Social Justice: Maybe let’s try the Biblical way?
Last week, we went into some of the foundational elements related to a Christian’s adherence to the secular construct known as social justice. So that we do not have to cover that same ground twice, I recommend that you go back and read why Believers should not engage in any secular construct… because they inherently adhere to the philosophies of the world, which are not congruent with a Biblical worldview. That doesn’t mean that Christianity cannot be effective in righting certain cultural wrongs, because I believe it can. It simply means we must leverage a Biblical strategy and not an unevenly distributed secular strategy.
But, once again, we must continue to lay a solid foundational support on which we build a theology of social engagement. The best way to do that is to clear up a huge misconception related to Jesus and the myriad of cultural wrongs we see in our society. Here is what needs to be cleared up: Jesus did not come to earth to right cultural wrongs. He simply did not. His own words tell us that. His many actions tell us that. He was not a social justice warrior or crusader. He certainly cared about those systemically maligned and mistreated by the powerful of His day, but He did not embark on a three-year mission of cultural course correction. How do we know this? Should you simply take my word for it? Absolutely not. Let’s take His word for it.
At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, we see an interesting conversation Jesus has with His Disciples. After a long day in which He “healed many” (Mark 1:34a), Jesus apparently retired to bed for the evening. Early the next morning, His Disciples came to Him saying “everyone is looking for you” (Mark 1:37). The implication is clear. They wanted Him to go to “everyone” who was looking for Him, in order for Him to continue doing miracles. However, Jesus replied by telling them it was time to go to the next towns on their way “that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (Mark 1:38). Jesus very clearly states that the proclamation of the Gospel was the purpose for His ministry on this planet. He never even mentioned the miracles. I believe that Jesus liked doing miracles, but I also believe He was a reluctant miracle worker. This is because He knew that the miracles could get in the way of His teaching and that people would rely on those instead of His Word. He all but confirms this in Matthew 12:39.
He emphasized time and again in the Gospels what His true mission was (Luke 19:10; Matthew 20:28; John 10:17-18). To be honest, social justice did not figure into His plans while He walked on this planet. Oh, His enemies tried to draw Him into that conversation. The most unjust aspect of that entire culture was the tremendous yoke the Romans had placed on the Jewish nation. It was a bitterly oppressive regime rife with injustice, violence, and humiliation. By the time Jesus was engaged in His ministry, Israel had been under the thumb of the Romans for about a century. Draconian taxes, brutal punishment, and humiliating subjugation became a normal way of life for Jews living under Roman rule. Think about it.
The people who suffered under the Romans were Jesus’ own people. His fellow Jews. Even more so… His own family lived this way. His earthly father, mother, siblings, Disciples, and friends were all subject to the extreme injustices placed on them by their pagan, foreign overlords. If there was one, just one, social justice battle you would have thought Jesus would have taken up, it would have been the overthrow of that ultimate cultural injustice visited on His people by the Romans. And Jesus? He never even voluntarily mentioned the Romans or the persecution of His people by the Romans. But as I said, the Jewish religious powers tried to draw Him into this argument.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees sent emissaries to Jesus for a specific purpose. They wanted to trap Him into taking sides in a culture war. They asked Jesus if it was lawful for a Jew to pay taxes to the Romans, as they were forced to do. They thought they had Him. If He answered yes, the people would think He was on the side of their oppressors and hence come to hate Jesus. If He answered no, then they could go to the Roman officials and accurately accuse Jesus of treason. They knew Jesus would have to take sides in this important culture war and that either answer could possibly get Him killed. He did what He so often did and answered a question with a question. Alluding to the coin, Jesus said, “Whose likeness and inscription is this” (Matthew 22:20)? When they answered that the coin essentially belonged to Caesar, Jesus responded, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). In other words, He did not involve Himself in the culture war.
Again, think about it. This would have been the perfect time for Jesus to insert Himself into the role of social justice warrior, would it not? And there is no doubt that the Romans were devastatingly unjust to the Jews, Jesus’ own ethnic kinfolk. Yet He did not utter a word. He did not even hint as to how unjustly His people, His very own family, were being treated by this pagan entity. He never suggested that they rise up and resist. He did not go to Pilate and cry out: Let my people go. He did not use His limitless power to simply wipe out the Romans and allow His people to enjoy life as an independent nation. Why? Because that is not why He came to earth in the first place. He didn’t come to free His people. He didn’t come to heal everybody of their physical infirmities. In fact, when in the presence of a multitude of sick and invalid people at the Pool at Bethesda, He chose to heal only one person (John 5:1-9). Why? Because He didn’t come to earth to heal everyone of their particular maladies.
He came to seek and save the lost (Matthew 18:11). The Gospel was the totality of His mission. He left a myriad of social and cultural wrongs unaddressed during His ministry because that was not the nature of His mission. But here is what He also knew: that those who would respond to the Gospel would be transformed into a new creation and that this is how the culture would be positively impacted by Him. That is the brilliance of His approach to this idea of helping those under the weight of societal injustices. He knew this. His followers knew this. And Paul knew this. That is exactly the entire point of the book of Philemon. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul wrote to his friend, Philemon, engaging the very strategy Jesus used during His time on this earth. Salvation is the key to a long-lasting impact on social injustices. A list of rules would simply not work. If the Law couldn’t work to transform a culture, why would we think a list of cultural rules from Jesus would have worked?
So, in our final installment, we will tackle this amazing letter. We will see what happens when Paul befriends and saves a runaway slave named Onesimus and then actually sends him back to his slave owner, Philemon. Who, by the way, just “happens” to be a very close friend of Paul. Paul, who is in Rome under house arrest, comes across this runaway slave and does a masterful job of showing us the clear and most effective way of dealing with social injustice, using the most grievous of injustices: slavery. This specifically Christian approach to social justice is fascinating and effective for positively impacting the culture. It is an amazing story. So join us next week as we complete this series by looking at Paul’s letter to Philemon.
Dr. Purvis started Growth Project after spending 20 years on active duty as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. After many moves and multiple deployments, he settled in St. Cloud, Florida to do God’s will. A glutton for educational punishment Danny has a BA in English from Carson-Newman College, an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary; and a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. He has been married to his wife Kimberly (whom he met when they were 6 years old) for nearly 30 years and they have four wonderful children.