With the recent discussions about social justice on social media and blogs, I submit that the dispute is not about whether Christians should seek justice in society but what kind of justice they should seek. While there may be a historic Fundamentalist impulse which says that Christians should simply preach the gospel and pray for the conversion of souls, ignoring the injustices that take place in society, I am not aware of anyone in this current discussion who is advocating that view. The question at hand is “What constitutes biblical justice in society?” Here are some of the Bible’s categories of justice in society.
The Moral Law of God
The Apostle Paul says, “For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Rom 2:14-15). Note that all human beings “by nature” have the “work of the law” written on their hearts. What law is Paul talking about? He is thinking of moral law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments because he mentions “stealing” and “adultery” in Romans 2:21-22.
God punished pagan societies for violating His moral law, showing that all societies are held accountable for lawlessness. Even pagans know “by nature” (Rom 2:14) not to steal, murder, lie, etc. Old Testament prophets condemned non-Israelite nations for their violations of His moral law (Isa 13-23; Jer 46-51; Ezek 25-32; Amos 1-2; Obadiah; Jonah, Nahum). Clearly, God is concerned with lawless injustices in human society.
The point is that God’s standard of moral law, reflective of the image of God, planted within human nature, further expounded in His Word, and most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, should be the final Christian standard for justice in society.
It is unfair, and even tyrannical, for Christians to adopt any non-Christian definitions of justice and impose them upon others. To do so would be a violation of Christian liberty, which says that we are free from the doctrines and commandments of men. The Bible says, “Where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15; cf. 3:20; 5:13; 1 Jn 3:4). To insist that people are guilty of sin (or injustice) without citing the law that has been breached, and clear evidence for its breach, is to impose a foreign standard upon others, violate Christian liberty, and threaten the unity of the Church.
The Need for Sufficient Evidence of Injustice
Biblical justice requires more than allegations of lawlessness from one person. It requires more than a feeling or sense that an injustice has taken place. One person’s allegation of injustice is indeed evidence, but it is insufficient evidence by itself. Justice requires that all allegations be corroborated, examined against the known facts, and evaluated for consistency, because human beings are sinful, and they lie (Rom 1:29).
Scripture teaches that there must be two or three consistent witnesses of any given instance of sin, never just one witness (Deut 19:15; Matt 18:15-16; Jn 8:17-18). Of course, when the Bible speaks of multiple witnesses, it certainly means to accept any other clear proof or evidence of sin. Pictures, recordings, emails, forensic evidence, etc., are all strong witnesses in their own right. Any sort of evidence should be accepted as a witness to prove an injustice.
But the Scripture also warns against accepting only one human witness (Num 35:30), inconsistent testimonies (Mk 14:55-59), false witnesses (Gen 29:12-14; Ps 35:11; Matt 26:59), as well as hearsay, speculations and opinions (Job 32:3).
In short, true biblical justice in society requires sufficient evidence of alleged violations of God’s law. This standard requires that all allegations be heard and investigated, but it also requires the presumption of innocence until there is sufficient evidence to prove otherwise.
Adjudication by Human Authority
Finally, the Bible teaches that there are appropriate venues in which to evaluate the evidence of injustice and to mete out just penalties. The Word of God establishes human authority, partly for the adjudication of injustice. Romans 13:1 says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Titus 3:1 says, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities.” 1 Peter 2:13 says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” Scripture teaches: husbands have authority in their homes (Eph 5:22); parents have authority to raise their children (Eph 6:1); pastors have authority in churches (Heb 13:17); and civil magistrates have authority in society (Rom 13:4-5).
God established human authorities to advocate for those who are injured by the sinful actions of others. Paul tells us that the purpose of civil government is to be “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). True justice involves careful due process. The role of authorities is to examine and cross examine the witnesses, evaluate the available evidence, and compare it to the standard of just law (which must be consistent with God’s moral law). Then the authorities are to make a judgment on whether an injustice has taken place and assign appropriate penalties. Authorities that fail to administer justice to the oppressed are acting sinfully against their divine purpose.
