The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Dangers of Social Justice Theology

This paper is due tomorrow, but I will probably have to shave off 500 words to get under the word count. For now, here it is.









                Social justice is a term thrown around quite often today, in both religious and secular circles. It has recently received nation-wide media attention with Glenn Beck and Jim Wallis sparring with one another- Beck telling churchgoers to leave any church which uses the term “social justice” due to it being a perversion of the gospel, Wallis arguing that many churches, including evangelical and protestant, see social justice as central to the gospel.[1] Few, if any, in this debate deny that God is a just God, nor do many argue that we should not be striving for justice. What Beck sees as communism, Marxism, and immoral redistribution of wealth, Wallis sees as holding the government responsible for the biblical command to meet the needs of “the least of these.”[2] The question becomes then, in what manner should we strive for justice, and also, what actually is biblical justice. This paper will lay out the biblical meaning of justice, illustrating that “social justice” is unbiblical and dangerous to the gospel,  then show that the gospel is the best remedy to man’s physical as well as spiritual needs. The entirety of Scripture will be used to support this, with a special emphasis placed on the gospels and book of Acts.
                Social justice, in one form or another, pervades most everyone here in America. Having the money and means to help others who have less, even movie stars and musicians exhibit compassion for the less fortunate, despite often leading selfish lifestyles. One thinks of Idol Gives Back, a fund raising venture that popular television show American Idol has hosted for several years now. Millions of dollars have been collected through viewer and celebrity donations for starving and diseased children in third world countries.[3] The sentiment to help the poor and needy is nearly universal. One may conclude this must mean helping poor people is a good thing, since God has written the sentiment on the conscience of all mankind. As sinners, however, man is prone to do things God meant for good from a selfish, sinful, and/or deviant motivation. Lance Armstrong and others have appeared in commercials for the organization Stand Up To Cancer, led by media, entertainment, and philanthropic leaders whom cancer has affected. The goal is to raise funds to fight cancer. But the name gives the motivation away. It is all about standing up to, or defeating, cancer, by the power of man’s ingenuity, man’s resilience. It has nothing to do with fighting cancer to overcome the evils of cancer, in order to show that God is the one who is defeating sickness and disease in this world. Rather, unbelievers fight disease for purely selfish reasons- to not get sick or to look caring in the eyes of the world. It isn’t for God’s glory, but for man’s glory.
The grand assumption in all this is that man has a right to life and happiness, an assumption which seems to have crept into the church as well. Even those with generally sound theology, such as David Platt and Francis Chan, have misplaced emphases on providing. In his best-selling book Radical, Platt gives a wonderful presentation of the gospel, but then unfortunately proceeds to make man guilty for eating at Burger King:
Today more than a billion people in the world live and die in desperate poverty. They attempt to survive on less than a dollar per day. Close to two billion others live on less than two dollars per day. That’s nearly half the world struggling today to find food, water, and shelter with the same amount of money I spend on french fries for lunch.[4]   
Platt explains that social justice itself is not the gospel and feeding the poor cannot save, but he does attempt to use passages, such as Mat. 25:31-40, to say that man needs to care about the starving unbelievers around the world. Platt even argues that since Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to sell everything he had, God may literally call some to give every single possession and coin he owns away![5] Yet even Platt admits that this passage, in context, is primarily referring to not trusting in riches, rather than giving all riches away. The problem of course is that if God called one to give all he had away, he himself would become poor and dependent on others for his well-being! The argument refutes itself.
Platt is solid on the gospel, and so is Francis Chan. What then is the real danger if these men want to give money to the poor? Is this nothing more than a minor theological quibble? Certainly not. In Francis Chan’s best-seller Crazy Love, he endorses the example of Shane Claiborne, one who practically replaces the gospel with social justice. Of Claiborne Chan says:
[Claiborne} works to expose structures that foster poverty and to imagine alternative ways to live. They take Christ’s words in Matthew 25:40 literally when He said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Their lives are about loving the very poor and broken in one of America’s hardest cities. They do this in their own community as they feed hungry people, spend time with neighborhood children, run a community store, and reclaim decrepit blocks by planting community gardens.[6]
All of that has nothing to do with the gospel. A pagan could do that, and as stated earlier, they do. That is not the gospel, nor is it the church’s concern. Claiborne has made social justice the gospel, and Chan, misguided on this point of theology, has chosen to commend him.
