‘Social Justice’ Versus Biblical Justice

The concept of justice has filled thousands of volumes over the centuries. It is foolish of me to attempt to do it justice in a short article (pun not intended), but perhaps a few introductory remarks can at least be attempted. Indeed, this may be the first of a number of articles on a rather detailed and complex discussion.

Let me begin by saying that traditionally there have been several main views of justice. Let me concentrate on just two: retributive justice and distributive justice. The former goes back at least to Aristotle and means simply, “to each man his due”. It has to do with giving people what they deserve. Thus we speak about ‘just deserts’ and so on.

The latter term is a more recent concept, and has to do with equality of outcome, and redistributing certain goods, including wealth, to ostensibly help out the less fortunate. It is what is often meant when the left – both secular and religious – speak about social justice.

At the risk of oversimplifying matters, it seems that the notion of retributive justice is more closely aligned with biblical notions of justice, while distributive justice is further afield from Scriptural principles. But this can hardly be defended adequately in a brief article, even in a most superficial fashion.

We would need to closely examine biblical terms such as justice, righteousness and the like. We would need to look at contemporary economic options as well. And we would need to study the historical record to see whether wealth redistribution has in fact worked, and really helped the poor. But let me tease things out just a bit more here.

Equality of opportunity is one thing, but equality of outcome is quite another. To enforce equality of outcome, you have to treat unequals equally, which is neither fair nor just. Given that we are all different (not equal in talents, giftings, motivations, etc), you have to use unequal treatment to get equal results. Many have written on this obvious point. Dr Mark Cooray is as good as anyone here.

In 1988 the Australian law professor wrote an important book entitled, The Australian Achievement: From Bondage To Freedom. While the entire volume is quite helpful, I draw your attention to ch. 20: “Equality of Opportunity and Equality of Outcome”.

Says Cooray, “Equality of opportunity is best expressed in the phrase – career open to talents. No arbitrary obstacles should prevent people from achieving those public positions which their talents fit and which their values lead them to seek. Neither birth, nationality, colour, religion, sex nor any other equivalent characteristic should determine the public opportunities that are open to a person – only talent and achievement.

“Thus, equality of opportunity simply spells out the concept of equality before the law. And it has meaning and importance precisely because people are different in their genetic and cultural characteristics, and hence both want to and can pursue different careers. It is important to note that such equality of opportunity does not present any conflict with freedom. Quite the opposite. Equality of opportunity and freedom are two facets of the same basic concept.”

He continues, “Equality of outcome is a radically different concept. Equality of opportunity provides in a sense that all start the race of life at the same time. Equality of outcome attempts to ensure that everyone finishes at the same time. To slightly change what the Dodo said in Alice in Wonderland, ‘Everybody must win and all must have prizes’. That is the goal of radical socialism. Everyone must be a winner, everyone must be equal. Socialists do not really point towards absolute equality but they point to vague ideas of fairness and justness.”

Such policies decrease equality and stymie economic growth: “This is not merely because they directly attack equality of opportunity in the sense of freedom to pursue an interest or vocation, but because by destroying incentive they inhibit that individual initiative which has been responsible for modern economic progress, growth and development. Modern economic development has systematically raised the lot of the ordinary man to a level of prosperity undreamed of in past ages, when such prosperity was confined to a few.

“This development was the direct result of individual initiative and endeavour within a system which allowed individual incentive and free activity. By directly impinging upon individual incentive and free activity, egalitarian policies and programmes actually inhibit the process of economic growth and development, thus inhibiting the only mechanism in history by which inequality has been systematically, successfully and continuously ameliorated on a large scale.”

Jewish commentator Michael Medved has just penned a piece on similar themes. He begins this way: “For more than a hundred years liberals and conservatives have been arguing over the true meaning of justice. The left emphasizes just outcomes – seeking smaller gaps between rich and poor, and a comparably dignified standard of living for all members of society.

“The right stresses just procedures – making sure that individuals keep the fruits of their own labors and remain secure in their property, without seizure by their neighbors or by government. Liberals accept unequal, potentially unfair treatment by government in order to achieve fair results; conservatives accept unequal, potentially unfair results so long as every citizen receives fair and comparable treatment by government.

