Social Justice or Justice in Society: What’s the Difference?

The debate over social justice in the church is a confusing and sometimes antagonistic mess. There are many reasons for this, but I think one of the chief reasons for the confusion is that there are two definitions of social justice in play. This can lead to Christians who agree on what is right and wrong thinking that they disagree, because they have different definitions of the phrase ‘social justice’. This is both bothersome and unhelpful to the ongoing discussion. Some very dangerous and even downright sinful ideas are being introduced into the church in the name of social justice, while other Christians stand for Biblical principles of justice and call that social justice.

The first step to straightening out this headache-inducing blunderfest is to have a clear definition of both kinds of ‘social justice’.

The first kind of social justice, the good kind, starts with a Biblical framework for its worldview and then uses the Bible to determine what justice is, then applies that worldview to society. Adherents to this approach almost universally believe that humans are basically sinful and are accountable for their own actions. The ultimate cause of societal ills, according to adherents of this position, is mankind’s sinful nature, which can only be truly corrected by repentance leading to salvation on an individual level.

The second kind of social justice, the bad kind, starts with a secular worldview, although its adherents will deny this. Specifically, they start by viewing the world through the lens of intersectionality, which divides people into levels of oppression based on immutable characteristics such as skin color or sex, and Critical Theory, which seeks to dismantle ‘systems of oppression’, which in practice is shorthand for ‘anything that interferes with our political goals’. With this lens firmly in place and Democratic party talking points at the ready (at least that’s how it looks), they then look at scripture to justify the dictates of intersectionality and Critical Theory. While some proponents of this view may espouse the belief that humans are basically sinful, their adherence to intersectionality causes them to attribute guilt to people based on their intersectional oppression group, rather than by what they personally have done. There is very little emphasis in this movement on the proclamation of the gospel, as it is exchanged for ‘social justice’. For adherents of this position, the ultimate cause of all evil in society is straight white men, who must be driven out of the public square so that everyone else can have power.

The confusion between these two definitions is understandable, as the words ‘social justice’ fit both, but they are so different that using the same phrase for both is confusing and unhelpful. We need to clear up this confusion so that we can discuss the issue with clarity.

I think the best position for those in the first camp, who I broadly agree with, is to stop calling it social justice, even though the name applies perfectly well. The meaning of ‘social justice’ in the broader society outside the church is almost universally the second position, meaning that we have to clarify that we’re not talking about ‘that social justice’ when we talk about the issue. A better phrase, in my opinion, would be ‘justice in society’, or something along those lines, as it reflects the goal, a society whose laws are just and where people treat each other justly, while being different  enough from ‘social justice’ that people won’t expect us to chuck milkshakes at their heads if they disagree with us.

What it comes down to is that using a phrase with two mutually exclusive definitions is going to cause confusion, which is bad for dialogue. Since it’s highly unlikely that the left-leaning users of the phrase ‘social justice’ will abandon it, it’s up to the bible-oriented camp to change terminology to help clear the air. It’s not the only thing that needs to be done, but I believe it will be very helpful in letting each other know where we all stand.

One thought on “Social Justice or Justice in Society: What’s the Difference?

  1. I don’t seem able to find social justice in the Great Commission ( also known as the Missions Mandate) given to the church. Social justice theology is an unholy union of Marxism-Leninism (socialism) and works salvation headed up and run by a theological elite. The church must remain focused on what the Lord has commanded us to do – preach the Gospel to every creature. While the world tries to right injustices (real, perceived or contrived) by controlling men, we endeavor to show men how to be released from the bondage of sin.
    Good article, Ian.


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