All this goes back to the fundamental belief that man has a right to life and health. When did God give us this right? Genesis 2:16-17 (NKJV) says, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” From the beginning man was never given life, or even health, as a right. In order to not die, man had to be obedient to God. At the very least it appears that man was required to pass a test in order to live healthily and happily forever. Man did not obey God, and thus earned the wages of sin- death (Rom. 6:23). So if man received what he deserved, which is another way of saying, if man received justice, then man would receive death. Anything short of that, including being alive yet poor, destitute, hungry, naked, and/or sick, is actually receiving grace and mercy. Once this is forgotten, the gospel is easily forgotten. If social justice is defined as deserving to be healthy, always having food, shelter, clothing, and never suffering infirmity, then God must not be a God of justice at all. For how can a good, loving, compassionate, and just God ever allow an injustice? The answer, of course, is that He does not. The alternative is to say that man deserves having their physical needs met, but not their spiritual needs. That salvation from hell is a gift and grace from God, but physical salvation is a denied right. This makes little sense, for salvation from hell is a far greater gift than not being hungry. One cannot be owed food and bread while deserving everlasting damnation from the same God. This is why many who advocate social justice, in order to become consistent, jettison (deny) the gospel itself.  
It is understood that man has no right to steal from another (Ex. 20:15), but that is not because man deserves what he has. Rather, it is because God alone has the right to wound and to heal, to give life and take life (Deut. 32:39), being the sovereign Creator. When man seeks justice, it should be in the name of God, and when man seeks to help those who are in poverty and sickness, it should be to illustrate that God is sovereign over all, and He has the right and freedom to show mercy, including physical mercy, to whomever He wills. It is God’s right, and not man’s, that is being violated, and thus it is God’s right, and not man’s, that should be defended when one is concerned about promoting justice.
Sadly, Christianity today has become enamored with a man-centered view of justice, calling it social justice. Borrowing heavily from Karl Marx, Christians today seem to think that God has given man the right to have enough bread to live, enough clothing to survive the winter. Marx fought against social classes, saying those at the top of the chain tyrannized those at the bottom.[7] A secular book on community counseling which is openly oriented toward social justice says:
Social justice is based on a belief that all people have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of societal resources. When community counselors become aware that their clients are denied these rights, they know that the time has come for environmental intervention in the form of social justice advocacy.[8]
  Some Christians today have transformed that principle into something along the lines of “Believers who have extra tyrannize those who do not have enough when they do not give their extra to the needy.” While the Old Testament frequently speaks of regarding the poor, needy, and the widow (Ex. 22:21; Deut. 10:18-19; 24:17-22; Psalm 82:3-4; Is. 10:1-4; Zech. 7:10), it should be understood that God Himself commanded His people to take the lives of men, women, and children (including infants) of many evil nations, to plunder their goods and ruin their lands so that they were uninhabitable and would not bear fruit, and to leave some alive to be their slaves (Deut. 7; 1 Sam. 15:3; 2 Kings 15:16; Hos.13:16; Psalm 137:8-9).
Further, in the Old Testament Israel alone were God’s people. Yet if Israel were unfaithful, God would often cause them to be poor, needy, sick, destitute, or have foreign nations enslave them. If they were faithful, He would provide them physical blessing in abundance and free them from captivity. It should go without saying that God is not sinning, He is not violating a right of man, when He takes away their health and well-being. God promised to take care of His people, true Israel, forever (Jer. 32:40-41). So it will be argued that the verses in the Old Testament that call Israel to provide for the poor and needy primarily, if not exclusively, refer to the poor and needy of the chosen people of God. The Old Testament certainly did not call for ending world hunger when God specifically commanded His people to destroy other nations, and threatens to take away their own physical well-being if they were disobedient to Him!
Some may argue that under the new covenant, things are different, and God calls us to take care of the physical needs of both believer and unbeliever, since God now saves not only Jew but also Gentile, and we cannot know who the elect are. Some may argue that if we refuse to help a needy unbeliever, that needy unbeliever may very well be the elect of God, bought with the blood of Christ. The problem with this interpretation is that Jesus did not go around, nor did the apostles after Him, meeting the needs of the poor. While there were miraculous healings, they were primarily for Jews, indicating that Jesus performed them to illustrate God’s covenant faithfulness to His people, and not to everyone indiscriminately. In Matthew 15:21-28 we see a Canaanite woman, not an Israelite, come to have her daughter freed of a demon that was oppressing her. Jesus at first refused, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But when he saw the woman’s great faith in Him, he relented and healed her daughter. In the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus does have compassion, but because “they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way” (Mat. 15:32 ESV). He saw their faith first, and then fed. This is the pattern of Scripture. Where there is no faith, Jesus is reluctant (at best) to heal. In Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth He did not do many mighty works because of their unbelief (Mat. 13:58 ESV). This means Jesus did not heal or heal the diseases or feed the hungry because of their lack of faith. This healing pattern seems to continue with Peter and Paul in Acts (Acts 3:6; 5:12-16; 9:34-35, 40; 20:10-12). Note that these are miraculous healings, something we cannot perform today. The purpose of miracles was to validate the one who performed the miracle, showing that God sent him and he spoke the word of God; this is why we cannot perform them today. Their purpose was not to eradicate all sickness and poverty.