“These arguments have raged for generations without definitive resolution, but that doesn’t mean that both sides are right, or that the questions that divide them offer no final answers. In fact, key Biblical passages provide a strong indication that conservative concepts of economic justice comport far more closely to the religious and philosophical foundations of western civilization.”

He explores various biblical texts, and draws upon some commentary by Jewish thinkers: “For instance, a key passage in the Book of Leviticus (19:15) declares: ‘You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness (Tzedek) shall you judge your fellow.’ Amazingly, the Bible warns us not to ‘favor the poor’ even before we’re instructed ‘not to honor the great,’ because partiality for the unfortunate counts as an even stronger human temptation.

“And what about all the Biblical demands, in both Old and New Testaments, to show compassion to widows, orphans and the poor? Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), the 11th century giant who became the most influential of all Torah expositors, explains that the verse in Leviticus draws an all-important, eternal distinction between charity and justice: ‘Do not say that since the wealthy man is obligated to help the poor one, it is proper for a judge to rule in favor of the poor litigant so that he will be supported in dignity. The Torah insists that justice be rendered honestly; charity may not interfere with it.’

“In other words, assistance for the destitute remains an individual obligation on God-fearing individuals, but should not bring a tilt to the law to favor the less fortunate. It is no coincidence, surely, that this crucial verse in Leviticus appears just two sentences away from the most famous declaration in all the Bible: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (19:18). This famous line makes clear that the same God who wants us to deal kindly with our fellow human beings, also requires that we respect and honor ourselves.

“You don’t demean or damage yourself for the sake of your fellow; the Bible consistently backs the conservative supposition that we help others best when we help ourselves. If such Biblical passages strongly support the conservative conception of justice, then why are so many churches, synagogues and divinity schools filled with outspokenly liberal clergy?”

As mentioned, far more needs to be said about this difficult subject. But this may help to clear up some muddled thinking, and help us to be clearer on what biblical justice is all about. It is at least far more than the usual notions of social justice being peddled today. And it certainly is more than just state-enforced wealth redistribution.


[1335 words]

25 Replies to “‘Social Justice’ Versus Biblical Justice”

  1. Dean Gotcher highlights this statement on page two of his astute book, The Dialectic and Praxis, referring to the new American socialist dream of equality of opportunity: IF “EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY” IS TO BECOME A PART OF THE AMERICAN DREAM, THE TRADITIONAL FAMILY MUST BE WEAKENED.
    Might be worth a look.
    Rob Withall

  2. I’ve noticed something really inconsistent about the way that left leaning “social justice” Christians argue. Whenever you discuss the decriminalisation of abortion, or legalisation of gay marriage, they say “It is not appropriate for the state to impose Christian moral values on a largely non-believing population.”

    In the next breath, they say “The Bible commands to look after the poor, and orphan and widow. Therefore, the state should enforce distributive policies on society.”

    But isn’t this the imposition of Christian moral values on a largely non-believing population?

    So why impose some Christian values on a pagan society and not others? Why is the command to look after poor people more important than the command to protect life?

    Jereth Kok

  3. Nice piece Bill.

    I definitely agree that egalitarian outcomes is the central pillar of leftism. John Kekes in The Illusions of Egalitarianism demonstrated that in one of his books where he surveys all the most prominent leftist philosophers – Rawls, Dworkin, Nagel, Singer, Nussbaum etc. He demonstrated that the egalitarianism at the heart of their doctrine is unargued for and merely assumed as an article of faith.

    See also his piece in the City Journal:


    Damien Spillane

  4. Bill, I’d like to put a few questions. This is an important topic as you have noted and I don’t think it serves us well to replace muddled thinking with a different sort of muddled thinking.

    1. Are retributive justice and distributive justice polar opposites, as this article implies? Can both exist together in some form in a well functioning economy?

    2. Other than the most radical communists and socialists, does anyone seriously argue for true equality of outcome? Even in an uber-welfare state such as Australia, most people seem to accept that a good economic system will have some degree of inequality in income, some degree of choice when it comes to the marketplace, education and health care, and so on. I wonder if Cooray is painting liberals as more extreme than they really are on average.

