“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” quipped Inigo Montoya to Vizzini in the cult classic, homeschooler-beloved movie “The Princess Bride,” arguably one of the most quotable movies from the late 1980s.
Over 30 years later, I regularly have the same reaction when I hear anyone talking about justice in general these days, and particularly when I hear Christians talking about social justice. While many (if not all) Christians who use the term positively may be well-intentioned, the truth is that word, really, that phrase — Social Justice — doesn’t mean what they think it means.
So, what does “Social Justice” really mean and how is it different from the “Biblical Justice” that Christians should advocate for? To help us answer these questions, let me first define my terms.
Justice, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the “maintenance of what is just or right by the exercise of authority or power; assignment of deserved reward or punishment.” Or we could say that justice is receiving what is due to you as a human being made in the image of God. Understood rightly, justice is synonymous with words like “righteousness” and “goodness.” In short, justice is both giving and receiving that which is just.
This begs several questions: Who determines what is just? By what standard do we know what is right or fair? What is due or owed to each one of us? Some may answer that “law” determines what is just. But not all man-made laws are just — not even close. In the United States, it is the law of the land that unborn children can be killed at the whim of their mothers, due to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973. Just because it’s the law doesn’t mean it’s upholding justice.
Augustine, Aquinas, and even Martin Luther King Jr. recognized this tension — this need for a transcendent moral standard by which to judge the laws and justice of man — and they all came to the same, unavoidable conclusion: God alone can determine what is right and wrong, what is just or unjust. As Dr. King put it in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God.”
The Law of God — His basis for justice — is most clearly manifest in the Ten Commandments, found in Exodus 20:1-17. These moral imperatives, reflecting God’s perfect character, are then summarized in the “Royal Law” (James 2:8) by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-39: “‘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.’”
First and foremost, we see that Biblical Justice is defined by God and God alone. Second, we know that true, final, and perfect justice will ultimately be rendered by God to each man after their death. While man-made systems of justice may fail, nothing gets by God. Even though divine justice serves as a comforting backstop, God makes it clear he wants mankind to strive to render true justice, even in this fallen world. Thus, the delivery of the Ten Commandments and the Royal Law. These should serve as the moral baseline for all rightly structured systems of human laws and judicial enforcement.
Biblical Justice can thus be defined like so: Treating others, in all areas of life, in such a way as to uphold God’s revealed standards of good and evil (giving them what they are due as image bearers) and rendering judgments through duly-enacted means of human judicial enforcement that punish wrongdoers and reward the injured accordingly.
The reality is that once you start slapping adjectives like “social” or “racial” or anything else in front of the word “justice” you immediately change the meaning of the word. It’s like putting ketchup on steak — it ruins it. To be fair, I advocated for “Biblical Justice” above, which might look hypocritical in contrast to saying that any word before justice ruins the word. But Biblical Justice, I would posit, is consistent with objective justice and doesn’t give it a different meaning than we have today. Biblical Justice displays how the Bible advocates for justice whereas Social Justice tries to change justice’s definition and application.
Coming back to our well-meaning but ill-informed Christian friends, keep in mind that they probably think of Social Justice as simply “righting the wrongs in society” or “defending the vulnerable.” They would say that Social Justice is doing things like ending slavery, fighting poverty, or even taking up the pro-life cause.
While these are all virtuous undertakings, and yes, each of these is a “justice” issue, the sad fact is that this is not what Social Justice, as an all-encompassing ideology and worldview, has come to mean today in 21st century America. In Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice, Dr. Thaddeus Williams argues (I think mistakenly) for Christians to keep using the term Social Justice, but to differentiate between the different types of Social Justice. Nevertheless, he too recognizes the reality that “in the last few years, social justice has taken on an extremely charged political meaning…this ideological definition of social justice has been enshrined in many minds not as a way to but as the way to think about justice.” (pp. 4-5)
On this point, he’s right. What was, perhaps, once an anodyne phrase has morphed into an entire worldview, one that is antithetical to the Christian worldview and understanding of justice.
