It’s no secret that social justice is a hot topic in evangelicalism, a popular pursuit and also controversial. Some see the renewed emphasis on the poor as nothing less than a rediscovery of a whole gospel. Others worry that an emphasis on social justice distracts the church from the primary role of evangelism. I’m not going to propose a third way between these two poles. I think a concern for the poor is essential to Christianity. And I think saving people from eternal suffering is more important than saving people from temporal suffering. That’s where I stand (and most evangelicals, I believe; the disagreement is in the details).

But I don’t want to settle disputes, real or imaginary. Instead, I want to examine seven major “social justice” passages over the next few weeks. (I’ll try to be concise so you will actually read the posts.) My contention is that these passages say more and less than we think, more about God’s heart for justice than some realize, and less about contemporary “social justice” than many imagine.

The seven passages are: Isaiah 1; Isaiah 58; Jeremiah 22; Amos 5; Micah 6:8; Luke 4/Isaiah 61; and Matthew 25. I know this leaves a lot out, but these seem to be the most commonly referenced sections.  If you want my take on Leviticus 19, Leviticus 25, the concept of moral proximity, and the term “social justice” follow the links in this sentence.

Isaiah 1

The first chapter of Isaiah begins with the Lord’s stinging rebuke of Judah and Jerusalem (1). They are rebellious children (2), lacking in understanding (3). Judah is a “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity” (4). Because of their rebellion, God’s people have been struck down, bruised, bloodied, and besieged (5-8). Of course, God offers the hope of forgiveness and cleansing (10), but the dominant theme in the chapter is one of disappointment. God’s people have been wicked.

How so?

Well, their failure was not for lack of religious observance. They were meeting together for worship and keeping the festivals of the Lord. But the Lord was not impressed. He could no longer endure their iniquity and solemn assembly (13). He had come to hate their feasts and was burdened with their perfunctory obedience (14). The Lord would not even listen to their prayers (15).

Their problem was one that recurs often in prophetic literature: they were getting the details of religion right but not the heart of it. Outside of “church” the Israelites were doing evil, not good (16-17). In particular, they were guilty of injustice toward the fatherless and the widow, the basic categories in the Bible for the helpless and vulnerable (17).

What was the injustice? “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them” (23). It seems the Lord was angry with his people because the leaders were oppressing the weak, taking bribes to side with the rich and powerful instead of treating fairly the orphan and the widow.

As we’ll see in most of these passages, Isaiah 1 is a great example of the Bible saying more and less about social justice than we think.

On the “more” side we see that Jerusalem is called a “whore” because of her injustice (21). Oppressing the poor and the helpless is not a negligible offense. In fact, it renders all their religious obedience null and void. Until they “seek justice” and “correct oppression” God promises that Judah will be “eaten by the sword” (17, 20).

But on the “less” side: notice that the oppression here is not a disparity between rich and poor or even that the poor in society are not taken care of. There are other biblical passages that require the covenant community to take care of the poor in their midst (which may not be identical to taking care of the poor in the entire “mixed” society), but this passage is about oppression, a term not to be equated with poverty.

The injustice was not that there were poor people in society. God’s people were guilty of injustice because they were defrauding the weak and helpless in order to line their own pockets. Specifically, God was angry with the kings because “in the ancient Near East, the concerns for justice, oppression, and the helpless were the special province of the king” (John Oswalt, 99). So God’s desire in Isaiah 1 related to social justice is for Judah’s king (and any other pertinent officials) to stop taking bribes and defend the just cause of the helpless instead of exploiting them. The prophetic rebuke of Isaiah 1 belongs on the men and women guilty of these crimes, but not on every individual, let alone every church, living in a city with poor people.

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31 thoughts on “Seven Passages on Social Justice (1)”

  1. Chad says:

    I really dislike the term “social justice” as it has come to denote some godless humanitarianism. Maybe we should revolt and just use the term justice.

  2. ian says:

    Arguably virtually every westerner is indirectly guilty of oppressing the helpless and vulnerable simply by being consumers. Much of our clothing, electrical goods, tea, coffee, chocolate etc are grown/manufactured so cheaply due to virtual slave labour conditions of the workers. If we as the church are not vocal in condemning these practices, and wherever possible supporting more ethical alternatives then I think this scripture absolutely applies to us.

  3. ChrisB says:

    Ian, it’s like you didn’t even read his piece.

    When a man tries to use the law to sieze a widow’s property and the courts side with him because he’s rich or powerful, that’s the injustice this passage is talking about. Paying the MSRP on a toaster that you know nothing about is hardly the same thing.