    3. Do you really think Cooray is correct when he argues that “the Bible consistently backs the conservative supposition that we help others best when we help ourselves”? Where are his supporting Scripture texts? I see a lot more emphasis in both Old and New Testaments on putting others entirely before oneself (while not denying the self).

    4. Practically speaking: is Cooray saying here that there should be absolutely no welfare, social security or state funded health care for the most needy? Is that what you would contend?

    5. Does believing in the rightness of “retributive justice” mean that we must argue for an economy where there is absolutely no regulation of the market? Is it appropriate for corporations to grow larger and larger through mergers and takeovers until they have a stranglehold on the market? Is it appropriate for certain CEOs to be paid outrageously large salaries, disproportionate to the degree of work and talent that they contribute?

    I’m asking these questions as somebody who is unashamedly conservative and anti-socialist in my personal views.

    Jereth Kok

  5. And not to forget Leviticus 19 and the mandate to leave some gleanings for the poor. What interests me with this passage is that the landowner doesn’t just give, for eg, bread, the end product of his labour, but leaves the edges of his fields unharvested allowing the poor the opportunity, and even the dignity, of working for their own bread.

    But many would argue this is unjust and undignified.

    Greg Randles

  6. Thanks Jereth

    I am sorry that my piece has come across as muddled thinking to you. I did say many times that this was the barest of outlines to a vary vast topic, and one which needs to be fleshed out in much more detail.

    To argue against statist redistributionism is of course not to argue against all forms of aid to the poor. There is a role for state aid to the poor, but rather more limited than what we have today, certainly in socialist states. But as I say, a number of other articles would be required to spell this out more comprehensively.

    And yes, there are many in the West today calling for radical egalitarianism and equality of outcomes. Also, the issue is not one of not helping others, but who is commanded to do most of the help: the state, or individuals and churches, especially.

    It seems you are making polar extremes here which neither I nor Cooray intended. But of course Cooray would have to be allowed to speak for himself here. You can actually find his volume online if you want to follow up on his thinking.

    And for what it is worth, I wrote an annotated bibliography on conservative social thought back in 1990. In it I listed some 200 volumes which make the sort of case I attempted here. Thus the inadequacy, as I said, of making the whole argument in a short article. So perhaps save your many criticisms for more future articles in which I more fully explain my position! Stay tuned.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Very good Bill, this point of view I fear is politically incorrect in these times, but needs to be put out there. Keep up the good work.
    Lawrie McNamara

  8. Bill, I did not mean to imply that your article itself came across as “muddled”. I was just concerned that without further clarification and elaboration of some of your contentions here (which, I understand, are merely an outline), it could lead others to develop muddled thinking.

    “there are many in the West today calling for radical egalitarianism and equality of outcomes”

    Honestly I think it is just a vocal minority! Most people are more sensible.

    Staying tuned.

    Jereth Kok

  9. Thanks Jereth

    Damien (above) already listed some of the many radicals on this. Whether they are in the minority is not the issue. The worry is, these folks – and many like them – are well ensconced in positions of power and influence. They are among so many Western intellectualoids pushing these radical agendas. That the masses may scoff at such foolishness in not the point. These activists and elites are unfortunately calling many of the shots, and have far too much influence on public policy and the directions governments take.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Jereth,
    You wrote:
    “Do you really think Cooray is correct when he argues that “the Bible consistently backs the conservative supposition that we help others best when we help ourselves”?”
    With respect, there is nothing inconsistent or contradictory here. John Wesley operated on the principle, “Earn what you can; save what you can; give what you can.” That is why he established trade schools in e.g. Bristol so that men working demeaning and dirty jobs for a pittance could learn a skill and better themselves. That done, they could earn more, and thus share more. That could not be achieved while they worked at low-paying jobs, say in the Bristol coal mines.
    What Wesley did not advocate was that the whole enterprise could be handed over to government to shore up people’s income by handouts and government welfare. Hard work, but productive work, was the watchword, a legacy of the Puritan work ethic, in line with Eph.4:28.

