Underlying the current racial conflicts we’re witnessing across America is the ideology of social justice. Another is closely related—the concept of systemic racism or systemic injustice, which posits that our justice system and the very foundations of American institutions are biased by racism and therefore unjust to minorities. I’m not going to get into the topic of systemic racism, which I think is unsubstantiated; instead, I want to focus on social justice because I think this is the concept that informs the premises that lead many to conclude that there is systemic racism in our country. Expose social justice as an unsound doctrine, and the accusation of systemic racism in America begins to fall apart. Remove a wrong presupposition, and “statistics” that seem to prove systemic racism begin to paint an entirely different picture.
Social Justice Defined
For most activists, ideologues, and progressive community organizers, social justice is about equality beyond the concept of law that should be ensured by enlightened government authority and enforced through woke social organizations backed by political power. This is the primary view of social justice in America today, though the levels of activism vary among those who believe it. It’s an egalitarian philosophy in which wealth, health, opportunity, and other privileges should be equally distributed among identity groups. It is essentially a doctrine of equality of outcomes. Those who don’t agree with this doctrine are labeled as a racist, sexist, or homophobe, stigmatized by the label, delegitimized by others who claim higher moral authority, and then silenced.
Others with a less stringent view of social justice move away from the concept of egalitarianism and focus more on notions of fairness and impartiality relating to economic and social opportunities. They recognize that you can have justice in the legal system, yet still have social injustice and unfairness within social institutions that still deny people their “rights.” Those who hold to this view might or might not expect government intervention to counter this social injustice, depending on the issue, but they wholeheartedly believe it is up to individuals and groups—especially Christians—to secure those “rights” for the marginalized. The problem with this group is their misuse of justice and therefore misapplication of Christian principles that would be better applied to other issues such as personal responsibility and natural inequalities that are an immutable feature of human existence.
Others use the term social doctrine or social justice in relation to charity and one’s responsibility to care for others because of their shared human dignity as image-bearers of God. If, by social justice, you are referring to this definition, I would advise you to drop the term “justice” entirely because charity is not a matter of justice, and there is no evidence of this kind of “social justice” in the Bible, just as there is no evidence of the egalitarianism advocated by progressives. We are, however, commanded by God (not the state) to be generous and charitable.
The reason we must remove the term “justice” or “injustice” from its attachment to “social” is because justice is inherently tied to rights, rightness, and righteousness. As soon as you introduce a “right” into the narrative, others are bound to honor those rights and secure them. If they don’t, they should be punished. For example, we have a right to life. It’s not a matter of charity or kindness for someone to honor our right to life (in other words, not kill us). It is an objective inviolate standard that can’t be transgressed. The most intransigent rights we have are our human rights—rights given by God. These include the right to life; to be free from the abuse and control of others against our free will unless, of course we have given up that freedom by committing crimes; to think for ourselves; to keep our own property without it being stolen from us; and to be treated equally under the law and not oppressed by those in power.
As you can see, the rights we are guaranteed do not involve anyone giving us anything. They have to do with others not taking away what God has given to us. God has given us life. No man may take an innocent life away. God has given us free will. No man may take that freedom away unless we have given it up ourselves. God has given us righteousness and truth as the standard by which we live—it’s part of our very being. No man may deny us justice and equal treatment under the law. God has given us the ability and freedom to own property through our own labor. No man may steal from us and thus violate our individual sovereignty.
It’s a very serious business to attach the term “justice” to a movement, ideology, or philosophy. We as a society certainly can institute various “civil rights” that we contract together as being important for the maintenance of the civil society. But these “civil privileges” that are based on fairness do not carry the immutable quality of human rights—those rights that are given by God. For example, we as citizens have the civil right to vote. This right, however, is not a God-given right. We have the right to an education because we have deemed it valuable as a society, but education is not a God-given right.
It is very important to be aware of these differences because when we begin to establish assumed rights or “social justice” demands as absolute rights (especially when they violate the God-given rights of others, which can easily happen), we have perverted justice. And God warns in Leviticus 19:15—“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” Our judgments, our determinations of rights, our sense of fairness are to be built on justice, not on partiality, favoritism, or equality of outcomes—for anyone.
What Is Biblical Justice?
I say biblical, because God—and his Word as it is revealed to us—is our standard of justice. We don’t look to human enlightenment, to councils, to decrees, to protests, or to the traditions of men and their philosophies to determine the foundations of what is just. Such subjectivism only leads to tyranny. Instead, we look to God. He is our standard. His truth is objective truth. This does not mean the Bible is a civil law book. As I explained above regarding civil laws, nations can vary in many ways in how they apply justice to their particular situation. I’m not a theonomist, and I’m not advocating for a theocracy. I am directing our attention to the objective standard of justice required of all human beings, so we can work from a righteous framework in solving conflicts, not from emotion and worldly wisdom.