    “Much of our clothing…”
    Unless you know which is which, you’re out of luck.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t address the issues you mention, but trying to turn it into “you’re oppressing the poor!” is neither logical nor constructive.

  4. ian says:

    I’m not sure what part I missed ChrisB. The distinction I thought Kevin was making was between oppression and the existence of poor in society and that this passage was addressing the former. My point was that today the issue of oppression is more complex than when this passage was written. Oppression happens as a result of the system we westerners have created and support. You and I may not be intensionally oppressing anyone, but the choices we make as consumers indirectly may be. If we know we can do something about this but we don’t, then surely some measure of guilt lies on us? For example, if you knew that your favourite brand of sports shoes were made by children working 12 hour days in a sweatshop, would that affect your future choices? I hope it would. I know we can’t always know about the origins of our belongings, but there is a lot of information out there if you care to look, my fear is that oftentimes we don’t look because we’d rather not know (out of sight, out of mind).

    Even in cases where it is genuinely difficult to know (you cite clothing as an example), there are often still alternatives. For example I try as much as possible to buy my clothes second hand from a charity shop. This way, even if the items of clothing itself was manufactured unjustly, I know that my money is not going into the hands of the oppressors (plus I get nice clothes for a good price!). This isn’t always possible, and I’m not saying all Christians should do this, it is an example of how there are often ways we can actively “seek justice and correct oppression” even through our shopping habits. Just because there aren’t easy or quick fix solutions doesn’t excuse us from doing nothing.

  5. Keith says:

    Ian, I am in complete agreement with what you are saying. We are all aware in some way that children are working in sweat shops around the world, and our “efforts to avoid” the discovery of that truth leads to oppression. By efforts to avoid, I mean that in some way, we all know that our clothing comes from low paid workers, and we avoid finding out how that happens. How else can we get a t-shirt that comes from cotton picked in a field, then sent to a factory, then woven, then sewn together, put in a box, and shipped thousands of miles, and sold at a store for profit and still only pay $10.00 for it? We all know that there is oppression in the system, to which we are contributing, and we are ignoring it.

    May the Holy Spirit soften our hearts to lives of those who we do not see.

  6. I find the passages on poverty problematic and they have left me quite uncertain on how a Christian should proceed. I agree with you summation of this passage, but Jesus said specifically that he came to preach the good news to the poor. This appeared to be a big thrust in his earthly ministry, so clearly the poor are important to Jesus and should therefore be important to us. On the other hand, when I look at passage like the one that details the rich man and Lazarus, I see that the rich man was condemned because he trusted in his riches, but it doesn’t say its wrong to be wealthy. After all, Abraham was wealthy; Lot was wealthy, as were other Biblical figures. So here’s my thought; I don’t’ see the Bible saying its wrong to be wealthy, but that in wealth, there is the danger that we could rely on it and not Christ. There is also the risk that we will overlook the needs of the poor in our affluence.

    Am I right..or am I off here? I also struggle when the “poor” that I encounter often have big screen TVs, are overweight from eating, (as are the wealthy) and refuse to get a job. I teach in a “poor” area and honestly, I only have about 5 students in my class each year that are truly impoverished. It seems as though there needs to be some discernment between those in true need and those abusing the system. Am I right, or am I being calloused? I’m really wrestling with this issue. Just thought I’d get your insight

  7. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Thanks for the stimulating and friendly debate. I think I’ll post something about this topic of exploitation tomorrow.

  8. Michael Boyd says:

    Looking forward to this series of blog post. This is also a topic I’ve been studying off and on for the past 14 months. There has been much discussion on it and I think it’s a good thing. I know my thinking will be further sharpened through these upcoming post. Thanks Kevin.
    Ian, I agree with you in the things you said. It’s complicated though. I think there is no doubt that there is a lot of bad going on, but it’s hard to know if we’re suppoting it or not. It seems that us Americans by being such big consumers in proportion to the rest of the world have possibly lead to a lot of evil so others can meet our demands. That’s bothersome to me personally. My wife and I watched a documentary on Wal Mart recently that left us never wanting to shop there again because of alleged exploitation by them in the documentary. But, it’s hard to discern whether everything said in it was true and factual.
    My pastor, David Platt, has had a lot to say in this area, and has a new book coming out in May related to this topic.

  9. Andrew Faris says:

    Kevin,

    On a simple exegetical level, I’m not sure I agree. Doesn’t it seem like the issues are hand in hand here? “They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them” seems to indicate oppression by simple neglect.

    I’m generally sympathetic to some of your thoughts here and look forward to the rest of your posts.

