Thinking About Religion
Volume 11 (2014)

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The Biblical Foundation for Social Justice:
Why Fox News’ Glenn Beck and Conservative Theologians Jerry Falwell and Peter Lillback are Wrong

Joseph Osei and Paul Boaheng
Fayetteville State University,


‘Social Justice,’ a fundamental concept underpinning the Civil Rights Movement, has come under sustained attack in recent years by key conservative media personnel and theologians. Some primary detractors include Glenn Beck of Fox News, Rev. Dr. Jerry Falwell, Chancellor of Liberty University, and Rev. Dr. Peter Lillback, President of Westminster Seminary.[1]

In a Fox News TV interview on May 18, 2010, Glen Beck said, “’Social Justice’ is not in the founding documents of the United States nor in the Bible.” Referencing Christianity and Liberalism, a book written by Dr. John Graham Machen, Peter Lillback said that liberals have intentionally twisted the meaning into a Marxist class-warfare term as if it referred to economic redistribution from one class to another:

Justice is a biblical word. That ‘social justice’ is taking away each individual getting his due. Instead, what [liberals are] saying is a whole class needs to get its due. And a class structure system is really a result of Marxist thought.[2]

 Lillback maintains that the term “justice” is in the Bible but “social justice” is not. He is also alleging that liberals presume it is, and they intentionally use the term as a code name for Marxist socialism. Their rationale, according to Lillback, is providing justification for class warfare with liberals demanding income redistribution on behalf of the poor class that “needs to get its due.” Lillback says:

And what liberalism did is that it said, we no longer can believe in Jesus as God or Jesus crucified and risen and coming again. We can't believe that. So, what we've done is we kept all the language and we've changed its meaning. And that is social justice thinking: It's liberalism in the cloak of Christianity. That was Dr. Machen's fundamental insight. [3]

Lillback is associating himself with the position of Machen, his predecessor at Westminster, who identified ‘social justice’ with ‘the social gospel’ and condemned “Social gospel as a terrible warning.” Lillback is claiming liberals hide behind the Social Gospel to misidentify (spiritual) salvation as feeding the poor to rationalize their policy of economic redistribution in terms of Bible-based Christian ethics.[4]

Machen, nicknamed by his colleagues as “Mr. Fundamentalist,” was generally concerned about the corrupting influence of politics on Christianity. He was both the founder and former President of Westminster Seminary. Within a few years of his departure from his professorship at Princeton, Machen founded the Westminster Seminary and planted the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (CPC) as a protest against the liberalism in the mainstream United States Presbyterian Church [5]

It is tempting to ignore the conservative assault on this concept as empty conservative rhetoric, given the political outlook since President Obama entered the political scene in 2006.  On the contrary, our position is that the attack on ‘Social Justice’ should not be ignored or marginalized but corrected for several reasons.

First, if these three conservative analysts are right, then there is no biblical basis for condemning many human rights violations such as genocide, slavery, and terrorism. Similarly, rights of citizens to conduct peaceful protests against environmental injustices, unjust wars, and the marginalization of the poor or handicapped cannot be justified on biblical grounds.   

Second, if they are right, then Martin Luther King, Jr., the icon of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 60’s, was wrong, when he used both the Old and New Testaments to justify his call for social justice. Equally wrong would be other prominent human and civil rights activists such as Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Dr. James Cones, Rev. Dr. Cornel West, and Bishop Tutu of South Africa.[6]

Third, if the critics are right, then the official position against apartheid, oppression, racism, terrorism, and economic exploitation held by various Christian denominations and organizations such as the World Council of Churches (WCC) and its Catholic counterpart, The Pontifical Council for Promoting Church Unity (PCPCU) should all be dismissed as unbiblical.

Our objective is to defend Social Justice against the attacks by the detractors named above.  We recognize the term ‘Social Justice’ has a firm Biblical foundation like the term ‘Holy Trinity’ even if the term cannot be located in the Bible.  The term ‘Social Justice,’ was first introduced by a Catholic educator in 1850 contra Peter Lillback.[7] Since the introduction of the term the Catholic Church, United Methodist Church, and the Seventh Day Adventist Church have used Social Justice as a key concept in advocating and justifying the Church’s collective mission to society in opposing social injustice against the poor, minorities, women, and other vulnerable or marginalized members of society.

I. Conceptual Analyses and Clarification

 For clarification let us compare their definition of social justice with two popular and readily accessible definitions.