But what is that worldview? In his recently released book Christianity and Wokeness: How the Social Justice Movement is Hijacking the Gospel—and the Way to Stop It, Dr. Owen Strachan defines Social Justice as historically referring to “broad attempts to fight against unfair inequalities that exist in civic life and to hold unjust perpetrators accountable.” But now, “in woke thought, this phrase alludes to the twofold practice of deconstructing white power and redistributing power to minorities.” (p. 212)
Owen also hits the nail on the head here. The animating heartbeat of modern Social Justice is radical deconstruction. In summary, Social Justice — as commonly used and understood in American society — now refers to political actions taken to liberate those perceived to be in an “oppressed” identity group suffering under the “oppressors.” These political actions include dismantling, deconstructing, or reordering society and its structures. The “oppressed” identity groups in this narrative most commonly include racial minorities, women, the LGBT community, and so forth.
What does this mean in practice? It means things like on-demand abortion for “reproductive justice,” socialism for “economic justice,” forcing Christians to violate their sincerely-held religious beliefs to participate in celebrations of gay marriage for “LGBT justice,” and so on.
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, let me make it very clear: Social Justice isn’t justice.
It is, to borrow a phrase from Douglas Murray, merely the “Madness of Crowds” making moral judgments on a moment-by-moment basis. It is not grounded in a metaphysical ethical order or righteous system, like Christianity, and it doesn’t respect the Natural Law of the Imago Dei of all humans. Rather, Social Justice in the 21st century is essentially a comprehensive system of political activism, often motivated by grievances, seeking to radically reshape culture.
Now that we have defined our terms, let’s consider three key differences between Biblical Justice and Social Justice.
God is a God of justice. The concept of true, divine justice is rooted in His character (Psalm 82:3-4, Psalm 89:14). Therefore, Biblical Justice is pure, always upholding good and denouncing evil. Modern Social Justice is often the opposite. Rather than flowing from God’s infinite holiness, Social Justice is the philosophical product of fallen man.
As currently manifested, with its particular bend on overthrowing the nuclear family, undermining male leadership in the Church, promoting socialist economic policies, propping up the LGBTQ+ cause, and advancing transgender totalitarianism, it should surprise no one that Social Justice is the fruit of thinkers such as Karl Marx, Michael Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Antonio Gramsci, and modern movements like Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA.
Deuteronomy 17:6 states, “On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.” Why the requirement for multiple witnesses? To ensure that punishment (justice) is rendered based on objective reality, tethered to verifiable facts, and not simply the subjective interpretation or opinion of an alleged victim. Social Justice doesn’t work like this.
In the court of Social Justice, as demonstrated by the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, all that is required to render a guilty verdict is the unsubstantiated allegation of one person. Thankfully, Justice Kavanaugh was able to weather the storm of Social Justice that descended on his hearings. Had the Social Justicians gotten their way, he would have been declared guilty on sheer subjective hearsay — and considering the party-line vote, they almost did get their way.
What do I mean by this? The Bible makes it clear that God is not a respecter of persons. God deals with each one of us not on the basis of our skin color or our sex, but on the basis of our sin. Ultimately, God will render impartial judgment on our lives when we die and stand before Him, and the only “identity” that will matter on that day is whether we are “in Christ” or not. This reality is also reflected in how God expects man to judge each other.
Leviticus 19:15 says: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” However, under a system of Social Justice, partiality is not just expected, but required. For example, Christopher F. Rufo recently revealed how one of the nation’s largest defense contractors, Raytheon, is using Social Justice ideology in their employee training. The training tells the “privileged employees” (those who are white or straight or male or Christian) that they must learn to recognize when “other voices are more important than your own.” This is explicit partiality: Saying that someone’s voice is not as important simply due to immutable characteristics like skin color or their sincerely held religious beliefs. The Bible knows nothing of this sort of “justice.”
Conclusion and Action Items
As Scott David Allen has warned in his excellent book Why Social Justice Is Not Biblical Justice: An Urgent Appeal to Fellow Christians in a Time of Social Crisis, “Justice is one of the most important words in the Bible. It is one of the most important concepts in any culture. If the Bible-believing church abandons genuine justice in favor of a destructive cultural counterfeit, who will be left to uphold and defend the truth? The stakes are very high.” (p. 9)
The stakes are indeed very high. That is why every word counts when it comes to combating this deceptive and dangerous ideology that is washing over our country in a frenzy and tearing apart our social order and sense of true justice.
If after reading this you are committed to doing your part to push back on the unbiblical ideology of social justice, let me finish by offering you three simple action items.
Let us reject this dangerous ideology, and all of its wicked worldview assumptions, and recapture a glorious, righteous vision of divinely-determined Biblical Justice instead. It is then, and only then, that our societies will be truly just.