What is the biblical call to justice? Should Christians embrace the social justice movement? Sean and Scott interview Biola faculty member Thaddeus Williams about these questions and more. Dr. Williams provides biblical perspective about the social justice movement--highlighting both areas of agreement and concern with Scripture. In light of public debates about race, immigration, and family, it is more critical than ever that Christians think biblically about justice.
More About Our Guest
Dr. Thaddeus Williams is Associate Professor of Theology, undergraduate division at Talbot. He holds MA degrees from Talbot and UCLA and a Ph.D. from the Free University of Amsterdam. He also serves as adjunct professor of law and theology at Trinity Law School in Orange County, California.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Today, we have a guest who's both a friend and a colleague of us at Biola University. Thaddeus Williams is an assistant professor of biblical and theological studies. He's also the author of a book that you gave me the privilege of endorsing, an excellent book called Reflect: Becoming Yourself By Mirroring the Greatest Person in History. I hope our listeners will consider picking that up. Well, today, we're going to talk about a controversial topic, which is social justice. So Thaddeus, thanks for coming on to be willing to tackle such a controversial subject as this.
Thaddeus Williams: Sure, it's great to be with you guys.
Sean McDowell: Let me just start off with more of a broad question, and ask, what is the biblical call to justice itself?
Thaddeus Williams: Sure. Well, you see it all over the text. You see Jeremiah 22: do justice and righteousness; deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who's been robbed. You see in the New Testament, Jesus announces his whole ministry as proclaiming good news to the poor and liberty to the captives, recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed. Isaiah 1: seek justice. It just pops up all over the text from the beginning to the end, from Genesis to Revelation. I would say justice isn't optional. It's not something God suggests. It's something God commands.
To me, one of the distinguishing marks of biblical justice as opposed to things that might go under the waving banner of justice is biblical justice is always tapped into the truth about who God is and the truth about who we are because of who God is. So, you see the same God who commands us to do justice commands us to test everything, hold fast to what is good in First Thessalonians. There's a scene ... I was just reading this morning in John's Gospel where Jesus is confronting the Pharisees who are all up in arms. It's so unjust that Jesus has healed somebody on Sabbath. Rather than say, "Yes, that is unjust. Let me protest with you," he calls them out. He says, "Don't judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment." I'd say that's a mark of biblical justice. It's attuned to reality. It taps into the reality of who God is and who we are because of who God is. It doesn't just make knee-jerk reactions.
Sean McDowell: So, Thaddeus, you're a professor of biblical and theological studies. There's a ton of different topics that you could explore and write on. Why have you chosen to delve into the topic of social justice, which really is a controversial issue, both inside and outside the church?
Thaddeus Williams: Mostly for the fame and popularity. I'd say it's just one of those issues right now that if you want to get rich and be well-liked by the masses ... No, just kidding. It is one of those things I've been on the fence about, because it's such a powder-keg kind of issue. For me, the willingness to dive in deep is because I see, after being in the classroom for years and years, and working at the local church level, I've just seen this rising call to social justice, and I've seen a real lack of discernment. Just kind of in a lot of different contexts, of people who hear justice and assume, "Oh, well, the Bible commands us to be just. We should hitch our wagon to that trailer." A lot of it, the more I've gotten deep into it, a lot of what we're calling justice these days, I actually take to be a false gospel. I actually take to be antithetical to the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So, I think it's an important time to ... The tagline of the show is, "Think biblically." To think biblically about justice, so make sure that we aren't getting duped into a counterfeit Christ.
Scott Rae: Thaddeus, given that the Bible's so clear about justice, and I would add a passage like Micah 6:8, where it's very clear, says, "What does the Lord require of you?" And to do justice is one of those things that's explicitly required of us. Why is the concept of social justice so controversial today?
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah, I think it has a lot to do with the way words are so slippery here. If somebody questions, say, my sexual identity or my gender identity, then by today's standards, I am the victim of a terrible injustice. The playing field is shifting onto things that we define as justice and the things we define as injustice. A lot of those issues kind of cut to the heart of our deep worldview commitments. What you believe about the nature of God, what you believe it means to be human, the teleology of human nature, what we exist for, all the headline issues, whether it's pronoun use, whether it's bathroom access, whether it's the definition of marriage, whether it's abortion, these are kind of the tips of the iceberg. But underneath every one of those issues, you find deeply incompatible views about who God is, whether there's a God, what it means to be human. I think these are all trigger issues that tap into some pretty deep worldview incompatibilities.
Scott Rae: I know you come from a largely Reformed tradition with appreciation for general revelation and things like that. Wouldn't we acknowledge that there can be legitimate movements for justice among non-believers without having to come from an explicitly Christian view of the world? How would you assess that?
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah, great question. I would say for thinking in biblical categories, Paul makes it pretty clear in Romans 2 that the law isn't just written in Exodus 20 with the 10 commandments. It's not just written in Deuteronomy 5 with the 10 commandments. It's written into human nature. That means we can find points of contacts between the Christian and non-Christian world, and I think that's helpful, to see that if I'm having a conversation with somebody over the question of abortion, I don't have to assume, well, because I'm a regenerate Christian and they aren't, therefore there's no common ground here. The fact of Romans 2 is that God has written the law into that person's heart, and so they have a core conviction that taking innocent life is wrong that I share in common with them because we're both image bearers of God.
