When Christians Punt on Social Justice and Biblical Justice

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Should Christians punt on questions of biblical justice and social justice? I contend they should not.

Yet as I realized in the lead-up to my recent article ‘Refuting Tim Keller & The Bad Theology of Eisegetical Social Justice,’ some Christians in our day take the position that social justice is not only welcome, but requisite.

According to these pastors and leaders – Tim Keller, for instance – social justice is biblical justice. Biblical justice is social justice. And anyone who says different is selling something. And what they are selling first and foremost is an antidote for the guilt they rightly feel about their white privilege.

But not all Christians take the position Keller does. Other prominent Christian pastors and leaders have for many years now taken clear, bold, repeated stands in opposition to social justice. Read and listen to John MacArthur, Voddie Baucham, Gary DeMar, and Doug Wilson, for example.

A reader of my article on Tim Keller recently reached out to tell me he has been doing just that for some time. He even talked with his pastor about it, and referenced those pastors. Yet when he did, his pastor dismissed those pastors who have signed The Statement on Social Justice & The Gospel. Yes, some of the things they say are good. But they are saying “dangerous” things also. Beware, and ooga booga.

As a counter-point when asked where his pastor stands on social justice, the reader was directed to a piece at The Gospel Coalition by Kevin DeYoung titled ‘Is Social Justice a Gospel Issue?’

Curious as to my thoughts on the piece by DeYoung after himself reading it, the reader shared a link with me and asked me what I say to that. So here we go.

Schrödinger’s Justice

One of my favorite movies ever is the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ Set in pre-revolutionary Russia, the main character is the milkman Tevye who has five daughters. Over the course of the story, three of Tevye’s daughters are married off. And one by one, as suitors who are each less than ideal matches present themselves, Tevye withdraws from the narrative and into himself to deliberate.

“On the one hand…” Tevye reasons out loud as the rest of the world is frozen in space and time around him. “On the other hand…” And thus all the reasons for and against approving the engagements and marriages of his daughters are recounted before he issues his verdict.

Reading DeYoung’s TGC article on social justice reminded me of that. Only instead of making a decision one way or the other by the end, DeYoung ends the piece with himself frozen in time deliberating.

At the end of reading this piece which perfectly encapsulates the position of other pastors on this question, I was at a loss. Was a stand taken? What was the conclusion?

Perhaps Kevin DeYoung was not trying to emulate Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof so much as to channel Schrödinger’s cat.

DeYoung is both for and against social justice at the same time. Social justice is and is not biblical justice. And what is social justice anyway? It has so many meanings to so many people. What was the question again?

The Importance of Being Earnest

Kevin DeYoung uses the conditional word “If” 17-times in the course of this roughly 1,000-word piece. He also uses some variation of “Depends” 3-times.

Early on, he writes that “social justice is a nebulous term,” and that “The term has no shared meaning.”

Yet he also gives us a history lesson about the origins of the term dating back to the Jesuit philosopher Luigi Taparelli in the mid-19th century before concluding:

“Taparelli’s use of “social justice” bears little resemblance to how the term is used in common conversation today.”

But wait a second. This is a tacit admission of what we all instinctively know to be true. “Social justice” is a term that does have a common meaning and usage today. So why did you say it is a nebulous term that has no shared meaning, Kevin?

While I await an answer, I note how DeYoung proceeds.

Before we can evaluate the connection between social justice and the gospel, we have to know what we mean by the former.

Yet this is clearly an impossible task if at the outset you have taught us that the term has no shared meaning.

Spoiler alert: the article also ends on this same sort of ambiguity. DeYoung concludes in his final sentence.

“Depending on our definitions, social justice and the gospel may be miles apart, or they may be as close as loving God by obeying his commands.”

And herein lies the problem. Kevin DeYoung is punting.

Inconclusion In Conclusions

Kevin DeYoung concludes his article, in a word, inconclusively. And it reminds me of the John Reuben song ‘Follow Your Leader’ from the brilliant 2005 album ‘The Boy vs The Cynic.’

You're an entertaining man trying to be a politician
Stop abusing your position

Now the funny thing about this is that John Reuben throughout this entire album does the Tevye thing. On the one hand… On the other hand… And this is because he is conflicted. There is both a boy and a cynic inside of him, and they are wrestling over his soul.

In some tracks, the boy with all his youthful exuberance clearly wins out. In other tracks, the cynic finds full voice. Who is right and who is wrong? As Kevin DeYoung says about social justice, it depends.

This is another way of saying that the conflict is not just external to us. These are not just matters about which distinct persons and parties wrangle and contend with one another. Rather, these are matters which often carry with them a great deal of internal conflict.

If I had to hazard a guess from the position he has taken – or not taken, more to the point – Kevin DeYoung is internally conflicted about social justice.

And if I were to hazard another guess after that one, it would be to deduce from DeYoung’s article that he is not only conflicted about questions of truth and falsehood, or righteousness and wickedness here. He is also conflicted about the practicality of taking a clear position. In short, there is a cost to picking a side in a quarrel. He is still counting that cost and is not prepared just yet to pay it. And so he punts.

Biblical Justice

As I wrote back in July of 2019, the first and last reason Christians – and overseers and shepherds in Christ’s Church in particular – need to reject social justice is because it fundamentally perverts biblical justice as God defines such. And therefore social justice perpetrates injustice.

Instead of weighing the actions and statements, or inactions and non-statements of persons based on their objective relation to fixed, universal standards of truth and righteousness, social justice considers first the race, religion, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status of the accused and accusing persons.

This is precisely what God repeatedly tells us not to do throughout both Old and New Testaments.

Yet pastors – including, but not limited to, Kevin DeYoung – know from history and experience that one crowd can cheer and wave palm branches one day, and another crowd can pick up stones and shout “crucify him” another day depending on who stirs them up based on positions taken and not taken, statements made and not made.

The Apostle Paul chided the church in Corinth, but he could just as easily have written this to the church in America.

“Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!”

In a word, the conclusion of the matter should be conclusive. We Christians do not do justice when we punt on questions of biblical justice.

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to seven children - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.