Have you ever felt like many Christian churches today don’t care about justice the way they should, like they’re on the “wrong side of history”? Maybe you’ve even felt like that has become a dealbreaker for you, that your passion for a more just world could be more deeply gratified if you simply cut ties with the church, with all of its baggage and blind spots? If you’ve been burned by hypocrisy in the church or love someone who has, then perhaps that impulse to bail has grown irresistible.
The conclusion that Christianity is hardly the beacon of social justice it should be is a common theme in many deconstruction stories. If this thought applies to you or someone you know, let me offer five questions for self-reflection. But first a brief disclaimer. Combining the word “social” with the word “justice” is a bit like mixing Mentos with soda. It is highly explosive, especially when we don’t bother to define our terms. Movements as diverse as labor unions, gay-rights groups, and the American Nazi Party all claim the banner of social justice. While I unpack the different definitions in detail in my recent book, for our purposes let’s keep a simple distinction in mind. Social Justice A is the kind of justice that is deeply compatible with a biblical worldview and Social Justice B is not. With that distinction in place, let’s ask our five questions.
Question 1: As I seek social justice, have I distinguished a breakup from a breakthrough?
Others have pointed out that many people deconstruct not from actual Christianity but from some short-sighted counterfeit. This certainly rings true of the friends I’ve known who’ve claimed to “break up” with God and the Christian faith over questions of social justice.
If you’re considering breaking up with a version of Christianity that turns a blind eye to injustices here on earth, then you’re not breaking up with Christianity but with neo-Gnosticism—what Francis Schaeffer called “super-spirituality” disguised as Christianity. We should all be dismayed by a head-in-the-clouds Christianity in which the work of Christ has no implications for injustice in the here and now. The lordship of Christ, as Abraham Kuyper preached, stretches over “every square inch in the whole terrain of human existence.” As one of my favorite poets, Evangeline Paterson, writes, “I was brought up in a Christian environment where, because God had to be given preeminence, nothing else was allowed to be important. I have broken through to the position that because God exists, everything has significance.”
We should all be dismayed by a head-in-the-clouds Christianity in which the work of Christ has no implications for injustice in the here and now.
Consider one possibility for reframing your experience. What if what feels like a breaking up is, in reality, a breaking through? What if your concerns for justice are precisely the kind of breakthrough Paterson describes? What if they are a sign that you are outgrowing a neo-Gnostic “Christianity,” that you are growing more deeply in sync with the God of the Bible who stands in deep solidarity with the oppressed (Prov. 17:5) and commands us to seek justice (Mic. 6:8; Isa. 58:6–10; Isa. 1:15–17)?
Question 2: As I seek social justice, am I breaking from a one-sided stereotype of Christianity?
If I were raised deep in the Amazonian jungles, and then suddenly dropped in the middle of Los Angeles and handed a smartphone and a Twitter account, I’d draw some clear conclusions about Christianity—namely, Christians are bigots, phobics, and haters. Christians have declared war on women, they’re fond of white supremacy, they don’t care for the poor, they hate Muslims and gay people, are the greatest oppressors on earth, and have been for centuries. This is a common caricature of Christianity in many Social Justice B circles.
We need to set some facts straight to see through social-media stereotypes and partisan propaganda. Here is a mere snippet of relevant facts:
- Christians rescued the unwanted babies who had been tossed away like garbage at the human dumps of the Roman Empire, usually simply for being female, and adopted them as cherished children.
- Christians built more hospitals and orphanages to serve the suffering than any other movement in history, while offering a robust framework for human rights and human sexuality that has brought freedom and dignity to millions.
- Christians inspired skyrocketing literacy rates around the world, even introducing written languages into cultures that had none and spearheading linguistic breakthroughs in modern English, French, and German.
- Christians directly inspired universities into existence, including St. Andrews, Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton, and many more, along with sparking the Scientific Revolution under the conviction that science exists “to the glory of God and the benefit of the human race.”
- Christians organized resistance movements against the Nazis. The Christian village of Le Chambon in Southern France hid and saved thousands of Jews fleeing from Hitler’s SS.
- Christians led the movement to abolish slavery not only in America and the United Kingdom but also in India, Africa, the Middle East, and South America.
Believers practicing Social Justice A and serving their communities aren’t mere relics of the past. A 2018 study in the United States found that practicing Christians outpace all other groups in providing food to the poor, donating clothing and furniture to the poor, praying for the poor, giving personal time to serve the poor in their communities, and serving those beyond American borders. A recent study by a nonreligious research group looked at a dozen faith communities around Philadelphia. With a 54-point metric to determine the economic effect of these congregations on their surrounding communities, researchers found that a dozen congregations generated $50,577,098 in economic benefit to their neighborhoods in a single year. Further, Christian communities today excel in adoption, foster parenting, fighting human trafficking, and community development.
Christian communities today excel in adoption, foster parenting, fighting human trafficking, and community development.