    Andrew

  10. Terry says:

    I would love to see you address how the injustice of bribery can be countered in a democratic republic. One former president described our system of funding elections as “legal bribery,” and his description of the process has made me wonder about our system ever since I read his comments. However, I have no idea how to eliminate the temptation to favor one person or group over others that our politicians must face simply because of where their campaign money has come from. We could ban donations to politicians, but then only the wealthy could afford to campaign. It would eliminate potential bribery, but the cost would be fairly severe. Have any Christian scholars ever tackled this issue?

  11. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Good point Andrew. We should defend the weak and stand up for those mistreated. We can do that by speaking out against corruption, pursuing a vocation where we will be able to work for fairness in our laws and in our courts, and by helping individuals God puts before us who would not be able to plead their cause on their own.

  12. David Axberg says:

    Marx called this “scientific socialism.”
    The modern welfare state follows this formula of governance. It steals money from the productive and transfers it to the care of the careless. Where does this wealth go? Toward the gratification of misplaced desires and misplaced faith. Desperate men spend easy money on momentary intoxication, impossible lottery odds, and the toys of manhood found in America’s museums of moral bankruptcy (Pawn shops).
    This creates tension between the productive and the lazy, and that tension can be leveraged by the state to gain more power to manage national disquiet.

    Do not confuse the Govenerment with the Charity and help of the people of God. Kevin if you could discuss the what I believe Jesus taught of giving to the Faithful (the Parable of the Talants). Someone not working should not eat, someone who does not care for his own family is worse than an infidel. I have now rambled alot sorry.
    Looking forward to the coming discussions. Caring for the Poor is not handouts it is growth for the Heart. Your post on the Mission from a couple of days ago illistrates it well.
    Thanks Kevin

  13. John Thomson says:

    I would like to see some discussion of the following:

    a) Israel was a covenant community Ie the church. In fact the church subject to a particular covenant of Law. God’s expectations of Israel were not his expectations of the nations. Nor was Israel called to impose the Law on the nations.

    b) The NT equivalent to Israel is the christian church. Paul asks what he has to do with judging outsiders, his task and that of others is to judge insiders.
    John in turn expresses love in terms of care for those in the christian community.

    I agree with kevi’s opening statement. No christian will wish to do other than good to others. However, is the calling of the church to socio-political action?

  14. Eric says:

    Heather,

    I think you make some very salient points, and I don’t think you are off the mark. The Bible does not condemn wealth per se, but it does issue dire warnings to the wealthy and to those who would objectify and idolize wealth. Dealing with the material provisions that God has given is a heart and conscience issue, and always must begin with the acknowledgement that all things belong to God, and we are merely managers who will be called to account.

    Also, there is no doubt that there are many within the normally quoted poverty figures for a country such as the US that are either not really in poverty, or squander God’s gifts and refuse to make wise and prudent decisions to avoid poverty. While these are not people to despise or ignore, we must balance giving in these situations with other Biblical admonitions concerning stewardship, and the like. As to world poverty statistics, it is very easy to westernize how we feel other people should want to or get to live. I traveled to Malawi, Africa last year to visit my brother and his family while they work in missions there. While possessions are few, most of the people are very happy and don’t know of our constant quest for more and greater comfort. There is no doubt that there is need for care and help there, but the greatest need is for the transforming power of the gospel and Christian discipling so that the people will be equipped to live for God based on Biblical principles of responsibility and stewardship.

  15. Warren says:

    Below is a link to one of the best articles I’ve read on defining the term “social justice”. I hope it adds to the discussion.

    http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/defining-social-justice-29

  16. Joshua Mack says:

    “oppression a term not to be linked to poverty…”

    Except that oppression is linked to poverty.

    In practice it is often linked to poverty. I work with very poor individuals and I don’t have this huge desire that they need to be rich, content, food and housing good, but rich no. Yet, I’ll tell you I just don’t see how you can spend significant time walking with the poor and not see that oppression is a very significant real factor in human suffering and poverty.

    But it is not just in practice that oppression is linked to poverty. In Scriptures as well. Tim Keller notes, “The predominant cause cited for poverty in the Bible is oppression. Indeed, the most common word for the poor in the Old Testament means “oppressed”. Thomas Hanks states that ‘in more than 150 biblical texts oppression is explicitly linked to poverty and is viewed in Scripture as the basic cause of poverty.’”

  17. Kevin DeYoung says:

    The poor can be poor for many reasons. Oppression is sometimes one of them. So, yes, oppression is often linked to poverty. But I said oppression is a term “not to be equated with poverty.” Thanks.

  18. Joshua Mack says:

    That would be a good example on my part of not reading carefully.

