Questions of social justice are not only explosive in today’s culture, they have become highly combustible within many churches around America. Just this morning I spoke with a dear friend whose church on the East Coast is splitting down the middle over social justice controversies. But what if there is more to be unified about as Christians than we are led to believe by our social media news feeds?
WHAT IS SOCIAL JUSTICE?
Part of the problem stems from the triggering term “social justice.” We could use those words to describe what our ancient brothers and sisters did to rescue and adopt those precious little image-bearers who had been discarded like trash at the literal human dumps outside many Roman cities. The same two words could describe William Wilberforce and the Clapham sect’s efforts to topple slavery in the UK, along with Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and others is the US. “Social justice” could describe Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church’s efforts to subvert the Third Reich. Nowadays, the same word combination could even describe Christian efforts to abolish human trafficking, work with the inner-city poor, invest in microloans to help the destitute in the developing world, build hospitals and orphanages, upend racism, and so much more.
But for many brothers and sisters, the identical configuration of 13 letters is packed with altogether non-Christian and often explicitly anti-Christian meanings. And they’re not wrong. Over the last couple decades and especially in the last few years, “social justice” has taken on an extremely charged ideological and political meaning. “Social justice” became a waving banner over movements like Antifa, which sees physical violence against those who think differently as “both ethically justifiable and strategically effective,” and celebrates its under-reported “righteous beatings.” “Social justice” is also the banner over movements with a mission to “disrupt the western-prescribed nuclear family structure,” movements seeking to advance the multi-billion dollar abortion industry, movements on college campuses that have resorted to death threats and violence to silence opposing voices, movements that fire CEOs, boycott chicken sandwiches, and seek through force of law shut down bakeries, crisis pregnancy centers, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and Christian universities who will not bow to their orthodoxy.
Not all, but much of the current opposition among Christians over social justice has to do with those opposite reactions the term sparks on either side. For unity’s sake, I believe it’s worthwhile to ask together:
What are the kinds of “social justice” that we can interlink arms and agree, as brothers and sisters, are beyond the bounds of our faith as we seek to fulfill God’s command (not suggestion) to “Do justice” (Jer. 22:3).
I offer 9 points where I hope we can all agree as we seek justice and unity in our churches through these tumultuous times:
- We should live out together the humbling reality that our self-righteousness is like filthy rags and Christ is the only ground for our righteous standing. We should never seek our righteous standing by our membership in any group except for our “in Christ” identity.
- We should heed the call of Scripture to love one another with a love that “is not easily offended.” This means we protect our congregations from ideologies that inspire chronic offendedness.
- We should seek the supernatural fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. Therefore, we shouldn’t welcome ideas that create a spirit of suspicion, hostility, factions, fear, labeling, and assuming the worst of others’ motives.
- We should celebrate the fact that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This means we must reject every ideology, no matter how trendy, that condemns people for their skintone, gender, or social status.
- We should look to the Creator to define us. This means we must resist the mainstream message that human meaning and identity are defined subjectively by the creature, and that anyone who challenges our self-defined identity is an oppressor. Refusing to live out our God-defined identities brings oppression to ourselves and those around us.
- We should look to family and reconciliation as the Bible’s model for Christian living, not inter-group warfare. Therefore, we should refuse to play the game of identity politics from the left or the right. Jesus destroyed the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile to make for Himself “one man,” uniting people from every tongue tribe, and nation and making them ambassadors of reconciliation.
- We should embrace male-female differences as God’s “very good” idea. Sexual distinctions are not inherently oppressive. We cannot simply erase such distinctions in the name of “social justice” without losing something precious.
- We should uphold the rhythms of self-giving within family as a beautiful and God-ordained signpost of Jesus and his relationship to the Church. This includes rejecting any ideology that interprets the nuclear family as an unjust patriarchal system of oppression, a construct that must be abolished.
- We should stand boldly for the full humanity and worth of unborn image-bearers of God, loving and protecting those women and their offspring who are exploited or terminated by the abortion industry. We should roundly reject anything calling itself “justice” that celebrates abortion as an expression of female liberation from patriarchal oppression.
We must remember that the Bible does not merely command us execute justice, but to “truly execute justice.” (Jer. 7:5). I pray that this meager list of 9 points helps our churches do just that with greater unity in our divided age. For deeper biblical insights on truly executing justice see my recent book, Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan, 2020).
HOW TO USE THIS RESOURCE
This book can help you write messages and navigate hard justice conversations in your church with wisdom, grace, and biblical clarity. It includes an inspiring foreword from the living civil rights legend John Perkins, along with 12 diverse voices to give you a deeper appreciation for how the Gospel ought to shape our justice pursuits. Each chapter ends with small group questions to spur meaningful and uplifting conversations in your congregation as you seek biblically attuned justice together.
Thaddeus Williams, Ph.D., teaches Theology at Talbot School of Theology and Biola University in La Mirada, CA. He lives in Southern California with his wife and four children.