Should Evangelicals Use the Term Social Justice?

As a follow up to my two posts on the Kingdom of God and social justice, I want to briefly raise the question of whether we as evangelicals should use the phrase “social justice.” Please note that the issue is not whether evangelicals should be involved in social action; my two previous posts should make it clear enough where I stand on that.

But what about the expression “social justice”? While I am not ready to say evangelicals should completely abandon the phrase (though it might be warranted), I want to raise several concerns that we must think through when using the expression.

1. What do we mean by “justice”? Justice is one of those terms that seems self-evident, until we begin to press a bit harder. Whose idea of justice do we mean? What does the implementation of justice look like? Does it mean the redistribution of resources to ensure each has the exact same? What does Scripture say about justice? How much can we expect our efforts at justice in this life to match God’s standards for justice.

2. The flexibility of the term. The term is used by so many people from so many different perspectives with so many different agendas that it can be used in almost any cause: ending the global sex trade, poverty relief, debt relief, providing clean water, education reform, healthcare reform, gay rights, abortion, job training, welfare, environmentalism, etc. If you are really curious, check out this link, where there are multiple definitions of “social justice” by various folks. When a term is so broad as to include so much, I wonder just how useful it is.

3. What about mercy? In the midst of an emphasis on “justice” we must never lose sight of mercy. Strict justice in some situations would preclude the opportunity for people to experience mercy. Many of the people who need the kind of ministries that fall under the umbrella of social justice desperately need mercy. They need someone to help them even though they deserve no help because they are in a situation of their own making.

Isn’t the beauty of the gospel that justice and mercy meet in the cross (reflect on Rom 3:21-26)? So as believers we should be those who seek to show the mercy of Christ who suffered the justice that was due to us.

So should we abandon the expression “social justice”? Perhaps. In some cases it has the great potential to muddy the waters. I understand the desire to use common expressions as an attempt to build bridges. But at what cost? And can we not continue to work to show mercy and work for justice without using the expression “social justice” with its potential to mislead? At the end of the day what matters is that our actions adorn the gospel of Jesus Christ and are an outworking of the justice and mercy that we have received at the cross

2 thoughts on “Should Evangelicals Use the Term Social Justice?”

  1. Dr. Harmon,

    Thanks for this series. I linked to your your theses on my blog and they were well-received by a couple of commenters.

    Here’s where I’d say the term “social justice” is helpful. While mercy and charity are not owed, social justice is owed to those who are oppressed or lack opportunity. So charity would be sending aid to a poor farming family in the Third World, while social justice would be working to change policies that suppress the prices for their goods (like agricultural subsidies) and help to keep that family poor. Charity would be helping a prisoner reintegrate into society, while social justice would look at prison policies that don’t seem to work (like Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship work). So, for me, social justice involves making social systems more just. But as you point out, it’s still more nebulous. Faithful people can and do often disagree on the solutions to those justice problems.

  2. The concept of Justice in the bible should not be confused exclusively with equality or equity. The concept of Justice flows from God’s attribute of righteousness in his dealing with us through his attribute of Justice. Hence the death of Christ as a reflection of the just nature of God as he relates to us. The question of social justice and the fair treatment of the oppressed is also flows from God’s attribute of being just. A just God requires justice not only amongst his people but also from his created order.

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