Ours is not an easy time for a preacher to tackle the topic of justice. In some parts of the Reformed world, there has long been a certain uneasiness about questions related to how and to what extent the church should address issues of justice. Some of us have been part of conversations where the debate centered on a distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism.
According to some, the institutional church has little to no business advocating for justice in any given society. The institutional church has its own distinct lane in the world—or, to use more Kuyperian language, its own particular sphere—and it ought not stray from that lane to take over justice-related matters that are best handled by government or courts. Thus, denominational offices of social justice have been regarded by some with worry and concern.
On the level of the church as organism, individual church members
may get involved in calls for and efforts to establish justice in the wider society. How any given Christian votes or what legislation she supports is an individual choice that may be influenced by concerns about justice. But that is different from the institutional church taking a stand or lobbying for particular programs.
Whatever we make of all that, most of us recognize that in more recent times all of that has taken a back seat to a far more wide-reaching concern that connects a deep concern for social justice with all things labeled “woke.” Some while ago I heard a pastor who wanted to put daylight between his church and wokeness make it very clear that biblical justice and social justice are not typically—and certainly not automatically—the same thing. It seems that today “justice” is perceived to be a code word for more progressive politics, and many in some parts of the church want nothing to do with it.
What’s more, according to the testimony of scores of pastors with whom I have talked, sermons in the church today are scrutinized to make sure no such code words pass the pastor’s lips. Speak one “wrong” word in a sermon—or even in the pastoral prayer—and the pastor will be written off as grinding a “woke,” partisan ax, and if that happens, trouble for this pastor may swiftly follow.
So what is the preacher to do in this area and at this time? Well, let’s admit first that sometimes preachers do advocate for particular positions or policies or ideas that—whether or not they may tie in with justice—perhaps do not belong in the pulpit. Sometimes people are not wrong if they suspect the pastor is up to something. There are things a preacher could say that are not just political but downright partisan. But let us charitably suppose for most preachers this is not the case. Can this topic of justice even be mentioned today if people will immediately chalk it up to a sociopolitical agenda? Should pastors just bracket out all language related to justice if it is only going to cause trouble in this particular historical and cultural moment?
No. The truth is that the Bible is so saturated with a concern for justice that a preacher in the long run can no more avoid talking about this theme than she could bracket out miracles or forgiveness. There is just too much in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the New, to think we can preach the whole of Scripture and not bump into justice concerns semi-regularly.
Establishing a just society in Israel permeates the Law of God in places like Leviticus and elsewhere. God is forever singling out the most vulnerable for special consideration in Israel. The orphan, the widow, the immigrant had the best chance of being exploited in Israel—same as in any other society the world has ever known. So God forbids it and, through things like the gleaner laws and similar provisions, mandates that Israelite society go out of its way to take proactive extra care of such persons.
As with most everything else, Israel failed miserably at this. That is why more than anything else the prophets—and most especially the twelve Minor Prophets, such as Amos and Micah—assailed God’s people for their failures to ensure justice in Israel. When the people led unjust lives six days a week, God could only be nauseated by their attempts to worship him one day a week.
One of the biggest justice measures God established in Israel was the once-every-fifty-years Jubilee. The Year of Jubilee was to be a giant socioeconomic reset for Israel to put the society back to something that better reflected the heart of God. As many of us know, Jubilee is the theme of Luke’s gospel; with Mary’s song in Luke 1, the book introduces the theme, which continues in Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4 and then echoes throughout the rest of the gospel. These examples and many more I could cite underscore my main point: preachers cannot avoid talking about justice if when preaching their main job is to talk about what’s in the Bible. But if just mentioning “justice” these days gets a pastor in trouble, how can this be done? For now, just two suggestions for my fellow preachers.
First, always be able to show clearly that the biblical text is both why this theme is being preached and how it is preached on. If we want to have conversations about justice, let’s have them center on Scripture first of all. Sometimes preachers, like anyone else, make mistakes such that if people complain about a sermon, it really does fall at the preacher’s feet. But sometimes when people complain about a sermon, their argument is really with the biblical text at hand, and that ought to be the focus.
Second, preachers can make clear that the Bible articulates many principles related to justice that one hopes everyone in the church could agree on. Everyone, for instance, ought to have a heart for the poor. But the wise preacher will not suggest that there is ever and only one way to minister to and help the poor. Certainly the preacher ought never suggest only one particular political party has all the answers. There may be multiple avenues of ministry that Christian people of equally good conscience can pursue. No particular viewpoint, method, or certainly political persuasion has all the right answers. A preacher would be wise to convey this: “We can all agree that Issue X is a problem that God wants us to care about. Now let’s put all of our good heads together to figure out what we can do to live consistently with what the Bible reveals to be God’s heart on this matter. And all ideas are fair game!”
These are indeed difficult days for preachers and congregations on many fronts, including matters related to justice. By the Spirit of God, who blows through all of the church’s preaching, we seek to be faithful and fair to the revelation of the Word and to the opportunities presented to the people of that Word, who together want to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God.