“Sure,” comes the welcome skeptic’s reply, “but didn’t Christians also instigate crusades, inquisitions, witch burnings, and other atrocities?” Sadly, yes. But which self-proclaimed believers do you think merit the name “Christian”—the ones dignifying or the ones dehumanizing their neighbors? Don’t buy into the false either-or. It isn’t a matter of either remaining a Christian or leaving the historic faith to pursue justice. Instead, carry the torch of a long history of Christian Social Justice A and participate in vibrant contemporary churches that love the oppressed precisely because they love Jesus. That isn’t a breakup with Christianity but a breakthrough into a rich Christian tradition in which God’s command (not suggestion) to “seek justice” (Isa. 1:17) is taken seriously.
Question 3: As I seek social justice, am I taking the deconversion stories of other Christians seriously?
It’s common to hear stories of people who walk away from the faith because they find biblical Christianity too stifling and judgmental, lacking in true justice. But there are beautiful stories that move the opposite direction. Some find deep liberation when they deconstruct today’s trending Social Justice B ideologies and discover the justice-inspiring truths of the historic Christian faith. In the words of Monique Duson, founder and director of the Center for Biblical Unity, “With [my] constant focus on evil systems, I had become oblivious to the evil in my own heart. . . . According to historic Christianity, salvation is the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection so sinners of all colors can be saved by a free act of divine grace. [My ideology] had pulled me away from that good news into a social justice gospel in which the finished work of Jesus wasn’t enough.” In the words of Edwin Ramirez,
I did not realize how much resentment I harbored. . . . Then the Lord opened my eyes and set me free in an unexpected place, a rural, predominantly white church. . . . Scanning the room, my eyes fell on an older lady whose face was filled with joy as she worshiped our God. Then it hit me: “That older white lady is my sister in Christ.” . . . I had been so blinded by an ideology that divided people by skin color that I missed the blessing of seeing the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement.
Such deconstruction from stifling social-justice ideologies is common, albeit underreported. If you think by abandoning historic Christianity for today’s trending Social Justice B ideologies you’ll somehow find freedom from hard-hearted hypocrisy, I encourage you to listen carefully to such deconversion stories. Dogmatism, exclusion, and self-righteousness aren’t just church problems; they’re human problems.
Question 4: As I seek social justice, am I replacing the fruit of the Spirit with resentment, self-righteousness, and rage?
The pursuit of real justice bears righteous fruit; counterfeit justice does not. Is your pursuit of justice bearing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and the other fruits of the Holy Spirit, or is it fostering rotten fruit? Are you filled with more or less suspicion, anxiety, and bitterness? Do you assume bigotry, hate, and ignorance are the best or only explanations for why others disagree with you? Do you love the unique image-bearers of God before you, or do you indulge in prejudice based on skin tone, gender, or status? As one ex-Social Justice B proponent reflected, “I did not engage with individuals as individuals, but as porcelain, always thinking first and foremost of the group identities we inhabited.” It left him “exhausted and misanthropic.” Ramirez again says it better than I can:
What effect is reading oppression into virtually all of life having on your soul? What do you see first when you encounter a fellow Christian, their “in Christ” identity as your brother or sister or whether their appearance places them in the oppressed or oppressor group? . . . I know from experience how a noble desire for justice can replace love in our hearts with resentment and hate. I know because it happened to me. But by God’s grace, and God’s grace alone, I have been set free. I pray that you too can exchange suspicion and rage . . . for the love and joy of the gospel of Christ.
Question 5: As I seek social justice, am I heeding the grandfatherly wisdom of John Perkins?
John Perkins is one of my heroes, a living legend of the civil-rights movement whom I’m proud to call brother, mentor, and even friend. He is a champion of Social Justice A. His life embodies how you can pursue justice for 60-plus years without compromising the gospel one inch. I leave you with his four admonishments to the next generation of justice-seekers:
First, start with God! . . . If we don’t start with him first, whatever we’re seeking, it ain’t justice. Second, be one in Christ! Christian brothers and sisters— black, white, brown, rich, and poor—we are family. . . . If we give a foothold to any kind of tribalism that could tear down that unity, then we aren’t bringing God’s justice. Third, preach the gospel! The gospel of Jesus’s incarnation, his perfect life, his death as our substitute, and his triumph over sin and death is good news for everyone. . . . If we replace the gospel with this or that man-made political agenda, then we ain’t doing biblical justice. Fourth and finally, teach truth! Without truth, there can be no justice. And what is the ultimate standard of truth? It is not our feelings. It is not popular opinion. It is not what presidents or politicians say. God’s Word is the standard of truth. If we’re trying harder to align with the rising opinions of our day than with the Bible, then we ain’t doing real justice.
Your deepest longings for justice can only be satisfied within a deep and rich Christian faith. Don’t give up your pursuit of justice; in fact, take it further. Re-envision your breakup as a breakthrough. Instead of bailing on the church, stick around and work to show how beautiful and compelling justice can be when we start with God, championing unity, proclaiming the gospel of historic Christianity, and follow his Word as the standard of truth.
This article was adapted from Thaddeus Williams’s chapter in Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (The Gospel Coalition, 2021). We invite you to join us—either in person or online—for TGC’s 2021 National Conference. All registrants, including those who register for the livestream, will receive six free books, including Rebecca McLaughlin’s The Secular Creed, Trevin Wax’s The Multi-Directional Leader, and Before You Lose Your Faith, edited by Ivan Mesa. Learn more.