Should the Church Be Involved in Social Justice (Part 1)?

The Church’s role in society has been a contentious issue for centuries. The role of the Church in society has been an issue of contention for centuries. Is the purpose of the church to transform “the life on earth into the harmony of heaven,” as Walter Rauschenbusch, the champion of the Social Gospel said? [1] Or, is the purpose of the church to “witness to Jesus by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations”? [2]

Fortunately for us, and to God’s glory, the Scriptures answer this question with crystal clarity. So in order to reach agreement with the Scriptures, we must first examine the Old Testament concept of social justice and ask whether this applies to the New Testament Church. Secondly, we must examine the teachings of Jesus, the apostles, and the historical record of the book of Acts to discern what the New Testament teaches about the Church’s role in society.

Old Testament Commands for the New Testament Church? 

The Old Testament is replete with texts that pertain to societal justice, especially in reference to the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the sojourner. Let’s take a brief survey of the Old Testament’s teaching on these matters.

Social Justice in the Torah

Throughout the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible), we can see many references to justice (including its negative, injustice) in society. Leviticus 19:9-18 paints a clear picture of how Israel was to justly live in both social and legal settings:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

This passage succinctly summarizes the Torah’s teaching on social justice within the context of Israelite society. In summary, as the manifestation of their fear of God, the Israelites were to care for the poor and the sojourner, be honest in all their dealings, and ultimately love their neighbor as themselves.

This Torah passage (and there are plenty more) also reveals God’s character as seen through His just Law. It demonstrates how faithful obedience to the Torah resulted in a just life in Israelite society.

Social Justice in the Psalms

The Psalms are the poetic expression of the Torah’s commands and instructions. They reveal the great joy of knowing God and of being in covenant relationship with Him. Again, speaking of social justice within the context of Israelite society, the Psalms proclaim the blessedness of being just. For example, David proclaims in Psalm 41:1-2:

Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the LORD delivers him; the LORD protects him and keeps him alive; he is called blessed in the land; you do not give him up to the will of his enemies.

In Psalm 112, the righteous man who delights in God’s commandments (v. 1) is likewise described in terms of justice (v. 5):

It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice.

Conversely, with justice seen from the negative light (injustice, the unjust), the Psalms reveal God’s judgment and condemnation upon the unjust and the wicked. It is God alone who can and does bring justice upon the unjust; for example, government officials in Psalm 94:20–21:

Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who frame injustice by statute? They band together against the life of the righteous and condemn the innocent to death.

Two verses later (v. 23), the psalmist attributes justice to God Himself. In fact, in the vast majority of uses in the English Standard Version, the noun justice is attributed to the great justice of God Himself, as these additional verses demonstrate:

He will bring back on them their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness; the LORD our God will wipe them out. (Psalm 94:23)

The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. (Psalm 103:6)

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you. (Psalm 89:14)

I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy. (Psalm 140:12)

Similar to the Torah, in the context of Israelite society the Psalms reveal the response of God’s heart to the just character of His people, in likeness with His own character. For the unjust, the Psalms also reveal that God will be the ultimate judge of the wicked. He is the only One to ultimately correct injustice and oppression through His perfect judgment.

Social Justice in the Prophets

The prophets of Israel placed a heavy emphasis on social justice, which makes perfect sense given the context in which they preached. By and large, the prophets were sent by God to call Israel to repent of their wickedness, and to proclaim the judgment of God upon them if they did not. Part of this wickedness included societal injustice, and thus God spoke through the prophets regarding that sin.

Consider the words of Isaiah to the people of Judah:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:16–17)

Certainly, Judah had failed to uphold the Torah’s commandments that mandated acts of justice. The depth of Israel’s sin, especially by the leaders, becomes clear as we read further in Isaiah:

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! (Isaiah 10:1–2)

Israel was held responsible for their national law-breaking, and they were condemned to exile. Yet Isaiah prophesied of the One who would come to establish perfect justice upon the earth: Jesus Christ.

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isaiah 42:1–4)

Most of the prophets speak in the same way, and it would be far too much material to cover here in a single post.

However, there is a prophetic passage that has been used in the past and present by men like Martin Luther King Jr. to promote the church’s involvement in social justice. For example, David Platt preached on the topic of racial reconciliation in the church from this passage at this year’s Together for the Gospel Conference. [3]

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21–24)

Amos was sent to the nation of Israel around 760 B.C. to the northern kingdom of Israel to pronounce the judgment of God upon them for their idolatry and social injustice (Amos 2:6-16). Despite their iniquity and idolatry, the Israelites were still offering hypocritical sacrifices to God, which is the context of Amos 5. Through Amos, God told Israel that their worship before Him is rotten and He does not desire it apart from their repentance as described in 5:24.

Unfortunately, this is perhaps one of the most eisegeted texts in the Bible. It is generally used to support whatever the topic the preacher wants to put forward, and the message becomes “You are or are not doing X, therefore we are hypocritically worshiping God.” That is exactly what happened in David Platt’s message, as displayed by such statements as:

“Our churches can be the most powerful impetus for justice in our culture on the issue of race if we will humble ourselves before God and one another and repent and pray and work together for justice in a way that brings great glory to our God. This is the heart of Amos 5:24… If we want God to be pleased with our worship in our churches, then in what ways might we need to repent and work for racial justice as His people?” [4]

However, there are some major issues with this popular and fanciful application of Amos 5.