Nowhere in the gospels or book of Acts is there found a pattern of Jesus or the apostles feeding the poor, or commanding others to feed the poor or take care of the orphan and widow outside the household of faith. After the church began to grow, Paul commands those in Galatia to do good to everyone, especially to those who are of the household of faith, as opportunity arises (Gal. 6:10). Mark 14 says a woman poured an expensive flask of ointment on Jesus’ head (worth nearly a year’s salary), and some who saw it complained that that money should have been sold and given to the poor. Jesus countered and said the woman had done a good thing; “you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them” (Mark 14:7 ESV). If God commanded His people to take care of the poor, to promote social justice for everyone, this would have been Jesus’ opportunity to give that command. Instead, echoing Paul, He said that they may do good to the poor whenever they want. Is it an acceptable and good thing to meet the needs of the needy? Depending on the motivation, yes, but Scripture gives no command that the cause of “social justice” and “fighting for the rights” of the diseased, naked, and poor be taken up and tacked on to the gospel, or worse yet replace the gospel.
The command of Scripture is to provide for the household of faith, to meet their needs, to take collection for the saints and take care of the elect’s widows and orphans (1 Cor. 16:1-5, 1 Tim. 5, esp. 8-12; Jas. 1:27; 2:14-16). Even the widows of believers were only to be taken care of by the church if they were believers in good standing, “having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work” (1 Tim. 5:10). It should be clear, then, that all passages referring to providing for widows, orphans, and the like, refer to believers only, and then only those of good standing.
The matter of social justice has given rise to numerous heretical theologies, such as the American ‘Social Gospel” movement and modern day liberation theology.[9] Oxford teacher and Old Testament scholar Walter J. Houston proclaims:
The most widespread image of righteousness in the Old Testament is of one who uses economic power to assist the powerless, rather than to enrich oneself….There is a stimulus to the moral imagination of the individual felt through reading and reflection on the Bible, which affects attitude, concern and habitus. However, such a stimulus is only effective if the individual works within a community concerned for the transformation of social life and economic relationships, and willing to work alongside those struggling for justice worldwide, primarily the victims of injustice.[10]
                Clearly, this professor has left the God of the Bible behind. One wonders what Old Testament he has been reading. Righteousness is found in following God, keeping His commandments, and His command was never to assist the economically less fortunate. This theology destroys the gospel, and replaces it with a god who apparently is most concerned that humans get whatever they want and need, since that would simply be justice, what they deserve.
                In conclusion, injustice, if it can be called that, exists because of sin. Sinners mistreat others by stealing, killing, enslaving, and in many other ways. If we want physical suffering to end, we need to preach the gospel. We are free to meet the needs of the poor as we desire, and if doing so in certain circumstances aids the proclamation of the gospel, we should. The gospel is the message God uses to turn sinful hearts into hearts that want to stop sinning and live for true righteousness, and as such, will meet physical needs much more quickly than the world’s social justice “gospel”. Because of the sinfulness of man, man lacks food, shelter, becomes sick, and dies. If we preached this, man would thank God for His grace rather than be angry with God because he didn’t have much food! Many believing families in third world countries, barely having enough food to survive from one day to the next, sleeping underneath the stars, have been changed by the gospel of grace to where they now thank God for His provision!  As long as we tell man they deserve good health, food, a home, and make our primary Christian work providing everyone with these things, we fail to proclaim man’s true need- salvation from hell and sin.                          

[1] Jim Wallis, “Biblical Social Justice and Glenn Beck,” Huffington Post, March 10, 2010. (accessed December 5, 2011).
[2] Jim Wallis, “What Glenn Beck Doesn't Understand About Biblical Social Justice,” Huffington Post, March 24, 2010. (accessed December 5, 2011).
[3] Gil Kaufman, “Gwen Stefani, Pink, Borat Team up For 'idol' Charity Special,”, (accessed December 5, 2011).
[4] David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Multnomah Books, 2010), 108
[5] Ibid. 120-121
[6] Francis Chan with Danae Yankoski, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2008), 160
[7] Barry Loberfeld, “Social Justice: Code For Communism,” Front Page Magazine, February 27, 2004, (accessed December 5, 2011).
[8] Judith A. Lewis, Michael D. Lewis, Judy A. Daniels and Michael J. D'Andrea, Community Counseling: a Multicultural-Social Justice Perspective, 4th ed. (Belmont, CA.: Brooks Cole, 2010), 12
[9] Walter J. Houston, Contending For Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament (New York: T&T Clark Int'l, 2006),4-5
[10] Ibid. 228,230