Holding the Right Kind of Basket: A Discussion of Christian Social Justice

If this world is going to hell in a hand-basket, should Christians be the ones holding the handles? Or is fighting satanic forces every step of the way a false calling?

I raise these questions because of the current debate found within the Christian church regarding social justice. There are those that take the stance that Christians should not be involved in attempting to right social wrongs. That the Christian is only supposed to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. “We are about saving souls, stupid. Not realigning the deck chairs on the titanic!”

A very notable preacher and president of a particularly prestigious Christian seminary holds this particular opinion with great conviction. He argues that even though Jesus faced a host of social injustices in his day, the Lord’s approach was to “[preach] the good news of forgiveness and salvation…Politics and social activism are not the answer…we should focus on those things of eternal value.”[1] Let us take this statement at face value for a moment (we will return to the conclusions you may draw from it later). Obviously, this man believes that proclaiming the gospel is a good thing (no denial here!), but there seems to be a disdain towards “political” or “social” justice. Why?

Some of this requires a bit of a history lesson, but rather than delving into a boring (to some, not to me) discussion about what took place in the past that helped form this ideology allow me to give you a brief summary. During the 20th century there was a sizeable movement within the Christian community that put more stress on addressing the needs of the poor and downcast in society, but in so doing they shortchanged sharing the gospel. The gospel of God become of secondary importance. Or to put it another way, “Loving the neighbor” took on greater significance than “Loving God.”

That last statement may seem a bit confusing, because a person may wonder how in the world sharing the gospel is really about “loving God?” Here’s the crux of it, “Salvation is not as much about people as we may like to suppose. Rather, the gospel is first and foremost about glorifying God, exalting His Name above all others. The purpose of the gospel is all Hail Jesus! True if you listen to His voice, you will be saved. If you follow Him, you will find peace and rest. If you honor Him, you will inherit eternal life and become joint heirs for all eternity. All of those wonderful truths are real, but they are only the secondary outcome to what the gospel is truly about. The gospel is about the honoring of the Triune God of Scripture. A recognition if you will of the great and glorious and awesome Creator and Sustainer of all.

The liberals of the twentieth century found giving someone a cold cup of water, offering clothes to those need and visiting the poor in prison (a euphemism for loving your neighbors) as superior to all that messy business of telling the people the truth that they are at base sinful creatures destined for all eternity as an outcast. In reaction to this, the conservatives (fundamentalists/pietists/etc.) denounced any and all forms of social justice. The pendulum swung in the other direction, where sharing the gospel was heralded as the truly spiritual position. Add in a bit of end times skepticism and ta-da any pursuit that isn’t evangelistic (in a very narrow sense) is seen not only as a waste of time, but wrong.

Thus, you get comments like these by well-meaning Christians: “The social gospel [justice], on the other hand is an attempt to appease the world and the culture by encouraging Christians to adopt political social justice ideas through the guise of ‘gospel mandates…Nowhere in Scripture…the gospel isn’t found in politics…in social justice. The gospel is found only in Christ who was crucified on our behalf so that we could live, and there is but one gospel mandate.”[2] Thankfully, not all Christians share this mindset. Actually, neither does Scripture or Christ, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Actually, “scripture and history are not on [their] side. The gospel entered a non-Christian society and transformed it. We may live in a post-Christian world, but it wouldn’t take much time or effort to reverse it.”[3] History shows the reforming efforts of the Christian worldview put into practice. While, our nation may have a bloody past in removing the tyranny of slavery England did not. William Wilberforce a Christian member of parliament made it his life goal to see black chattel slavery abolished in his nation. Right before he died his Christian battle for social justice was realized and the hateful practice was finally done away with. In the 19th century Christians fought against and ended the practice of abortion using political, journalistic, and pastoral avenues.[4]

Of course, now is when the tide seems to turn back towards the favor of those who believe Christians should only be concerned about evangelism (the gospel) and not justice (social/political). They argue, “Yes, but now look at how things are. History may say something different, but here we are again!” Okay, I suppose then we could argue that God was a fool for righting the wrongs in the nation of Israel during the period of judges. Things kept getting worse, but God kept putting His nose into a helpless and hopeless situation. And if we’ve gone that far, why not go a little farther. Jesus was likewise just as stupid! He ate with outcasts (sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes and the like), He healed on the Sabbath which was a breaking of that societies tradition (Luke 6.6-11) and He allowed those who were hungry to eat when those in authority frowned on such practices (Matt 12.1-8).