  1. According to, “’Social Justice’ means fair and proper administration of laws conforming to the natural law that all persons, irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, possessions, race, religion, etc. It demands that all persons be treated equally or fairly, and without prejudice.”[8]

  2. 2. The Illustrated Pocket Bible Dictionary offers the following definition: 

    ‘Social Justice’ or simply ‘Justice’ without the adjective means the order that God seeks to reestablish in His creation where all people are treated fairly and impartially (Gen. 18:25). As the Sovereign Creator of the universe God is just (Deut. 12:4). God’s justice towards us is more clearly as the defender of the oppressed of the earth (Jer. 49: 11) Justice is therefore a universal concept applicable to each covenant or dispensation.  (Psalm 9:7-9)[9]

Central to both definitions is the concept of fairness to all people irrespective of their religion, race, gender, education, or nationality.  In other words, Social Justice aims at creating a moral order in which everyone is accorded respect and dignity, and everyone is treated equally or fairly as the situation may demand. It is simply treating others the way we would like to be treated as prescribed by the ethical imperative for all Christian believers and institutions based on the Golden Rule. (Matt. 6: 36)

II. The Biblical Basis for Social Justice

The burden of this Section is to show that the conception of social justice and civil rights used by King builds upon relevant biblical passages and ethical principles from both the Old and New Testaments.  Church leaders’ concern for social justice and civil rights is certainly not a recent phenomenon. The evidence begins from the prophetic activities of the OT, the prophetic ministry of Christ and his disciples, and the apostles in the New Testament.  For economy of space only a few outstanding examples can be examined.

A. Social Justice in Old Testament (O.T.)

For most African-Americans as well as third world theologians and church leaders, the liberation of Israel from Egyptian captivity is not only a supreme example of the redemptive act of God in the OT, but it is also the paradigm case of redemption. It reveals a dominant attribute of God that is most relevant in dealing with all forms of oppression of minorities and other people in the Third World. God is the supreme liberator from social injustice.

The Decalogue, that is, the Ten Commandments that sealed the Sinai covenant has been described by biblical scholars as a type of suzerainty agreement or treaty; and so like other suzerainty treaties, it includes stipulations to the subordinate party. These Ten Commandments are taken to be stipulations to a subordinate party.  Six of the ten commands forbid injustices against fellow human beings and are therefore examples of social injustices to avoid.

Honor your father and your mother
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
You shall not covert your neighbor’s house…wife,…servants or  any property which is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20: 13-17) 

As they were getting settled in Canaan the Lord warned Israel again against social injustices through the Deuteronomist: Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; but you shall hear the small as well as the great; you shall not be afraid of the face of man, for the judgment is God’s.” (Deut 1:17).

The Old Testament also features another prophetic giant opposed to social injustice, the prophet Amos. With no biological or political attachment to the corruption-tainted professional prophets or politicians of his time and their families, Amos, an ordinary peasant from the North, was inspired to boldly condemn political oppression, slavery, economic exploitation, and other forms of social injustice in the name of God.  Amos 5:11-12 says, “You trample upon the poor and force them to give you grain. You oppress the righteous and take bribes, and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. ”

            At great risk to his life Amos also attacked the political and religious authorities for their empty religious ostentation and hypocrisies and challenged them saying: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21)

Another charismatic Old Testament prophet was Micah. He declared that God was not as interested in the religious rites and sacrifices of the rich and powerful as He was in social justice. He begins the second chapter with the warning: “Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds’ and carry them out in the morning because it was in their power to do it.” Micah is reminding them about their covenant-relationship with God and reminding them that as covenant people they should not do whatever they want to others just because they can. The prophet goes on to say, “They covert their fields and seize them and their houses. They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance.”(Micah 2:1-2) In a rhetorical tone Micah also asked, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6: 8).

The prophet Isaiah was the only Old Testament prophet who had the opportunity to warn his people against injustice towards God and social injustices in the periods preceding the exile, during the exile, as well as after the exile in Babylon. His warnings against social injustices included the following three passages:

  1. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the defenseless and plea the cause of the widow. (Is. 1: 17)

  2. (God) will judge the poor fairly and defend the rights of the helpless. At His command the unjust people will be punished, and evil persons will die. (Is. 11: 4)

  3. The Lord is ready to state his case; he is ready to judge his people. 14 The Lord is bringing the elders and leaders of his people to judgment. He makes this accusation: ‘You have plundered vineyards, and your houses are full of what you have taken from the poor. 15 You have no right to crush my people and take advantage of the poor. I, the Sovereign Lord Almighty, have spoken. (Isaiah 3:13-15)

 Isaiah’s post exilic prophecies against social injustices included the use of rhetorical questions, and they were as colorful as they were powerful. The following two passages are not the only ones, but among the typical ones:

  1. “Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chain of injustice and untie the cords of yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Is. 58: 6) 
  2. “I love justice and I hate oppression and crime.” (Is 61:8)

Each of Isaiah’s warnings were issued amidst a litany of sins of disobedience to God and ended with how God would visit them with Divine justice if they failed to repent of their injustices toward God and each other. It is also important to note God not only hates oppression, but he also opposes those who seek social justice or revenge through theft, robbery and similar unjust means.

