There is a great deal of overlap between the areas of social justice and civil government (legislation, judicial, executive, and political). To a great extent, civil government determines whether social justice can be implemented because it has earthly power to determine what is and is not done in society. Ideally, the government allows freedom to pursue all Biblically legitimate activities. However, there are currently many legal restrictions to this pursuit And, state welfare (man’s wrongly devised system to help all the “poor”) has taken over much of what has been the individual’s and church’s responsibility. “Welfare” now receives the largest portion of federal and state expenditure. As such, welfare is about power and control by persons with the power of the sword, not about Biblical, social justice. Before much of what follows can be done, legislation would have to be passed gradually to eliminate all government oversight and funding of “welfare.”
1. Definition of Social Justice
The Biblical definition of social justice is the comprehensive application of Biblical law, love, mercy, justice, and equity to all levels of government: self, family, voluntary groups, churches, and state (local, state, and national). Social justice cannot be considered without explicit attention to these Biblical areas. Love without law has no direction, and law without love punishes without mercy. The Biblical background for what follows here is critical to its understanding: Summary Principles and Discussion of Law, Love, Mercy, etc.
Sociologyis a humanistic term for social justice that has no guidelines and is only implemented according to the power of the giving organization, whether civil government or private. Sociology has no governing principles to determine what should be done or whether what is done is right or wrong.
2. Definition of Civilization
No nation is truly civilized which is not, in some measure, being directed by Biblical justice. In fact, no nation or culture can continue to exist without consciously or unconsciously being governed with some consistency by the rule of Biblical justice. Definitions of civilization, then, must include this concept of social justice.
3. Christians and Churches Have a Duty to Seek Social Justice
The Creation and Cultural Mandates, The Great Commission, and The Ten Commandments all include the call of Christians, their families, and churches to the task of social justice in all its various forms. The proclamation of “The Gospel” is incomplete without the full application of all these mandates. The primary group, to whom Biblical justice should be directed, are the “powerless”: the widow, the orphan, and the fatherless, but Biblical justice includes everyone in a society. Who is or is not included in these Biblical directives need to be determined by the modern church. The failure of Christians and churches to address all social evils in their times of history is their failure to be salt and light worthy of being trampled underfoot (Matthew 5:13-14).
4. No conflict
Rightly understood within a complete Biblical worldview, there is no conflict in what is right for individuals, families, churches, social groups, and state governments at all levels. That is not to say that the resolution of any conflict in these areas will be simple, but God’s law by the unity of Himself can never conflict with His designed institutions.
5. The Role of Civil Government (the State)
The role of the state is “to reward good and punish evil” (Romans 13:1-5). This role includes military and police action to catch, place on trial, and punish perpetrators of crimes among individuals and treason against the state (except when mandated by a “lesser magistrate“ against an evil regime). The state is to maintain a military capable of national defense and employ it for self-defense and in just wars. The state has a role in public health that should be careful not to intrude on private lives and property without clear warrant that the health of its citizens are in danger from an epidemic or toxic substances.
The Civil Government can Legislate (Affect) Moral Behavior
While the civil government, by legislation, cannot cause its people to behave morally, its laws do greatly affect their behavior. For example, laws that set speed limits restrain drivers who fear the penalties of “getting caught.” More importantly, laws that limit divorce to Biblical standards and have severe penalties for non-support of the family by the offending spouse have a great influence on keeping families intact. Moreover, all laws are legislated morals that come from some philosophy, worldview, or religion. For more on laws and morality, see Summary Principles of Civil Government to be written next. Link.
In “rewarding good and punishing evil,” the state is responsible to create a free society in which anyone may pursue gainful employment or be self-employed to the extent of his or her abilities and opportunities. Within this freedom, all measures of social justice can be pursued.
The state has no role in what is commonly called “welfare” of all kinds, including the provision of medical care. This role has been assigned by God to individuals, families, churches, and voluntary social organizations.
The Cost of the Violation of Biblical Principles
Intrusion of the state into God’s design of welfare will always fail and be costly in lives and expense. The trillions of dollars spent in the United States in the “war on poverty” has not improved the lot of any class of people (except the bureaucrats who administer it). It has been destructive to economic growth and has violated the property rights of taxpayers.
8. The Poor Defined
The Bible defines the “poor” in three ways. (1) Those who are “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) whether they have earthly needs or great prosperity. (2) Those who are destitute of earthly needs and possessions, yet who are willing to work and better themselves, “those who are bowed down… the righteous” (Psalm 146:5-9) Also, see Job 5:11-16; Psalm 10:17-18, Psalm 103:6, Psalm 109:30-31, Psalm 140:12. These could be called the “deserving poor.” They are to receive charity and help towards responsible provision of themselves and their families. (3) Those who are destitute of earthly needs and possessions who are not willing to work and better themselves. They “waste opportunities (Proverbs 6:9-11), bring poverty on themselves (Proverbs 10:4), are victims of self-inflicted bondage (Proverbs 12:24), and are unable to accomplish anything in life (Proverbs 15:19.” While these should be given every opportunity and assistance to change, “subsidizing sluggards is the same as subsidizing evil. It is subsidizing dependence… slavery.” (Quotes and ideas are from George Grant, In the Shadow of Plenty, [Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1986), pages 52-55.) For more on the “unwilling to work” poor, see Dalrymple under Endnotes.
