What I’ve Learned About Biblical Social Justice
Is serving physical needs worth our precious time in light of eternity?
As with many Biblical issues, there is a swinging pendulum on handling social justice as a Christ follower. On the left, we are on a mission on our own strength to ‘fix’ a broken world of all it’s problems. This view tends to be heavily influenced if you hold an a- or post-millennial eschatological view. On the right, you have a very prioritized view of eternity and no concern for seeking any justice because everything and everyone will eventually burn up in the ash heap of eternity. I found myself in the middle wondering if I need to choose between one or the other. Of course I care primarily about eternity and saving souls, but shouldn’t I also be seeking justice and loving my neighbor as myself? This conflict just wasn’t adding up. I’m well aware of the dangers of the “social gospel” where one prioritizes social issues over sharing the gospel. I’m not sure I could find a Christian who would willingly admit to believing in a social gospel, but I’ve heard that they are out there.
If You Love Me, You Will Obey my Commands
As followers of Christ, I find we need to choose the middle in order to obey all of Christ’s commands. We need orthopraxy to all of our head knowledge and morality of Christ’s teachings. I think a lot of us want to improve Christ’s instructions on how to be a believer or fulfill the great commission. We think we can be more efficient at spreading the gospel by boiling down the gospel, or leaving out the tasks of social justice; cutting the fat and in the end, getting more notches on our belts. Even if you wanted to think this way, you’d be disobeying Christ’s second most important command to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:39). I think it’s really important to trust the effectiveness of the Bible’s formula of living out the gospel in both word and deed. Let’s also not forget the testimony of the early acts church. Even though they were busy healing diseases and selling their possessions, I’d say they were pretty effective.
“And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Acts 2:45 (ESV)
“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Colossians 3:17 (ESV)
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
1 John 3:17–18 (ESV)
“Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Luke 10:30–37 (ESV)
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
Matthew 25:35–40 (ESV)
I also find Christ’s ministry at the middle of this pendulum. He addressed both physical and spiritual needs. Don Sider (President of Evangelicals of Social Action) explains that a lot of evangelicals like to separate the gospel call in a platonic dichotomy of physical and spiritual. We think of the spiritual as eternal and lasting, and the body will waste away. This is true, but we see Christ giving out compassion on the physical as well. He healed both people’s souls and their physical bodies. If Christ loved both, shouldn’t we? How will we be able to preach over the loud roar of hungry, rumbling stomachs?
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
James 2:14–17 (ESV)
In the Church
It’s been my experience that the very mention of “social justice” in a church building is a kind of curse word. Just mentioning feeding the homeless or looking for widows in your church body will give you concerned looks. I know not everyone shares my experiences, but why is this?
Why are we afraid to serve both physical and spiritual needs as an institution? How can we train disciples of Jesus to love their neighbors without actually doing it together? I don’t know how this is possible. We see the new testament church serving each other the time. Still, others make the argument that the church was primarily concerned about serving itself inward. I understand this priority, but I think it’s a very difficult argument to assume the early church wasn’t loving their unbelieving neighbors in any way as followers of Christ.
The Poor Will Always Be With You
There is also the argument that the poor will always be with you (Matt 26:11) and we can’t solve poverty (or most other social justice issues for that matter) so we shouldn’t try at all. It’s true that only God can restore the physical word of its ailments, but that is a total twist and misuse of scripture. If you look at the context of this passage you see Jesus is exalting the woman for honoring his presence while he is still on earth. There is no debate that Jesus has a heart for the needy and scripture commands us as followers to love them. This argument is also an issue of scale. If you were to use this same principle on a smaller scale, you would understand it’s flaws.
Example, “Because we cannot solve the water crisis, I cannot give you 25 cents for a soda”.
You can’t buy everyone who is thirsty a soda, but you have more than enough money for your friend in need. Do you see how this principle doesn’t work out? Don’t be intimidated by the scale of social issues. Focus instead on being obedient to what is capable in front of you, and trusting that God can do great things through you with His help.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
James 1:27 (ESV)
I think the fear of social justice among Christians and the Church is that we will lose primary focus of the gospel. That is a great concern of mine too, however, this really depends on how you define the gospel. The good news of the gospel is not just a ticket to heaven when you die. The good news is also news of the here-and-not-yet Kingdom of God. In this kingdom we find freedom, healing, peace, justice, and joy right here on earth in our physical bodies. It’s not fully revealed yet as it will be in eternity, but it is here. When you have on this gospel lens, social justice and loving your neighbor seems to all fit together with evangelism! We get to live the gospel out loud and share the news of the Kingdom!
This is one issue I have not found scriptural backing for. I’m finding out more and more how popular this is becoming among evangelicals. However, as a disciple of Jesus, I really can’t find this issue mentioned anywhere on Christ’s heart. The only scripture being used to propel this movement is from Adam’s covenant given by God in Genesis. I suppose I’m very weary to directly apply Adam’s covenant over my new covenant given by Christ. In fact, scripture tells us that the entire earth will soon be melted by fire in judgment (2 Pet 3:10). I don’t see it as my responsibility to fix this broken world, but rather long for Christ to return and redeem it in his full kingdom. Knowing other brothers and sisters are very passionate about this, I can consider this a gray area and keep quite so not to cause division. I do see this issue as a distraction, however, to love and save animal/environment over “Imago-Dei” humanity. It’s safe to say your end times views are really essential on this issue.
I love the way Francis Chan explains social justice. Try not to think of social issues, but rather relationships. If your friend was considering an abortion, would you seek justice for that child? If your coworker was struggling financially and needed a meal or a ride to work, would you neglect him? If you met a child being sexually trafficked in your area, would you report this to the authorities? Do you think these deeds would not aide in your testimony and witness of the gospel? Do you really think they are a waste of time? Surely they are not. Mission trips have really helped me to grow new worldwide relationships and concerns for world issues. Personally, I find the more people I meet, the more my worldview changes and the more my heart is stretched.
Should we give to needy, even if in some freak situation we cannot share the gospel? I say yes. Not out of effectiveness, or out of personal opinion, but out of obedience to Christ to love our neighbor as ourself. I don’t see an asterisks or subclause to that command, “***Only if you can squeeze a gospel tract into that loving action”. I really don’t need to question why we are commanded like this. I trust the good teacher and his wisdom. I want to obey this command, and when possible, share the gospel in word.
All of this discovery has given me a foundation to develop a new campaign calling churches in Palm Beach County, FL to care for the needy their county.
It all started as a crazy idea I had when serving at a local children’s hospital, I noticed a calendar showing all the teams that would be volunteering that month. The list was full, but they were all business. No Christian church groups could be found. My heart sunk in embarrassment. I thought to myself, “This should not be!”
A few friends and I get together to work alongside on a single page website that categorically lists opportunities for Christians and their church institutions to partner and get involved with great organizations serving the needy PBC. Your church doesn’t need to start its own non-profit to serve the needy. You can partner with others already specializing in these great efforts.
Some of the organizations listed are faith-based, but some are not. I see it as a great testimony to serve alongside unbelievers in serving the needy. The campaign is already getting some buzz. We’ve printed stickers and hundreds of business cards to distribute amongst college students and church leadership in PBC.
Take a minute to check it out. Maybe you’re not a resident of PBC, but perhaps it will inspire you to plug your church into something in your area!