The prophet Jeremiah was a contemporary of Isaiah and no less active in the pre-exilic period. For his passion and persistence in warning the people of God even as they whipped him he was nicknamed “The weeping prophet.” When it came to speaking God’s truth to the rich and powerful on behalf of the oppressed, Jeremiah was no coward. Like Amos, Micah and Isaiah, he boldly condemned the social injustices of his day perpetrated by the rich and the most powerful.  He says:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice. Woe to him who makes his neighbor serves him for nothing and does not give him his wages. (Jer. 22: 13-17)

Among those using slave labor and refusing to pay workers in Jeremiah’s time was King Jehoiakim, a sharp contrast to his father King Josiah, the reformer. Yet, Jeremiah was willing to risk his life in pursuit of social justice by asking him why he makes his neighbors work like slaves without paying them. Reflecting about Jeremiah’s concept of knowing God, the Latin American theologian, Jose Miranda, observes, “Yahweh is known only in the human act of achieving justice and compassion for the neighbor.”[10]

Similar passages could be cited from the Psalms, Hosea, Habakkuk and Malachi etc. Hence, we believe Civil Rights activists in the US and elsewhere are justified in preaching and protesting against social injustices since they are simply walking in the shoes of Biblical prophets including Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah.

B. Social Justice in the New Testament: (N.T.)

The NT not only assumes the social justice paradigm of the OT but reinforces it with the teachings of Jesus, Peter, Paul and other Christian leaders. In his ‘manifesto’ at the inauguration of his ministry in Galilee Jesus said,   

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the Gospel (Good News) to the poor; ... to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed. (NKJV, Luke 4:18-19)

Some conservative theologians interpret the word ‘poor’ in this passage in purely spiritual terms devoid of any social or political implications. We believe such narrow interpretations should however be rejected. The Greek word ‘ptochos’ means poor in the socio-economic sense as analyzed by the NT scholar, Rev Dr. Emmanuel Asante.[11]  Throughout his ministry Christ demonstrated his concern for the poor and marginalized while criticizing their oppressors compelling some critics to admit publicly that he was no respecter of persons, but of God and truth. (Mark 12: 14).

On the question of whether God would discriminate among people in his plan of salvation Peter discovered to his own surprise that God’s answer was a firm “No.” When he saw that new Gentile converts to the Church were speaking in tongues like their Jewish counterparts, Peter proclaimed, “I perceive that God is not a respecter of persons but he that fears him and works righteousness in every nation...” (Acts 10:34-35) In the light of this experience, Peter came to appreciate thoroughly the fundamental impartiality and fairness of God. Subsequently Peter strongly defended an ethic of distributive justice and consequently dismissed racial or ethnic discrimination against all Gentiles or Non-Jews. The impartiality of God is by no means a novel concept or doctrine introduced by Peter. Deuteronomist historians took note of God’s warnings against partiality or discrimination eight hundred years earlier in Deuteronomy, when they said,

You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small as well as the great; you shall not be afraid in any man’s presence, for the judgment is the Lord’s. (Deut. 1:17.)

Compared with Peter, Paul was even more emphatic in his defense of God as a God of justice. For Paul, God is not merely impartial in his treatment of people, but fights on the side of the oppressed wherever there is oppression and injustice. According to Paul, God has deliberately chosen the “foolish,” the “weak,” and the “despised” people of the world as instruments of his salvation in order to confound the wise and the mighty. (I Corinthians. 1: 25-27). For in Christ all people are one, meaning: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. (Gal 3:28). The ‘oneness’ used in this context is in the judicial sense.  Therefore it does not mean unity but equality before the moral law. (Colossians 3:11)  Any intentional denial of equality by means of slavery or discrimination is not just a violation of human rights but an affront to the God of justice.

The women of the NT understood and affirmed that God is a God of social justice or fairness. Mary’s Magnificat has been celebrated by liberation theologians as a revolutionary statement within the context of her socio-economic and political milieu, a strict patriarchy in which women were mostly considered as maids for men and unfit for spiritual leadership.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
Who has regarded the low estate of God’s handmaid?
God has...put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted those of low degree;
Has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent empty away...” (Luke 1: 46-55)

 To infer from this biblical passage that Mary’s speech is revolutionary even by today’s feminist standards is no exaggeration. Her speech is analogous to saying God has intervened in the ongoing American economic crisis and reversed the fortunes of the 1% for the fortunes of the 99%.[12] It is unfair to suggest, as some critics have done, that her statement justifies any call for communism or socialism.

Anna, recognized as another NT prophetess, celebrated God’s commitment to social justice on seeing the week-old baby Jesus being introduced in the Temple. She prophesied praising God and thanking him on behalf of “all who looked to him for the redemption in Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:48). Luke summarizes her prophecy in a few but profound words that show Anna recognizes baby Jesus as the long-promised Messiah who has come to redeem people from oppression and other forms of social injustice.

The foregoing references by no means include all the social justice usages in the NT. However, judging from the social justice principles presented or implied from Christ’s Manifesto to Mary’s Magnificat, Anna’s prophecy, Peter’s experience with the Holy Spirit’s baptism of Gentiles and Paul’s reflections on Christ’s attitude to all people, we believe that social justice is a biblical concept even if one does not literally see the two words ‘social justice’ printed in the biblical texts. Glenn Beck and his media associates are therefore wrong in claiming that social justice is not found in the Bible.

