I’d like to make a modest proposal for Christians of all theological and political persuasions: don’t use the term “social justice” without explanation.

The term is unassailable to some and arouses suspicion in others. For many Christians, social justice encompasses everything good we should be doing in the world, from hunger relief to serving the poor to combating sex trafficking. But the phrase is also used to support more debatable matters like specific health care legislation, minimum wage increases, or reducing carbon emissions. If something can be included as a “social justice” issue then no one can oppose said issue, because who in their right mind favors social injustice?

But what are we actually talking about when we advocate social justice?

John Goldingay, in his book on Old Testament ethics, highlights the problem:

The notion of social justice is a hazy one. It resembles words such as community, intimacy, and relational, warm words whose meaning may seem self-evident and which we assume are obviously biblical categories, when actually they are rather undefined and culture relative.

After discussing the origin of the phrase “social justice” in nineteenth century Roman Catholic thought, Goldingay explains how the phrase came to be used subsequently.

“Social justice” then implies the idea of a “just society,” one in which different individuals and groups in society get a “fair share” of its benefits. But Christians disagree about what constitutes a just society and how we achieve it (for instance, how far by governmental intervention to effect income redistribution and how far by market forces and the encouragement of philanthropy)…The meaning of the phrase social justice has become opaque over the years as it has become a buzz expression (Israel’s Life, 500).

In A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell explains the difference between the constrained and unconstrained view of justice. In the unconstrained view justice is a result so that wherever people don’t get “their fair share” or don’t have as much as others there is injustice. If Goldingay is correct, most people assume this unconstrained view when they speak of social justice. For example, the RCA (my denomination) in one of its official study materials includes a glossary which defines justice as “The fair, moral, and impartial treatment of all persons, especially in law. Includes concepts of right relationships and equitable distribution of resources.” By this definition the inequality of opportunities, income, or outcomes is considered an injustice, a situation that in and of itself is sinful, implicates all (or most) of us in society, and demands immediate redress. In the unconstrained vision, the society has a lump of resources and if they are not shared roughly equally, then we do not have social justice.

In the constrained vision, by contrast, justice is a process where people are treated fairly (the first half of the RCA definition). The goal here is not forced redistribution; no one distributed the resources in the first place and no one is wise enough to allocate them for the good of everyone. Justice, in this vision, is upheld through the rule of law, a fair court system, and equitable treatment of all persons regardless of natural diversity. This doesn’t mean that in the constrained vision we shouldn’t care for the poor or that we simply shrug our shoulders and say “oh well” when we see people struggling through life with far fewer opportunities and resources than the rest of us. The Christian must be generous and should care about suffering and the disadvantaged. But in the constrained vision, this care is a matter of compassion, charity, and love, not automatically an issue of justice.

I happen to think the constrained view of justice fits the biblical definition better. But arguing one way or the other is not the point of this post. This is only a “modest proposal” after all. I simply want Christians to be more careful and more precise with their language. We don’t all mean the same thing by social justice. So when we use the term we should explain it and take pains to demonstrate why our conception of social justice is supported by Scripture. However we use the phrase “social justice” we should be slow to insist that any Christian who disagrees with our policy solution is obviously a spiritual miscreant.

“Social justice” in common parlance is often  ill-defined warm fuzzy. Careful exegesis is needed if we are to unfold what the Bible means by justice instead of assuming a definition that we may or may not all agree on. And that means more than an appeal to broad themes like “God cares for the poor.” Yes, we all see that. But who is responsible to care for the poor? And how? And does it matter where they are or how they got there? I don’t mean those as rhetorical questions. They are real questions that evangelicals need to consider more carefully. At the very least it would be good to recognize that using an ambiguous phrase like “social justice” to rally for our cause or defend our side without helping each side know what the other is really talking about is not terribly helpful.