Social Justice by Raymond Aitchison
by Raymond Aitchison
It is a pity that the response of some evangelical Christians towards issues of social justice and social concern has been so often negative. To some extent this has been a reaction against the emphasis placed in “liberal” circles upon the so-called “social gospel” at the expense of the Biblical Gospel of justification by faith. This does not, however, justify a negative response, which avoids issues instead of facing them. Happily there is today a growing positive attitude among evangelicals towards social concern and social justice, an attitude for which we have outstanding examples in such eminent evangelicals as Wilberforce,Barnardo, George Muller and William Quarrier.
There is no doubt whatever about the clear Biblical injunctions that impose a social responsibility upon the Christian, and especially a concern for the poor and underprivileged (as e.g. in James 2:14-16 and 1John 3:17, and numerous passages in the Old Testament). These do not, however, require us to follow headlong in the train of every person or organization or body of opinion that claims to be promoting social justice. Not only has God clearly imposed social concern upon us in the Scriptures, but in them He has also given us guidelines to direct us.
What, then, is social justice in Biblical terms? “Justice” and “righteousness” are part of a way of life which God expects of us as His people (see e.g. Micah 6:8; Ps. 11:7; 1John 3:7). This stems from the kind of character which we possess, and is in turn the reflection of what God Himself is and how He acts (1John 3:7). Social justice is essentially the outworking of this way of life in our relationships with others. It is thus not an option that we may accept or avoid at our choice; it is a necessary part of our practical Christian living.
What are the Biblical guidelines to direct us? A basic one is Leviticus 19:18: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. This was quoted with emphasis by our Lord on one occasion (Matt. 22:39), and on another occasion gave rise to the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was also reinforced by both Paul (Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14) and James (ch. 2:8). Both our Lord and Paul declared that this commandment summed up the Law. It can therefore be taken to sum up the social duty of the Christian. And its Biblical implications are both wide and demanding. The injunctions in both Testaments to be concerned for the poor and needy, and to be upright. just and merciful in all our dealings with others, are written plain for all to see. Our Lord also summed up social responsibility on another occasion by saying (Matt. 7:12): “All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets.” And the Christian’s social responsibility does not end with his fellow-Christian, though this is his first priority. The example of our Lord Himself, and Paul’s remark in Galatians 6:10. make it clear that this responsibility extends to everybody.
The Biblical directives in respect of the Christian’s individual responsibility are therefore perfectly clear. But how should we react to those (including a number of evangelicals) who are declaring and even demanding that Christians and churches should be actively and publicly working together with others to achieve a “just society” and to address the problem of “structural injustice” (as the popular phrase goes)?
In considering this let us take note of one or two basic issues. First of all, what is a “just society’? Whose concept of such a society are we to adopt that of Marxist ideology or that of the humanistic philosophy of Western liberalism? Both of these differ in certain basic respects from the Old Testament principles of social justice in Israel as these are set forth in the Law and the Prophets. But further: in describing a ‘just society’, are we to confine ourselves merely to socio-political and socio-economic matters and “structural injustices”, or do morals in matters of sex, honesty in business, truthfulness in public statements and in the media, and similar matters, have any place? To what extent are the Ten Commandments, for instance, to be taken into account? Their terms and requirements do not seem to loom very large in the schemes for a ‘just society’ that are being set forth by a number of protagonists of “social justice”. Where does this elusive entity known as a ‘just society’ begin and end?
But there is a still more fundamental question. What is the root cause of an unjust society? Is it essentially the structure of society, or is it the nature of man himself? Marxist ideology and Western humanistic liberalism both have their answers, and these differ fundamentally from that of the Scriptures. This answer states plainly that man is a fallen and sinful being, who is in rebellion against God, and who is by nature incapable of pleasing God (Rom. 8:7,8). His sinfulness will therefore make itself evident, whatever his circumstances may be, and an unjust society is ultimately unjust because man is sinful arid unjust. It is right and necessary that public injustices, which may exist in a given society, should be rectified by those who hold the reins of government and by the members of that society. But merely changing the structure of a society will not finally remove every kind of injustice because it will not change the sinful nature of man. The state of the world in general, and of Africa in particular, bears this out.
God’s way of promoting social justice in this present age is to increase the number of people who pursue justice and righteousness in their social relationships because they have received Christ by faith, and through the indwelling Holy Spirit have been “created anew in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10).
If we are aware that there are existing public evils or injustices in our own society which should be rectified, then it is right, and will commend our Christian testimony, for us to pursue this through the constitutional channels that are available. But let us also at all costs keep our priorities right. Man’s prime need is to be reconciled to God through faith in Christ; and only in this way will the root cause of social injustices be effectively dealt with. Biblical principles of social justice do not require us to “Christianise” society. A comment by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones is to the point here (from “The Christian and the State in Revolutionary Times”). He says, “The world can never be reformed. Never! That is absolutely certain. A Christian State is impossible. All the experiments have failed. They had to fail. They must fail. The Apocalypse alone can cure the world’s ills. Man even at his best, even as a Christian, can never do so. You can never make people Christian by acts of Parliament. You can never Christianize society. It is folly to attempt to do so. I would even suggest that it is heresy to do so. Men must be ‘born again’. How can they live the Christian life if they have not become Christians? Good fruit can only come from a good tree, a good root; and the idea that you can impose a Christian life or culture upon non-Christian people is a contradiction of Christian teaching. Nevertheless, government and law and order are essential because man is in sin; and the Christian should be the best citizen in the country.”
There are those who talk about the “whole Gospel”, by which they mean that social justice is part of its message. This is a misconception. Justification by faith is not half the gospel; it is the whole Gospel. Social justice is an essential part of Christian teaching for those who have first received Christ through faith, it is a necessary by-product of the Gospel, as all Christian character and behaviour is a by-product. It is a result which should of necessity follow in the life and behaviour of the man or woman who has been justified by faith, and who is motivated by the love of Christ wrought by the indwelling Holy Spirit, and guided by the Word of God.