III. Social Justice and Civil Rights in King’s Ethics

King maintained that freedom is an essential part of social justice in the sense that a society without freedom is an unjust society.  His conception of social justice included the struggle for freedom, human and civil rights as well as equality and fairness to all people. King also construed justice to mean fairness in a broad sense ranging over how individuals treat each other to relations within and between social and political institutions. Thus as a theologian and a philosopher, King preached and argued against both interpersonal racism and structural or institutional racism as forms of social injustice.

More specifically, King pointed out particular social injustices prevalent within the socio-political context of segregation and related injustices in the (American) South in the 1950’s and 60’s. These included the denial of due process involved in lynching of hundreds of Black men in the South and the unfair trial of Black cases by all-White jury. Therefore his view of social justice also included the administration of judicial justice regarding the unfairness of its procedures or due process. His march with sanitation workers on strike, his criticism of the low level of minimal wages for ordinary workers, and the long sentences given to Blacks for relatively inconsequential breaches of the law- compared with their White counterparts- imply that King also understood social justice to include distributive justice within the judicial system. 

King was equally concerned with setting right the wrongs from previous injustices in any of the above senses. Consequently he argued in defense of paying reparation to the victims of previous injustices including slavery, segregation and discrimination. Thus, King was an advocate for what Aristotle recognizes as compensatory justice.

For King, the struggle for human rights was inseparable from the struggle for social justice and peace.  The denial of fundamental rights or civil rights in his understanding amounted to the violation of the principles of social justice which often leads to social instabilities and wars. He was not only concerned with civil rights for fellow Blacks, but also with the fundamental human rights of all people; Black or White, liberal or conservative, Americans or Communists - including North Vietnamese; America’s political and ideological opponents in the 1960’s. This global-orientation in his thinking and activism was publicly recognized when King won the Nobel Price for Peace in 1964.

 The Greek word that best captures the comprehensiveness of King’s conception of social justice in the Bible is dikaiosouni, meaning ‘righteousness.’ It refers to a world-order in which the will of God prevails on earth as it does in the Kingdom of God above. King described this utopia as “The Beloved Community,” in which humans are bonded together and treat each other with respect and with God’s agape love.

At King’s Memorial in Washington, DC, opened to the public in August 22, 2011, one will find inscribed in stone, one of King’s famous quotes that rightly summarizes his broad conception of social justice.  It reads,

If you want to say I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter…[13] 

The quote represents an example of humble self- reflection by King on his life and mission; the pursuit of social justice, peace, and the will of God or God’s Kingdom on earth. As Maya Angelo explained, in her protest against the paraphrased version on King’s memorial, King did not want to be remembered for his doctorate, Nobel Prize or other worldly accomplishments after his demise.  It is simultaneously an accurate and a fitting testament to his life and mission as a minister of the Gospel of Christ, a socio-political philosopher-theologian and activist for (positive) social transformation.

How does King’s view of justice compare with classical views like that of Plato? Karl Popper along with other critics of Plato’s Republic suggests that Plato’s idea of justice was not in the typical Western view of retribution. For Plato justice meant harmony or stability, when member of the social class played his or her own natural or legitimate function with no ambition for social mobility or instability. This stability was to be secured at the cost of such inhumane practices as mass eugenics, infanticide, slavery, a rigid totalitarian caste system, censure-ship  and so-called “noble lies” and for that reason, his concept of justice was antithetical to Western or liberal equalitarian and humanitarian conception of the term. Far from being an instrument for liberation, equality or fairness, Plato’s use of the term was designed to rationalize the continued oppression, manipulation, and exploitation of the working class including slaves.

King was prepared to live or die for justice but not for a Platonic justice. It is therefore important to distinguish King’s liberal and transformative conception of justice from that of Plato. Their two conceptions of justice are widely dissimilar. King’s sense of justice is more comparable to John Rawls’ concept of justice as fairness rather than Plato’s concept of justice as harmony. 

Using the analogy of how boils are medically treated, King argued that like a boil, injustice can never be cured as long as it is covered up. To be treated, it must first be opened with all its “pus-flowing ugliness” to the natural medication of air and light. Therefore, King concluded injustice must be exposed to the light of the human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

Similarly, King said it was necessary to have gadflies to create the kind of social tensions in society that will help people “rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”[14]

Insightful as these arguments are for social protest and social justice, King’s views on social justice are best reflected in his defense of civil disobedience based on the natural law theory that has become a classic. In King’s letter from the Birmingham jail, King defended his actions and those of his partners in civil disobedience in terms of just and unjust laws. A just law, he explained, is a man-made law that is consistent with moral law or the law of God. An unjust law, on the contrary, is a code out of harmony or inconsistent with the moral law.  King writes, “To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas:  an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.  Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” [15]

All segregation laws, he continued, are unjust laws, since segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality while simultaneously giving the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. For King segregation is not only psychologically and sociologically unsound, but it is social injustice.

