The Early Church Believed in Social Justice

This is Part 3 of an ongoing series on social justice and The Church. If you’ve already read Part 1 and Part 2, you can skip the intro and pick up with new content after the line. 

Lately, the term “social justice” has been criticized heavily by more conservative-leaning Christians. They insist it has no place in the modern practice (or even parlance) of the Church. They assert it is a creation of the leftist elite bent on taking down Christianity. I’ve entertained arguments that you can’t believe in social justice and even be a Christian.

I have spoken with several pastors who have been confronted by congregants or even their leaders (senior pastors, elders, etc.) about applying the Gospel to issues under this “social justice” banner. Some have been asked to resign and some have been cautioned about their social media posts or participating in protests. One young pastor and his wife, about to set off onto the mission field, were told to remove certain social media posts or lose significant funding from their sending church.

In condemning this so-called false gospel, these leaders ignore about four thousand years of biblical history as well as two thousand subsequent years when the people of God are consistently noted for their determination to make the lives of the people around them better and more fair (which is what social justice is).

Let me say it as plainly as I can — the people of God have always lived out a justice-oriented Gospel as an essential fruit of the faith they hold. If you think “social justice” is a bad word originating from the dark mind of Karl Marx and his cronies, consider these biblical mandates for the people of God (given centuries and even millennia before Marx was a glimmer in his mother’s eye).

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The early church, in an effort to honor the person and work of Jesus, took Jesus’ mandate to care for one another as a justice-oriented people seriously. This orientation (or what they saw as a right response to the Gospel) resulted in dramatic behaviors both internally and externally as they related to one another and their surrounding communities.

Benevolence

At the end of Acts 4 we read about The Church sharing and benevolence and taking care of whoever had need.

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.“ (Acts 4:32-37, NIV)

Luke contrasts this passage with the beginning of Acts 5, where a couple who wanted to appear generous in public but kept back a portion for themselves was struck dead.

Yikes.

It is more than reasonable to conclude that in her earliest days, the Church was actively bringing justice to those around them. The evidence is all over the New Testament, as well as in extra-biblical literature. Obviously, they did not call it “social justice.” Then again, they were speaking Greek and Aramaic, so what does it matter what they called it?

They were doing social justice in caring for their poor and others who had need. Church history is clear that this was not an internal posture alone — they rushed toward “outsiders” who were in need as well. When plagues hit and people ran away from the problem, Christians rushed in.

Yes, they were a benevolent people internally, but suggestions that they only cared for one another is absurd (but I’ve heard them).

Still, their internal interaction was inspiring. Non-believers caught on. Tertullian quotes someone outside the church as saying, “See how they love one another!” They were struck by the care and sharing and love displayed by the church in concrete, tangible ways — even willing to die for one another.

Notice it wasn’t said, “See how they believe all the same deep, technically sound theology!” That wasn’t what won people over. What won them over was that they loved each other actively, tangibly, and visibly. It had an impact on the world around them.

I’m not suggesting theology is unimportant. Rather, I’m suggesting that good theology void of good practice is pointless. (James suggests the same in his letter to the Church.)

I freely acknowledge that the Church choosing to share and the government mandating sharing is not the same thing. However, if sharing is good, why get hung up on who is advocating for it? I think I know why some do:

The response I’ve received when having this conversation in the past is that the government mandating something infringes on our rights. We want to be able to choose to be generous, not be told to be generous.

Which brings me to the second way I see the Early Church uniquely informing our attitudes around justice issues.

Sacrifice of Freedoms

The early church was not terribly concerned with individual rights (which was a good thing, because they didn’t have many). Instead, they sought the good of the community — Christians and non-Christians alike. I think the early church would’ve been cool with the whole mask thing.

The earliest Christians did what Paul suggested they do in Philippians 2 and valued the needs of others ahead of their own. They did this unto death, for the sake of the Gospel.

Martyrdom, ubiquitous in the early church, was evidence of just how far Christians were willing to go in this self-surrender. Important to note: It wasn’t their private belief that upset the Roman government, prompting these mass executions. It was their peculiar and public lifestyle, the likes of which we’ve already outlined.

But they were also subversive of the government, and they weren’t particularly quiet about it.

In a study of church history, any mention of individual rights and freedoms doesn’t emerge until after the church is rubber-stamped by Constantine as legal and converts started receiving financial benefits for being baptized.

Prior to that, it just wasn’t in their vocabulary.

I find it very curious how embedded it is in the lives of some Christians today.

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The Justice of Non-Nationalism

But of course, politics and faith are very intertwined in America (and other places), and the relationship between faith and citizenship is much-debated.

As for the Early Church, they spoke out against the Roman government‘s deification of their leaders and the empire itself, and they did so in favor of living for a different kind of Kingdom. A better Kingdom.

Roman exceptionalism was a given in the first century. To not adhere to the mainstream thinking that Rome was heaven on earth and Caesar was Lord was completely counter-cultural. The Church did it anyway. In questioning the government, they were vilified, called names, and considered (ironically) atheistic.

Arguably, the church’s greatest act of justice was in standing against the blending of power, nationalism, and religion. Of course, the Roman citizens did not think they were doing anything wrong. If they were wrong, how could Rome be so powerful? They were a part of the greatest empire the world had ever known! They were proud. No, their government was not perfect. But it was theirs. And it was better than everyone else’s, for sure. To not bow to it, serve it, and worship their Gods — it was unpatriotic.

The Church didn’t do it then and we shouldn’t do it now.

Conclusion:

In addition to what we’ve already seen in the Old Testament law and in the person and work of Jesus — the healing, the feeding, the welcoming, the rescue, the forgiveness of debt, the cries for oppression to stop and the warning to the oppressed if it doesn’t — we see in the early church a desire to bring about a new system. A new community. A new way of living. A surrender of individual rights in favor of a more just and honorable society.

The early church suggested that it was not for power, wealth, and a national sense of pride we were meant to live, but for service, submission, and commitment to one another. This was revolutionary. It was unorthodox. It got a lot of them killed.

And the church just kept on growing.

In their sharing, in their witness, and in how they spoke truth to power, the early church was all about justice.

If the Church of today really wants to be like the Early Church, I believe we should be about those same things.