The blinders that we wield are truly amazing. How do we not see that when Jesus challenged those traditions (oral laws), he was fighting for social justice. Part of his preaching the gospel was not only a call to repentance, but an acknowledgment of the rule of God (i.e. the Kingdom of God is at hand, near, in your midst).  You see, “True spirituality is the Christian faith manifested. Jesus exhibited His love for the world in deeds of love and righteousness.”[5]

Now in closing I want to deal with two errors in logic I see Christians using when they argue; 1) That Christians should be about the gospel and not social justice, 2) Jesus was not a reformer.

The first is an argument that pits the gospel against social justice. The arguer states that Christians can and should only be concerned about the gospel, not social justice. It’s a simple either/or fallacy[6] which is akin to the phrase “My way or the highway” an ultimatum that ignores any other possibilities. The simple fact of the matter is that the gospel proceeds any and all forms of true social justice. A redeemed person is driven by the love of God and therefore wants to do right in His eyes and for his/her neighbors (even enemies). The gospel comes first as a heart changer, but a changed heart then moves to do what is just and good, imaging the God who created Him.[7]

The second is driven by an argument of silence, not to mention it ignores the historical status of Israel as Roman captives and the reform that Jesus did start to bring about during his earthly ministry. Arguments from silence don’ t prove anything. Here is a simple way of recognizing the folly of this position. Jesus did not marry or have children, he did not start a business or open an orphanage, Jesus did not leave his country to go on mission trips either or own a home. What Jesus did do was apply the precepts of God’s Word to everyday life. Scripture commends all these activities and many more things not mentioned in the life of Jesus.

Here’s the conclusion:

Social justice is not primarily about saving souls but doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord. Had Christianity taken the position historically that many privileged Americans hold today, then things like slavery, abortion or governmental tyranny would never have been opposed. Many who oppose any form of political involvement, the establishment of ethical norms, and justice for the poor, are living off the backs of previous generations of Christians who held an entirely different view. If this world is going to hell in a handbasket, Christians should not be the ones holding the handles, but fighting satanic forces every step of the way.


[1] John F. MacArthur, “God, Government, and the Gospel: How Should Christians Think About Political Activism?” in Right Thinking in a World Gone Wrong: A Biblical Response to Today’s Most Controversial Issues, Nathan Busenitz, ed. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2009), 125, 126. MacArthur is the president of the Master’s Seminary, host of the radio program Grace To You, and pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.

[2] News Division, “How the Social Gospel is Becoming the Dominant Theology in Evangelicalism,” Pulpit & Pen (blog), modified April 28, 2018, http://pulpitandpen.org/2017/03/16/how-the-social-gospel-is-becoming-the-dominant-theology-in-evanglicalism/.

[3] Gary DeMar, Myths, Lies & Half Truths: How Misreading the Bible Neutralizes Christians (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2004), vii.

[4] George Grant writes, “Like so many times before, the dark specter of death cast a long shadow across the American landscape during the nineteenth century. And like so many times before, faithful followers of Christ rose to the occasion to defend the needy and the helpless with their very all-in-all…they demonstrated in word and deed that every human being is made in the image of God and is thus sacred.” George Grant, Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers, 1991), 21, PDF e-book.

[5] DeMar, Myths, Lies & Half-Truths, 20. Italics in original.

[6] Fallacy of bifurcation which ignores all possibilities and limits them to two.

[7] The gospel versus social justice may also be seen as a category error. This is more than likely brought about because Christian conservatives today have allowed those from a more theologically liberal bent to define the phrase social justice into social gospel. The gospel is a different category than social justice. The gospel is about heart reformation derived from the good news of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Social justice is about reforming the errors of injustice and evil and replacing them with godly good.