    Bill. What is forgotten in this whole “social justice” debate is that Biblically justice is time and again conjoined with righteousness, and righteousness in turn is defined by God’s Law, principally the Ten Words of Moses, the Ten Commandments. Non-Biblical, modern definitions are instead read in to distort and pervert Biblical justice. Specifically, “social justice” is really a piece of Marxism, whereby unequal distribution of wealth is held to be unjust, and the way to fix this is by redistribution of wealth by coercive taxation, according to the Marxist formula “From each according to his means; to each according to his need.”
    Question: the Bible teaches generosity to the poor on the part of the rich (Psalm 112:4; Psalm 41:1 et al). If care for the poor is through coercion, i.e. the tax system, is it any longer generosity?? Take Psa.41:1: it does not say, “Blessed is the government which helps the poor by social welfare.” No. It says “Blessed is he (the individual) who considers the poor and uses his wealth accordingly.”
    However, if we are all mendicants on government welfare can anyone share his wealth? Clearly there is another agenda here: i.e. a nanny state where the government owns all wealth-producing enterprises and controls the lives of all its citizens in every conceivable way.

    Let me quote in this connection a circular letter from a Christian organisation which we regularly support, whose Director is James Robison. The burden of the letter is the erosion of liberty, especially religious liberty, by an increasingly socialist government and its policies. He complains of government creating an entitlement mentality, and getting the government to steal for certain causes.

    Then this:
    “For us, here in America we are, without question, being presently led on a path toward non-Scriptural social justice. Manipulators are convincing many churchgoers that failure to support this disastrous trend is lack of compassion. My heart is broken over the sleeping church and the misinformed, deceived population in the United States and throughout the free world.”
    Now don’t let anyone dare to suggest that James Robison, the author of this letter, is unconcerned about the lot of the poor. He heads an organisation called Life Ministries whose main purpose is to dig wells to supply clean water to villages in poor countries like India, Zimbabwe, various African countries, the Philippines, etc. He knows all about care for the poor, but he rejects what is grandiloquently exalted as “social justice”.

    Murray R Adamthwaite

  11. Hi Bill

    Can you comment on the policy (to use a modern term) in OT times where every 7 years I think debts had to be forgiven & land returned to original holders etc.

    That seems on the face of it to be socialist and a form of redistribution.

    Also, I seem to remember people were required to give percentage of incomes (‘tithes’ & beyond) which we might today consider to be a form of taxation.

    Also I believe it is a role of government to ride a fine line between interference in economic matters and curbing excesses which occur because of our tendency toward greed.

    David Williams

  12. Thanks David

    Let me concentrate on your first point. This is a good question and deserves an entire article. The short answer is overwhelmingly no – it had nothing at all to do with socialism or statism. It had everything to do with private property, and restoring lands to the original family owners which may have been lost when lands were sold to pay off debts, etc.

    There was also the year of Jubilee, at the end of 49 years. Interestingly however, we have no biblical account of this every taking place however. But let me do a full piece on this as it is a good question.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  13. Hi Bill, I admit I was slightly more muddled after reading your article than I was before. However I think a lot of my “muddle-ness” related to the comment “we help others best when we help ourselves”. I think this can be taken two contrasting ways:

    First – that we help others best when we look after our own interests, make our lives as comfortable as possible. This could be very much a self-centred and selfish motive, and so it would be difficult to see how this is supported Biblically. It would also be very easy to abuse this principle.

    Second – that we help others best when we up-skill and improve our capacity to help others. Hopefully this second interpretation is what was meant. However our motivation would also be important – is the motivation to up-skill and build capacity with the intent to better help others? Even here caution is needed, since it could easily be undertaken for selfish gain – increased capacity does not always equate to increased action.

    Another related point is that we could be so busy trying to increase our future capacity that we miss opportunities to help others in need now.

    Unfortunately on my first reading of your article the first interpretation was the one that initially came to mind – hence I was “muddled”. Others may have felt the same (or I might be a unique case!).

    Peter Baade

  14. Thanks Peter

    Mind you, that particular quote of course comes from Medved, not myself. Just because I quote someone does not necessarily mean that I support 100% of what they said, or how they may have expressed it. But nonetheless, I think he was on to something there. Adam Smith for example spoke much about self-interest, rightly understood. But that too is the stuff of another article.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  15. Thanks again David

    Now that I have provided the aforementioned article on Lev. 25, let me now reply to the rest of your comment.

