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Which Church? Whose Justice?

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The Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has announced a debate later this fall between Jim Wallis and Al Mohler. They’ll take opposing positions on the question, “Is Social Justice an Essential Part of the Mission of the Church?” The debate is slated for October 27, 2011 at 7:00 pm, and you can find more details at the Henry Center website. This is a really important question the answer to which really turns on some important definitions.

I would take the “yes” or the “no” position depending on how you define social justice and church. If by social justice you mean what Wallis usually means, something along the lines of redistribution of material wealth by government coercion, then I would take the negative. If you also mean the church to refer to the church as an institution, then again, I would take the negative, particularly if by social justice you mean a political program to engineer a state of affairs in which all have equal shares.

But if by social justice you mean a state of affairs in which each is rendered what is due by the appropriate parties, then the church does have a role to play (even if it is not a primary or “essential” part of the church’s mission). In the sense of the institutional church, it seems that the role is to pursue its primary responsibilities of proclaiming the Gospel in Word and Sacrament and exercising church discipline. That’s the way in which the institutional church promotes social justice, by doing its appointed task as part of the variegated social order. It would be hard to say in that regard that social justice is an essential part of the institutional church’s mission. It would rather be more like a secondary consequence or effect.

If we consider the church as an organism, however, consisting of all the individual members in their particular callings and offices, then promoting social justice becomes more clearly central. Promoting social justice would presumably be more consciously central for some callings than for others, at least in terms of the legal and political rules of the game. But each member of the congregation is called to manifest justice in their own dealings with others. They are, in fact, called to grow in the virtue of justice as an individual Christian.

What I’ve found, though, is that progressive and transformationalist Christians are often very quick to dismiss the kinds of distinctions I’m talking about here, and pursue in rather simplistic and straightforward way the pursuit of their vision of the right social order. Questions about the limits of the institutional church’s authority and responsibility are of little interest; whatever authority or structure that can be used must be pressed into service in promoting social justice. Nevermind if doing so in fact undermines rather than promotes a truly just society. This is why in my book Ecumenical Babel I note that the distinction between church as institution and church as organism is so important for reform and renewal of the church’s social witness.

In this regard, the exchange between Calvin Seminary professor Calvin Van Reken and denominational leader Peter Vander Meulen is instructive. In examining this exchange, you see Van Reken make precisely the kinds of distinctions I endorse here in addressing the question of “The Church’s Role and Social Justice.” You also see Vander Meulen run roughshod over such nuance in “The Church and Social Justice.” Van Reken’s essay on “The Mission of a Local Church,” wherein he identifies the ministries of “mercy,” as they are sometimes called to be a secondary calling of the church, is also helpful.

I should add that to the extent the institutional church has a role in promoting social justice directly in material terms, it follows that there are particular responsibilities that adhere to different offices. In this case, the role of the deacon would be that which has primary responsibility (rather than say the preaching pastor or teaching elder).

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Steven McMullen

    Excellent thoughts. The distinction between church as institution and organism is essential here. Alas it is common for churches across the political spectrum to ignore the widom you describe here. The problem is, these questions are much bigger than Wallis’s narrow definition of social justice, and conservatives too often react to people like Wallis by rejecting any call be a part of Gods work in the social world. We need to restate and emphasize the wisdom of your post across the church if we want to be faithful to our calling.

  • Roger McKinney

    If Wallis debates as he has before, he will insist on both definitions of justice and will switch between the two without clarifying which definition he intends, sometimes using both definitions in the same sentence.

    Often Wallis insists that forced redistribution of wealth is an extension of the meaning of justice in the traditional sense.

    Socialists cannot win debates if the terms are clearly identified and those definitions adhered to. It’s impossible. So they must rely on quickly switching definitions and other sophist techniques. 

  • Roger McKinney

    PS, you won’t be able to pin down Wallis on a definition of the church either. I have read too many debates with him. He is very predictable.

  • Helpful distinctions, but what if one believes the very concept of social justice is ethically flawed? Social justice appears to be about enforcing certain moral and social choices on the community. 

