Lately, the term “social justice” has been criticized heavily by more conservative-leaning Christians. They insist it has no place in the modern parlance (much less the practice) 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 advocate for social justice and even be a Christian.
I have also spoken with several pastors who have been confronted by fellow congregants and even church 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 online opinions or they would lose significant funding from their sending church.
In condemning this so-called heresy, 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 false teaching 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).
One of the most befuddling aspects of all the pushback against social justice is the truth that nearly every church enthusiastically participates in it regularly. Churches all over the country seek justice for the neighbor. They may not call it social justice, but this is not because it isn’t social justice.
The churches warning young staffers against “watering down” the Gospel are the same ones that spend multiple weeks every year talking about how to achieve financial peace, how to have a great marriage, and how to be a Christian in a busy world. I’ve personally been asked to preach sermons on raising teenagers, being single, etc. For the record, I have no problems with churches teaching on these things. My only point is it undermines the argument of those same leaders when they say that speaking about social justice dilutes the Gospel and so they don’t want to tackle it.
At the same time, most churches do not avoid tackling social justice issues, they only avoid certain social justice issues. Many churches, for example, preach out against abortion regularly. Is this not a justice issue? Churches have not hesitated to discuss matters of equality when it comes to same-sex marriage (preaching against them). On or around every major election Sunday there is a sermon given that can only be attributed to justice-themed. And less controversial subjects are tackled as well — sermons about giving to the poor, for instance, are mainstays in churches.
Churches are already preaching on social justice. Again, they may not call it that, but that doesn’t change what it is.
One comment I’ve received a copious amount of times lately is that “social justice is NOT the Gospel.” I agree, and I’ve never claimed it is. But it is a right response to the Gospel, and these churches understand that. They don’t “preach justice” at the expense of “The Gospel.” They just know it’s a right response to The Gospel, so they preach it — along with sermons on marriage and parenting.
They also practice social justice.
Anyone who has been in a church long has been encouraged to go on a mission trip. These week-long excursions take people to foreign countries, and they are not purely spiritual and evangelistic in nature. They usually mean building a house or doing a feeding program or drilling a water well. We’re not teaching theology on these trips, mind you — we’re doing justice work.
Often, these are the highlights of the church year. So why do we push back against something we so enthusiastically participate in?
And it’s not just overseas.
Most churches have a food or clothing pantry. Most churches have an (at least) annual “Day of Service” in their community. They go paint stuff, take gift baskets to girls who have been trafficked, and clean up neighborhoods. People are encouraged to “put their faith into action” and “make an impact” in their community.
What is the difference between actively promoting these things and advocating for a march against police brutality? Does your church give away money to help people pay bills? Help with car repairs? Participate in Pro-Life rallies?
Congratulations, you attend a justice-oriented church! The modern church is clearly not against it as a practice. If there are areas where they are unwilling to act justly, or issues they are hesitant to engage in, it is not because they are opposed to social justice in general. Most churches are practicing it every week already.
If they are unwilling to speak out against other forms of injustice, there are reasons why that have nothing to do with theology.
A False Choice
For most, it is the false choice of doing the primary work of spirituality or the primary work of justice. Of course, nowhere in Scripture is this tension framed as one or the other. It is always both. But spirituality is safe, and churches know how to do spirituality. Justice work is risky, and there are certain categories of justice that churches won’t touch — namely, justice for people who don’t look like them.
In my experience, churches had no problem talking about abortion, having a benevolence fund, or doing a day of service. But they wouldn’t touch the refugee crisis and they wouldn’t sink their teeth into anything race-related. Why?
Because it would upset people. Because people would stop giving. Because people would leave. Because people would accuse them of Marxism. They say the want “unity” but what they mean is “we don’t want people to be mad and leave.” In truth, the church is already divided, only invisibly. Staff quietly leave when they tire of hitting their heads against brick walls, congregants quietly move on when their church will not talk take a strong stand against racism.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
They hypocrisy behind saying “we’re not a social justice church” when missions budgets are in the millions and they willing speak out against some injustice is rather plain. Some will draw a line and say it’s the churches job to focus on teaching the Scripture. Never mind that the Scriptures are plain about how to treat the the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the “other.” Never mind that James is clear on this point:
“Do not merely listen to the word…do what it says.” (James 1:22)
Two Types of Christianity
The modern church has two types of Christianity.
Josiah Strong sees it this way:
Christians are “not to be distinguished by any of the old lines of doctrinal or denominational cleavage. Their difference is one of spirit, aim, point of view, and comprehensiveness. The one is individualist; the other is social.”
In other words, some Christians want to focus on the spiritual because in their minds, the point of the Church is for individuals to come to a saving faith in Jesus and be individually saved so that they can individually help other people get saved. Others take a communal approach, and recognize that there are whole communities in need of the freedom and liberation of Jesus, and that the Church should be active in seeing the Kingdom come “on earth, as it is in heaven.” These Christians are more systemically interested. But this is not new.
Josiah Strong, quoted above, was a Congregationalist minister 100 years ago. That quote is from 1913. This false choice thinking is not a new struggle in the Church (nor does it mean one is the “real” church and the other is not).
In the early 1900s, churches promoting social justice fought for a minimum wage, shorter workdays, better food, and cleaner air. The Methodist Church adopted a “social creed,” advocating for reforms around equal rights, an end to sweatshops, prohibiting child labor, and the elimination of poverty.
All things I think we are big fans of in 2020. All good things. Churches fought for them. They were labeled liberals and said to be motivated by communist thinking, the same lines more conservative Christian employ today for Christians combatting racial inequality (conservatives who, I would imagine, have no issue with a minimum wage or cleaner air).
No, this tension is not new.
In his book The Big Sort, author Bill Bishop reveals that those infamous WWJD bracelets popularized in the 1990s were actually inspired by a book also from the 90s — the 1890s — entitled In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?
That book was not an encouragement to not cuss in front of your friends or cheat on a test, which is how I took it when I wore one in high school, but a call for Christian socialism. “What Would Jesus Do” originated as a question posed to The Church as to how they would bring about a more just society.
Because, as we’ve seen over the past four weeks, the people of God have always had a vested interest in justice. The modern Church still has an interest in justice. To attribute this continued interest to compromising one’s faith, embracing Marxism, or being a liberal sellout ignores the comprehensive testimony of the word of God in the Old Testament, the life and ministry of Jesus, the example of the early Church, and the sincere desire of the people of God to love their neighbor well.
And if we’re already doing the work, for goodness sake, what is the harm in saying so?