Why can't I "see" justice in the New Testament?

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I’m starting a new blog series on Justice in the New Testament because I want to get beyond the surface “Is justice in the Bible?” conversations. It seems like because justice is being re-discovered in American Evangelical churches, the only teaching we get is the “Justice 101: Don’t freak out, yes social justice is a Christian thing, too” sermons. When we are only asking whether justice is even in there, we miss out on so much. Specifically, I think Evangelicals are confused about how social justice/justice and righteousness fit into the New Testament.

YES, justice is in the Bible, AND we need the Bible to guide us into how to practically do it everyday. We need to go far beyond surface, 101 level sermons. The Bible- Old and New Testaments- gives us revelation, principles, and models for doing justice, all of which makes us more effective in our work and helps our own lives thrive in the process. Doing justice is hard, and the Bible is a massive resource for us.

To start, I want to go through some of what I think are some of the reasons why Western Evangelical Christians have a hard time seeing justice and righteousness/social justice in the New Testament:

  1. Translation challenges. The word “justice” doesn’t appear much in most English translations of the New Testament- often 10 or less times. Unfortunately, this can make it hard to see how we are supposed to do justice while following Jesus when it looks like He hardly ever says the word, along with all the other New Testament writers. This is a result of an issue translating the Greek work dikaosuine into English. It can mean both justice and righteousness, but it’s almost exclusively translated as righteousness. Righteousness in our culture has a meaning that is almost exclusively connected private morality. That can make it seem like sitting around in church buildings not doing drugs, having sex or watching PG-13 movies as the highest expression of a Christ-centered life. Righteousness is right, does right, and makes right- and that kind of righteous influence is needed in all parts of society. This translation challenge will be explained in more detail in a later post.

  2. Historical reasons. In the early 1900’s, many white Protestant churches split over ’social justice or the gospel,’ in large part due to a reaction to the Social Gospel movement. This particular time in history forced the question “Do we choose the gospel or justice?”— but that is a question that the Bible and God never ask. The God who brings us salvation also reigns in justice and righteousness. The ‘gospel OR justice’ legacy continues today. Because of a century of teaching that social justice is anti-Biblical (instead of being taught the biblical foundations of it), many Christians reject social justice out of a genuine desire to follow Christ. Christians can do both justice and the gospel, as many Civil Rights movement leaders modeled. Churches at in the early 1900’s were unfortunately racially segregated. Black churches didn’t experience the same split over the gospel or justice. In the Civil Rights movement, so many powerful leaders were African American faith leader because they didn’t have to choose between ‘justice or the gospel’ in the same way that many white churches did. In that movement, black Christian leaders were the ones initiating social change based on biblical principles. This is an important leadership lesson for the whole church, if we want to see faith leaders championing and sustaining social transformation, we need a Biblical understanding that doesn’t force us to choose ‘justice or the gospel.’ The gospel leads to justice for us individually and propels us to bring justice and righteousness in the world.

  3. Western meanings of justice. Justice has a legal flavor in English, and it can be hard for Western-minded Christians to learn to do justice without laws. The things we often connect to justice, including judgement, condemnation, punishment, don’t fit into our understanding of a God in the New Testament, full of grace and mercy. Jesus didn’t bring a whole new law code with Him. Instead, He brought us a fully restored relationship to God, a new nature, complete freedom, and access to the Holy Spirit. He brought us into a totally new kind of life—a life that flows from within and is guided by a transformed heart. To many with our law-and-order equals justice Western minds, those things Jesus brought seems to not relate to doing justice. When we bring the kingdom of God on earth, and restoration and wholeness come— that is justice. Compassion, mercy, grace, freedom are what our justice should look like in the world. The chapter “Lawless Love” in my book God Loves Justice explores this topic more.

  4. Social translation challenges. Many/most/all of the revolutionary social parts of Jesus’ life and teachings are missed because we are so far removed from the His cultural context. When we read the stories and commands of Jesus, we often miss what the meant in their social context. He talked to, validated, and included women, children, and Samaritans. In Jesus’ time, those actions carried massive implications. The social world excluded people based on age, race and gender, but Jesus includes them as essential, public parts of His ministry. It should be normal for Christians to do the things that are socially revolutionary. People that have lost their value or worth in the sight of the world should find family in the church. Christians should constantly uplift, include, and value the people that human societies push away. He calls us to join an “Upside Down Kingdom,” which should call us to question the traditional social hierarchies in the world, instead of to defend and sustain them. To follow Christ should cause us to do things that look revolutionary to the social order of the world.

There are many other reasons beside these four. These are just four that I want to address to start this series on Justice in the New Testament. Are there any additional ones that you can think of?