    Kenneth Minogue argues this is the opposite of the ethical task as it has been interpreted in western civilization: for the individual to develop moral excellence through personal reflection and self-discipline. Moral people are “self-conscious individuals guiding their destinies according to whatever moral sentiments they entertain.” (Minogue, Kenneth (2010). The Servile Mind (p. 12). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.)Furthermore, I don’t see how a praxis of social justice coheres with the classical Protestant proclamation that Christians are justified *sola gratia, sola fide.* God’s righteousness (dikaiosune = justice) comes about through God’s gracious saving activity through Jesus Christ. There are Christians engaged in politics, economics, or justice, but I doubt there is a *Christian* justice, politics, or economics.

  • Is it simply because Wallis is in favor of increasing taxes on the wealthy that you claim he supports “coercive” wealth redistribution?  I’m getting a little weary of the straw man arguments posted here.  I suppose you could argue that tax increases are coercive.  But you could just as easily argue that recent tax breaks were accomplished by coercion.  After all, isn’t that what lobbyist’s do?  Coerce? 

    • It isn’t a straw man argument–government exercises coercive power, and therefore redistribution of wealth by government is coercive. Right? Lobbyists, on the other hand, do not have coercive power. They lobby. If they had coercive power they’d be governmental agents, or else holding guns. Money does not coerce, it tempts–jail coerces. I assume that we can agree on that?

      • Am I being “coerced” to follow traffic laws?  According to your argument, yes.  But those laws are there in order to ensure the safety of drivers and pedestrians, so I freely abide by them– even though it may impinge on my personal freedom.  Someone like Wallis might argue that taxes function similarly.  They are the means by which we create more stable society.  Tax payers sacrifice for that greater good.

        Now, we can argue whether increased taxes on the wealthy do create a more stable society.  But that’s a separate issue.  The issue here is whether Mr. Ballor characterized Wallis’ position in such a way as to make it inherently ridiculous– i.e. created a straw man.  By using a weighted term like “coercive,” I believe he did.

        As to your final point, okay, money “tempts” more than it coerces.  But this strikes me as a distinction without much of a difference.  The fact is that money dictates policy because politicians require it for survival. 

        • Roger McKinney

          Some behavior should be coerced if it isn’t voluntary; some shouldn’t. The question of the debate is should charity be coerced? The Bible says no.

          Wallis has never argued, as far as I know, that redistribution of wealth stabilizes society. He has always argued that it is justice. Now he might someday argue that redistribution of wealth stabilizes society, but he would have a difficult time proving it. The violence in the socialist countries of Europe is evidence against it.

          But even if charity stabilizes society, that still doesn’t mean it should be forced by the state. One could also argue that theft is a more efficient form of wealth redistribution, but that doesn’t make it right.

          To determine if the state has the right to force charity, regardless of its benefits, one has to determine the role of the state in society. If one thinks the state’s purpose is to implement a socialist agenda, then yes, force is justified for everything.

          But if as Church scholars determined centuries ago the purpose of government is to protect the life, liberty and property of the citizens, then no, the state has no right to force charity.

          And the argument that forced charity can have a good effect, stabilizing society, does not mean that the effect is long term. It can have a good short term effect with a disastrous long term effect. And that is exactly what we saw with the experiments in the USSR and Communist China.

          Socialism is wonderful, until the money runs out!

          • I’m curious where you draw the line between the government protecting life, liberty, and property and forcing charity.  Are public schools “forced charity”?  How about public transportation?  Or public roads?  Fire departments?  Public beaches?

    • Roger McKinney

      Kenneth’s response is excellent. But Wallis would disagree that state redistribution of wealth is coercive. After all, we have a democracy and no one is forcing us to vote the way we do. The majority decides tax policy without any coercion.

      But what Wallis and his followers refuse to see is that the majority in democracy can be as tyrannical as any dictator. If they don’t believe it, ask blacks, native Americans and Japanese.

      Even if the majority of wealthy people, say the top 20%, voted for higher taxes on themselves in order to pay for programs for the poor, that would still constitute coercion of the minority of wealthy who don’t want to pay higher taxes because if they refuse to pay they go to jail.

      The only way to eliminate coercion in providing charity is to remove the state from the process. The state, by definition and character, is a coercive force. The whole point of the state is to force people to do something they don’t want to do. Otherwise, taxes could be purely voluntary.

      The Bible has always insisted that charity be voluntary, else it loses it virtue. Once the state gets involved and uses its coercive power through taxation, charity is no longer voluntary because those who don’t want to contribute, or contribute the amount dictated by the state have no choice in the matter other than going to jail.

    • ‘Is it simply because Wallis is in favor of increasing taxes on the wealthy that you claim he supports “coercive” wealth redistribution?’

