In What is the Mission of the Church?, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert provide two chapters on social justice. The first examines twelve passages often used to support social justice with biblical texts. The second chapter synthesizes their exegetical findings. Under seven “proposals” they offer a helpful introduction to the topic of justice, so often labeled “social justice.”
In what follows, I will share their twelve Scriptures and seven points. Then I will offer three words of appreciation and application from What is the Mission of the Church?
Twelve Scriptures Related to Social Justice
With straightforward exposition, DeYoung and Gilbert introduce the reader to twelve key “social justice” texts. They are:
- Leviticus 19:9–18: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
- Leviticus 25: The Year of Jubilee
- Isaiah 1: Confronting the Sin of God’s People Judah
- Isaiah 58: God Calls His People to Righteous Responsibility More Than Religious Rituals
- Jeremiah 22: Do Justice and Righteousness
- Amos 5: Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters
- Micah 6:8: Do Justice, Love Kindness, and Walk Humbly with God
- Matthew 25:31–46: The Least of These
- Luke 10:25–37: The Good Samaritan
- Luke 16:19–31: The Rich Man and Lazarus
- 2 Corinthians 8–9: Grace-Based Generosity
- James 1, 2, 5: Faith Shown through Works
Instead of making a case for social justice with these texts (i.e., instead of using the texts), they listen carefully to what each passage is saying. In so doing, they help the reader to draw conclusions from Scripture about justice, instead of forcing Scripture to fit preconceived understandings.
Importantly, the impact of these twelve passages is not a complex system of justice, one that requires years of specialized training, but a call for all followers of Christ to love their neighbors and to walk in truth. This is Jesus’s great commandment (Mark 12:29–30) and the essence of doing justice. To put it more completely, DeYoung and Gilbert write (concerning Micah 6:8):
The Old Testament is passionate about doing justice. But Christians haven’t always given much thought to what the Bible means by that phrase. Doing justice is not the same as redistribution, nor does it encompass everything a godly Israelite would do in obedience to Yahweh. Injustice refers to those who oppress, cheat, or make judicial decisions with partiality. Doing justice, then, implies fairness, decency, and honesty. Just as importantly, we see that the righteous person does more than simply refrain from evil. He positively seeks to help the weak, give to the needy, and, as he is able, addresses situations of rank injustice. (161)
While this definition of doing justice calls God’s people to action, it does not reach the same heights as those who make social justice a litmus test for true Christianity. Rather, it makes doing justice something attainable for those who are filled with the Spirit and led by God’s Word. It is not something that a special class of Christians are doing, nor is it something that most Christians are failing to do. Rather, as we consult Scripture, we find that doing justice is what children walking in truth do. This is the strength of DeYoung and Gilbert’s first chapter on social justice, and it models the way we should engage Scripture.
Seven Proposals for Social Justice
After examining Scripture, What is the Mission of the Church? outlines seven proposals for social justice. Let me list them, including a few notable caveats from each.
Proposal #1: Don’t undersell what the Bible says about the poor and social justice.
Proposal #2: Don’t oversell what the Bible says about the poor and social justice.
Taking the first two points together, DeYoung and Gilbert are right in calling Christians to “stay on the line” of Scripture regarding the poor. The Bible is not silent on the need to care for the poor (i.e., the orphan, widow, and foreigner), yet “the poor” does need to be defined biblically. As DeYoung and Gilbert observe, the poor is typically the “pious poor,” not the poor in general.
We must remember that the “poor” in Scripture are usually the pious poor. They are the righteous poor, the people of God oppressed by their enemies yet still depending on him to come through on their behalf (see, e.g., Psalms 10; 69; 72; 82). This does not mean “the poor” should be evacuated’ of any economic component. After all, the pious poor are very often the materially poor. But it does mean that the poor whom God favors are not the slothful poor (Prov. 6:6—11; 2 Thess. 3:6-12) or the disobedient poor (Prov. 30:9), but the humble poor who wait on God (Matt. 5:3; 6:33). (175)
Of course, this qualification does not deny care for the poor in general—that would undersell the Bible. But it does mean that we must listen intently to what Scripture says about using biblical language to support our social justice initiatives. On this point, DeYoung and Gilbert provide a way of doing justice that every Bible-believing Christian can do.