To be clear, the Bible never gives authorities the right to violate God’s moral law or coerce others through sinful means. God never gives absolute power to human authorities. Human authorities are always accountable to the transcendent moral law of God, which stands above them. If authorities violate just law, then they should be held accountable by other human authorities. Specifically, society should be structured in such a way that no human authority is absolute, but that the oppressed always have recourse to another human authority that has the power to hold them accountable. Horrible systemic injustices occur when authorities cannot be held accountable for their violations of God’s moral law. But God is a just judge who will bring full and final justice when Christ returns.
Psalm 72:1-4 speaks of a just king, the higher human authority, whose righteousness is expressed by crushing the oppressor (the human powers who use sinful coercion to serve themselves). This righteous King is ultimately the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and all righteous authorities follow His example:
“Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice! Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness! May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor!”
On the other hand, the Bible warns against popular uprisings and mob justice. Scripture warns, “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. 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” (Exod 23:1-3). Note that these verses say it is wrong to side with a mob and show partiality to the poor, just as it would be wrong to show partiality to the rich (Jas 2). In the Old Covenant, God provided “cities of refuge” (Num 35) as safe harbor from vigilantes, until suspects could stand trial for their actions.
Christians disagree as to whether there is ever a place for revolution and uprising against human authorities, when injustice is pervasive and cannot be corrected through the established authorities. John Calvin’s view was that mob justice is never permissible, but that in cases of severe and systemic injustice, people may follow lesser magistrates in order to obtain justice over the greater magistrates.
The Question of the Extent and Limitations of Power for Each Human Authority
Christians legitimately disagree about which institutions should enforce and adjudicate which violations of God’s moral commandments. This is a disagreement about institutional callings and division of responsibility among the various human authorities.
I submit that one fruitful area of discourse among Christians who differ about “justice in society” may have to do with the callings and responsibilities of the various human authority structures.
For example, Christians all agree that children are to honor their parents (5th commandment), and when children don’t honor their parents, they should be corrected and trained. But I’ve never met a Christian who believes that it is the government’s responsibility to correct and train their children. The home is the sphere of authority for the training of children (Eph 6:1-4).
There are other areas, however, where Christians disagree about the responsibilities of human authority. For example, Christians disagree about whether the government should punish blasphemy (1st commandment). As a Baptist, I don’t believe that God gives (non-Israelite) civil governments that power (Jn 18:36). Theonomic reconstructionists, who have a different hermenuetic, tend to say that He does (Lev 24:10-16). Christians all agree that government should punish thieves (8th commandment). They disagree, however, about whether the Bible gives the government the authority to tax the rich and give to the poor (the positive side of the 8th commandment, Eph 5:28). Some Christians believe the government has that power. Other Christians would say the Bible teaches that individual Christians and churches are to give to the poor voluntarily, but never under coercion of any kind (2 Cor 8:1-15).
Furthermore, Christians disagree about the role of the institutional church in seeking justice in society through political means. That is, they disagree about the relationship between the church sphere and the civil sphere. Historically, Baptists have held that while individual Christians should seek to accomplish justice in society through their particular callings, as they have opportunity, the pastors of a local church should spend the vast amount of their time administering the means of grace and doing pastoral ministry (Acts 2:42; 6:2; 20:18-28), which includes preaching against social evils. But local churches, and their pastors, should not lobby congress, organize rallies, etc., and lead political mobilization to accomplish justice in the civil sphere. On the other hand, some Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Anglicans may believe that the institutional church, along with her pastors, should directly engage the civil sphere on issues of justice as a part of their calling.
Thus, there is room for disagreement and discussion among Christians about what constitutes biblical justice in society.
The current dispute among evangelicals regarding matters of “justice” is not a question of whether Christians should seek biblical justice in society. I know of no one who is saying that Christians should simply remain silent and passive when injustices take place or that Christians should put their heads in the sand and simply pray and do evangelism. Scripture is clear that all faithful Christians are required to pray for and advocate for true biblical justice in society.