This post stems from the Kern reading group on Faith, Work and Economics at Talbot, a small group comprised of Talbot and Crowell faculty that discusses the intersection of the Christian faith with issues like poverty, work, economics and justice.

The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. 

-Proverbs 29:7

In a speech about the impending Civil War, prominent abolitionist Wendell Phillips said, “the first duty of society is justice.” He insisted that when faced with great moral questions that disturb the peace, a nation that seeks its own safety is an atheist and coward. He urged his listeners that “we are not sent into the world to plant cities, to make Unions or save them. Seeing that all men are born equal our first civic duty is to see that our laws treat them so.”[1] Phillips recognized that America needs to be grounded on something more than self-interest or personal security. As a nation, we are called to consider the dignity and equality of all people and act upon that knowledge, seeking justice for all, regardless of race, gender, religion, or socio-economic status. Is this same sentiment true for the church? What is the first duty of the church? What is the relationship of the church to justice in the world? These are some of the very questions that Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert address in What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011). 

Scripture is clear that the first duty of the church is to love God and be His holy people, the body of Christ, that proclaim His excellencies and make Christ preeminent (1 Pet. 2:9-10, Eph. 2:19-=20, Col. 1:18). While justice is not the first duty of the church, it is still important. Scripture has a lot to say about justice, particularly as it relates to the poor. For example, Proverbs 29:7 proclaims, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” The church has struggled to make sense of this and other passages that seem to relate to social justice. What does it practically look like to be God’s people that care about justice for the poor? How does second greatest commandment, “to love neighbor,” fit into God’s plan for justice in the world (Lev. 19:9-18)?  In examining this text, DeYoung and Gilbert make some helpful observations about how this passage practically fleshes this out God’s call to care for the poor: we are to love with our possessions (vv. 9-10), by our words (vv. 11-12), in our actions (vv. 13-14), by our judgments (vv. 15-16), and with our attitudes (vv. 17-18). Let’s take a brief look at each of these.

1. We are to love others with our possessions

    The concept of gleaning, or leaving some of your harvest in the fields for those in need, in verses 9-10 of Leviticus 19, gives us a glimpse into how we can love others with our possessions. Gleaning requires generosity on the part of the owner and industry of the recipient. Gleaning is not just a handout, but an opportunity to provide for oneself. These verses reveal the need for God’s people to deliberately plan to be generous with their possessions, letting others benefit from their harvest.  

    2. We are to love others with our words (11-12)

    In verses 11-12 we are called to love others by telling the truth. This isn’t simply a matter of speaking sound doctrine or using uplifting words. We are to deal with others with honesty and integrity. This includes our business dealings, being careful to not lie or stretch the truth for our own gain.

    3. We are to love others with our actions (13-14)

    In biblical times day laborers were at the mercy of the landowner. Oppression occurred when these workers were not fairly paid their agreed upon wage. We are called in verse 13 to not take advantage of the weak. We are to compensate workers what they are due in a timely manner. More generally this passage calls us, as God’s people, to not oppress the weak, but rather to show them their value by treating them with fairness.

    4. We are to love others in our judgments (vv. 15–16)

    In order to love others in our judgments, we are to strive to apply to the law in a fair manner. While we are called to be generous, verses 15-16 remind us that there is one law for everyone. We are called to not pervert justice by favoring either the poor or the rich. We are called to judge without partiality, according to one standard. Justice means doing what is fair, siding with God’s truth. This does not imply that we to be indifferent to the weak and the poor. But, we are called to judge fairly, rather than taking the law into our own hands.

    5. We are to love others with our attitude (vv. 17–18) 

    We are to love in our actions as well as in our attitudes. It is not enough to simply act in a loving manner. We are also to have godly affection for our neighbor. Verse 17 we are to not “nurse hatred” in our heart. Rather, as Jesus also expressed in the Gospels, we are to love as we want to be loved (Matt. 7:12; Luke 6:31). 

    As DeYoung and Gilbert point out, the “commandment to love your neighbor as yourself” is the most often quoted commandment in the New Testament.  It “boils down to five very elementary, everyday, ordinary commands: share, tell the truth, don’t take advantage of the weak, be fair, talk it out.” While this sounds very simple, as we all know, it is “easier said than done.” We still need to identify who is our neighbor, what justice is in each situation, and how best we can pour out Christ’s love. While justice is not the primary goal of the church,  it is a mark of God’s righteous people. Seeking God’s justice in the world is the practical outworking of a heart transformed by God’s love. As 1 John 4:19 proclaims: “We love because he first loved us.” It is not the reverse, we are loved because we love. We are to love our neighbor not to earn God’s favor, to overcome shame or guilt, or to be someone’s savior Rather, we are to love because God has been abundantly generous to us in Christ and called us to do the same, thus reflecting His justice and love in the world.


    1.  Phillips, Wendell. 1861. Disunion: two discourses at Music Hall, on January 20th, and February 17th, 1861. [S.l.]: [s.n.].