The Great Failure of Christians and the Church: Individual and Family Responsibility to Receive Physical Goods and Service
One great failure of modern Christians and the Church is to require responsible behavior of the recipients of its welfare. The Apostle Paul said, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10). This little phrase has powerful and far-reaching implications. In our day, Carl F. H. Henry said, “We urgently need a comprehensive social ethic whose Scriptural content protects justice from subtle compromises with benevolence” (Aspects of …, page 155)
First, recipients must be determined whether they are able to work or not. Certainly, those who are completely disabled may receive charity, even though they are not able to work. However, the large majority of people are able to perform some kind of work. What work they do requires creativity on the part of the givers. For those who do not work, and therefore do not eat, obviously, they will die. But, then again, perhaps their hunger will drive them to work! But, the central message of Paul’s statement is that non-workers are not to be provided physical help without limit.
“Harsh, cruel,” you say. Here the Bible-believing Christian errs in a major way: if God said it, we are to obey!You cannot argue that this example is “unloving.” There is never any conflict between God’s law and His requirement of love
This subject has been covered on this site in considerable and necessary detail here. The violation of this unity of law and love has been costly beyond measure in dollars and lives.
9. Love vs. State Welfare
Some Christians have defended government welfare as “charity.” That concept is a violent distortion of God’s directions of love. Love, by anyone’s definition, is uncoerced except as a duty of conscience within individuals and groups owed to God Himself. Taxes that are used for welfare (whether for food, shelter, clothing, medical care, “aid to dependent children,” etc.) are taken by armed force, “the power of the sword.” By no stretch of any consistent reasoning or Biblical hermeneutic can “welfare” by civil government be considered “charity.”
10. Equity and Legislative law in Establishing State Justice
Certainly, social justice requires the development and application of Biblical law and its equity at all levels of state government. See Civil Government, Law, and Politics.
Judges and Justice
The principles of justice that apply to wrongs that can be committed among individuals, families, and groups is virtually unlimited. Therefore, judges are needed to settle these disputes and discern matters of pertinent law. In general, and perhaps in all particulars, these disputes are not crimes against the state. The state should only be involved where the two or more parties are unable to work out restitution or a fair settlement. The Church (inclusive of all) must be diligent to settle problems among its members without government help. (I Corinthians 6:1-7). Settlements should be restitution of loss, and in some cases where severity or repetition of wrongs occurs, restitution may exceed several-fold the loss incurred.
Physical Harm or Death
Where severe physical harm occurs, the civil state must be involved to adjudicate cases. Those principles will be developed under state Civil Government.
11. Availability of Materials, Resources, and Resourcefulness
The concept of limited resources in many discussions about social justice is a misnomer. God said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” By reasonable measures, the earth can support far more people than now exist on planet earth. New “resources” are discovered continually, and man has great ingenuity to make present resources last longer, create new technologies that require different resources, and use technology to discover and produces new resources. Problems of “limited resources” are often those created by civil government through tariffs, subsidy payments, restriction on (moral) research and development, and other measures that impede the free market and freedom of men to discover and create new technology and resources.
12. Ownership of Property
The Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal,” establishes ownership of property. More on this subject will be found in Summary Principles of Economics.
13. The Family: Education and Evangelism
The most important aspect of social justice is education of children from infancy to adulthood, under the authority of the family primarily, and under the Church secondarily. God’s primary method of evangelism is from one generation of Christian families to the next. The husband and father is the most important person in this process. Historically, Christians allowed John Dewey, Horace Mann, and others to promote the idea of the formal education of children being the responsibility of the state. Many of the problems that the family faces today are the consequences of that mistake. See Summary Principles of Education, to be developed later on this website.
The Family is the Basic Unit of Society
The family is the most basic unit and foundation for any society. The stability and morality of society is directly correlated with the soundness of the family unit and its protection by the civil government. The father is the head of the family with his wife and children under his authority, protection, and provision. Most of the problems of modern day America can be attributed to wrong ideas and practices concerning the family. Most of the huge federal and state budgets are an attempt to “help” individuals and families damaged by these wrong ideas and practices.
The Biblical Family is the Only Family Approved of God
The Biblical family consists of a man and a woman married to each other for life (except for the Biblical reasons for divorce: sexual infidelity and desertion) and any children that the marriage brings. The family is intergenerational, with responsibilities of children to parents and parents to children.
14. A Culture Determines its Social Justice
The prevailing worldview (thought-system, ethic, ethics, philosophy, religion, etc.) of a culture determines both the laws that it makes at every level of civil government and the morals that it practices among its people. Since its foundation, the United States has been steadily moving away from the Biblical principles upon which state laws, The Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, as well as, the morality of its people at the time were based. The only methods by which this decline can be overcome is by evangelism that produces regeneration, Biblical education, and obedience.
