What is Social Justice Anyway?

Social justice has become a polarizing term that has set Christians against each other. Contributing to the confusion are social theories such as critical theory and critical race theory where social justice tends to focus on opposing systemic issues where an oppressor group has disadvantaged other groups. Such theories, when applied by Christians, tend to lean toward a form of liberation theology decried by most historically orthodox evangelicals. Nevertheless, social justice as a nomenclature expressing Christian action in social issues continues to find credence among evangelicals. For example, writing during the tumultuous times of the 1960s, one of the leading evangelical voices of the day expressed, “In an hour of widespread revolution, when political forces are reshaping the larger frontiers of modern life, the Church’s concern with the problem of social justice is especially imperative” (Carl F.H. Henry, Aspects of Christian Social Ethics).

Unfortunately, those evangelicals who employ the term today are often accused of conflating Marxism or communism with Christianity or they are accused of propagating a social gospel. While there are certainly evangelicals who favor critical theory as a means to address social problems, the opposition to social justice has exposed a dualism among other evangelicals that might be equally dangerous. The evangelical missiologist James Stamoolis recognized this dualism. In attempting to address it, he wrote, “We may need to advocate for social justice for the other, even if the other has not accepted Christ, while not abandoning the central truth of the gospel that Jesus Christ came to redeem a lost humanity and to give new life.” (In Social Injustice: What Evangelicals Need to Know about the World). In other words, social justice should never be divorced from gospel proclamation. Indeed, as I have argued in When Evangelicals Sneeze, there are three areas of ministry in the New Testament church: gospel proclamation, defense of the faith, and social justice. So, is there merit in continuing to use the term social justice? I think there is as long as evangelicals play a role in defining it.

Social justice can be defined as advocacy for the just treatment of people in a society. It involves concern for the social well-being of the marginalized and exploited as much as for concern about the ill-treated of minority populations. While the term is anachronistic to the New Testament, the ideas it imbibes are not. For example, in the New Testament, we see social justice expressed in how the church stood in the gap for women who were exploited by men in the practices associated with courtesans and temple prostitutes (1 Tim 2:9-12; Rev 2:6). We also see it in the church’s concern for widows and orphans (James 1:27). Clearly, Paul viewed the role of the government as an instrument of social justice. By God’s authority, a government should act to ensure Christians did good, that is, acted justly. Implicit to his understanding of the government was its obligation to also do good to others as God’s servant (Rom 13:1-7).

In the second century, we see social justice advocated against the Roman Empire’s ill-treatment of Christians. In his defense before Emperor Titus, for example, Justin pleaded, “We demand that charges against the Christians be investigated…it is for you, as reason demands, to give a hearing and show yourselves good judges.” (Apology 3). Justin conceded that if the Christians were found lacking in acting according to law, that is acting unjustly, they were to be punished. Naturally, he applied what Paul had taught about the role of the government.

Later, writing in the fifth century, Jerome grew increasingly concerned with Christianity’s new-found status in society and especially its wealth. He wrote, “Parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are decked with jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying” (Letter 22.32). Clearly concerned for the influence of money, Jerome warned the church that she could not serve both God and wealth. Instead, Christians should give to the marginalized because what they own is not truly theirs. As such, stewardship and philanthropy involved acts of social justice. 

At the turn of the first millennium, Michael Psellus, politician turned historian then monk, documented the lives of emperors in Chronographia. Among the issues he wrestled with was the role of providence and authority. While his idea of providence did not seem to be crystallized as in later theological development, he saw a form of justice emerge that ensured the just role of government. It was providence that removed the unjust ruler and providence that empowered the just ruler and he clearly saw that such authority found its source in God. Just as much as the church cared for the soul, the government cared for the public administration of justice based on virtue and high ideals. For Psellus, he believed the emperor was responsible to God and to the citizens for the manner in which the empire governed justly (Hussey, 1935).

The Christian church has always been a part of social justice as she believed that to be an imitator of God not only manifested in the defense of the faith and the proclamation of the gospel, but also the just service of people whose voices were silenced in part due to their social position. When the empire Christianized in the fourth century, the government shared responsibility for the just treatment of people. So, social justice is not a political issue. It should not polarize Christians. In fact, it should unify us in furthering our just actions as well as in holding our government accountable to also act justly.

Adapted from the forthcoming book: Social Injustice II: An Evangelical Voice in Tumultuous Times

Learn more about the Church’s ministry in When Evangelicals Sneeze: Curing the American Church from the Plague of Identity Loss