God’s Word is filled with references to justice because it is an attribute of God himself, and he expects this attribute of order to be reflected in our actions toward others and in the world he has made. Justice ensures ordered liberty. This justice that is so integral to our very identity as God’s image-bearers is the essence of righteousness. It’s rooted in God’s law, which is a matter of purity. It is about what is right. The Ten Commandments was the first written decree of what is right, but we also have this law written on our hearts—to know what is pure and holy, to know righteousness. Justice is the expression of divine righteousness in a sinful world—one that has turned from worship of God to worship of idols made in the image of man, man’s feelings, man’s fantasies, man’s ambitions, and man’s selfishness. This idolatry has led to a rejection of true justice and has plunged society into chaos.
Nearly all verses in the Scripture relating to justice are joined with righteousness. The very first overt mention of justice and righteousness is in relation to God’s punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah for its gross sexual sins and mistreatment of outsiders who were entrusted to their care but abused because of lust. God said that he wanted Abraham to know of his justice in this matter because
“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, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:19)
Nowhere in Scripture is justice in reference to equal distribution of wealth, goods, or opportunity. It is always in the context of God’s righteousness and how we are to live in conformity to it. Even the case laws that applied only to Israel—such as Exodus 22:16 where it is established that if a man lies with a virgin outside of marriage then he has to marry her—ultimately have to do with purity, not material comfort or opportunities. The same is true of the vast number of ceremonial laws in ancient Israel—they were fundamentally rooted in the concept of holiness.
Throughout Scripture, we see the connections between justice and righteousness emphasized: 2 Samuel 15:4, 1 Kings 3:28; 10:9; 2 Chronicles 9:8; Psalm 33:5; 37:6; 72:1, 2; 89:14; 94:15; 97:2; Proverbs 8:20; 19:28; Ecclesiastes 3:16; Isaiah 1:27; Hosea 2:19; Amos 5:7; and so many more. Justice is immutably tied to how we act in light of God’s righteousness as revealed in his law.
Justice and the Poor
Because justice is often denied to the most vulnerable, the Bible emphasizes time and again that the poor, the widows, the fatherless, the sojourners—those who have no one to speak for them—should never be abused. They’re not to be shown partiality because of their circumstances, but they are not to be oppressed, afflicted with injustice, or denied equal treatment under the law. Equity or equal treatment is often emphasized in the midst of these material inequalities because human beings—in sin—use those natural inequalities of conditions to treat others unfairly in the court of law.
This call for equity is not about equalizing or even improving those unequal material conditions, but making righteous judgments in the legal sense that lead to equal treatment under the law: 2 Sam 8:15, “So David reigned over all Israel. And David administered justice and equity to all his people”; Psalm 99:4, “The King in his might loves justice. You have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob”; and Psalm 96:10, “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns! Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.’”
Whether referenced as fairness, equity, or equality, justice in the Scripture is a legal principle, not a material one. The word fairness in Proverbs 29:14, “If a king judges the poor with fairness, his throne will be established forever” is beemet, which means firmness, faithfulness, truth, sureness, reliability, stability, continuance, divine instruction, truth as a body of ethical or religious knowledge, true doctrine. Nowhere is fairness even remotely related to egalitarianism, material equality, or social justice as it is asserted today.
In Psalm 99:4 (cited above), the word equity is mesarim in Hebrew and means evenness, uprightness, straightness, level, and rightness. It is not in a material context, but a legal one in which all are to be treated equally under the law. No one’s rights are to be denied, no matter their station in society. This was true even of indentured servants or “slaves” who had to be put under another’s authority because of debts, dependency, or war—a controversial biblical issue, but not the same as slavery and man-selling, which is heinous to God.
Those who became “slaves” or servants in this context were not commanded to seek equality—“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5). Obedience was expected, not egalitarianism. But this didn’t mean they were to be mistreated. They were to be treated with the same respect they showed: “And, masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with him” (Ephesians 6:9).
Even in this terribly unequal circumstance of servitude, these servants were to be treated with fairness under the law and in basic human relations. He doesn’t tell them they should be freed. He doesn’t advocate egalitarianism. He doesn’t call for violence in the streets. He does demand justice according to his righteousness: “Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1).
