Darrow Miller and Friends

Reflections on Social Justice: First, Define the Terms

After Scott Allen’s recent post, What Exactly Do You Mean By “Social Justice?” our readers asked for more. So this is the first in a series we plan to publish on issues related to social justice.

Many young Christians care about social justice. They believe Christ followers should be concerned with the poor, with the care of creation, and other political, economic, and social issues. They see in the Bible God calling his people to feed the poor, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and seek justice in the public square and the marketplace.

Admonitions in both testaments provide the motivation and the context for our engagement in social justice. Here are some examples in the Old Testament:

– Zechariah 7:9-10: This is what the LORD Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.”

– Isaiah 1:17: Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

– Psalm 82:3: Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.

– Micah 6:8: He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Similarly the New Testament makes social justice a major thrust of the expansion of the kingdom of God. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

– Matt 22:37-39: Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

He also reminds us that when he returns he will sit on his throne and separate the sheep from the goats based on how we had treated those in need.

– Matthew 25: 34-40: Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Likewise the Apostle Paul implores us to have the mind of Christ.

– Phil. 2: 3-4: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Many young Christian read these passages and wonder how their fathers could miss something so obvious. How could their predecessors be so consumed with “spiritual salvation” and so unconcerned for the cultural mandate and “thy kingdom come”? Writing in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, C.S. Lewis speaks of the church’s culpability:

But it did not happen, however, without sins on our parts: for that justice and that care for the poor which (most mendaciously) the Communists advertise, we in reality ought to have brought about ages ago. But far from it: we Westerners preached Christ with our lips. With our actions we brought slavery of Mammon. We are more guilty than the infidels: for to those that know the will of God and do it not, the greater the punishment. (Pg 38)

The question is not Should Christians engage in social justice? The question is How can we best ensure that justice flourishes in all areas of life – economic, political, social, et al?

Before we proceed, let’s define the term “social justice.” Then we will reflect on the historical background of the term.

Social justice refers to justice in the social arena. The two words to be examined (from Webster’s 1828 dictionary) are:

Justice n. [L. justitia, from justus, just.] The virtue which consists in giving to every one what is his due; practical conformity to the laws and to principles of rectitude in the dealings of men with each other; honesty; integrity in commerce or mutual intercourse. Justice is distributive or commutative. Distributive justice belongs to magistrates or rulers, and consists in distributing to every man that right or equity which the laws and the principles of equity require; or in deciding controversies according to the laws and to principles of equity. Commutative justice consists in fair dealing in trade and mutual intercourse between man and man.

Social: a. [L. socialis, from socius, companion.] Pertaining to society; relating to men living in society. or to the public as an aggregate body; as social interests or concerns; social pleasures; social benefits; social happiness; social duties. True self-love and social are the same.

Note that in the social realm there are two elements of distributive justice – that granted by the government which renders equity to each citizen and equality before the law, and commutative justice – that granted in the market place through free and fair exchange between peoples. This is “social” justice in that it deals with justice in the community, between citizens and their neighbors.

Author and economic and social philosopher, Michael Novak, writes, “Social Justice is capacity to organize with others to accomplish certain ends for the good of the whole community.”[1] He continues,

Social justice is a virtue, a habit that people internalize and learn, a capacity. Its capacity has two sides: first, a capacity to organize with others to accomplish particular ends and second, ends that are extra-familial. They’re for the good of the neighborhood, or the village, or the town, or the state, or the country, or the world…. [It] is the new order of the ages.[2]

Justice is a product of kingdom culture, it is doing what is good and right towards people as well as righting the wrongs that have been done to people.

Next we will answer the question What is the historic root of the term social justice?

– Darrow Miller

[1] Novak; Michael; Socail Justice: Not What You Think It Is; Heritage Lectres; The Heritage Fundation; December 29, 2009; pg 1

[2] Ibid Novak; pg. 10

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Darrow is co-founder of the Disciple Nations Alliance and a featured author and teacher. For over 30 years, Darrow has been a popular conference speaker on topics that include Christianity and culture, apologetics, worldview, poverty, and the dignity of women. From 1981 to 2007 Darrow served with Food for the Hungry International (now FH association), and from 1994 as Vice President. Before joining FH, Darrow spent three years on staff at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland where he was discipled by Francis Schaeffer. He also served as a student pastor at Northern Arizona University and two years as a pastor of Sherman Street Fellowship in urban Denver, CO. In addition to earning his Master’s degree in Adult Education from Arizona State University, Darrow pursued graduate studies in philosophy, theology, Christian apologetics, biblical studies, and missions in the United States, Israel, and Switzerland. Darrow has authored numerous studies, articles, Bible studies and books, including Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Culture (YWAM Publishing, 1998), Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women for Building Healthy Cultures (InterVarsity Press, 2008), LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day (YWAM, 2009), Rethinking Social Justice: Restoring Biblical Compassion (YWAM, 2015), and more. These resources along with links to free e-books, podcasts, online training programs and more can be found at Disciple Nations Alliance (https://disciplenations.org).


  1. Scott Cooke

    January 19, 2012 - 1:34 pm

    “On earth as it is in Heaven” should be a natural out working of our relationship with Christ and our study of Scripture – all to reveal Christs love for the lost.

  2. Jeremiah Rice

    January 20, 2012 - 10:32 am

    Thanks for the follow-up, Darrow. My facebook link to Scott’s post has 57 comments from people who have thoughtfully considered the topic.