      Yes. I mean “coercive” redistribution as opposed to “voluntary” or “non-coerced.” I’m using coercion in a limited, I suppose even technical sense, to refer to physical punishment (or credible threat thereof) characteristic of the government’s use of the sword (Rom. 13). I should note that I didn’t put square quotes around coercion in the original post because I don’t think it necessarily has a negative connotation. That’s precisely what the government is supposed to do (cf. Art. 36 of the Belgic Confession).

      If you are saying that political lobbying, rent-seeking, and so on is coercive in that sense, then I have to disagree.

      What about the above usage of the term coercion is a straw man?

      • I’ll grant that it is coercive in a technical sense.  But, come on, Jordan, this is America.  “Coercion” is a fighting word.  People aren’t thinking Belgic Confession they’re thinking Chairman Mao.  It’s a word that gets people easily dismissed– which is what I mistakenly assumed you were trying to do. 

        • Roger McKinney

          If I may respond while you await Jordan’s response, I often use the word “coerce” and I’ll tell you what my motivation is: I want people to think about what the state is really doing. Socialists have done an excellent job of portraying the state as our grandmother who only wants the best for us.

          But the state, even a democracy, is exactly as God described it to Samuel when Israel rejected the government that God had created and demanded a king: the state oppresses people and coerces them into doing things the would never volunteer to do, even if they are Godly people. And worse, the defenders of the state call all of the evil that state do “good”.

          • Roger, we ought to be suspicious of big anything.  Big gov’t or big business.  Despite your efforts (here and elsewhere) to paint me as a socialist, I’m not.  But I am baffled by how the conversation in our country simply pits the state vs. the individual– as though there’s no other entity in the equation, as though large corporations are just these magnanimous job creators who only have our best interests in mind.  If you want to get biblical about it, when I read Revelation, I recognize that the Beast is the Roman Empire, but I don’t see the contemporary equivalent being the U.S. gov’t or China.  It’s big business, brother.

          • Roger McKinney

            Why are you trying to sneak big corporations into a discussion about charity? It’s totally irrelevant!

          • Roger, if the government backed out of all the various programs you believe it should, who steps into that void?  Big corporations, Roger.  I’m not sneaking anything into this discussion I’m just seeing the logical conclusion.  I’ll admit I didn’t make it’s relevance clear, but it’s not irrelevant. 

          • Roger McKinney

            Big corporations wouldn’t necessarily fill the void. There are other options. But I would prefer big corporations to big government if those are the only two choices. Corporations don’t have soldiers with guns; they can’t make laws; and they have to compete with each other for my business. They can’t coerce me into doing anything.

          • I would have thought that someone as skeptical of the government as you, Roger, would be aware of how corporate interests have dictated policy.  Take the United Fruit Company’s influence on military intervention in Central America during the Cold War, for example. 

          • Roger McKinney

            I am too much aware of corporate influence in politics. You apparently don’t know about public choice theory of political economy: as long as politicians control the economy, they will sell that power to the highest bidder. Can you blame corporations for buying what politicians offer for sell?

          • Roger McKinney

            PS, I wasn’t calling you a socialist. I merely referred to the propaganda of socialists in portraying the state as if it were my grandmother.

  • Steve McMullen

    I think it is vitally important that we not lose the ability to speak about social justice in a constructive way, even if we don’t want to adopt the standard package of the evangelical left/democratic party.  Here are some thoughts along those lines:

    1) We have a long tradition both in Catholic and Reformed social thought of placing our social action, not in terms of our salvation, but in terms of our service to God and neighbor.  We need not accept the social gospel to pursue social justice.

    2) Our pursuit of social justice should always be directed by the virtues of charity and Justice.  The first is exemplified by voluntary personal action to help those in need.  The second may take on this character but should also take the form of political action, which inevitably means that the power of the state will be involved.

    3) While it is correct to talk about action by the state as “coercive,” we must recognize that there are degrees of legitimate and illegitimate coercive action.  There is a long pedigree of legitimate coercive church or state action in the old testament, which made sense in that context because they did not operate primarily from an individual sense of holiness, but a communal one.

    So our question should always be: “What role do I have in securing social justice, with the resources and power that I have been given?”  with the explicit recognition that some of the resources and power we have been given are political in nature.

