Social justice has been a controversial topic in Christian circles for several decades. Part of the controversy is whether or not Jesus taught His followers to practice social justice.
As with many Christian debates, there are two main sides to this issue… and as with many Christian debates, I hold to a third position. Let me review the two main positions on social justice, and then present my own view.
1. The Gospel Leads to Social Justice
First, some Christians say that social justice is a perversion of the Gospel, and that rather than seek to engage in social justice issues, we should instead just preach the Gospel. They say that no amount of helping people will transform society and bring justice to the world, unless it is first founded upon Jesus Christ.
People’s lives cannot be truly transformed, they say, until they submit their lives to Jesus Christ, and adopt the values of the Kingdom of God.
Furthermore, these churches argue that we should not be wasting our time on social justice issues until people have heard and accept the Gospel. “What good is it,” you might hear them say, “if a person has a full belly but is still headed for hell? People still go to hell whether they are well-fed or not.”
2. Social Justice is at the Center of the Gospel
On the other side of the social justice debate are those who argue that social justice issues are at the center of the Gospel, and that as we look at the life and ministry of Jesus, we see Him engaged in social justice actions at every turn. He feeds the hungry. He defends the oppressed. He stands up for women’s rights. He loves the outcast, the despised, the rejected, and the sinner, and calls on the rich and powerful to give their money to the poor and take of the needs of the helpless.
While this second group usually agrees that feeding the poor and defending the powerless will not “get them to heaven” they argue that getting people to heaven is not the only goal of the Gospel. You will often hear them say, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” and “The way to a person’s heart is through their stomach.”
Social Justice and Jesus
Where do I stand on these issues?
Personally, I think that most of the problem lies in the term “social justice” itself. It is not that the term is wrong, it’s just that the term “social justice” means different things to different people, and so even if two groups of people are arguing about “social justice,” they may not be arguing about the same thing.
So my view is that we should stop talking and arguing about “social justice” and instead, just try to follow the example of Jesus.
Ah, but there’s the rub. What exactly did Jesus teach regarding the message of the Gospel, and what exactly did Jesus do regarding the needs of the people of His day?
A full explanation would take a full book, but let me see if I can summarize three of the highlights:
- The mission and message of Jesus is pretty clearly summarized in Luke 4:18-19. He wants to give sight to the blind, liberty to the captives, and deliverance to the oppressed. If we look at the actions of Jesus throughout the Gospels, He did these things both spiritually and physically. Sometimes Jesus met people’s physical needs before He addressed their spiritual needs, and other times He addressed their spiritual needs first.
- Jesus was not into free handouts. Yes, Jesus gave free meals and free healthcare to people. But notice a few things about these events. First, the people He is helping are almost always people who are following Him or who have sought Him out in some way. When He feeds the five thousand, it was because they had been listening to His teachings and He had gone on so long that they all became hungry and had not brought any food. The vast majority of these people were not homeless. They were not unemployed. They just forgot to bring food. Later, when word gets around that Jesus was giving free meals, and people started showing up just the free stuff, Jesus pretty much chased them away (cf. John 6).
- Jesus never called on the government to provide free stuff. Not once did Jesus ever call on the Roman Empire, or the local Israelite authorities to raise taxes so that the poor and unemployed could be taken care of. Taking care of the poor and needy in the community was a priority of Jesus, but He never saw this as the responsibility of the government. Taking care of the poor and needy in the community was the responsibility of the individual person, or of local groups.
So when it comes to Jesus and His Gospel message, I don’t think He would side with either of the two main groups in the social justice debate.
On the one hand, helping the poor and needy was indeed a priority for Jesus, and sometimes He helped people whether or not they believed in Him for eternal life and became His followers. Sometimes He helped people just because they needed help.
But on the other hand, Jesus was not a proponent of trying to legislate morality, of trying to get people to do what is right through higher taxation and passing laws. Jesus did not put much faith in human government to fix what was wrong with the world. Fixing the world, helping the poor, and defending the oppressed was His job, and the job He passed on to those who follow Him.
And fixing what is wrong with the world means looking not just at people’s spiritual needs, but also their mental, emotional, psychological, and physical needs as well.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a full-orbed Gospel which addresses all of humanity’s needs, and which He wants the church to spread throughout the world, and on their own initiative, not through taxation or legislation from the government. A church which calls on the government to take care of the needy in our community has surrendered–not to Jesus–but to the state. Helping the needy in our community is the job of the church; not the state.
Of course, as long as we spend all our money on lavish buildings, state-of-the-art soundboards, pastoral salaries, and excessive programming, we will have no choice but to ask the government to do what Jesus has called us to do all along.