    As to the tithe, this has nothing to do with coercive government taxation (which is hardly ever as low as a mere 10 per cent!). A tithe is a freely offered financial offering to fund the work of the Lord. And while it was a bit more common as a principle in the Old Testament, there is hardly any direct command for it in the New. Indeed, there are more NT injunctions on paying our taxes than there are to offering a tithe.

    And yes, some government involvement in economic matters will be necessary in a fallen world, but it should seek not to overly inhibit the free market to operate smoothly.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. Bill, Murray and Peter (et al)

    This whole “social justice” thing sure is a can of worms isn’t it?

    I am in full agreement with Bill and Murray that Statist redistribution of wealth is dangerous, that it is fundamentally unjust, that it creates welfare dependency and a poisonous mentality of entitlement, that it rewards sloth and ultimately results in economic destitution. I agree furthermore that there is little in Scripture to support state wealth redistribution despite the claims of many Leftists.

    But we have to be careful as conservatives that we don’t adopt our own kind of intellectual and moral sloppiness. Like Peter, I find Medved’s remark “we help others best when we help ourselves” quite unhelpful. (I incorrectly attributed it to Cooray previously – apologies). This principle is without biblical foundation, despite Medved’s claim, and I note that so far no text has been supplied to support it. Surely if it was such a clear biblical principle there should be at least one text which states it?

    I agree that every capable man has the moral responsibility to work hard, work productively, and earn his living (Eph 4:28; 2 Thess 3:10). I commend what Wesley did to help people become more economically productive. But the Bible does not teach that the best kind of generosity occurs when the giver has worked, earned, and saved the best. To the contrary,

    “in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord…”

    “For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.”

    “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Cor 8:2-3, 8:12, 9:7

    My reading of these texts is that generosity is most honoured when it occurs beyond one’s own means, and from a willing and cheerful heart—quite apart from means or quantity. A poor man who willingly gives a large portion of what he has is praised more highly than a rich man who dutifully gives a small portion of what he has (cf. Mark 12:41ff.) So while it is good to try and increase one’s own economic productivity, the principle and motive should not be “I’ll help myself in order to help others”. This ethic will quickly degenerate into “I’ll help others after I have helped myself” as Peter noted.

    I agree with David Williams that more needs to be said about “curbing excesses” in a capitalist system. Corporations that grow so large that they dominate the market will inevitably exercise the same kind of abuse of people’s freedom that large socialist Governments perpetrate.

    Jereth Kok

  17. Bill, An insightful piece of work, which I will make reference to….Thankyou
    Jane Petridge

  18. Jereth, on the contrary their are many stories that illustrate the heart of God on the matter of helping ourselves in order to help others.

    For example in Leviticus 19 the commandment to leave the corners of the field & fallen fruit for the poor implied a robust agricultural success amongst farmers to produce a full and healthy field as well as high and heavy yielding fruit.

    Even in the simple story of the good Samaritan in spite of this mans willingness to restore the man from an act of evil, if he didn’t first have the finance to do so it would have been impossible. He poured oil & wine and paid for his room. He also went further saying he would cover any further expenses. This was a man well resourced.

    Great article, Bless you all x

    Bill Riz

  19. Enjoyed the article….thanks. Tim Keller’s recent book Generous Justice expands on this topic.
    Boyd Hawkins

  20. I suggest that you edit the last few sentences because you make an excellent and logical and very Biblical case for the problems of redistributive justice but then leave one with the idea of society functions best when everyone acts in self-interest. You need to clarify that a little. Society does not function best when people act in self-interest. Society functions best when people are free to act in self-interest but act strategically to contribute to charity as a result of the blessing of living in a society where people have those freedoms. Gleaning in the modern context means that we strategically look for ways to help the poor by helping them help themselves and so we help them open the door to those opportunities. It does require some allocation of time to find those strategic opportunities that provide the most impact and it does require us at times a certain amount of “loss” but notice that gleaning was only a very marginal loss because there was not much profit in sending the laborers out to get the last little bit of harvest. So we encourages the poor to work hard and discipline themselves to utilize those opportunities and it requires some sacrifice of time and sometimes some money well invested to do that.

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