On Social Justice

Below find the full version of a primer on social justice that I condensed for the purposes of the April 15th sermon (Isaiah 5). Below the primer, find answers to five key questions about social justice.

You can go on certain websites and podcasts today and hear this: “If your church ever talks about ‘social justice,’ stay away. That’s dangerous. Instead find a church that sticks to the gospel.” These voices have become prominent enough that any pastor using the term “social justice” must engage with their objections. Since Isaiah is a long book, and since what we’re calling “social justice” comes up over and over again throughout the book, I want to press pause for a few minutes to define social justice, defend the validity of the term, ask about conviction, and appeal to Isaiah.
Definition. From its first known use in 1840, “social justice” was originally a word used almost exclusively by Christians. Now non-Christians have adopted it and put their own spins on it. When we use “social justice” here at North Sub, we’re using its simplest meaning: “justice, in the realm of the social, in the realm of relationships with other members of society.” Christians have vast disagreements on what actions and policies constitute justice, socially speaking. But as Christians, we at least should all be in agreement that what we do socially, in society, ought to be just. It ought to be characterized by justice. That’s what we mean when we talk about social justice.
Validity. That brings us to the question of validity – is it valid to use the term “social justice” when I can’t find it anywhere in my Bible?
You can find bloggers who set themselves up as valiant defenders of the faith, saying, “The church should stick with only biblical terms. Social justice isn’t in the Bible, so it shouldn’t be talked about at church.” But it’s strange: when we use the terms “Trinity” or “premillennial” or “abortion,” none of which are found in the Bible, nobody seems upset about us using these “unbiblical” terms in church. Why? Because we all know it’s important (and even “biblical”) to engage with terms that summarize biblical concepts even if those terms are not used in the Bible itself.
When we talk about social justice, we’re summarizing the concept encapsulated the 30+ times in the Old Testament in which “righteousness” and “justice” are used in tandem. If you look up all the instances in which those two terms paired in close proximity to one another (as here in verse 7), you’ll see that they’re working together to paint a picture of right relatedness among people. Tim Keller puts it best, and we looked at this in our Amos series:

These two words roughly correspond to what some have called “primary” and “rectifying justice.” Rectifying justice is mishpat. It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment. Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else.

