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Social justice and the church

Seven things about which I hope and pray we can all agree


Restaurant customers watch a march for social justice in New York City. Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig

Social justice and the church

The combination of “social” and “justice” has become highly explosive in recent years. “Social justice” has even become a powder keg issue within the church in the United States and congregations worldwide, bringing dispute and fragmentation. Unless we come to some better sort of consensus, this discussion risks splintering rather than uniting.

Much of the division can be traced to the term “social justice” itself. As Jonah Goldberg found, “From labor unions to countless universities to gay rights groups to even the American Nazi Party, everyone insisted they were champions of social justice.”

“Social justice” is also the banner over movements with a self-declared mission to “disrupt the western-prescribed nuclear family structure,” resort to death threats and violence to silence opposing voices, and seek through force of law to shut down crisis pregnancy centers, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and Christian universities that will not bow to their orthodoxy. When the social justice moniker can be claimed by groups as ideologically disparate as the American Nazi Party and Antifa, then there’s one fact that all Christians should agree on: Many causes marketed as “social justice” are not true justice.

The Bible never calls us to knee-jerk activism. We aren’t commanded to merely execute justice but to “truly execute justice” (Jeremiah 7:5). This presupposes there are untrue ways to execute justice, ways of trying to help that actually harm, and violate God’s justice.

For unity’s sake, it is worthwhile to ask: What are the kinds of “social justice” that Christians, as brothers and sisters, can interlink arms and agree are at odds with God’s justice?

Here are seven points on which Christians can and should agree that biblical justice is far superior to “social justice” in our times.

If by “social justice” we mean an ideology that inspires in its followers a quickness to be offended, then I pray we can agree—it is not true justice. Scripture champions a love that is not easily offended (1 Corinthians 13:5).

If “social justice” means an ideology that inspires a spirit of mutual suspicion, hostility, factions, fear, and labeling, then I pray we can agree—it is not true justice. Scripture offers us the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

If by “social justice” we mean an ideology that rejects ideas because of the group identity of the person articulating them, then I pray we can agree—it is not true justice. The Greatest Commandment calls us to love God with our whole minds. This includes evaluating ideas based on their biblical fidelity and truth-value rather than the chromosomes or skin color of those articulating it.

If by “social justice” we mean an ideology that credits guilt based on one’s skin tone, then I pray we can agree—it is not true justice. Scripture declares everyone of every ethnicity guilty based on our group identity “in Adam.” This guilt can only be erased by finding our new identity in Jesus, “the second Adam” in whom “there is now no condemnation” (Romans 8:1).

If by “social justice” we mean an ideology that teaches that the human telos (i.e., ultimate purpose and meaning) is defined by the creature, and that anyone who challenges our self-defined telos is an oppressor, then I pray we can agree—it is not true justice. The sinful refusal to live within that Creator-defined telos brings oppression to ourselves and those around us.

If by “social justice” we mean an ideology, Right or Left, that sorts people into group identities to stoke hostility, then I pray we can agree—it is not true justice. Jesus destroyed the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile to make for Himself “one man,” uniting people from every tongue, tribe, and nation and making them ambassadors of reconciliation. Family and reconciliation, not inter-group warfare, is the Bible’s model for the Christian life.

If by “social justice” we mean an ideology that celebrates abortion, then I pray we can agree—it is not true justice. A Christian worldview ascribes full humanity and worth to precious, unborn image-bearers of God, and calls us to love and protect those women and their vulnerable offspring who are exploited or terminated by the abortion industry.

This list is far from exhaustive. I have blind spots, and yet I suspect that there are a hundred points on which we could all agree that a Christian worldview offers something more redemptive and beautiful than what is often called “social justice,” which will only bring more oppression and strife to the 21st century.

Let true justice—God’s justice—roll down as waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)


Thaddeus Williams

Thaddeus Williams is the author of the best-selling book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan/HarperCollins, 2020). He serves as associate professor of systematic theology for the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and resides in Orange County, Calif., with his wife and four kids.


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