Originally published December 8, 2010. In 2010, The Emergent Church was at the apex of its popularity and the promotion of social justice was one of its chief motivations. Sadly, almost 8 years later, while The Emergent Church has faded, the movement towards social justice as the central message of Christendom is alive and well again. Perhaps repackaged from wealth redistribution, this new social justice focuses on systematic racism and the promotion of the LGBTQ+ movement.
I realize that the title above will be an unpopular assertion, but before you rush to dismiss it or to leave a contrary response, please hear me out. Social justice is without question a huge buzz word these days within not only the secular media, but within the evangelical church as well. Because of this dichotomy, the phrase is often misused, misapplied, and generally flawed in its assumptions.
Here is the definition of social justice from Wikipedia : “Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating an egalitarian society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being.”
Interesting, though a broad definition to say the least. The idea that social justice creates an “egalitarian society” essentially means equality of religion, politics, economics, social status, or culture, i.e. that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status. (see also Wikipedia : Egalitarianism) Digging a little further into the definition of social justice we find the following statement: “Social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality and involves a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution.” When we hear the term “social justice” from the media, this is generally in reference to the redistribution of wealth mentioned here. Primarily taking from the “rich” and giving to the “poor” by means of taxation or other government mandate. Is this the same message that so many evangelicals are trying to convey? Well, because social justice is such a vague term, it mostly likely depends on who you ask as to what definition you get. In his newly released book Generous Justice, pastor Tim Keller offers the following distinction:
“I used the term “generous justice” because many people make a distinction between justice and charity. They say that if we give to the poor voluntarily, it’s just compassion and charity. But Job says that if I’m not generous with my money, I’m offending God, which means it’s not an option and it is unjust by definition to not share with the poor.”
It would be helpful at this point if we defined “justice” and “charity”. Dictionary.com defines justice as “the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness” also, “the administering of deserved punishment or reward”. The same site defines charity as “generous actions or donations to aid the poor, ill, or helpless; something given to a person in need; alms; benevolence; Christian love; agape.” Just as Keller states, quite the distinction, but his own statement is troubling. He asserts that some say giving to the poor voluntarily is compassion and charity but that the Bible claims a lack of generosity is offensive to God and thereby is not voluntary, but a mandate. The difference between these two statements of Keller’s can be summarized by saying: “I want to give to the poor” vs. “I have to give to the poor”. The former is a movement of the heart, the latter a letter of the law. To his statement Keller adds, “It’s biblical that we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away.”  Does that sound any different than the definition we read earlier which is so prevalent in the media?
Quite simply, it’s no different. To say that “we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away” is to assume somehow that the “rich” of this world are indebted to the “poor”. Where in the Bible does it state that? (Actually Keller’s statement can be argued as to ask based on what standard is someone defined as rich while another is defined as poor?, but that might be a separate post) What Keller has done is to erroneously replace the government mandate with biblical mandate, tag it with the social justice label, and state that it basically calls for redistribution of wealth also. This is not in line with Scripture as he asserts, but is quite contrary as we’ll see in a moment.
Tim Keller did not provide the reference to Job in his interview with Christianity Today, so we are unable to follow up on his statement, but other times he has used Job 31:16 as a defense for his argument so it is there we can look for Biblical evidence. In Job 31, Job is giving his final defense, his final argument as to his undeserved condition and in verse 16 he includes “If I have withheld anything that the poor desired….” Is Job saying here that he neglected to give the poor as much of his money as he could possibly give away because he owed it to them? Well we know that in Job 1:3 he was the richest in the land and we know in Job 42:10 that the Lord restored to Job twice as much as he had before his dire circumstances. To conclude from Job 31:16 that Job was obligated to give to the poor is a poor exegesis for the purposes of defending the concept of social justice. Job wasn’t talking about compulsion to give as a duty, but rather neglect to give from an improper heart. In 2 Corinthians 9:7 we read “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Keller is not alone in his call for social justice, Emergent Church leader, author, and activist Brian McLaren asks, “And could our preoccupation with individual salvation from hell after death distract us from speaking prophetically about injustice in our world today?” McLaren adds, “When Matthew, Mark, and Luke talk about the Kingdom of God, it’s always closely related to social justice…. The gospel of the kingdom is about God’s will being done on earth for everybody, but we’re interested in getting away from earth entirely as individuals, and into heaven instead.”
Equally troubling are the views of pastor and author Rob Bell, who shares McLaren’s association with the Emergent Church. In a 2009 interview with Christianity Today the interviewer asks Bell to expound on his statement of “Jesus wants to save us from making the Good News about another world and not this one.” To which Bell replies,
“The story is about God’s intentions to bring about a new heaven and a new earth, and the story begins here with shalom—shalom between each other and with our Maker and with the earth. The story line is that God intends to bring about a new creation, this place, this new heaven and earth here. And that Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning, essentially, of the future; this great Resurrection has rushed into the present.”
Note here that the resurrection Bell talks of has nothing to do with Jesus dying for the sins of those who believe, has nothing to do with forgiveness of sin, with grace, mercy, God’s wrath poured out on His own Son. There’s no talk of becoming a new creation in Christ when those who believe in Him are raised from the dead with Christ. No, instead Bell’s talk of “resurrection” signifies the beginning of a new heaven and earth, i.e. one of the central goals of social justice that McLaren mentioned earlier and the primary focus of the Emergent Church mission.
What then is our response to this? Am I saying that as members who make up the body of the Church that we should not help the poor, widowed, and orphaned? Certainly not! What I am saying is that phrases like “social justice” are not always benign and laced with good intentions. They are often agenda driven and in this case can often be used to subvert the true Gospel message***. Social justice was spawned out of liberalism in the late 19th century and today’s movement is simply repackaging of that same program. Theologian and Author Dr. R.C. Sproul offers much needed balance on this topic,
“The false assumption of this so-called social justice was that material wealth can be gained only by means of the exploitation of the poor. Ergo, for a society to be just, the wealth must be redistributed by government authority. In reality, this so-called social justice degenerated into social injustice, where penalties were levied on those who were legitimately productive and non-productivity was rewarded — a bizarre concept of justice indeed.”
Likewise, Sproul provides guidance for direction of the Church with regards to helping those in need, “The choice that the church has is never between personal salvation and mercy ministry. It is rather a both/and proposition. Neither pole can be properly swallowed by the other. To reduce Christianity either to a program of social welfare or to a program of personal redemption results in a truncated gospel that is a profound distortion.”
Our definition from earlier was that social justice should be a means by which all men are brought to equality, through economic means, regardless of race, religion, economic status, social status, culture, etc. This however assumes that we are on unequal ground from the start. When it comes to equality we have 2 distinct biblical themes which we can apply: 1) All men are equally created in the image of God. (Genesis 1:27) 2) None are righteous and all have fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:10, 3:23) It is helpful for us to return to the ground level and work up from there. We must ask then based on the biblical equality of men, what is justice? From our dictionary.com definition earlier justice was “the administering of deserved punishment or reward”. From the Bible we read of justice in Isaiah 42:1-4:
1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon Him;
He will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry aloud or lift up His voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed He will not break,
and a faintly burning wick He will not quench;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till He has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
The ESV Study Bible offers the following note on this passage: Justice is “the key word in 42:1-4. In the Bible, justice means fulfilling mutual obligations in a manner consistent with God’s moral law. Biblical justice creates the perfect human society. The messianic servant is the only hope for a truly just world.” Biblical justice is dependent on the Messiah, Christ Jesus. Like Isaiah says, He will establish justice.
Additionally we find that based on the sinful condition of man as we read in Romans 6:23, the wages of sin is death. Therefore justice from God would be giving each person what they deserved, namely eternal death. So it is here we ask, is it justice we want? Or is it perhaps mercy that we desire? The justice that society deserves is not wealth and equality in this life, but eternal damnation and separation from God. “4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:4-6
Perhaps a more biblical phrase would be “social mercy”. We as a church body of believers are not called to work toward justice as defined extra-biblically, but to show mercy to those who need it. It is not the Church’s job to demand justice and work towards that end in order to create a utopia of equality and better earthly lives for everyone. Nor is it her role to prop up and become enabler to those who are able but unwilling. The role of the Church is to preach the Gospel and in doing so establish mercy ministries along the way. We are to show mercy because that is what God showed us, not justice. We were naked and He clothed us with righteousness. We were starved and He gave us the Bread of Life. Thirsty yet Jesus provided Living Water. Homeless but even now He prepares a mansion for us. This isn’t justice, it’s mercy through the grace of God that has been given to us. We cannot be so quick to follow men and jump on board their plans to execute justice in this world without examining what it is they are saying. Instead we should follow Christ, the one who was executed for our justice. He alone can bring justice to an unjust, sinful world.
3 McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That, p. 84.
4 Ibid., p. 149.
***For more insight into Keller’s point of view, see also his interview with Kevin DeYoung: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/10/26/interview-with-tim-keller-on-generous-justice/