    • Roger McKinney

      If we want to improve the discussion the first thing we should do is drop the term “social justice.” It destroys the meaning of justice. If the poor have been robbed by someone, then by all means let’s see justice done.

      But if no one has robbed the poor, then let’s talk about charity.

      I disagree that “some of the resources and power we have been given are political in nature.” The resources I have are the resources I personally have earned. I do not have the right to use the power of the state to take the resources of someone else and give them to a third party any more than I have the right to break into my neighbor’s house, take his property and give it to the poor.

      We can’t confuse roles. Families, churches and states have different roles. We cannot use the church to perform the roles of the state or family. Can you imagine deacons running around trying to arrest criminals? It would be disastrous. But just as silly is the state trying to perform the work of the family and church.

      Each sphere of authority should exercise self-discipline and perform only within its sphere of authority.

      Covetousness usually applies to wealth, but it can also apply to power, as Francis Schaeffer used to point out. Today, socialists covet the authority and power of the church and the family for the state, so that both become irrelevant and only the state survives. That’s exactly what happened under 70 years of communism in the USSR.

      • Such an offhanded dismissal of the phrase “social justice,” Roger.  Are you suggesting that, say, Martin Luther King should have been crying out for “charity”?  “Charity” is a fine word, but it can sound a little patronizing, a little self-serving. 

        the poor have been robbed by someone, then by all means let’s see
        justice done.” What constitutes robbery, Roger?  Does enslavement?  Does booting Native Americans from their land? What’s it look like to have justice done in those situations?

        And as to “sphere of authority” bit, I’d like to hear your answer to my question below.

        • Roger McKinney

          Martin Luther King fought for real justice: equal treatment
          under the law for black people. “Social justice” has no clear meaning; it means
          whatever the uses intends it to mean. It can carry a judicial meaning, but it
          can also mean pure Marxism. The definition depends on the user.


          What Wallis wants, forced charity, has nothing at all to do
          with what King fought for.


          Slavery and the Indian removal were massive failures by the
          state to perform its primary task of treating people equally and protecting
          life, liberty and property. Those are clear examples of injustices because they
          violated people’s rights to life, liberty and property.


          In the case of slavery, the government made it legal to take
          the property of the slave, his body, and give it to another person, the slave
          owner. In the case of Indian removal, the state literally took the property of
          the Indian tribes and gave it to white settlers. These injustices you site are
          examples of forced state redistribution of wealth.


          Yet you have no problem with the state doing the same thing
          to the wealthy. Apparently, the state can commit no crimes as long as it
          commits the crimes in the name of the poor.


          “Are public schools “forced charity”? “Fire




          “How about public transportation?” Or public roads? Public


          No, because the state buys the land at market prices for
          them. Nothing is taken from anyone without compensation. If the state
          confiscated the land without payment it would be.

  • Roger McKinney

    Does committing a second crime reverse the first one? There is no way to provide justice for dead people. Punishing the descendents of those who committed crimes in order to reward the great-grandchildren of the victims is not justice. It’s an excuse to promote socialism.

    The topic of the post is Wallis’ demand for forced charity. Everything the state does doesn’t fall into that category. Defense and police action aren’t forced charity. Quit trying force everything into that category.

    When we talk about coerced charity, we are referring to socialists like Wallis who demand that the state force wealthy people to give to the poor through higher taxation. Trying to dredge up every other injustice anyone has ever committed and trying to call it forced charity is dishonest.

    Of course, I have never discussed a topic with a socialist in which the socialist could be honest. You many not think you’re a socialist, but you argue just like one and you advocate the same things.

    I would be interested in knowing what areas you disagree with socialism. BTW, the USSR wasn’t the only, oldest or most common form or socialism. That honor goes to European socialism, democratic socialism.

  • Roger McKinney

    “If by social justice you mean what Wallis usually means, something along
    the lines of redistribution of material wealth by government coercion,…”

    That’s what we were discussing.

    You claim to distrust big government, but then promote it. Where would you draw the line?

    Libertarians have repeatedly written that the state has a legitimate role to play in protecting life, liberty and property and the right to collect taxes to pay for it. But as church scholars of the 16th century insisted, the state’s role ends at protecting life, liberty and property. Any taxes collected beyond that is theft, including taxes collected for forced charity.

    • I’m not sure I follow your question.  The state’s roll in maintaining the rule of law means that there are few undertakings which lay beyond the scope of its concern.  Do I think the gov’t should start a chain of restaurants?  No.  Should they establish health codes and conduct inspections?  Sure.  

