Did Jesus Teach Social Justice?

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:

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.

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