First, we must recall exactly the reason for God’s judgment against Israel. He judged Israel through Amos for the active perpetration of the sin of social injustice. God did not rule that Israel was passively not doing something, but rather that Israel was actively doing something wicked; namely, committing the sins of idolatry and social injustice.

Kevin DeYoung summarizes well the problem with this error of eisegesis:

“Amos 5 reaffirms what we’ve seen in the previous Old Testament passages. God hates injustice. But injustice must be defined on the Bible’s terms, not ours [emphasis mine]. Injustice implies a corrupted judicial system, an arbitrary legal code, and outright cruelty to the poor.” [5]

Therefore, to jump from that context and claim that the Church’s sin is inaction in regard to social justice, is to commit eisegesis; it superimposes a contorted view of social justice onto the text.

As in the case of David Platt and others, to use this text to address whatever issue a preacher feels passionate about is irresponsible and ignores the instruction of 2 Timothy 2:15, to “rightly handle the word of truth.” Amos intends to teach us that God hates wickedness and delights in justice, as defined by His Word. Certainly anyone perpetrating injustice cannot worship Him without being a hypocrite, but proper hermeneutics requires an application in line with the original context.

Second, the question must be asked: what is the primary reason the prophets were sent by God to His people? Was it solely for the purpose of social justice? No. Rather, the prophets were sent to address Israel’s idolatry and rejection of God’s Law. Social injustice was the result of this wickedness, but it was not the primary reason the prophets were sent.

There is a more-than-sufficient volume of Old Testament passages that address justice in Israelite society, but more are not needed. Israel and the Church are different entities, and we cannot apply the Old Testament to the Church in the same way it was applied to Israel.

Israel and the Church are Different

Whether a Christian holds a dispensational or covenantal theology, we can all agree on several very important differences between Israel and the Church, as outlined in this table:

Israel

The Church

One ethnic group descended from Abraham (Gen 15:1-21)

The spiritual body of Christ made of people from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9), who are children of Abraham by faith (Romans 4).

Geographically located (Josh 13-22)

Spread around the world (1 Pet 1:1, 5:9)

A theocratic nation and society governed by God’s Law (Exodus-Deuteronomy)

Under various kinds of governments, none of which are in covenant with God or ruled by His Law (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-17)

Under the temporal Mosaic Covenant and the material blessings or curses accompanying it (Ex 19:4-6; Deut 27-29)

Under the New Covenant and the teaching of Christ and the apostles (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 2:42; 2 Pet 3:2)

Possible to be temporally in covenant with God and yet not spiritually in covenant with God (Jer 4:4; Rom 2:12-29)

Only those who are “in Christ,” having been born again by the Spirit, make up the Church (Acts 20:28; Eph 1:3-14; Col 1:15-23)

Though this is a cursory overview, it is fairly clear that the Church and Israel are two completely different entities. Israel contained an entire society and government that were commanded to operate according to God’s Law. The Law (Torah) provided the entire framework and foundation for Israelite society. The Psalms described God’s care for the oppressed as revealed in His Law. The prophets were sent to condemn the Israelites when they broke or forgot God’s Law. Thus, the entire Old Testament fits very naturally into this context.

In contrast, the Church is vastly different. The Church is a spiritual entity, and therefore does not function like Israel. The Church worldwide is not a theocracy. In our own case, as one example, America’s government is not Christian and our Constitution is not a covenant with God. Unlike Israel, Christians do not make up an entire society anywhere in the earth. Rather, as revealed in the New Testament, all Christians live within the society, and most societies are pluralistic at that. Christians do not compose the government and control the laws of the land. Instead, God positions Christians in many different locations, careers, and situations throughout the world; and regardless of their location, all Christians are to live obediently to God’s Word, by the power of the Spirit, within the context of the society in which God has placed them.

In light of these differences, is a grievous mistake to apply the Old Testament Law and Prophets to the Church in the same way they were applied to Israel. It is not proper hermeneutics. The Mosaic covenant is no longer a functional covenant, as demonstrated by Hebrews 8-9. Therefore, the laws that made up that covenant are no longer valid and are obsolete for the Church. Furthermore, as Paul writes in Galatians 3:24-25, Christians are not to put themselves back under the Mosaic Law; this is also reflected in the Prophets.

We must think carefully about the spiritual nature of the Church. We must recognize that these elements of God’s Law – the Mosaic Law and the prophetic condemnations upon Israel for breaking it — do not bind the Church like they did Israel.

Conclusion

We cannot view the Church in like manner as Israel. To do so reveals a misunderstanding about the purpose of the Old Testament Law, and about its relationship to Christians. It also demonstrates a misunderstanding about the role of the Church in society, wrongly equating it to Israel’s call to theocratic social justice. Israel was the entire society, but the Church exists within society. This has resulted in very different marching orders for believers in the Church age. Christ did not command that His disciples be taught to observe the Old Testament ceremonial and societal laws, but rather the commandments of Christ and the apostles (Matt 28:19-20; 2 Pet 3:2).

In Part 2 of this post, we will examine what the New Testament reveals about the mission of the the Church and individual Christians in society. We will discuss the myriad of different ways and callings that God places on the individual Christians that make up the Church. We will discuss how the Church is called to prepare the world for the perfect and just Kingdom of Christ through evangelism and discipleship— all to the glory of God and only by the power of His Spirit. 

 

Sources: 

  1. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic that Woke Up the Church, p. 54.
  2. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? p. 26.
  3. http://t4g.org/media/2018/04/let-justice-roll-like-waters-racism-need-repentance/
  4. Ibid.
  5. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? p. 159.
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