  19. Mark Sims says:

    Thanks, Kevin for opening this debate; it is long overdue. I also read and appreciate your effort at defining social justice, which as you say, is bandied about in such a way that anyone who does not support reverse injustice (taking from some to give to others) is hard hearted. Injustice (“social injustice” if you like) is injustice, whether it is the haves taking from the have nots, or the have nots, through government coercion, taking from the halves. Thomas Sowell’s ( a very articulate writer) distinction between constrained and unconstrained visions of justice is at the heart of this matter, but I can’t go further but to say that unconstrained justice is a contradiction of terms, for it is simply injustice effected the marxist way.

    I want to focus on what Ian wrote concerning oppression and exploitation. Ian, your comments demonstrate an ignorance of real life situations as opposed to the fashionable discourse on the subject. I have been a missionary in France for 21 years and for the last 11 have also had a significant presence (3 months/year) through a teaching ministry in Chad and the Central African Republic, two countries on the list of the 10 most impoverished. My wife and I support an orphan and several students in their studies. I mention these last things to say I care about the poor; I have many dear African friends who by US standards are desperately poor.

    However, they are not desperately poor because of western exploitation. The supposed exploitation of workers by western companies is the best thing these people have ever seen; it has raised many, if not from poverty, at least to a lesser poverty. (Of course, I’m not speaking for every company; there are no doubt some who truly exploit the workers.)

    Keith raises the question as to how a t-shirt can be sold for $10 after being made and shipped to America from a foreign country. Does this infer that these companies go over there and force people with a gun to their head to work for them? Think a little! They WANT that job because they have no better. In fact, in Chad and the CAR, there are no other jobs to be had. (See below for the reasons) Making t-shirts at a tiny wage (compared to our standards) gives them a living. It is utterly foolish to insist that foreign workers be paid western wages. First of all, as a society, Americans are the richest people the world has ever known. We are fabulously rich, including most of the “poor” among us. Is our standard of living the only tolerable one? Secondly, the only reason a company does business in a foreign company is to make a profit. We hire third world workers BECAUSE we can pay them less. That is not a sin; it is a blessing to those who are to get those jobs. A Christian business owner can choose to pay somewhat more if he chooses, but the only reason they have a business is to make a profit, and the only reason they resort to third world countries for production is because it is less expensive. As a business owner, you can be generous, but you simply cannot run a business without sufficient profit. Thirdly, if a business were to pay a wage significantly higher than the country’s standard, it would create havoc, but there is not space to delve into this.

    The Africans (and others) ARE exploited, but the source is not western capitalism; it is at least twofold: 1) western aid, and primarily 2) oppression from their own governments. The two are, in fact, connected (I am presently doing an independent study for a doctoral seminar to demonstrate this). In short, western aid is the worst thing that has ever happened to Africa. Africa was much better off 30-40 years ago when financial aid was minimal. As aid has risen, so has political oppression and greater poverty. A number of Africans have written books and papers calling for the end of western aid as part of the solution to their economic woes (see for ex. Dead Aid: Why Aid is not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa by Dambisa Moyo [a black African women with a PhD from Oxford]; See also The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly; The Trouble With Africa by Robert Calderosi) It seems the situation has come to the place where, outside of God’s miraculous intervention, there is absolutely no hope, for beyond the economic and political issues are cultural values that eviscerate any possibility of individuals being able to get ahead.

    Western aid has perpetuated two evils: it has rendered the African dependent on help, so that he does not see himself as capable of supporting himself. At the same time he has been told (by his government and the UN) that he is being exploited by the west, so he carries animosity toward the very ones who are trying to help him. America’s aid all over the world has basically only created enemies. We must forsake our feel good policies based upon our guilt feelings for having so much more and build upon real world solutions that conform to Scripture.

    The second, and greater evil, is that western aid has only succeeded in supporting dictators, enabling them to remain in power. Africa, with almost no exceptions, is led by ruthless men who seek and retain political office for the very purpose of becoming fabulously wealthy through western aid. Their corruption would normally be the reason to vote them out of office. However, that very aid gives them the wherewithal to remain in power against the wishes of the people. The only solutions are bloody, violent overthrown, which is only possible by the military, which, in turn, installs yet another dictator, and the oppression continues unabated.

    Although it may sound pie in the sky, the only solution to these problems is the gospel. That is why I love the gospel, preach it to myself and talk about it and teach it constantly to the French and the African. The gospel will bring about heart changes that will provide for societal and political changes that will allow third world countries to truly improve. Probably THE greatest way for them to know economic progress is to gain the security of publicly declared property rights, which virtually no third world country has. See Peruvian (third world) economist Hernando de Soto’s recent work, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Works in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, which demonstrates that this as the best solution to meet their economic need. As long as third world governments deny their people property rights, there is very little we can do other than preach the gospel and personally help individuals.

