Did Jesus Teach Social Justice?

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social justiceSocial justice has been a controversial topic in Christian circles for several decades. Part of the controversy is whether or not Jesus taught His followers to practice social justice.

As with many Christian debates, there are two main sides to this issue… and as with many Christian debates, I hold to a third position. Let me review the two main positions on social justice, and then present my own view.

1. The Gospel Leads to Social Justice

First, some Christians say that social justice is a perversion of the Gospel, and that rather than seek to engage in social justice issues, we should instead just preach the Gospel. They say that no amount of helping people will transform society and bring justice to the world, unless it is first founded upon Jesus Christ.

People’s lives cannot be truly transformed, they say, until they submit their lives to Jesus Christ, and adopt the values of the Kingdom of God.

Furthermore, these churches argue that we should not be wasting our time on social justice issues until people have heard and accept the Gospel. “What good is it,” you might hear them say, “if a person has a full belly but is still headed for hell? People still go to hell whether they are well-fed or not.”

2. Social Justice is at the Center of the Gospel

On the other side of the social justice debate are those who argue that social justice issues are at the center of the Gospel, and that as we look at the life and ministry of Jesus, we see Him engaged in social justice actions at every turn. He feeds the hungry. He defends the oppressed. He stands up for women’s rights. He loves the outcast, the despised, the rejected, and the sinner, and calls on the rich and powerful to give their money to the poor and take of the needs of the helpless.

While this second group usually agrees that feeding the poor and defending the powerless will not “get them to heaven” they argue that getting people to heaven is not the only goal of the Gospel. You will often hear them say, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” and “The way to a person’s heart is through their stomach.”

Social Justice and Jesus

Where do I stand on these issues?

Personally, I think that most of the problem lies in the term “social justice” itself. It is not that the term is wrong, it’s just that the term “social justice” means different things to different people, and so even if two groups of people are arguing about “social justice,” they may not be arguing about the same thing.

So my view is that we should stop talking and arguing about “social justice” and instead, just try to follow the example of Jesus.

Ah, but there’s the rub. What exactly did Jesus teach regarding the message of the Gospel, and what exactly did Jesus do regarding the needs of the people of His day?

social justice and JesusA full explanation would take a full book, but let me see if I can summarize three of the highlights:

  1. The mission and message of Jesus is pretty clearly summarized in Luke 4:18-19. He wants to give sight to the blind, liberty to the captives, and deliverance to the oppressed. If we look at the actions of Jesus throughout the Gospels, He did these things both spiritually and physically.  Sometimes Jesus met people’s physical needs before He addressed their spiritual needs, and other times He addressed their spiritual needs first.
  2. Jesus was not into free handouts. Yes, Jesus gave free meals and free healthcare to people. But notice a few things about these events. First, the people He is helping are almost always people who are following Him or who have sought Him out in some way. When He feeds the five thousand, it was because they had been listening to His teachings and He had gone on so long that they all became hungry and had not brought any food. The vast majority of these people were not homeless. They were not unemployed. They just forgot to bring food. Later, when word gets around that Jesus was giving free meals, and people started showing up just the free stuff, Jesus pretty much chased them away (cf. John 6).
  3. Jesus never called on the government to provide free stuff. Not once did Jesus ever call on the Roman Empire, or the local Israelite authorities to raise taxes so that the poor and unemployed could be taken care of. Taking care of the poor and needy in the community was a priority of Jesus, but He never saw this as the responsibility of the government. Taking care of the poor and needy in the community was the responsibility of the individual person, or of local groups.

social justice and the churchSo when it comes to Jesus and His Gospel message, I don’t think He would side with either of the two main groups in the social justice debate.

On the one hand, helping the poor and needy was indeed a priority for Jesus, and sometimes He helped people whether or not they believed in Him for eternal life and became His followers. Sometimes He helped people just because they needed help.

But on the other hand, Jesus was not a proponent of trying to legislate morality, of trying to get people to do what is right through higher taxation and passing laws. Jesus did not put much faith in human government to fix what was wrong with the world. Fixing the world, helping the poor, and defending the oppressed was His job, and the job He passed on to those who follow Him.

And fixing what is wrong with the world means looking not just at people’s spiritual needs, but also their mental, emotional, psychological, and physical needs as well.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a full-orbed Gospel which addresses all of humanity’s needs, and which He wants the church to spread throughout the world, and on their own initiative, not through taxation or legislation from the government. A church which calls on the government to take care of the needy in our community has surrendered–not to Jesus–but to the state. Helping the needy in our community is the job of the church; not the state.

Of course, as long as we spend all our money on lavish buildings, state-of-the-art soundboards, pastoral salaries, and excessive programming, we will have no choice but to ask the government to do what Jesus has called us to do all along.


This post was written as part of the October Synchroblog, where different bloggers around the world were invited to write about the topic of the social justice in today’s world. Here is a list of other contributors:


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Comments

  1. Sam says

    In addition to yesterday’s post and my response to the comments there, I will point out the obvious. Jesus told us to love others (neighbor), and that doesn’t include sitting in our warm, dry, lofty cathedrals while we know there are folks lying naked, cold, sick and bleeding alongside the road down the street from the our cathedral.