This verse recognizes two things as true that those who demand social justice can’t tolerate: One, that life is not equal and sometimes people have less than others; two, the only thing we have a right to is legal justice and impartiality, not material equality or opportunity. Treating others without favoritism is a matter of respect that we owe to one another in obedience to God—it is a matter of love. If we fail to love others as we love ourselves by favoring one over another, then we “sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (James 2:9). We are not to show partiality for any reason—not for our own selfish ends, and not for the “good intentions” of forcing artificial equality of outcomes where inequality of conditions is natural. The larger picture of God’s standard of righteousness should always be kept in mind.
No matter the application, and no matter the identity group, justice is always related to God’s law: “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them” (Ecclesiastes 5:8). “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked” (Exodus 23:6-7). “‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’” (Deuteronomy 27:19).
As you can see, justice is never equated with material goods, healthcare, education, wealth, or any other privilege—only righteousness. In other words, justice for the poor is not giving them stuff, creating opportunities, or redistributing wealth in the name of equity; it is protecting them from violations of their God-given rights.
Justice, Equality, and Charity
The New Testament takes a new a direction and focuses justice almost entirely on redemption and Christ who fulfilled the law as he died to satisfy God’s justice on account of man’s sin. “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles” (Matthew 12:8). This has to do with preaching the Good News beyond the Jewish nation—for the Cross was an act of divine justice that has led to our salvation if we have faith in Christ.
Acts 8:33 also has to do with justice, specifically how it was denied to Christ by men in order to satisfy the justice of God: “In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (Acts 8:33). Here we see a startling and seemingly contradictory truth: That in the greatest act of unfairness, justice was fulfilled.
The notion of fairness can have many meanings and applications, of course. In the case of it being denied to Christ, it is used in a purely legal sense, as he was put to death despite being innocent. Sometimes it’s in the context of showing equal treatment under the law, which is a kindness to others as well as something due them as God’s image-bearers. Fairness is also seen at times in terms of material “equality,” but, again, not in the way that social justice advocates mean it today. In 2 Corinthians 8, for instance, one of the churches under Paul’s care didn’t have enough money to do its ministry compared with other more wealthy churches. What Paul tells them is very instructive for us today:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich. And this is my opinion about what is helpful for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give, but even to have such a desire. Now finish the work, so that you may complete it just as eagerly as you began, according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have. It is not our intention that others may be relieved while you are burdened, but that there may be equality. At the present time, your surplus will meet their need, so that in turn their surplus will meet your need. Then there will be equality. As it is written: ‘He who gathered much had no excess, and he who gathered little had no shortfall.’”
This is not an argument for socialism or social justice. Paul is speaking to churches about the ministry of the gospel. In fact, he makes a point to tell them not to despair in their poverty, for Christ made himself poor for us, so we can become rich—not materially, but spiritually. Paul begins by emphasizing that what’s important is spiritual realities, not material concerns. However, he knows that ministries practically need money, so he assures them that other churches will certainly share equally with them, and he hopes that they will pay this forward and share with others.
This is no admonition for wealth redistribution among the general public, households in the church, or anyone outside of church ministry. This is about getting ministry done and sharing with one another to spread the gospel of Christ. The principle that is uniformly applicable is that we should share out of our surplus if the cause is right.
We should also—out of charity—care for the poor and the needy: “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13–14). We should not favor the rich more than the poor:
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (James 2:1-9)
Our hearts should be open to the poor, not closed and judgmental.
“If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’” (Deuteronomy 15:7–8, 10–11)
Additionally, we are to speak out for those who are oppressed with biblical injustice and show Christ’s love through tending to physical needs, helping those who are hurting, and feeding the hungry, for in doing this we serve Christ: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). In this, the world will see Christ’s love. This charity, however, is not an act of justice, but an act of love freely given to others and in obedience to the One who gave up his life for us.
“Life Is Unfair”
Now that we’ve clearly established that no one has a right material equity but that we are to care for the poor out of charity and love, I want to conclude with two points about inequality in the Bible so that we can have a better understanding of inequality today. The first is the reality that life is full of inequalities, which the Bible recognizes quite often. We find the poor throughout Scripture, as we do the rich. Nowhere, except in an object lesson to the rich young ruler about giving up everything to follow Christ, does the Bible say to redistribute the wealth of others in the name of righteous judgment. Nowhere does Jesus appeal to Caesar on the basis of social justice. And nowhere is the establishment of material fairness stated as the duty of a believer—he is only commanded not to show partiality. This is different from forcing things to be equal. Charity and impartiality, yes. Material equalization in the name of fairness and rights, no.
The Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 25:14–30 is an illustration of a basic understanding of fairness in the material realm. In that parable, the owner paid the tenants unequally—according to their abilities, not according to some notion of equality and fairness. Jesus recognized in this parable that there are inequalities in life and there are material consequences in light of those inequalities. This is a descriptive parable, of course, and not a prescription of life. It has a core message—and that message is to use what has been given to you as a means of service in the Kingdom in a responsible way. It’s not a rule about how bosses should pay their employees. Parables, however, are based on common truths so that the hearer will have understanding of spiritual truths. The common truth here, which everyone would have understood when Jesus was speaking, was that life isn’t equal. Pay isn’t equal. Everyone has their abilities, and they should use their abilities for the glory of God and the benefit of others, not demand equality of outcomes.
One of the most instructive accounts of inequality and justice in the Bible is found in Job, and Americans—especially Christians who parrot social justice ideals—would do well to understand and incorporate this teaching into their lives. Job was a wealthy man who lost everything—by God’s will—in order to test him and prove his faithfulness. This might seem harsh, but it’s not when you see material things as actually meaningless in the context of existence and our relationship with God.
We are not just material creatures—we are spiritual. We are made for eternity, and it is the spiritual realities about ourselves and others that matter most—not material things. This doesn’t mean God doesn’t care about our physical wellbeing. He says he does—he clothes the lilies of the field, doesn’t he? He tells us to meet the needs of the poor. But his primary concern is our spiritual state, our hearts, and our relationship with him and one another.
So Job lost everything, and he spiraled into a mess of depression and blame. Even his friends piled on as he mourned his loss. Job was understandably perplexed. He was a good person, so why did this happened to him? Others were successful and wealthy and nothing happened to them. Like David who wondered how bad people could prosper while the good are afflicted, Job saw what was happening to him as highly unjust and unfair.
Starting in chapter 33, one of the only people with sense in this situation begins to speak—Elihu the son of Barachel. He confronts Job, telling him he’s wrong to complain about being unjustly treated: 1) because God is always just even when we don’t get what we want or life is unfair as we perceive it, and 2) because we’re all sinners and we deserve nothing.
If we really experienced true justice in this world, all we’d get is suffering, poverty, loss, and death. That’s what we are owed before God, so we shouldn’t complain when bad things happen, when we lose our stuff, when we get sick, when people die, and when we find ourselves alone. By God’s righteous standards, none of us should even utter one word about injustice when we don’t have what we think we should.
Each of us needs to see that we should be grateful in this life, no matter our circumstances, especially compared to others. Elihu says to Job when he claimed innocence and that life was unfair and that it was God’s fault: “Behold, in this you are not right. I will answer you, listen to me; be silent, and I will teach you wisdom” (Job 33:12, 33).
And what does Elihu teach? He tells Job to start with choosing and doing what is right instead of demanding his rights, especially when those “rights” are material things that pass away as quickly as grass in burning heat.
“Hear me, you men of understanding: far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong. For according to the work of a man he will repay him, and according to his ways he will make it befall him. Of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice. Who gave him charge over the earth, and who laid on him the whole world? If he should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.” (Job 34:10–15)
In this world of inequality and perceived unfairness, we are not to demand social justice. We are not to destroy the property of others because we don’t have it ourselves. We’re not to heap guilt on those who have played no part in our lack of opportunities or poverty. We’re not to shake our fists at God because we think he’s so unfair. We are to humble ourselves before God, and he will deal justly.
He has promised to fix what is wrong in this world—one that is hell-bent on sin. He hears the cries of the afflicted, and his judgments are always right. We can trust him, but we should never think we deserve material equality or that we’ll be free of suffering and pain, because this is a fallen world. God is righteous. We are not. We need to look more at the state of our hearts instead of the state of our wallets. We need to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Too often our focus is on the material instead of looking at what’s really important. Maybe some people are poor because of their choices. Maybe they grew up in an environment that was riddled with a history of poverty. Maybe God is using their suffering to bring spiritual awareness to them, to humble them, to teach them to look to him and to reflect on spiritual realities instead of the material world. Maybe the money of some people is actually a stumbling block and not the blessing or “privilege” it appears to be. Maybe what we deem as unfair is actually very fair. Maybe we should try to look at things more from God’s perspective than our own.
“Behold, God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable. For he draws up the drops of water; they distill his mist in rain, which the skies pour down and drop on mankind abundantly. Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thunderings of his pavilion? Behold, he scatters his lightning about him and covers the roots of the sea. For by these he judges peoples But if they do not listen, they perish by the sword and die without knowledge.” (Job 36:26–31)
God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend. For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth,’ likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour. He seals up the hand of every man.” (Job 37:5–7)
Like Job, we should stop and consider the purposes of God—that he wants us to be righteous, not prosperous. He wants us pure, not rich. He wants us humble, not “equal.” God is mighty in power, and we can’t even comprehend it, yet we complain about justice when we don’t even know what real justice is. “Justice and abundant righ