15. The Greatest Social Reform in World History has Been Regeneration by the Holy Spirit and Obedience to Jesus Christ
Most of the “good” (as Biblically defined) that mankind has experienced was caused by the regeneration and obedience of God’s people through God’s great plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. This “good” includes capitalism, civil liberties, abolition of the slave trade, abolition of human sacrifice, world exploration, elevation of women, the Renaissance, and Reformation, and representative government that is limited in its laws and promotes freedom. For all these to be “good,” they must be Biblical consistent. That mankind is able to pervert every one of these “goods” to ungodly purposes is just more evidence of his depravity.
One particular of this “great good” is the opportunity for everyone to have a basic education or more. There is no other philosophy of life or religion in the history of mankind that has supplied a similar impetus for universal education. The underlying premise is that everyone should learn to read in order to learn God’s Word.
Rights are discussed under Civil Government.However, it needs to be said here that rights are defined by Biblical standards, not by civil legislation. Those interested in social justice should not define rights in terms of human need, but rights as God has defined them. While civil government has the responsibility to protect God-given rights, it does not define them. Most “rights” now defined by social activists and enacted by legislation and adjudication are not Biblical rights.
17. Christians’ Priorities in Social Actions
Christians’ priorities in social responsibility are first to themselves and their own family (I Thessalonians 4:11-12; I Timothy 5:8), then to those of the “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), and then to all others (Luke 10:25-37).
18. What is to be Provided in Social Responsibility
Assistance to others includes only those basics that are necessary to the sustenance of life: food, shelter, and clothing. There is no obligation to bring all households up to some arbitrary economic standard or equality of wages (except as employers have moral duties to their own employees – see Larger Catechism, Q/A 123-133). In today’s world, however, basics may be slightly broader than in the past, for example, access to, or provision of, certain utilities (water, sewage, electricity, etc.) and limited medical care.
19. Christians Have Great Opportunities for Social Change
Christians have a great opportunity to effect social change through instruction of their children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.” This instruction must include systematic theology and worldview (ethical) concepts. Their next greatest opportunity is to understand their own vocations in the light of Biblical ethics. Beyond, that they may have specific opportunities through ministries implemented by themselves, their families, their churches, or voluntary organizations.
20. Genetic and Environmental Causes of Immorality and Crime
Those true (Biblical) injustices that exist in society are due to man’s inherently sinful nature and his failure to understand and apply Biblical standards of justice. God created the physical universe and declared it “good.” Therefore, the immoralities and crimes within society are not physically, but spiritually caused. The physical environment of poverty and exposure to frequent immoral and criminal activity in one’s neighborhood may incline a person towards those evils, but this environment does not inevitably force one into that lifestyle and does not absolve him or her of individual responsibility.
In the same manner, a “respectable” and socially upscale neighborhood may not inculcate any greater moral (Biblical) values than the “poor” neighborhood. The problem is not the physical universe, but the spiritual condition and immoral education that he learns.
21. The Bible Knows Nothing of Racism
The only criterion for the full benefits of church membership and the blessings that God gives especially to His children is belief in Jesus Christ is regeneration, evidenced by belief in Jesus Christ as fully God and the only Savior from man’s sins. Any racial bias, including the marriage of one race with another, is Biblically wrong and inimical to the oneness of true Christian unity everywhere.
22. Commandments 5-10
Commandments 5-9 are the greatest summary of all social responsibilities that men and women have to each other in all their relationships. Commandment 10 is where sins of these other five commandments begin. These commandments are fully explained by all the other Biblical commandments and principles. Jesus summarized them under “loving one’s neighbor as himself.“ One comprehensive explanation of Commandments 5-10 are Questions and Answers 122-148 of The Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
The greatest social evil of modern times is abortion, now legalized by the civil government at the international, federal, state, and local levels. Failure to agree that abortion is Biblically immoral is to bring one’s testimony of salvation into question. Christians and churches should be supportive of, or involved in, activities change the laws that promote this great evil and the social institutions that directly minister to prevent abortions and support difficult pregnancies.
Historical Connection With Capital Punishment
The legalization of abortion did not happen in a vacuum. A giant step towards this legalization was the downgrade of capital offenses to “life imprisonment.” This downgrade is actually a degradation of the value of human life, “ Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). Capital punishment is the most severe retribution that can be enacted by man on earth, because murder blots out forever, in history, God’s image in the person murdered. That is, murder strikes at the highest value of human life, its being made in the image of God!
Theodore Dalrymple is a physician who has spent his life working in London with the “down and out.“ While he is not a Christian, his insights are provocative. His entertaining and engaging style is a side benefit to his writings. For example, one of his books is Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass(Ivan R. Dee, 2001).
George Grant, In the Shadow of Plenty, [Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1986). Entire text may be found online here. You will need to click on “Authors” in left hand column and find the title under the author’s name.
Carl F. H. Henry, Aspects of Christian Social Ethics(Baker Book House, 1964).