Christian Social Justice or Tyranny?

Paul Dean

God has inscribed in a prolific way upon the pages of Scripture that which concerns the need for justice in any land. God has judged nations time and time again for being oppressive to the widows and the fatherless, for betraying kinsmen, for man's inhumanity to man, for abortion, for stealing from the defenseless, for taxing of grain, for a lack of concern for the plight of the poor, and for various other atrocities that could broadly be categorized as tyranny or plunder. Christians especially should take note of these things since those who do not know Christ have no real reason to think about these things other than to soothe some last vestige of compassion for those less fortunate than themselves in this cultural bastion of self-centeredness.


Only Christians can speak authoritatively in calling others to exercise justice and lift the yoke from the oppressed. There may be myriads of reasons as to why non-Christians may join in such a call, but all will be grounded in some form of self-promotion, even if only to soothe a guilty conscience. Christians on the other hand, can say to the world that all human beings are created in the image of God. As such, not only do we have the capacity to relate to our Creator, but we have common ground with one another, whether Christian or not, and we all have essential dignity.


Our forefathers recognized as much when they said that they held these truths to be self-evident, that we are by our Creator endowed with certain unalienable rights: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have a right to life because life is God-given. We have a right to liberty because no man may rightly oppress another without trampling the image of God in that person. As one tramples the image of God, he also obliterates a man's dignity and reduces him to nothing more than property as if the oppressor himself were Lord and Master. We have a right to pursue happiness for the same reasons noted. God has created us and given us a command to take dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28). The image of God in us with its concomitant dignity and freedom implies a right to move about in freedom as long as we do not hurt others. We have a right to pursue all endeavors as long as those endeavors do not hurt others, and we have a right to do so without hindrance.


To think about these things in this way is to think biblically. Most conservative Christians would have little if any problem with what has been said so far. The real challenge lies in application of these self-evident truths. The wheel runs off, so to speak, in this application, because Christians are too often far more influenced by the cultural worldview around them than they are a biblical worldview. For this reason, Christians have very little influence in the culture. They are too much like the culture, or at least the particular subculture to which they belong. So few think biblically and thus so few have any real influence in the culture war that rages on so many fronts. The apostle Paul tells us that we are to "[cast] down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, [and bring] every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). In order to do such, long held opinions that in reality exalt themselves against the knowledge of God will have to be cast down. Our thoughts, opinions, theology, feelings, political views, and the like will have to be brought into submission to Christ. That submission is the hard part, unless one is willing to think, and think biblically.


Recently, I met with a group to discuss a biblical view of public policy which presumably would encompass issues of social justice, liberty, and how to affect such in our land. A popular pastor, writer, and speaker on these issues was the center of attention at this simple question and answer gathering. The more I listened, the more grieved I became. On the one hand, this individual lamented governmental tyranny and called for Christians to exert their influence in society and upon government (okay so far). He then trumpeted a theonomic view of government and what America should be according to his interpretation of that view (not okay). Some of the things he called for included the death penalty for Sabbath-breakers, adulterers, homosexuals, and the like. In fact, he called for the Old Covenant Law of Theocratic Israel to be transferred wholesale into the American context, or any other context for that matter. One may ask, what's the problem? In response, let’s think biblically.


Theonomy, also known as Christian Reconstructionism or Dominion Theology, seeks to implement Hebrew, Old Covanant law through the civil government in America, or any other nation. Using freedom of religion now, the most common form and goal is to raise up a generation who will create an Old Covenant based political, religious, and social order which will then eliminate religious freedom in the land. Their view of Christianity will be imposed upon the nation as a whole. Though Reconstructionism rose in the Presbyterian context, the view is finding support among others including some Baptists and a greater number of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.


According to the Public Eye Magazine, Gary North claims that "the ideas of the Reconstructionists have penetrated into Protestant circles that for the most part are unaware of the original source of the theological ideas that are beginning to transform them." North cites the "three major legs of the Reconstructionist movement [as] the Presbyterian oriented educators, the Baptist school headmasters and pastors, and the charismatic telecommunications system."