Having thus explained the distinction between the just and the unjust laws, King maintained that he does not advocate the disobedience of just laws since that would lead to anarchy. Rather, he advocates the breaking of the unjust laws.  King says,  “One has a moral obligation to obey just laws. And conversely one has a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws since cooperation with evil is evil.”[16]

King dedicated his whole life to the pursuit of social justice in all of its multiple dimensions as explained above. Not only did King preach, argue, and write about social justice, but he also demonstrated social justice through acts of civil disobedience. King’s commitment to social justice was not only reflected in his theological and philosophical arguments but also in the commitment to non-violent resistance.  Logically and morally his methodology was incompatible with the revolutionary and violent methods advocated by Karl Marx and his followers.

IV. Further Conservative Objections

Conservative critics and others might argue that only extreme liberal theologians or Christian ministers misled by today’s extreme liberalism use or interpret ‘social justice’ in the sense used by King and other Civil Rights activists. To refute such an argument we will cite examples from the Catholic Church and two mainstream Protestant denominations such as the Methodist Church and the Seventh Day Adventist Church. In some instances these predate the criticism of Lilliback and Machen by almost one hundred years.  Finally, we will anticipate and discuss Marxist objections to the conservative views on the Bible, social justice, and socialism.

A. Social Justice in Roman Catholic Theology and Ethics

The Roman Catholic Church has been in the forefront in the struggle for social justice on behalf of the poor and other vulnerable and marginalized members of society both in developed and underdeveloped countries long before Machen’s use of the term in 1923.

Pope Frances, the current Pope, distinguished himself not only in word but also in deed as an advocate for the poor and the marginalized.   He writes:

A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being.[17]


He made this observation in an address to the Organization of Food and Agriculture Organization stressing the lack of fairness in the mode of the distribution of the earth’s resources. He responds,


Poverty calls us to sow hope…. Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures.[18]

The Pope was drawing attention to the significance of Jesus’ teaching about the moral imperative of showing kindness to the hungry, the thirsty, the  stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner etc. (Matt25:34-46) Both passages demonstrate Pope Frances’ understanding of the mission of Christ’s Church and his commitment to social justice in the Bible. They do not represent an attack on mainstream capitalism, as some critics have alleged, but on laissez faire capitalism or the unleashed capitalism driven by greed with little or no concern for the poor and the marginalized. [19]

Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI demonstrated his support for social justice. For example, in 2006 he stated that the Church's active role in social justice should be to inform the debate, using reason and natural law, and to provide moral and spiritual formation for those involved in politics. He also empowered the laity saying, “The laity has the specific responsibility of pursuing social justice in civil society.” [20]

Pope John Paul II likewise made significant contributions to the corpus of Catholic teachings on social justice. He wrote three encyclicals on ethical issues regarding economics, politics, geo-political situations, ownership of the means of production, private property and the "social mortgage." Pope John Paul II was well known globally as a strong advocate of social justice and human rights, and spoke forcefully for the poor. 

As early as 1931, Pope Pius XI provided a prime example of the Catholic Church’s commitment to social justice. He advocated for subsidiarity or a living wage as an improvement on minimal wage, and explained that social justice is a personal virtue as well as an attribute of the social order. Stressing individual responsibility in order to balance state responsibility, he argued, “Society can be just only if individuals and institutions are just.”[21]

As early as 1891 Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes) rejecting both socialism and capitalism, while defending labor unions and private property. Responding to the social instability that led to the rise of socialism in the wake of European industrialization, Pope Leo XIII maintained that society should be based on the principle of cooperation and not on class conflict and competition. In this document, Pope Leo argued that the role of the Church was to promote social justice through the protection of rights. Therefore, it became imperative that the Church address social issues to ensure class cooperation and harmony.

Impressive as his contribution was, Pope Leo XIII was not the first to introduce the term ‘Social Justice’ into the Church or public discourse. Historical documents in the Catholic Church indicate that Pope Leo XIII  was taught by the Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli who introduced the term in the 1840’s in the journal Civiltà Cattolica,  Taparelli reasoned that the opposing economic theories, capitalism and socialism or communism, were based on the subjectivism and individualism associated with Cartesian metaphysics and the collectivism associated with communism, but they both undermined the possibility of unity of society found in the metaphysics of St Thomas Aquinas. As a result, he complained that cooperation could not be expected from liberal capitalists or communists. Consequently, he adopted the term ‘Social Justice’ based on the work of Aquinas.

Given that Taparelli introduced the term in the 1840’s and Machen used the term in 1923, it follows logically that Machen was not the first to use the term as Lillback claims. A distinctive feature of the Catholic social doctrine is their concern for the poorest members of society based on the principle of compassion as Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry.[22]

In general there’s no denying that the Catholic Church taught how social justice is rooted within the teachings and compassionate acts of Christ as early as the nineteenth century.  Likewise the principle of human dignity was articulated by their most-revered philosopher-theologian St. Thomas Aquinas.