    We’ve decided taking care of the people alongside the road is the government’s job or someone else’s job. Oh yes, those people got themselves into their predicaments, so let’s just let them stew in their own juice, as I’ve heard often said.

    Religion passes by the fellow on the side of the road, passes on the other side. Jesus and loving neighbors bind up his wounds, put him up at the inn and see that he is taken care of. But wait, those people taking care of him have the wrong religion. It’s “social activism”. Everyone knows one must practice religion as we do. This Jesus fellow is obviously Satan himself. He commends these half breeds who take care of beaten, needy people by the side of the road. Let’s ignore him. Better yet, let’s eliminate him from our religion. And so we more or less have.

    • says

      Strong words! But true. It is amazing how often the church condemns as “Satanic” that which might actually be Jesus doing what He is trying to get the church to do as well. Sometimes, I think Jesus “shames” the church by getting our “enemies” to do the things the church should be doing, but isn’t doing.

  2. says

    I guess that my belief about government playing a part in providing social justice is partly due to the fact that according to Paul, government is “ordained by God” (Romans 13:2) to promote justice, restrain evil, and protect the people under its care (Romans 13:3-4). But even if you take away what Paul has to say and leave me with only what Jesus has to say I would still have to come to the conclusion that as a person of faith I would need to support government programs that help the needy, sick and poor … the orphans and the widows … those who are oppressed and marginalized by the majority and the rich. Anything less convicts me that I am seeking to set up a system that doesn’t take those people, the ones that Jesus showed compassion to, into account.

    • says

      Liz,

      Yes, I agree that government can help take care of the poor and needy and there is biblical basis for it. But I think sometimes we say that since the government is doing it, we don’t have to. That is the danger.

      Ideally, it should both-and.

  3. texassooner says

    My problem with Jeremy Myers comments above is that it is almost entirely from the position of silence. Jesus didn’t command governments to feed the poor. True. But, Jesus never tried to define any role of government. It wasn’t Jesus’ goal. Paul barely did. (Romans 13) The NT didn’t have the goal of defining government. But you can’t argue that because they were silent then it meant that government helping the poor is somehow wrong. Yet, that is the very logic of Myers’ comments under “my opinion.” Therefore, Myers opinion doesn’t clear up anything.

    • Ward Kelly says

      I think the reason why Jesus and Paul don’t go into depth in describing what their exact role and function of government should be is because If Christians are relying on God, and functioning as the church, there will be little need for a strong government. This is also why the founders set up the USA with a constitution of “negative” liberties as apposed to a charter of “positive” deliniated actions of a government. They felt that America would only function as a small government constitutional republic if people were a functioning, moral, Christian people.
      For me the term “social justice” is a charged and negative term with many people who are less than godly associating themselves with the movement. Meeting the needs of the poor in society should be married with the sharing of the gospel…the two are not mutually exclusive.

      • says

        Texas and Ward,

        Yes, I think Ward pretty much shared my view as well. I don’t mind the government helping when and where it can. It should do so. But we must not think that their aid gets us off the hook, or that our taxes is all that is necessary to help the poor and needy in our community.

  4. William Deyerle says

    I believe that Jesus expects the body on earth to both spread the Gospel and seek justice. I believe that Christians are called to love unconditionally, and I find it impossible to believe that love does not compel one to assist those in need of assistance. I also believe that citizens in a democratic republic have a responsibility to support government attempts to meet the basic human needs of the destitute.

    I find it very frustrating that when my fellow evangelicals discuss social justice,the discussion usually degenerates into a debate between those who support government transfer payments to the poor and those who oppose such payments,
    with no discussion of the pervasive and ever increasing structural injustice that is the root cause of most of most of the poverty in our extraordinarily high per-capita GDP nation.
    The structure of the market largely determines income distribution. National internal
    markets are structured largely by national governments, and international markets are structured transnationally by agreements between governments. As a general matter, whether structuring internal or external markets, government policy makers are quite sensitive to the interests of the most powerful players. And the players who make the rules, usually win the game.. Again, as citizens of a democratic republic, I believe that Christians blessed to live in the United States have the power, and I believe the moral responsibility, to demand better of our elected representatives. What do you think?

    • says

      William,
      YES, YES, YES!

      You are right on!

      I really loved what you said about how the debate among Christians degenerates into arguments about government social welfare programs. I am convinced the only reason the government got into “social justice” in the first place is because the church has been neglecting its responsibility to take care of the needy in our community as Jesus called us to do. Instead, we pour all this money into bigger buildings, newer soundboards, etc.

      • Sam says

        “This was our tenth cruise in seven years. The Baltic is wonderful in the spring. We probably won’t be taking another cruise this year, however, since we’re completely remodeling the inside of the house and we both need new cars. Arthur’s always wanted a sports car” Blah, blah, blah. That is a summary of many similar conversations I’ve heard between Christians, each trying to outdo the other with what they’re buying with their money.

        “If we’re going to attract the kind of people we want to our church we need to spend some money to make it more attractive.” That is an exact quote I heard from a pastor when I was on a church board not that many years ago.

        As a very wise man I once knew said “We always think the things other people spend their money on are foolish, but that the things we spend our money on are necessities”. I agree. Nevertheless, as individuals and groups those of us who follow Jesus should do our best to plan our lives so that we may share what we have with others. It’s not really ours anyway. We’re just temporarily using it. Soon it will be someone else’s. Does a person who lives under a bush deserve it less than cruise companies and sports car companies? – Many seem to think so.

        • says

          Yes, that resembles many of the conversations I have overheard myself … and sometimes find myself participating in. You make a great point there at the end about who deserves our money.

  5. William Deyerle says

    Jeremy and Sam,

    Right On!

    Thanks for commenting. While a college student in the Seventies, I was part of a house church called West Salem Christian Community Church (aka First Church of the West End Space City Burnouts).. We preached the gospel and loved the people Jesus placed in our paths. All of us were young, none of us were rich and some of had severe cash flow problems. Yet I do not recall a lime when we were not able

    • William Deyerle says

      (continued) able, through individual or collective effort, to meet the most pressing material needs of people we encountered. Astonished by God’s often miraculous grace in these matters, I commented to a dear friend and brother that that if the Church really behaved as the body of Christ on earth, there would be little need for government transfer payments. I made that statement thirty-six years ago, and I believe that it is true today. .

      I am currently blessed to be part of a small Church that meets in a small rented warehouse space. Our pastors are an extraordinarily gifted married couple, and our senior pastor holds a full time job. Because our overhead costs are low, we are able to support missionaries throughout the world, Because our members are active, we are able to finance and engage in a variety of evangelistic, educational and justice ministries locally, and to partner with local congregations in many parts of the world. God continues to truly bless us.

      Grace, peace and much love,

      Bill

  6. Megan says

    The Greek word most often translated “love” in the New Testament is agapē. But agapē is not “love” devoid of conditions! Even a casual reading of the NT reveals numerous conditional statements relative to relationships and love.
    Unconditional love is not a biblical word. Pop Christian culture has disregarded the truth for a feel good/politically correct attitude and the church will suffer the consequences for its disobedience to a Righteous God.

    “Christian” organizations (like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services, World Relief) have abandoned Jesus command to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”. They don’t want to offend other cultures. They get BILLIONS from the American Taxpayers.

    In 2011 Lutheran Social Services(Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services) one of the largest Social Justice, Government funded, resettlement agencies, revenue was $31,653,748 of which $30,376,568 (96%) was taxpayer money. Their CEO was paid $204,186 in salary and benefits.
    Catholic Charities–US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the largest of all the federal refugee resettlement contractors reported revenue $72,102,484 included $66,723,452, which is approximately 93%, from federal funding.
    All of the Resettlement agencies have abandoned all efforts to evangelize refugees in favor of Government money.

    When money becomes the motivation everyone loses. Good works/Social Justice mean nothing without the boldness of spreading the gospel. Civilized society falls apart without Christ. And the worst part is that the church is neglecting believers (like Christian Latinos and the persecuted church) and those are the people we are commanded biblically to care for– “Feed MY sheep”–not people who have, OVER and OVER AGAIN seen the goodness of Christianity and have still rejected Christ in favor of a religion that has declared Jihad against the very people who are helping them. These are the people our country has granted a pathway to citizenship, paid for educations, school meals, medical care, food stamps, housing for the 10 children of the 4 wives each man is married to (3 wives benefit as unwed mothers-as polygamy is illegal).

    Meanwhile, I personally know of over 50 non-minority small business owners in my state bringing home $30,000-$170,000 who were audited and each made to pay the IRS $10,000-$300,000. These are middle class, American, Christian, law abiding family people who have never received ONE government handout. Cleaning ladies, Real estate agents, Dentists, Insurance agents, Mechanics, Daycare Providers. They are the bookkeepers, marketers, managers, and sales people in their small businesses. How are they expected to wade through an IRS code that is thousands of pages long? The IRS uses it’s own discretion in each and every audit. One family might owe thousands for the very same thing that the IRS decided was no problem for another family. Each of these good people took out loans or used savings and paid the IRS every cent. And we all stand back and watch as corrupt “social justice” “non profits” lobby the bureaucrats for more money and the government squanders our hard earned dollars.

    Whenever and wherever, throughout history that the Gospel has spread and Christ has become Supreme, prosperity and civility has ensued. There is a direct correlation between 3rd world countries and the rejection of Christ and the slaughter of Christians.
    Yes we are called to love. But we are called to TRUTH-honesty, righteousness, sexual morality, humility, repentance, faithfulness goodness, kindness, diligence, generosity, self-control, and integrity. Our government is not about Truth. They should not be in the business of Social Justice. Only the true humility of FOLLOWING Christ can combat the corruption of humanity.
    (2 Chronicles 7:14) If MY PEOPLE who are called by MY name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

    • says

      Great points, Megan. I pretty much agree with you. I too am saddened at how most Christian ministry today seems to focus primary on getting and spending money than on much else.

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