Social Justice, the Gospel and the Role of the Church: Two Views

The Definition of Social Justice

  • Observation of and advocacy for the basic human rights of all individuals at every level of a society. 
    • The push for social reform may be rooted in a desire for equality for certain groups of people regardless of race, gender, orientation, or wealth. 
    • For Christ followers, however, the desire for social justice is rooted in the inherent worth of all human beings as bearers of the Image of God and a desire to rid the world of the many injustices caused by human sin. 

Social Justice in Scripture

1. Social justice as an extension of Gods compassion for the marginalized 

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.” Leviticus 23:22

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed. Proverbs 19:17

“Do not rob the poor, because he is poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the LORD will plead their cause and rob of life those who rob them.” Proverbs 22:22-23

“Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3

“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

“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

2. Social Injustice as evidence of covenant violation

When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. Isaiah 1:15-17

“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’ The Lord God has sworn by his holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.” Amos 4:1-2

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 10:36-37

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” Matthew 21:12-13

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ –Matthew 25:31-40

3. Social justice as a feature of Kingdom of God

“Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ Jeremiah 23:1-6

“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Revelation 21:22-27

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” Matthew 5:1-10

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” Luke 4:18

Summary Statements

  • Throughout the witness of the Bible the poor, the foreigners, the widows, the diseased, and the disabled seem to hold a special place in God’s heart. Built into the holy lifestyle toward which God calls all people appears to be a keen awareness of the groups of people society typically looks down upon, and a disposition of compassion and sacrificial self-giving toward those people. 
  • In the Old Testament, God brings up numerous indictments of covenant violation against Israel and uses their unjust treatment of the poor and marginalized to support the charges he brings against them. The prophets clearly communicate God’s disgust with those who offer gaudy sacrifices and throw elaborate festivals while turning a blind eye to the systemic oppression of foreigners and even their fellow Israelites. It appears that the people of Israel never fully understood what God was trying to tell them; in the New Testament, Jesus frequently brings the Pharisees to task over their mistreatment of weak, needy, and historically marginalized groups of people, citing their pride and exclusivity as evidence that even they do not fully understand the heart of God. 
  • The Kingdom of God is the future reality in which the blessings and rule of God are fully realized in mankind and in creation. The kingdom promises to Israel in the Old Testament point forward to eternal fulfillment when the human race, free of sin and its effects, is able to fulfill its creation purpose to exercise dominion over the earth and glorify the name of God, who will reign over the nations and the hearts of mankind. A key feature of God’s Kingdom as described by the biblical authors is the total absence of human evil and the physical presence of Jesus who reigns as Lord and executes perfect justice and righteousness. As Christians who have already submitted ourselves to the Lordship of Christ, our role in the world is twofold: 1.) To live in such a way that reflects the future reality of Jesus’ eternal rule in the present time (Phil. 1:27); and 2.) To partner with Christ in ushering in the New Kingdom reality in the present. This includes pointing all we encounter to the reality of the Gospel of Christ, and pushing back against the injustices caused by human sin as agents of reconciliation in the world.

The Church and Social Justice: Two Views

The “Beneficial but Not Central” View:

The gospel is the good news of what God has done, especially in Christ Jesus, especially in his cross and resurrection; it is not what we do. Because it is news, it is to be proclaimed. But because it is powerful, it not only reconciles us to God, but transforms us, and that necessarily shapes our behavior, priorities, values, relationships with people, and much more. These are not optional extras for the extremely sanctified, but entailments of the gospel. To preach moral duty without the underlying power of the gospel is moralism that is both pathetic and powerless; to preach a watered-down gospel as that which tips us into the kingdom, to be followed by discipleship and deeds of mercy, is an anemic shadow of the robust gospel of the Bible; to preach the gospel and social justice as equivalent demands is to misunderstand how the Bible hangs together.

Christians interested in alleviating only eternal suffering implicitly deny the place of love here and now; Christians who by their failure to proclaim the Christ of the gospel of the kingdom while they treat AIDS victims in their suffering here and now show themselves not really to believe all that the Bible says about fleeing the wrath to come. In the end, it is a practical atheism and a failure in love.

D.A Carson

Christians and churches definitely should advocate social justice in the sense that ever-sinful society needs constant moral reform. The church’s chief tool in this advocacy is the gospel itself. Redeemed humanity is likelier to care about justice than unregenerate humanity. But even the redeemed need an ethical framework for social renewal. And even the non-redeemed can be enlisted in good causes with appeals to conscience, natural law and self-interest.

A valid Christian political witness for social justice starts with the premise that all persons are created in God’s image. It also understands that the state is not the church but has a very different vocation, having been divinely ordained primarily to uphold order and restrain the wicked. Social justice should not equate all societal improvement with legislation, regulation and other coercive state action. Instead, Christian social justice understands that most of society is not the state and includes a wide assortment of important actors, including the family, the church, other religions, businesses, philanthropies and charities, trade associations, civic groups and other human groupings, each of which ideally contributes to human order and happiness. 

Mark Tooley

We deny that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head. We deny that laws or regulations possess any inherent power to change sinful hearts.

John MacArthur, Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel

The “Integrated” View

Early strategies, from circuit-riding preachers, protracted meetings and camp meetings, to the Underground Railroad and the abolition of slavery, reveal the success of our forebears in balancing passionate evangelism and discipleship with godly concern for social reform. These have long since yielded to new ministry methods, necessitated by changing times and circumstances. Like our forebears, God calls us today to engage in promoting both personal holiness and social holiness. New issues of justice, compassion, and human need require us to respond boldly and wisely.

The Church as “the body of Christ” is the ongoing incarnation of His love and life. We represent Him when we give “cups of cold water in Jesus’ name” to persons who have fled countries of origin in which they suffered persecution, poverty, or political oppression. We model His compassion when we offer charity and hospitality to strangers He sovereignly brings to our shores to offer talents, skills, and labor that can contribute positively to our society. We are His servants when we aid newcomers and their families in dealing with the enormous challenges they face in assimilating into North American society—such as language learning, friendship building, finding medical care, making economic adjustments, and meeting legal requirements. While respecting those whom God has ordained to govern and protect society and submitting to their authority (so long as it does not violate the laws of God), we are the Lord’s voice to speak out prophetically against injustice and unrighteousness towards the weak. We must treat all persons with dignity, including those who have entered the country illegally or who entered legally but are now out of status with immigration authorities.

The Wesleyan Church, “Position Statement: A Wesleyan View of Immigration”

[T]he whole point of the Gospels is that the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of a God — the God recognized in Jesus — who is radically different from them all, and whose inbreaking justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness…

Yes, Jesus did, as Paul says, die for our sins, but his whole agenda of dealing with sin and all its effects and consequences was never about rescuing individual souls from the world but about saving humans so that they could become part of his project of saving the world. “My kingdom is not from this world,” he said to Pilate; had it been, he would have led an armed resistance movement like other worldly kingdom-prophets. But the kingdom he brought was emphatically for this world, which meant and means that God has arrived on the public stage and is not about to leave it again; he has thus defeated the forces both of tyranny and of chaos — both of shrill modernism and of fluffy postmodernism, if you like — and established in their place a rule of restorative, healing justice.

N.T. Wright


  1. Is there something about our treatment of the poor and marginalized that reveals our understanding of God’s heart? Why does God frequently use this in the Bible as a “measuring stick” of people’s faith?
  2. Are there any other roles that social justice plays in the story of Scripture in addition to the three discussed? Do you disagree with any?
  3. Summarize the positions of the “two views” in your own words
  4. What are some principles that the two views can agree on? Where do they differ? 
  5. Based on the biblical examples provided (and others that may come to mind) and on the position statements of the two views, come up with your own position statement on the Church’s role in social justice.

One response to “Social Justice, the Gospel and the Role of the Church: Two Views”

  1. […] etc.). Read the prophets (Isaiah 1; Hosea 4:1-2; ) and remind yourself of God’s heart for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Allow God to search your heart and convict […]


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