B.  Social Justice in the Theology and Ethics of Protestant Churches.

In previous centuries some Protestant Church leaders used the Bible to rationalize slavery, economic exploitation, racial segregation and apartheid etc. Although it has not always met its own expectations, Protestant Churches have generally been committed to the principle and practices of social justice from the time of the Protestant Revolution.  We recount some examples of Protestant Churches that upheld the ideal of social justice.

From its founding, Methodism was a Christian social justice movement. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was among the first to preach for slaves rights attracting significant opposition both in Britain and the United States. Under John Wesley's direction and inspiration Methodists became leaders in many social justice issues of the day in Britain and later in America. They were part of the abolitionist and prison reform movements as well as the movement against child labor, economic exploitation and prison abuse.[23]

Methodists continue to consider themselves advocates for social justice. Prior to their baptism new members are introduced to the teachings of social justice:

We as Christians are called to let our voices be heard, to speak up, and to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.[24]

 Issues of social justice are handled by a special board, the Global Board of Church and Society (GBCS). With offices located symbolically and functionally in Washington DC and in New York, next to the United Nations Office, its mission includes connecting ministries of mercy with ministries of justice, ministries of charity with ministries that promote systemic and sustainable change nationally and globally, as they “continue to be a voice for justice in the corridors of power on Capital Hill in Washington, DC and at the United Nations in New York.”[25]

The Board has led the Church in providing emergency food and development aid as well as affordable health care and university education to many Third World countries and their students in their native countries and abroad.

 Within the US they rightfully count among the principal advocates of Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights Legislation, and Health Care Reform. Long before “Obama Care” became a reality, ‘The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church maintained “It is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care."[26] The Church’s support for Affirmative Action has been firm and unwavering for decades in spite of the recent backlash reported among a significant number of middle class Whites:

We support Affirmative Action as one method of addressing the inequalities and discriminatory practices within our church and society.[27]

United Methodist Bishops were also among the first Church leaders to call for the end of the Cold War and to oppose the Iraqi War. They are presently also advocating for ending the Afghanistan War as well as fighting for raising the minimal wage to help low income families and for equal pay for women as well as equal protection for homosexuals and gays.[28]

Social justice is theologically accepted as part of the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) church’s legitimate mission in all quarters. While Adventists maintain that their ultimate true citizenship is in heaven, they readily acknowledge that they are currently an integral part of human society and; therefore; must share with their fellow human beings certain duties and responsibilities. For example, they believe that they have a duty to protect the poor and alleviate the plight of the needy. Consequently, in 1956, delegates of the church came together to establish the Seventh-day Adventist Welfare Service (SAWS) specifically tasked to help the poor and the needy members of society.

 Similarly, Adventist humanitarian organizations, including the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and Adventist Community Services (ACS), have reached into more than 120 countries and serve tens of millions of people every year.[29] The mission of ADRA is to seek to identify and address social injustice and deprivation notably in developing countries.[30] For example, in response to the devastation brought on by Haiyan in the Philippines, ADRA mobilized in the areas of North Cebu and Iloilo. The team distributed more than 3,500 emergency food packs and 5,000 emergency shelter tarps. Generally, the agency has invested in the poor and the deprived in developing countries such as Ghana, Liberia, and Ivory Coast through community development, primary health and basic education. Adventists believe that they are called beyond preaching and teaching to a ministry of serving and acting on behalf of the poor and oppressed. In short, they believe that promotion of social justice is as integral and legitimate as preaching and teaching the word of God. 

 Thus, at the 2010 General Conference Session, the SDA church issued an official statement on global poverty. The statement places a special emphasis on social justice with its corollary human rights. Adventists worldwide embraced the idea that working to reduce poverty and hunger means more than showing sympathy for the poor and the oppressed.  It means advocating for public policy that offers justice and fairness to the poor for their empowerment and human rights. Accordingly, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and the Seventh-day Adventist Church's Women's Ministries department jointly launched a new advocacy campaign to stop violence against women, girls, children, and other vulnerable members of society. The program was officially named “end-it-now” and it was presented to church delegates at the 2009 Annual Council meetings in October. The “End-it-now” calls on Adventists around the world to work actively in their communities to stop violence against women, girls, and children. The campaign features a petition drive, aiming for at least 1 million signatures representing each of the 200 countries with an Adventist presence. The idea is to present the signatures to the United Nations for immediate action.[31] Heather-Dawn Small, director of Women's Ministries, pointed out that violence against women is “a global crisis, and as a church we need to be involved and be aware.” [32] The “End-it now” campaign is in keeping with the biblical passage which requires Christians to “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17, NIV). 