Doing justice means not showing partiality, not stealing, not swindling, not taking advantage of the weak because they are too uninformed or unconnected to stop you. We dare say that most Christians in America are not guilty of these sorts of injustices, nor should they be made to feel that they are. We are not interested in people feeling bad just to feel bad, or worse, people thinking there is moral high ground in professing most loudly how bad they feel about themselves. If we are guilty of injustice individually or collectively, let us be rebuked in the strongest terms. By the same token, if we are guilty of hoarding our resources and failing to show generosity, then let us repent, receive forgiveness, and change. But when it comes to doing good in our communities and in the world, let’s not turn every possibility into a responsibility and every opportunity into an ought. If we want to see our brothers and sisters do more for the poor and afflicted, we’ll go farther and be on safer ground is we use grace as our motivating principle instead of guilt. (176–77)
Proposal #3: Accept the complexities of determining a biblical theology of wealth, poverty, and material possessions.
DeYoung and Gilbert rightly admit that handling money is difficult. Rejecting the prosperity gospel and the poverty gospel, they write, “Whenever we try to absolutize one strand of scriptural teaching about money we get into trouble” (178). To deny God’s good creation and its enjoyment is to steal praise and thanksgiving from God (see 1 Tim. 4:3–4). But to love money above all other things is also the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10). Therefore, those who want to be just in their relationship with money must hold fast to all of Scripture and not prioritize poverty or prosperity. We must be whole-Bible Christians and let all Scripture inform the way we think about wealth and poverty.
Proposal #4: Be careful with the term “social justice.”
I will write up an entire blog on this point, but suffice it to say, social justice is a slippery word. Because of its amorphous character, it can mean just about anything and be applied to causes that may or may not be “just.” Yet, because of its plastic definition and veneer of righteousness, it is difficult to question. Yet, that is exactly what we must do. As DeYoung and Gilbert conclude,
We don’t all mean the same thing by “social justice,” and therefore we should be careful to define what we mean if we use it. We should explain our conception of social justice and take pains to demonstrate why that conception is supported by Scripture, rather than just assuming a vague sense that “I wish things weren’t this way.” At the very least it would be good to recognize that using an ambiguous phrase like “social justice” to rally for our cause or defend our side without understanding what each other is really talking about is not terribly helpful. (183)
Our world today, especially those trying to make the world a better place have little time for definitions. Yet, without a clear definition, we cannot be certain that what we are building or tearing down is truly good. Therefore, we must be careful with the term “social justice.”
Proposal #5: Appropriate the concept of moral proximity.
In addition to defining our terms, we must also delimit our space. Because individuals and churches are finite creatures, we cannot resolve every problem in the same way. Moreover, we do not have an abstract obligation to do everything we can for everyone. Rather, proximity helps us to determine which obligations are ours. Acknowledging the complexities of this principle, DeYoung and Gilbert ground moral proximity in the Bible.
In the Old Testament, for example, the greatest responsibility was to one’s own family, then to the tribe, then to fellow Israelites, and finally to other nations. From Jubilee laws to kinsman redeemers, the ideal was for the family to help out first. They had the greatest obligation. After all, as Paul says, if you don’t provide for your family, when you can, you are worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). If family can’t help, the circle expands. Those closest to the person or situation should respond before outside persons or organizations do. The reason the rich man is so despicable in Luke 16 is the same reason the priest and the Levite in Luke 10 are such an embarrassment: they have a need right in front of them, with the power to help, and they do nothing. (184)
This practical consideration of location and knowledge begins to make concrete the abstract ideas of doing good to others. Yet, what is needed beyond proximity are sound principles of economics, which is what DeYoung and Gilbert add next.
Proposal #6: Connect good intentions with sound economics.
This proposal is so important and so often neglected. Good intentions are never enough for doing good. Rather, as Ronald Nash has noted, anyone who has a concern for the poor and “wishes to make pronouncements on complex social, economic, and political issues . . . also has a duty to become informed about those issues” (Social Justice and the Christian Church, 1). While DeYoung and Gilbert only scratch the surface on this point, their attention to sound economics is critical for real world change. In particular, they make three observations worth noting.
- “Rich plus poor does not equal zero” (187), which means that because wealth can be created, the accumulation of wealth for one person does not mean it takes away wealth from another.
- “Thinking beyond stage one” (189). Citing economist Henry Hazlitt, they observe, “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or public policy . . .” This long(er) term perspective is vital for enduring justice and the good of all people.
- “Real world problems, real world solutions” (191). In other words, sound economics means resolving concrete problems with concrete solutions. Whereas many who champion social justice have grand visions of change, their visions are just that—abstract visions of some unknown utopia. Yet, real change occurs in the concrete, not the abstract.
Entire books are written on the subject of economics—and DeYoung and Gilbert reference more than a few—and so these few pages are insufficient for those who long to effect lasting change. However, their inclusion of this proposal hopefully awakens Christians to the need to think economically in order to care for others.
Proposal #7: Love your neighbor as yourself.
This final proposal brings us back to the first biblical passage (Leviticus 19), and it greatly simplifies the subject of doing justice. While there are countless needs in the world, Christians are not obligated to tackle all of them. Instead, we are called to love our neighbors and to do good for those whom the Lord gives us the opportunity.
DeYoung and Gilbert make a critical distinction between opportunities and obligations. “As we see the physical needs all around us, let’s motivate each other by pointing out salt-and-light opportunities instead of going farther than the Bible warrants and shaming each other with do-this-list-or-you’re-sinning responsibilities” (193). Scripture impels us to be faithful with the opportunities God gives us; it does not command us to be responsible for every need that we see.
With this in mind, DeYoung and Gilbert close their discussion on social justice. Thankfully, they do not add to the gospel or burden the conscience of believers with more works. Instead, they present doing good works as the blessed gift God gives his children. We who have been loved by God will and must love others. This is true justice.
In the end, let me offer three words of appreciation for how Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert handle the challenging subject of social justice.
First, they begin with biblical exposition and ground their proposals in the Word of God. While many who call for social justice use Scripture, using Scripture for our purposes and reading Scripture on its own terms are not the same. Thankfully, What Is the Mission of the Church? does the latter, thus showing what Scripture says and how it says it. For all who consider social justice in the Bible, this approach is needed.
Second, they match biblical exposition with sound economics. As noted above, they recognize that good intentions need good strategies. Not all approaches to overcoming poverty are the same. And thus, all who engage in social justice must become students of economics (and a history of how various economic theories have been practiced).
Third, they urge Christians to love others without adding some type of works-righteousness. The danger of focusing our sole attention on social justice—however it is defined—is the addition of “works” to our standing before God. Though Christians are created in Christ for good works (see Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:14), the more we focus on our ethical obligations to care for others, the more we make Christianity a religion of works, instead of faith. Space does not permit a full outline of faith and works, but history again proves illuminating.
When earthly needs and social concerns become the bread and butter of Christians and their churches, the result is that the Bread of Life becomes stale. Yet, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that justifies sinners and creates men and women who love to do good for others. Such a message of grace is the way Christians are impelled to do good works without losing Christ in the process. And this is the great strength of What is the Mission of the Church? It keeps the gospel at the center and calls Christians to good works, without making those good works (i.e., doing justice) the centerpiece of Christianity. Christ must always be center of his church, and when he is, the living and present Lord will justify his people and rightly equip them for every good work.
To that end, let us continue to labor in faith, hope, and love.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds