This is one of those issues that seem to split the evangelical world down the middle. On the one hand, you can find many church websites, supported by blogs and books arguing that we should be passionate about “social justice”. On the other hand, there are plenty of books, blogs and twitter threads arguing that this is a distraction from the work of the Gospel. For some, this is because they believe that social justice is a good and reasonable thing for society to aim towards, they however do not think it is the church’s job to worry about. We should be focusing on preaching the Gospel.
Some people would be concerned that the distraction might even reach the stage where social justice replaces the Gospel, that we end up preaching a false social Gospel. However, another group go even further. They argue that there is no such thing as social justice at all. They argue that the Bible is only interested in individual justice when one person has wronged another through sinful and unlawful behaviour. This makes Social Justice a false Gospel, not just because it is a distraction from preaching the Gospel but because it offers something false, something not true or possible at all.
It’s that latter concern that I want to deal with here. It’s worth starting with the standard definition of social justice. The most prominent definition of social justice seems to be:
- justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.
“individuality gives way to the struggle for social justice”
This then is taken by some to refer to equality in terms of wealth, education and privileges for all, without discrimination based on class, gender, ethnicity or sexuality. If we mean “equal outcomes” or even “equal opportunities” then I think we would find it hard to build a Biblical case for that kind of social justice. It does seem to align with a particular party-political position.
Scripture does care about how we treat the poor and vulnerable. It sees greed and selfishness as harmful and sinful. “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” It provides mechanisms for Old Testament Israel to ensure that people are not in a position to exploit, that limits on power and constraints on personal accumulation of wealth at the expense of others are in place through sabbaths and jubilees. It provides for the most vulnerable and needy through those same sabbaths and festivals, through gleaning and kinsman redeemers. Then in the New Testament we see the concern in the church for those in need leading to the very early disciples pooling things in common and later churches having widows’ lists and taking collections for the poor in other places.
However, I suspect that equally substantial numbers of people do not see social justice as being about equal distribution or even necessarily equal opportunities. This is why the concept is controversial on the left as well as the right of politics. Traditional socialists see the pursuit of social justice instead of socialism as a watering down or even betrayal of their objectives.
Therefore, frequently, and especially when churches and Christians use the phrase, their concern is that those who have been treated unjustly, who have been harmed and exploited by others should receive some form of justice. This is important because as I said, some opponents of social justice argue that there is no such thing, we can only talk about individual justice.
I think this stance misses two things. First, it misses that injustice can be enacted against more than one person individually. In Scripture we see the oppression of classes of people such as widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor. We also see oppression and injustice against the whole people of Israel, especially in their slavery in Egypt.
Similarly, we see that injustice can be enacted collectively by a class of people, the rich and strong, an occupying or enslaving nation. Injustice is enacted socially (as a collective group) and experienced socially as a class or group.
Therefore, whilst there are differences of view on exactly what role the church plays in such matters -and I’m not going to get into those in this article, I believe that it is right to talk about social justice and be concerned about it.
 The latter two examples to suggest that the practice of pooling in common wasn’t