Are We Becoming A Social Justice Church? (Part 2)
(This is part two in a 3 part series to answer to this question. Click here to read the last installment and check back in next week for part 3 where I’ll attempt to parse our role as a church in the midst of the social justice culture war).
God Is Just
Theology is thinking God’s thoughts after him. I’ve come to appreciate that statement more through the years of doing this work. Theology, properly understood, doesn’t lead to puffed up arrogance but deep humility. The deeper one studies, the more a person realizes what they don’t know. This is a cherished gift — deep humility in never mastering theology but always being mastered by it. The terminal degree for most pastors is a Master of Divinity; which is comical and ironic when you consider what we’re supposed to be masters of. If God could be mastered, we would have no need of him. Yet, in this humble endeavor of doing theology we come to find certain truths about God that illuminate his character and his nature. We refer to God’s character and nature, generally, as the attributes of God.
When we speak about God’s attributes we are talking primarily about the characteristics and qualities essential to understanding God as he relates to his created beings. Namely, because God is unknowable, we only know what he’s like by how He chooses to reveal himself. This is part of the doctrine of revelation—God cannot be found; He must reveal himself. In this revelation one of the primary ways we come to know what God is like is through the attributes of justice and righteousness.
Christians for over two millennia have declared God as Just. This means that he is infinitely and eternally right while never giving sin, nor injustice, a pass. God is the standard for righteousness and stands against all unrighteousness. For Justice to be at the core of God’s being means that God is perfect and executes all his ministrations and relationships with fair treatment. Humans may acquit themselves or one another and avoid the fair treatment their actions merit. God can do no such thing. He must act in accordance to who he is—just and right.
Justice and Righteousness
Did you pick it up? It’s subtle and I’m not always the best at explaining but there is a subtle but crucial reality to justice—Justice is closely linked with Righteousness. It is difficult to describe how God is without also describing how he acts. Both attribute and action are important. When it comes to how the Bible describes justice this is also true.
The Hebrew root word for justice is mishpat. It occurs over 200 times in the OT and carries the sense of protection, care, and punishment. When you look at mishpat and its cognates we get the idea that throughout the OT the word comes to mean the following: acquitting or punishing on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong deserves the same punishment. Mishpat is social, collective, and fair.
The Hebrew root word for righteousness is Tzadeqah. In the OT it carries the sense of being just and/or being righteous. When you look at tzadeqah and its cognates we get the idea that the word comes to describe a righteous life of right relationships that includes personal righteousness and private righteousness. It colors a pious daily living of God’s people in fairness, generosity, and equity towards all — but in particular towards the poor and societally weak.. Tzadeqah is individualistic, corporate, and active.
When taken together these two Hebrew roots form a composite picture of what the Bible understands as Social Justice. We might summarize this way: Equitable treatment of all, particularly the poor and weak, and personal righteousness that induces being righteous towards all —regardless of station.
God’s standard of justice includes our personal righteousness and our personal righteous actions. In the following passages you’ll see that God does’t limit mishpat and tzadeqah to the personal realm. He applies it to persons and peoples, collectively. Consider the following passages:
God’s Just Will For Abraham
For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice… - Genesis 18:19
Exodus 22-23 - Laws on Social Justice for All of Israel
You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit […] You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. - Exodus 23:2-3; 6
Israel’s Just Treatment of Outsiders
He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. - Deuteronomy 10:18–19
King David’s Just Reign
So David reigned over all Israel. And David administered justice and equity to all his people. - 2 Samuel 8:15
Justice Better Than Sacrifice
To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. - Proverbs 21:3
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” - Jeremiah 9:23–24
The Law, Prophets, and Writings all bear witness to the character of God and what he expects of his people. God is just and righteous and acts in accordance with his nature. His expectation is for his people to do that same thing.
Be Just and Do Justice
For these reasons and more, it is important to allow God’s word to speak unencumbered by our social, ethnic, or political lenses. Both in the OT and NT the sense of justice and righteousness hold true for all who would call upon the name of the Lord. And I’m filled with joy when I consider all the ways that our church has been the people of God as God describes. When I consider the work to the poor, widows, children, and outsiders there is a long history of us engaged in this work.
So again, to reiterate from last week, are we becoming a social justice church? No, because we’ve always been a social justice church. We’ve always believed that the only path to true righteousness is through the grace of Jesus and faith in his finished work. We’ve always been a social justice church that takes the concerns of the outsiders seriously and seeks to advocate for the least of these. Can we do a better job of this? Of course we can. And should. There is no finish line here. But God’s people at Fellowship Bible Church Roswell have been engaged in the work. Praise be to God!
Next week, I want to tackle the ways that secular humanism has muddied the water as well as how evangelicals, over the last 200 years have self-inflicted wounds when it comes to mishpat and tzadeqah. That’s for next time.