      • Roger McKinney

        Like most socialists I debate with, you dodge my questions. I repeat, is there anything that the government is doing TODAY that you think is an illegit government activity?Obviously you don’t.

        As you wrote, the state’s job is to maintain the rule of law, but that has never meant man-made law. It has always meant natural law, or God’s law respecting life, liberty and property. God’s law, natural law, limit what the state can do.

        “Should they establish health codes and conduct inspections?”

        I love it when socialists use health codes, safety inspections, road construction and education as examples of good things the state does. So would you agree to a government that limited itself to providing those things, plus police? I doubt it!

        Everyone knows that those things are good, even libertarians. The question is not whether they are good things, but whether the state has the right to provide them and whether they could be provided better by the private sector. The answer from history is that the private sector always does a better job at everything but the police and courts needed to protect life, liberty and property.

        • I began by saying I wasn’t sure I followed your question– only to be accused of “dodging.”  I’m getting a little tired of you suggesting I’m trying to be deceptive, Roger.  Moreover I’m sick of being called a socialist.  I’m not opposed to the private sector.  Sure, by and large, privately run is preferable to state run.  If you want to make a big deal out of the fact that I offer a qualified endorsement as opposed to your unqualified one, fine.  But that doesn’t make me a socialist.

          • Roger McKinney

            Dodging is not answering a clear question. I have asked it twice and you still haven’t answered.

            I repeat, is there anything that the government is doing TODAY that you think is an illegit government activity?

            Why are you ashamed to be called a socialist? You agree with everything modern socialists promote, and none of them insist on state-owned businesses. All socialists today want a small area for private enterprise; they just want the state to control as much of it as possible.

            China still considers itself socialist even though it has a tiny space for private property and markets.

          • Yes, Roger, that’s what it means to dodge a question.  However, I wasn’t
            clear on what you were getting at.  So according to your own definition
            it wasn’t a dodge.  And while it’s not all that helpful to have you
            just restate the question without offering clarification, I’ll take another crack at answering.

            Uh, let’s see, I think the free market would do a better job than the
            FDA of filtering out what’s effective in treating cancer.  I’m sure there may be other things.  Happy?

            Show me where I “agree with everything modern socialists promote.” 
            Quote me.  Even better: show me where I say I want “the state to control
            as much as possible.”  It’s not there, Roger.  Because that’s not what I
            believe.  I’d like stronger city governments and a smaller federal
            gov’t.  I’d like more small businesses and less big corporations.  If
            that makes me a socialist in your book, fine– after all, it’s that book that labels the Evangelical Environmental Network “radical.”

          • Roger McKinney

            I don’t define socialism. I let socialists define it. And by their own definition you appear to be a socialist, although it’s hard to tell because of the way you respond.

            I wasn’t aware that the FDA filters what is effective and what isn’t in treating cancers. Private companies do that. The FDA merely makes drug companies jump through hoops for an average of 15 years before they approve something, which adds dramatically to the cost of medicine.

            The feds add on average 70,000 pages of new regulations each year to the Federal Register and you have no problem with any of it except the way the FDA treat cancer drugs? I rest my case.

          • “It’s hard to tell because of the way you respond.” So you go with what you find to be a much more reliable source– your own presumptions.  Seriously, Roger, if my own responses aren’t going to be the basis for your assessment, what else have you to go on?

            By “filtering” I meant the process whereby drugs are approved or disapproved.  Are you’re criticizing me for not understanding what’s “clear”? 

            And speaking of clear, I clearly said, “I’m sure there are other things.”  However you interpret me as saying that I “have no problem with any [gov’t issued regulation] except the way the FDA treat cancer drugs.”  That would be the kind of misreading you’d rest your case on.

            I think you just proved mine.

          • Roger McKinney

            I asked you previously, also, what you disagree socialism about. You haven’t answered that either. I’m not guessing at your position. I’m going strictly by what you write.

          • You’re going “strictly by what [I] write”?  How can you say that when I just pointed out an instance in which you completely disregarded what I’d written?  And I have too answered that question: “by and large, privately run is preferable to state run.”  You of course took this to say maybe I’m a Chinese socialist.

  • Roger McKinney

    I repeat, is there anything that the government is doing today that you think is an illegit government activity? Anything at all?