Philosophically, a theonomic view is no different than any other religious fanaticism that essentially seeks to impose its own view upon society as a whole or even put to death those who dissent. How we decry the Islamic Fundamentalist who would put to death the infidels. Yet, many in the theonomic camp would hold to the same kind of philosophy. The question is simply who qualifies as an infidel. Well documented is the persecution perpetrated upon the Anabaptists by the Magisterial Reformers in the aftermath of the Reformation for example (despite the fact that all Evangelicals owe a debt of gratitude and indeed their theological heritage to those same Reformers in other areas). When asked how he would reconcile some of his statements toward "infidels" with New Testament texts that clearly command us to "love our enemies," our theonomist friend (who oddly enough is a well-respected Baptist pastor) at the aforementioned gathering had a chilling response. He cited Rom. 13:8-10 where the Scripture says two times that love is fulfillment of the law. He essentially said, "I love sodomites. Now love is fulfilling the law. The law says sodomites should be put to death. So, I love sodomites and I show that love by putting them to death."


 Rom.13:8-10 actually reads: "Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not bear false witness,' 'You shall not covet,' and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." The text says that we are to love one another and he who loves another has fulfilled the law. Can anyone seriously believe that putting someone to death is an act of love: especially a man who is not saved? (We do not here object to a legitimate death penalty as a means of justice for law-breakers such as those guilty of cold-blooded murder). The text goes onto say that "love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." How does one reconcile killing someone in the name of love while at the same time affirming that love does no harm to a neighbor?


Remember too that our Lord Jesus Christ in the parable of the Good Samaritan defined anyone as our neighbor. In that context, the message was for the Jews as they did not see Samaritans as their neighbors. In our context, non-Christians are our neighbors as well despite the fact that theonomists do not agree. It is no coincidence that our Lord was instructing those who were bound up in Old Covenant law and its misappropriation. Under the New Covenant, for the Christian to love his neighbor, for example in seeking social justice for all, is fulfillment of the law. If the theonomic position here (and we recognize that all theonomists do not hold to such a view) is not sophistry of the worst kind, I don't know what is. It's a clever argument but unsound and misleading.


Economist Walter Williams sheds historical light upon the subject of social justice. He noted, that "pursuit of various visions of social justice probably accounts for most human misery. What's more, the historical pattern that has emerged has been one whereby one form of injustice is replaced by one that is far worse. Russia's 1917 revolution expelling the Czars, and their injustices, ushered in Lenin, Stalin and a succession of brutal dictators who murdered tens of millions in the name of the proletariat revolution. The injustices of Chiang Kai-shek were replaced with those of Mao Tse-tung; Castro's ousting of Batista or Ayatollah Khomeini's toppling of the Shah of Iran produced regimes far more brutal. In Africa, after independence, the injustices of colonial powers were replaced with those of brutal dictators. The slaughter of nearly 200 million poor souls, not including war deaths, during the 20th century, was a direct result of pursuit of visions of social justice such as income equality, promoting the common good and fighting the so-called evils of capitalism. As if by design, measures taken to produce what was seen as the good society lowered both the common man's human rights protections and his standard of living." It is obvious that we have no historical or biblical reason to trust the state to do what is right, to uphold God's law, or be our friend in any way. The Bible was true under Mao and Castro even as it is today under any other oppressive state.


A theonomic government would certainly produce human misery as well. While we should be concerned with the direction our country is headed in regard to the erosion of liberty, the increase of social injustice, and many other woes, and while we must pray for Christian influence to once again hold sway in the land, we certainly cannot prefer a theonomic brand of state power to what we have at present. Let us not forget that the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment were added to the Constitution to protect the rest of us evangelicals from theonomists who espoused state religion and persecuted fellow non-theonomic evangelicals. It was the Baptist Roger Williams who founded Providence and the state of Rhode Island to escape the persecution he and others had suffered at theonomic hands.


On the surface, theonomy seems attractive because it exalts God's law and seeks to implement Christian principles in the land and that through a righteous government. Tomorrow, we will look at the theological underpinning of the theonomic position and point out its faulty hermeneutic in an effort to demonstrate why it should be rejected despite its surface attraction.


[Part Two Tomorrow]