 To further promote peace and social justice, various organizations and associations have been formed on the campuses of several Adventist colleges and universities. For example, the Adventist Peace Fellowship (APF) was founded in 2001 with a focus on questions of war and peace in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11. The primary goal of the Organization is to encourage university students to actively promote peace and social justice, human rights, and solidarity with persons of all beliefs for the sake of the common good.

 Furthermore, some uniquely Adventist beliefs directly contribute to a theology of social justice, particularly the Sabbath, which is central to SDA identity. Among other things, the Sabbath commandment explicitly calls believers not to exploit their families, workers, and migrants within their care, or their livestock (Exodus 20: 8-11). Additionally, the Sabbath enjoins believers to treat all human beings with respect and equality because we are all created in the image of God. (Exodus 20:11) In other words, all people have rights and that each human deserves dignity as we desire for ourselves. Thus, Adventists believe that racial discrimination, oppression and other forms of social injustices are inconsistent with the tenets of the Bible, and hence must be challenged and condemned in no uncertain terms.

For Adventists it is wrong to assent to injustice or discrimination through silence. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., they believe social justice is important to God; therefore, Christians sin by failing to overtly repudiate discrimination against people based upon race or ethnicity, social standing, education, gender, religion, poverty or language. Adventists therefore do not share the conservative view that Christians have no business getting involved in social justice issues on the grounds that it is not found in the Bible. Indeed, they would dismiss such a claim as lacking a biblical warrant.

 Besides Methodists and SDAs many other denominations have similar teachings and practices that promote social justice.  The only exceptions according to Rev. Howard Bess, a retired American Baptist minister, might be those on the far right who appear to be uncomfortable speaking about unfair relationship between employer and employee, inequitable wages, extreme wealth, and their terrible consequences such as poverty and social instability. Explaining his observations he says:

When the parables of Jesus are examined and placed into his historical context, we find that the issue of wealth and poverty

(What we would call “income inequality”) was one of his favorite topics – and the messages were not comfortable for the rich. [33]

When these mainstream churches draw attention to income inequality  or the widening gap between the rich and the poor, right-wing or conservative Christian leaders and politicians accuse them of introducing class warfare.  But if that were true then Jesus would also be guilty of initiating class warfare or socialism. King says,

Many on the American Right define themselves as Christians and angrily defend the religion’s symbols and myths, but this Christian Right ignores a core reality about Jesus, that he spoke to and for the poor, decried the rich, and demanded social justice for all, [34]

We agree with these observations about those on the far right made by Rev. Howard Bess and join him in appealing to such churches to reconsider their negative views on social justice in the light of Christ’s teachings on the subject.

C. What Would Karl Marx say about Social Justice in the Church?

Conservative Critics might also try to defend their position by arguing that advocating social justice through the Church would be a step towards Marxist socialism and communism.

To refute this one only needs to refer to Karl Marx’s response to the idea of promoting social justice through nonviolent means. Commenting on the draft of a program of the German Social Democratic Movement which contained social justice terms such as “right,” “equal right” and “fair distribution” etc., Marx scolded the writers and condemned the whole concept of social justice as “ideological nonsense.”[35] Such words, he explained had become “obsolete verbal rubbish” because they have lost any meaning they had in the past in the light of the new ideology he termed ‘Scientific Socialism.’[36] 

Marx subsequently called for the Communist Party to reject appeals to the ideological nonsense of social justice, and to maintain a “realistic outlook.”[37] For the same reason Marx would not tolerate social justice teachings of Church leaders today.


We have argued that the attempts by some contemporary conservative Christian leaders to undermine social justice as non-biblical or a subterfuge for Marxist Socialism are indefensible. We have done this by analyzing the concept of social justice and by showing its biblical foundation in the prophetic teachings within both the Old and New Testaments with special reference to the teachings of Christ. We have also demonstrated how King and other Civil Rights leaders have used the term in public discourse in ways that are consistent with the biblical roots of the term. We respond to two objections from critics.  In reply to the first objection we detail how the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church and the Seventh Day Adventist Church make use of the term. We have also answered the second objection regarding how Karl Marx would dismiss the church’s teachings on social justice as logically incompatible with his vision of Socialism. 

Christ placed a premium on those who are poor, hungry, or marginalized. Christians on the Right who remain indifferent to social justice cannot claim to be offering a holistic ministry modeled after Christ’s paradigm. If they ignore the plight of the poor or fail to address the fundamental social injustices responsible for their poverty, theirs is not a holistic ministry. We extend an invitation to all to join us in defending social justice for the sake of the masses who have suffered from social injustices.


[1]May 19, 2010. Fox  (The show took place on May 18, 2010)

[2] Fox News, ibid

[3] Glenn Beck, 05/19/2010 assessed 02/06/2014.

[4] Machen Gresham J. "The Necessity of the Christian School," in What Is Christianity? And Other Essays by J. Gresham Machen, ed. by Ned B. Stonehouse. Grand Rapids, Mich. 1951

[5] ibid

[6] Joseph Osei, The Challenge of Sustaining Emergent Democracies: Insights for Religious Intellectuals and Leaders of Civil Society, Xlibris Academic Publishing, Bloomington, 2009, p.12

[7] Peter  Lillback, Fox 05/19/2010 

[8] definition/social-justice.html#ixzz1xXuPRc3W.

[9] Illustrated Pocket Bible Dictionary, Holman Reference Edition, Nashville, TN. 2004

[10] Jose Portfirio, Miranda, Marx and the Bible: The Christian Humanism of Karl Marx. SCM Press, London. p 1980,

[11] Emmanuel Asante, Stewardship,’ Stewardship of Wealth, p56-60.

[12]   Time Magazine, August 15, 2010: p.26

[13]  A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King Jr., ed. by James M. Washington, (San Francisco, California: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1991), p. 267.

[14] Ibid, p. 291.

[15] The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.  (New York, New York: Time Warner Books, 1998), p. 193.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Pope Francis, Address to the Food and Agricultural Organization, 6/20/13

[18] Pope Francis, Meeting with Students of Jesuit Schools—Q&A, 6/7/13

[19] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, Random House, N Y, 1957

[20] Pope Benedict  Encyclical Deus Caritas Est ("God is Love") of 2006. The official Catholic doctrine on social justice can be found in the book Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published in 2004 and updated in 2006, by the Pontifical Council Iustitia et Pax.

[21]  Ref The encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (On Reconstruction of the Social Order, literally "in the fortieth year").  The encyclicals of Laborem Exercens, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, and Centesimus Annus are just a small portion of his overall contribution to Catholic social justice.23

[22], cite note 8.

[23] Ibid.

[24] UMC Baptismal Covenant, Church and Society: Advocating for Peace and Justice: Guidelines Abingdon Press, Cokesbury, 2009-2012 p.13

[25] assessed 01/22/2014

[26], cite note 14.

[27] Social Principles of the United Methodist Church 2005-2008, General Board of Church and Society. United Methodist Publishing House, Washington DC, 2004, p. 16.

[28]  Ibid. p. 18.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Rev Howard Bess, ‘The Weapons of the Poor,’ assessed January 11, 2014.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Bernard R. Boxill, Blacks and Social Justice , Roman and Allenheld, TotowaN.J.1984 p. 53

[36]  Ibid.

[37] Boxill, Ibid. p. 54



  • Asantexe "Asante", Emmanuel.  Stewardship of Wealth, Asempa Press, United Methodist Women, 1999.

  • Aquinas, Thomas, Natural Law  On Law, Morality and Politics (Hackett), xiii-xxii 

  • Baker ad Richardson, ‘Dimensions of Moral Development’ Applied Ethics, 2002

  • Bernard R. Boxill, Blacks and Social Justice , Roman and Allenheld, TotowaN.J.1984 p.

  • General Board on Church and Society, Social Principles of the United Methodist Church 2005-2008 United Methodist Publishing House, Washington DC, 2004, p. 16.

  • Benedict, Pope.  Encyclical Deus Caritas Est ("God is Love") of 2006]

  • Francis, Pope. Meeting with Students of Jesuit Schools—Q&A, 6/7/13)

  • -----. Address to the Food and Agricultural Organization, 6/20/13

  • Holman, Illustrated Pocket Bible Dictionary, Holman Reference Edition, Nashville, TN. 2004

  • King, Luther Jr. ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ Lott, ibid. p.82-89

  • Leo, Pope XIII The encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (On Reconstruction of the Social Order,             literally "in the fortieth year").  The Encyclicals of Laborem Exercens, Solicitudo Rei            Socialis, and Centesimus Annus etc.

  • Lott, Tommy. Anthology of African American Philosophy, Selected Readings.  2002, p. 247.

  • Machen, Gresham J. "The Necessity of the Christian School," in What Is Christianity?

  • Machen, Gresham  ed. by Ned B. Stonehouse. Grand Rapids, Mich. 1923

  • Miranda, J. Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression.  Wipt & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2004

  • Pontifical Council Iustitia et Pax. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published in    2004 and updated in 2006, by the Pontifical Council Iustitia et Pax

  • Taparellim  Luigi (Jesuit priest)The Journal Civiltà Cattolica,  1840’s

  • Osei, Joseph, Ethical Issues in Third World Development: A Theory of Social Change, Edwin Mellen, Lewis, N.Y. 2012

  • -----. The Challenge of Sustaining Emergent Democracies: Insights for Religious Intellectuals and Leaders of Civil Society, Xlibris Academic Publishing, Bloomington, 2009.

  • UMC Baptismal Covenant, Church and Society: Advocating for Peace and Justice: Guidelines        Abingdon Press. Cokesbury, 2009-2012 p.13

  •  Washington, James M., 67 The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King jr. ed. By Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1991

  • Rand, Ayn, Atlas Shrugged, Random House, N Y, 1957

  • Time Magazine, August 15, 2010: p.26


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