    So Ian, Keith, if you want to help the poor, buy that $10 t-shirt. If he could, an African would thank you for it.

  20. Eric says:

    Mark,

    Thank you so much for your comments. They are absolutely spot-on. I have a brother and sister in law in Malawi and they echo those exact same sentiments. A fortunate Malawian finds a job as a security guard for a “well to do” Malawian and gets paid the equivalent of about $6 per month. Do you think he’d like to be able to sew shirts for a dollar a day?

  21. Keith says:

    Mark,

    I appreciate your service to France and the world in the name of Christ. I pray that God blesses you and brings glory to His name through your work.

    In no way did I want to imply that we should not buy the t-shirt, and I am thankful that companies provide jobs for people who would not otherwise have any money or food. I also understand that paying them “western wages” is not reasonable. But I do think that the people that are producing some of our products should not be subject to poverty (and I mean not poverty in relation to America, but in relation to where they live). If they are making our products, products for people who are the riches people in the world, then they should not be subject to slum living (i.e. Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya).

    Again, you make very good points, and I agree with much of what you said. I just wanted to make some clarifications.

  22. Skeeter says:

    Kevin DeYoung, I wouldn’t mind if you could please write about the up coming World Communion of Reformed Churches that will take place at Calvin College in June 2010. The agenda of Social Injustice is huge and very political in nature. It is anti-Capitalism, pro-Socialism. Anti-Masculinity, pro-Feminism with heavy emphasis on homosexuality and even trying to find common ground on abortion. WARC wants to implement the newly written ACCRA CONFESSION, that in my opinion is straight from the pit of HELL and will drive the church over the cliff into socialism and One World Government. Could you please address this? Thanks

  23. Kevin, I was with you until your last sentence in which you “individualize” the entire passage. your use of “Covenant Community” right up until the second to the last paragraph was great. Then you turned on what Noll would God “America’s God”‘s reading of the passage. In fact, Isaiah addresses the community, not just individuals. This sin may have started with the kings, but it has spread to “everyone”. It is now societal, structural.

    I look forward to reading your interactions about social justice, but I hope you will allow that the scriptures are speaking to the community to recognize what is happening in their midst, as a community, not simply how one king treats one poor person.

    Duet 11 also makes it clear that while theoretically there shouldn’t be poor among God’s people, their will be. And as such we have obligations to reflect this reality, respond to it with justice.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>

    I enjoyed the thoughtful input Mark!

    @David, you made a significant mistake in your general biblical wisdom reference. . . 2 Cor Thessalonians 3 says “If a man WILL not work”. . . neither shall he eat.

    In your description, someone NOT working shouldn’t eat? like an old man or a physically handicapped person, or someone who can’t find work? Like a young widow with children?

    can’t/doesn’t and and “won’t” work are two different categories.

    this is a critical distinction. . . .

  24. Mark says:

    An important point that needs to be stressed is that salvation is not just a means of going to heaven but it is a complete heart change and change of life trajectory for the believer. Part of this heart change is that we love the poor the same way God loved the poor. We actually begin to genuinely love the poor. Therefore we cannot take Issiah’s charges too individually, they effect the whole community of faith. Historically, evangelicals have been very good at helping the poor if it meant providing food, clothing or even building a home after a storm etc. Evangelicals have been good at providing things like education. Where evangelicals have fallen short is challenging systemic issues that cause poverty, like education inequality in the inter-city, racism, distribution of resources, etc. I believe Isaiah gives bible believing evangelicals a mandate to fight the systemic issues as well. I agree that evangelism is a primary goal of the church, but social justice is how the church community lives out their faith. Further, I believe that bible believing evangelicals are in the best position to do social justice, because unlike the liberal social gospel, evangelicals have a full arsenal to attack social ills, the gospel, genuine love for the poor and the belief that their God literally entered history in the flesh as a poor person born in a feeding trough. If that does not prove that God loves the poor nothing does.

  25. John Thomson says:

    The case for involvement in social justice may be right but if it is it cannot be based on Isaiah’s call for social justice in Israel for the simple reason that OT Israel is a paradigm of the people of God not the world. The NT equivalent is the church caring for the widow and orphan in its midst.

  26. Bradley Bessell says:

    Calvinism seem to me to have historical predisposition toward the exploitation of the poor and oppression. The puritans invaded and stole Native American land on the basis of being ‘elect’ and chosen to inherit the land as kind of new Israel and creators of oppression in South Africa where all Dutch Calvinists and created apartheid on basis of election and Africans being children of Ham.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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