So mishpat = “justice” = rectifying justice. Tzadeqah = “righteousness” = primary justice. Mishpat is helping an elderly widow get justice in the legal system after she has gotten money stolen from her in a phone scam. Tzadeqah is accompanying that same elderly widow to the auto lot next time she buys a car to ensure she doesn’t get taken advantage of. “Social justice,” rightly defined, is a term that encapsulates those two biblical concepts when they appear here and elsewhere in tandem.
Conviction. In the end, here’s what I think we’re going to see (if we have eyes to see). We’d like to tell ourselves we don’t like our preachers to talk about social justice because it’s controversial or because it “detracts from the gospel.” But I wonder if we actually don’t like our preachers to talk about social justice because we’re rich and privileged people, relatively speaking, and talk about social justice indicts us. If you think I’m missing the mark, consider that when the biblical authors are calling out homosexuality and fornication and rape and stealing, we don’t say anything about how preaching against these sins detracts from the gospel. But when the biblical authors are calling out social injustice, and the preacher dares to say “this is not a stale message from thousands of years ago but rather a word God has for us on the North Shore in 2019,” now we feel angry. Why? We have to at least consider whether it’s because the social justice conversation starts to interfere with our treasured idols.
Isaiah. So what does this have to do with Isaiah?   Well, everybody gets excited when we say we’re preaching through Isaiah, because Isaiah is the so-called fifth gospel! This is the book written 700 years before Jesus where we hear about the branch, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, the suffering servant, the child who is born wonderful counselor, mighty God – there are so many messianic predictions in this book! But we’re just like Isaiah’s hearers. We want the messianic predictions without the majority of what Isaiah talks about in these 66 chapters, namely judgment that’s coming because of failure to act justly and righteously with respect to other members of the community.
In other words, it’s easy to imagine that in Isaiah’s day we’d be big Isaiah fans. But we forget that people hated the prophets when they were with them! If we were around in Isaiah’s day, all our friends would be telling Isaiah, “Stick to the good news. Why are you talking so much about social issues?” Sound familiar? But Isaiah kept preaching a gospel that had implications for the way people live with one another. And according to one tradition, his prophetic career ended when people had enough and sawed him in two.
Bottom line: our enemy is succeeding in getting Christians mired in controversy over whether social justice is good when we should be engaging in the much more important dialogue about how to be socially just. Fourteen times in this book, Isaiah is going to return to that pairing of words “justice and righteousness” in the realm of social relationships, so we’ll call that right-relatedness social justice, and we’ll keep reminding each other of the explanation given today.
Are there any differences between what social justice means for Christians and what it means for non-Christians?
Yes, there are differences in beliefs about what constitutes social justice. But remember, there are even differences among non-Christians regarding what constitutes social justice! For secular progressives, government redistribution of resources of resources is a significant part of social justice. Secular conservatives have a very different vision for social justice. We must be cautious in talking about “how the world views social justice,” as if the world outside the church is monolithic in its beliefs.   This is why we’ve adopted such a broad definition of social justice, choosing to talk about it as justice in the realm of social relationships. We can agree with our dialogue partners (both Christian and non-Christian) that justice should be done in society. Then, on the basis of that common ground, we can cast a vision for what policies and practices constitute justice.
Are we not right to be worried that America fought back the influence of communism during the Cold War, only to have it return in a different form in today’s social justice movement?
There is nothing wrong with analyzing trends, tracing their trajectory, and issuing warnings based on what we’ve seen happen in the past (as a former history teacher, I think that’s one of the most important reasons to study history!). However, if we’re Christians first, our hope must not be in America’s continuing commitment to representative democracy and free-market capitalism. Of course, there are better and worse forms of government, better and worse economic policies. But when we become more concerned with our nation becoming socialist than we are with the church becoming blind to sin, our enemy has won. Our greatest concern must always be that we’d fall prey to hollow philosophies, unknowingly embrace idols, and (despite our sound economics) thereby find ourselves disqualified on the last day.
When we talk about caring for the poor and marginalized, aren’t we really talking about “mercy,” not “justice”?
Yes, much of what the prophets call for could accurately be characterized as “mercy ministry.” However, the Bible doesn’t recognize a mercy ministry that is categorically separate from doing justice. For God’s people to refuse to do mercy is an injustice, because God consistently speaks throughout scripture as though those of His people with extra owe mercy to those who lack. If I don’t share with someone what I owe them, I’m not just neglecting to do mercy; I’m practicing injustice.
Since the social gospel has pulled so many churches away from the true gospel, wouldn’t it be better to avoid talking about social justice altogether (just to be safe)?
There is legitimate cause for caution in talking about social justice. Historically, there are examples of solid churches gradually sliding from the true gospel into a social gospel that is biblically unrecognizable. Every generation of Christians must be on guard against this!   That said, it would be unwise – even sinful – to avoid the topic altogether “just to be safe.” Perhaps an analogy would be helpful.   Many churches have lost their way by sliding into a social gospel. But perhaps as many or more churches have lost their way by sliding into another heresy: antinomianism (i.e. lawlessness, or a gospel of free grace with no obligations on the life of the one who claims to be a Christian). Those churches began their slide by emphasizing biblical teachings on grace while deemphasizing biblical teachings about the cost of discipleship.   Because such a slide into antinomianism is so common and so dangerous, wouldn’t it be better to avoid talking about grace altogether (just to be safe)? When we put it that way, the answer is clear: of course we can’t do that. We must not. We’d create a generation of moralists and legalists!   In summary, it’s never the “right answer” to completely neglect one biblical teaching in hopes of avoiding an overemphasis on that teaching. In the end, that course of action isn’t “safe” – it actually just creates a heresy in the opposite direction.   It’s the same with social justice. Social justice isn’t everything; it must never supplant the gospel in our teaching. It must always be a necessary implication of the gospel we preach – no more than that and no less than that. But to avoid it when it comes up in scripture would be to risk falling into the same trap the people of Israel had fallen into in Isaiah’s day.
How will North Sub ensure that talking about social justice doesn’t pull us away from the gospel?
You’ll never hear us preach social justice as an end in itself. Instead, you’ll hear it preached as an implication of the gospel we believe in, the gospel that reconciled us to God. Though the pastors and elders have a unique obligation to protect the doctrine of the church, every member has a role to play in ensuring we continue preaching the whole counsel of God. If you feel we’ve divorced our teaching of social justice from the gospel, or that we have set it up as a rival gospel, please bring that to our attention.