be the first of several about this topic) will probably raise as many questions, if not more, than it answers. And that’s part of my objective. Because of the politicization of the issue, I’m afraid that many of us have drawn battle lines and are no longer listening to brothers and sisters in Christ. Before squaring off with each other, we should probably square off with our own ideology with the desire to make sure that it’s submitting to the Bible. To that end, I’m going to pose three questions, and then give some brief thoughts on each one.
What Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
This is the only question that I have absolute confidence that I can answer with full certainty. This means that out of all the questions I interact with in this post, this is the only non-negotiable one. And, frankly, I believe that agreement on this question should frame and color how we interact with each other when discussing the questions we disagree over. As Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).”
Followers of Jesus are commanded to show love to one another. Even when Christians disagree, the world should be confronted with the love we have for each other and, frankly, be confounded by it. Sadly, much of the rhetoric in the evangelical blogosphere about other’s position on social justice falls far short of inclusion in even the most generous definition of charity. That’s a sin that many on both sides need to repent of and possibly seek restoration with offended brothers and sisters in Christ. And brothers and sisters in Christ should agree on what the gospel of Jesus Christ is.
Briefly, the gospel of Jesus Christ declares that humans who were created by God to serve and enjoy Him have rebelled against Him. All humans have sinned and stand guilty before God’s throne. Since God is both perfectly holy (separated from sin) and just, He must punish sin. Failing to do so would mean that He is not God. Out of love for His children, God sent the Second Person of the Trinity, His only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to live the life of perfect obedience that we can’t and to suffer the punishment rightly deserved by God’s sinful people. Taking on human flesh, Jesus did just that: he obeyed God perfectly in all things, died on the cross for the sins of God’s people, and was raised from the dead three days later, vindicating his claim that he is the Son of God. All those who repent of their sin and place their faith in him, are given new life and adopted into God’s eternal family. Those who refuse to repent in faith remain under God’s righteous wrath which leads to eternal punishment because they’ve rebelled against an eternal God.
The above, the gospel of Jesus Christ, should be the meta-story that controls and defines all the opinions, beliefs, and actions of Christians. Doing so reveals that the greatest problem facing humans is the ethical estrangement produced by individual rebellion/sin against God. Recognizing the problem points us to the solution – repentance of sin and faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Well-fed and well-cared for individuals who suffer no oppression yet die in their sins are eternally worse off than the most oppressed and abused individual who is submitting to Jesus through faith. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus comes to mind.
However, hold on, because the gospel of Jesus Christ does have ethical implications.
What Is Justice?
Admittedly, I’m still working through this question. I’m continuing to study Scripture and its contextual definition of justice, and am working on a post specifically about this question and how it ties into the next question about social justice. For now, I want to challenge us to seek greater humility and charity when interacting with others over the definition of justice.
There are a lot of moving parts and leaning too heavily on synonyms is especially problematic when seeking to define “justice” in reference to the Bible. Likewise, leaning too heavily on our cultural context can also be problematic. Assuming the Bible defines justice the same way Americans do in the 21st century is an unhelpful presupposition.
With that in mind, I humbly submit that at its core justice is providing what is earned. On the flip side, withholding what someone has a right to is injustice. We see this most clearly at the Cross. Sinners are owed punishment. And since the sins of God’s people have received their payment on the Cross, God, because He is just, cannot sentence His people (those who repent and believe) to the eternal punishment still owed those who refuse to repent and believe.
Moving forward, though, the core definition is not the totality. There are many passages in the Bible that raise questions about this. One such passage is found in Isaiah 1:16-17, which commands, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
As the prophet Isaiah opens his book, he lays out God’s case against His people. In verse 4, God calls them, “a sinful nation” and adds, “They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged.”
God then calls His people to repentance, but not a repentance in word only. Similar to how the Bible’s definition of love (agape) is not a feeling, neither is the Bible’s definition of repentance. God expects repentance to be manifest in action. Part of that action is expressed in verses 16 and 17, quoted above.
Further down in verses 21-23, God condemns His people because, “the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.”
There is much that I would love to unpack from Isaiah 1, including the connection of righteousness and justice. I’m afraid that many of the more out-balance proponents of social justice, specifically those who are closer to the social gospel than others, ignore that God’s justice is encompassed within righteousness, which includes, among other things, God’s sexual ethics. However, my brief comments are far less brief than I originally intended. So, for the sake of brevity, I think it’s important to note that whatever else “justice” means in the Bible, it’s reflected in a society that functions rightly, as God intends.
In a just society, the concerns of the fatherless and the widows are prioritized. I’m resisting the urge to extrapolate to contemporary specifics, but there is a warning that I believe that Christians who are suspicious of brothers and sisters in Christ who promote social justice should take away from this passage: however we work out the practical ethics of the Bible’s definition of justice, we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss other Christian’s belief that justice includes things like feeding the hungry, providing medical care for the sick, and housing the homeless. If nothing else, the just society that we should all long for (and that will only be seen in the eschaton) is a society that feeds the hungry and cares for the fatherless and the widows. Isaiah 1 makes that much clear.
But how does this basic (and unfinished) definition of justice shape how a Christian should view social justice? And that brings us to our third question:
What Is Social Justice?
This is where it becomes extra tricky, I think. Defining what social justice is not will help. For starters, social justice is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Full stop. If you believe, as do many (and as do I), that social justice (whatever it means) is an ethical implication of the gospel, be very careful about conflating the two. Social justice is not the gospel.
However, as mentioned above, social justice is not, at least it doesn’t have to be, the social gospel. The social gospel, as formulated and defined by Walter Rauschenbusch, is a heresy that denies individual sin, God’s eternal wrath, a Biblical soteriology, and the divinity of Jesus, among other problems.
Some faithful brothers and sisters in Christ have a more robust and broader definition of social justice than I’m personally comfortable with. Likewise, some faithful brothers and sisters in Christ believe in some solutions that I disagree with. But our disagreements do not mean that they’re heretics or guilty of watering down the gospel. How we define “social justice” is going to be determined how we believe the Bible defines “justice.” As I wrote, on certain points this post is going to raise more questions than it answers, intentionally so.
Where this discussion becomes contentious is when people talk past each other because of ill-defined terminology. On one side, faithful brothers and sisters in Christ are concerned because they’re hearing the same terms used by liberation theology, feminist theology, the social gospel, and intersectionality applied to the gospel. On the other side, faithful brothers and sisters in Christ are puzzled at how fellow Believers can appear so calloused to the concerns of orphans and widows, especially since the Bible speaks so frequently to those things. Many times, the concerns of both sides are born out of a misunderstanding of how others are using the terms and a very unhelpful assumption about the other person’s motives.
Unfortunately, because of the way language works, when some hear “social justice” they immediately think of contemporary economic theories. Others, upon hearing the phrase, have images of Antifa, intersectional sociology, and the political agenda of progressives spring to mind. The reality is that the phrase “social justice” has been coopted, to a varying degree, by some for contra-Biblical and rebellious purposes. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the phrase doesn’t have value. Nor does it mean that the phrase isn’t problematic. However, “social justice” does not necessarily equal a contra-Biblical worldview.
And this brings me to some concluding thoughts.
Be careful that while arguing about terms, you’re not disobeying God – either by underemphasizing the gospel of Jesus Christ or by failing to recognize that the gospel has ethical implications. To the first group, feeding physical food to the hungry without introducing them to the Bread of Life fails to meet their greatest need. To the second, just because you disagree with the term, the Bible is quite explicit that God’s children are to interact with and care for the hungry, sick, and oppressed. Whatever label you want to use, starving children and oppression of those made in God’s Image are not issues, among others, that Christians are allowed to be complacent about.
Be careful that you don’t misrepresent what a brother or sister in Christ actually believes. Unless you’ve read the primary source, resist the urge to pile on with a spirit of criticism and judgment. And don’t think that because you’ve read one blog post by so-and-so you have a good handle on his or her thoughts and beliefs about the topic. On a personal note, one of my never-ending frustrations as an online writer is people who read one thing and jump to conclusions about me. I would love for people to read my stuff in context of everything that I’ve written.
On the flip-side, we need to be cognizant that the terms we use may not be as clearly defined in the minds of some, or the terms may prompt fairly entrenched images and definitions that are far removed from how we intend. With that in mind, we need to do a good job of clearly defining our terms (something I admit that I have not finished doing in this post) as well as making sure that we help others understand what we mean and what we do not mean.
Sadly, what should be an in-house discussion about the ethical implications of the gospel and how the Bible defines justice has spilled over into the public in an often rancorous display of disunity. Faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who have labored together, rejoiced together, and sought the good of the Kingdom together have wounded each other. The thing is, I believe that as long as we agree on the first question – the gospel of Jesus Christ – we can find enough agreement on the other two questions to allow us to charitably disagree on the things we do disagree on.
Lord willing, in the coming days I will post more of my thoughts, beliefs, and even questions about what the Bible means by justice and what the relationship is between social justice and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria