Social Justice = Social Gospel?


social_justice_sliderA certain radio talk show host made the audacious plea to his audience to leave their church if it used such profane watchwords such as, “social justice.”

“I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!”

He went on to say that social justice is political code for communism and Nazism: “Communists are on the left, and the Nazis are on the right. That’s what people say. But they both subscribe to one philosophy, and they flew one banner … But on each banner, read the words, here in America: ‘social justice.’”

Following a barrage of pushback from people who actually know the Scripture he wrote a “clarification” of sorts, but to my mind, he obfuscated with code of his own revealing his unreliable biblical knowledge. As are we all, he’s entitled to his politics, but when he speaks about theology and biblical Christianity, he’s no expert.

Our faith should inform our politics, not the other way around. It seems that for many people, politics comes first and their theology follows in dutiful step. [As a sidebar, I can’t help but say that I wish people who don’t know the Bible wouldn’t dare to counsel the Church on spiritual matters. Since that isn’t likely to stop any time soon, the bigger problem is a Church gullible enough to take counsel from just about anyone with a microphone or a website.]

For him and many Christians the concept of “social justice” is inextricably linked with the loss of sound doctrine and spiritual dynamism, but the Bible is replete with examples of God’s command for it.

Tim Keller pointed out: “When these two Hebrew words, tzadeqah and mishpat, are tied together (in the Old Testament), as they are over three dozen times, the English expression that best conveys the meaning is ‘social justice.’” For example: “The Lord loves social justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.” Psalms 33:5   And “I am the LORD, who exercises kindness and social justice on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 9:24

We can’t rightly separate personal piety from social justice. For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, when he prohibits sexual immorality and commands giving to the poor Jesus requires both personal and social morality for kingdom people. Amos condemned social injustice and sexual sin in the same breath, “They trample the heads of the poor; father and son go in to the same girl.” (Amos 2:7).

Many have relegated what we usually call “social justice” to the liberal wings of the Church and have written off their emphasis as a salvation by works. “Those Liberals only care about the poor because they’re trying to work their way to heaven!” Even if there were some truth in that broad-brush allegation, it doesn’t expunge the biblical mandate for the justified to “do justly” (Micah 6:8). They’ve thrown the proverbial baby out with bath water and if they do get around to doing meager works of justice it is often considered “extra credit” or extracurricular efforts to the real work of the church.

Keller speaks to the balance of piety and justice while connecting them to party platforms:

“In Western society these sets of concerns have often been split off from one another. In fact, each of America’s two main political parties has built its platform on one of these sets of ethical prescriptions to the near exclusion of the other. Conservatism stresses the importance of personal morality, especially the importance of traditional sexual mores and hard work, and feels that liberal charges of racism and social injustice are overblown. On the other hand, liberalism stresses social justice, and considers conservative emphases on moral virtue to be prudish and psychologically harmful. Each side, of course, thinks the other side is smug and self-righteous. Conservative churches tend to concentrate on one set of sins, while liberal ones concentrate on another set. Jesus, like the Old Testament prophets, does not see two categories of morality (but one).”

Some fear that an emphasis on social justice saps Christianity from its spirituality and turns it into nothing but an institution for political action. I understand the concern but if we seek the God of justice he will lead us into his work of justice. The sole alternative to social justice without Jesus is not Jesus without social justice! Our teaching on biblical justice should be as common as how we address evangelism, worship, and tithing.

There are those who consider social reform as “polishing the brass on a sinking ship,” which implies that since the world just gets worse and worse till Jesus returns and fixes it, we have no responsibility to make this place a better place for humans to live. The whole duty of the Christian, many believe, is to just get people saved. Though I spend a lot of my time sharing with people the soul saving work of Jesus, there’s more to the gospel of the kingdom than that.

Father John Bettuolucci made a great point, “Social action without prayer and conversion to the Lord lacks power and the ability to produce long-lasting change in the socio-economic conditions of the poor.” He then went on to say, “Likewise prayer and evangelism without social action leads to pietistic withdrawal from the realities of the human condition and an escape cape from social problems rather than a confrontation and challenge to change.”

“Our charge is to both proclaim and embody the gospel so that others can see, hear, and feel God’s love in tangible ways,” wrote Richard Stearns, President of the great faith-based humanitarian organization, World Vision U.S. “It’s not either / or but both. We do justice and preach grace. It’s ministry by word and deed in harmony with each other. This is necessary since humans are integrated wholes, made of both body and soul.”

Frustrated by the Church’s reluctance to get involved in advancing justice of the kingdom of God, Martin Luther King Jr said:

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the Gospel has no real concern’. . . If the Church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”

Lord, help us to see what you see, feel what you feel, and do what you do!

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy. A portion of a Franciscan benediction

Speaking of Gospel, I’m writing a book now on sharing faith. Appreciate your prayers for the project called “Reaching Rahab.” If you haven’t read my memoir, it’s available on Amazon.


2 Replies to “Social Justice = Social Gospel?”

  1. I think “The modern church” took a wrong turn a generation ago when it went into politics. My hope is that the political reckoning we are experiencing will shake the indulgent to awareness, the media from laziness, the constantly critical from pettiness and the angry from vengefulness. And Christians especially have an incredible opportunity to be the salt Jesus spoke of.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: