What is social justice and is it biblical?

by Matt Slick
12/10/2018

Yes, social justice is biblical in one sense, but not in another.  It all depends on how it is defined.  So, let's do that.  What is social justice?

  • Social justice is a political and philosophical concept which holds that all people should have equal access to wealth, health, wellbeing, justice and opportunity."1
  • Social justice is the equal access to wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society."2
  • "As the application of the more general category of justice to a central dimension of human existence, social justice focuses on the common good of the community as it is manifested in such areas as the fair and equal distribution of goods and benefits, as well as in respect for the rights of others."3

The sentiment of social justice seems good. So in that sense, it is biblical. Christians ought to desire equality for all people and show no partiality.

  • James 2:2–6, "For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?"

According to James, we are not to show favoritism to people and thereby restrict their freedoms and opportunities. All should have the same liberty to do well with what God has given them, though it may not mean that everyone is equally rich, healthy, and possesses the same material possessions. After all, God ordains different levels of success for people for various reasons (Eph. 1:11). Furthermore, some people don't desire wealth and are okay with a "lesser" level of economic success. Others want more. Both are acceptable as long as the desires are ultimately for the glory of God and are exercised without coveting or boasting.

Political Social Justice

Social justice was a concept instituted in the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution was on the rise, and there was a great economic disparity between levels of society. The rich severly exploited the poor. Communism arose as a political-economic philosophy to counter this problem by proposing resource equality between the classes as well as an equal distribution of wealth. In order to accomplish this, the state would own the means of production and would see to the distribution of goods. The people would then work to serve the state. This would further mean that private property, and the rights associated with private property, would be abolished.

  • Communism: "a theory or system of social organization based on the holding of all property in common, actual ownership being ascribed to the community as a whole or to the state."4
  • "Communism differs from socialism, though the two have similarities. Both philosophies advocate economic equality and state ownership of various goods and services."5

Unfortunately, in the real-life manifestations of communision run by Stalin, Lenin, and Mao Tse Tung, equal distribution of wealth and products among the people was never realized. Instead, the self-perpetuating authoritarian Communist Party in each political manifestation produced poverty, oppression, and the death of tens of millions of people.6. The problem with communism and socialism is that those who run the state power tend to want to perpetuate their own power at the expense of the populace. Particularly in the context of communism we see the abolishment of private property and along with that the rights associated with private property. This kills the motivation to excel because one's hard work is not realized by personal gain since it is absorbed into the economic collective which is run by the state.

Socialism, which is a lesser form of communist thought, has the state controling the production and distribution of goods.  Private property is still permitted but heavy state imposed taxation redistributes the wealth and goods among the people. This is similar to communism in that it confiscates wealth andreduces the motivation to work hard for personal gain and in so doing, the whole of society suffers.

So, this kind of social justice where a state-mandated equal distribution of wealth, which is already been practiced in communist Russia and Communist China in the 1900s, is not biblical and should be avoided, even resisted.

Ethical Social Justice

Terms change their meanings over time and the phrase "social justice" can have different meanings in different contexts. Therefore, as we examine biblical social justice, we need to look at what I call "Ethical Social Justice." After all, social justice carries with it the necessity of ethics since the word justice is employed.

As I stated above, there are ethical principles inherent in social justice such as the equal opportunity among people, fair treatment, opportunities to acquire wealth and property, etc. But when we get into ethics, we have to ask why the demand for social justice is the right one. Just saying it is right, doesn't make it so. Furthermore, without an objective moral standard by which justice can be measured, we only have subjective opinions. This would mean that social justice is different for various people.  And, since people behave according to what they believe, different definitions of social justice will lead to different behaviors which can further lead to conflict.  In light of this, some will demand political oppression and heavy taxation of the wealthy in order to redistribute wealth to the less fortunate. Others might simply say that what is ethical is to provide opportunities for people to succeed and they do what they can with those opportunities.  of course, there are countless variations between these two just as there are countless variations of people's opinions.

Nevertheless, when people proclaim the need for social justice, they must first define what it is and then establish why that particular definition is the right one which ought to apply to all people. Without the universal truth of God's revelation in Scripture, such a definition of social justice cannot be demonstrated to be an absolute truth. It can only be subjective and fluid. This is the problem with secular moral thought. It has no moral absolutes, only subjective opinions which must be imposed on others through societal pressure of political legislation.

Is Social Justice Biblical?

Yes, social justice is biblical when it is defined scripturally. Christian social justice means treating people properly, not oppressing them, helping them, providing support and infrastructure where their talents and abilities can are rewarded (Psalm 128:2; Prov. 12:24; 13:4). The goal is for people to help themselves and not become dependent on anybody or the government (Prov. 12:24). As Christians, we must understand that we are all made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Remember, the rich and the poor have something in common in that the Lord is the maker of them all (Prov. 22:2). And, because we Christians have been bought with the blood of Christ (Acts 20:28), and we serve Christ who showed love and compassion to the downtrodden, we are therefore to seek the welfare of others and pray for their wellbeing.

Biblically speaking, Christians are admonished to treat others properly with respect, with love, honesty, without partiality, as we seek justice for the orphans, widows, unfortunate, and the oppressed. Please consider the following verses.

  • Love your neighbor 
    • Lev. 19:18, "...you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD."
  • Love your enemies 
    • Luke 6:35-36, "But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. 36 “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."   
  • Be kind to one another 
    • Eph. 4:32, "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you."
  • Look to the interests of others 
    • Phil. 2:4, "do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others."
  • Respect the elderly 
    • 1 Tim. 5:1-2, " Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, 2 the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity.
  • Show no partiality 
    • James 2:2–6, "For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?"
  • Seek justice for the orphans, widows, unfortunate, and oppressed
    • Isaiah 1:17, "Learn to do good; Seek justice. Reprove the ruthless. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow."
    • Proverbs 31:8–9, "Open your mouth for the mute, For the rights of all the unfortunate. 9 Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy."
    • Jeremiah 22:3, "Thus says the LORD, 'Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.'"
  • Equality of need - given voluntarily
    • Acts 5:1–4, "1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? 4 “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”"
    • 2 Corinthians 8:13–14, "For this is not for the ease of others and for your affliction, but by way of equality - 14 at this present time your abundance being a supply for their need, so that their abundance also may become a supply for your need, that there may be equality;"

 

Conclusion

True social justice is best understood in the context of the redemptive work of Christ. He freed us from the bonds of sin and elevated us into the heavenly realm where our fellowship with the Lord and His love and grace can in turn flow through us to others. Therefore, the proper manifestation of the love of Christ and his followers is to love God first (Matt. 22:37) and then to follow that with loving of our neighbors (Matt. 22:39). This means we are not to oppress, but to help. We are to seek justice for all and equality of opportunity by which those who are gifted of God in different ways, may use their gifts in furthering the kingdom of God. But for those who did not know him, even then the grace of God shines upon them (Matt. 5:43-48). So, we as Christians are to glorify God by providing Christian social justice to all people.

 

 

 

  • 1. investopedia.com/terms/s/social-justice.asp
  • 2. pachamama.org/social-justice/what-is-social-justice
  • 3. Grenz, Stanley J., and Jay T. Smith. Pocket Dictionary of Ethics. The IVP Pocket Reference Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
  • 4. dictionary.com/browse/communism
  • 5. livescience.com/42980-what-is-communism.html
  • 6. https://carm.org/religion-cause-war
 
 

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.