Now I can have, from that point of contact, a meaningful conversation about, well, does abortion indeed terminate an innocent human life? If so, we can work out from that common ground to hopefully reach a little clarity on the topic. Based on that natural law that God inscribes in every human heart, I think there's a lot of points of contact.
Sean McDowell: Tell me, in what ways do you think some of today's social justice movements are coming from ... and this is a quote, to quote you directly actually in a blog interview you did on this subject for me. You said it's, quote, "a framework that is not compatible with the Bible." Could you unpack that a little bit?
Thaddeus Williams: Sure. There's a lot there, but just to highlight a few points, in a biblical worldview, one of the starting points is the Creator-creature distinction: God's God and we're not. What I see a lot of what's called social justice today doing is erasing that line. Let me just highlight a few examples. In historic Christian theology, God is infallible. He's perfect. His verdict about reality is always right. When you erase this Creator-creature distinction, we ascribe that divine attribute of perfection and infallibility to ourselves. So, if I feel this way, nobody can question my authoritative verdict about how I feel. That's one of the ways you see the line being erased between Creator and creature.
Another way is God has the attribute of omniscience, and part of his omniscience is he can see into the hearts of people and know our deepest core motives. A lot of the social justice movement today claims that kind of omniscience for itself. Well, I know you said such and such, but I can peer into the core of your being and know that what's really going on there is bigotry. I can see through what you're actually saying and what you're actually doing to your core motive, which is misogyny or racism or something like that. That's one of the biggest incompatibilities I see, is it just wipes out the line between Creator and creature, and starts ascribing all kinds of divine attributes to ourselves.
Now, another big point of contrast is according to the gospel, our innocence, our not guilty verdict, comes through one and only one way, which is the finished cross work of Jesus. Jesus as our great substitute, that's how we get declared not guilty. What I see in a lot of what's being called social justice today — not all of it, but a lot of it — gives us a different foundation for feeling not guilty. Well, I'm not guilty because I'm in this or that identity group. I'm not guilty because I've been victimized in ways X, Y and Z. So I am, by default, righteous not based off my group identity in Christ, but based off some other group identity.
I think that gives us a way of ... That's why I called it earlier "false gospel," is it's a way of getting the not guilty sentence that's other than God's only way of justifying us, through the cross of Jesus.
Scott Rae: I think you make a good point about how subjective some of this has become, where the person's experience becomes authoritative and the power of story in this has become so compelling. But I think ... wouldn't we also want to say that experience is real?
Thaddeus Williams: Sure, absolutely.
Scott Rae: And there are individuals and groups, I think, who have — either historically or at present — been real victims of real oppression that illustrate things that actually need to be fixed in the culture.
Thaddeus Williams: Oh, yeah, 100 percent. Yeah. There's real racism on planet Earth ever since Genesis 3, that's a thing. There's real sexism on planet Earth, ever since Genesis 3. To me, that's another core distinction is a biblical worldview is going to say, "Where is all that coming from?" And in Ecclesiastes, Solomon makes this really insightful statement. He says, "There's moral insanity in our hearts." We're morally crazy. It's the same thing Jeremiah's getting at when he says that the heart is desperately sick. Who can understand it?
So, I think a biblical approach is going to acknowledge there's real injustice. It's going to listen hard to the stories of people who have been on the receiving end of injustice. It's going to take those stories very seriously. And then when it comes to the diagnosis, it's going to ultimately get to the root disease, and not just face the symptoms. It's going to get to the root disease of sin, and take that sin disease to its only ultimate remedy: the gospel.
That's not to say there isn't such a thing as systemic injustice. The Bible even says that there are those who frame injustice by statute. There are systemic evils that are a reflection of our sinful hearts. But I think we need to take very seriously the root of evil. It reminds me, there was a G.K. Chesterton article from years and years ago where the newspaper there in the U.K., it asked the question, "What's wrong with society?" And all these responses kept flooding in. Well, the problem is the Germans. The problem is this or that. Everybody's pointing to something in society, and G.K. Chesterton wrote the shortest article of his career. His article was two words. "I am." What's the problem with society? I am. Signed, G.K.
That level of humility that we bring to it, acknowledging that we're the sinners and realizing that we might be complicit in injustice in ways that we're oblivious to, and so we want to hear very clear what people are saying, and get on our knees before the cross about that stuff.
Sean McDowell: Thaddeus, I think it might be helpful for our listeners if we take a moment and look at this document where you unpacked 25 differences between the biblical view of justice and the view of justice in the, quote, "social justice movement." Let me throw these different categories out at you, and just kind of in Twitter responses, highlight the difference, so we can see the different worldview approaches that they're taking. For example, what's the difference between biblical justice and the social justice movement on how they understand and identify evil?
Thaddeus Williams: Sure. Some of what I was just getting at is, what's often called social justice would say, "All evil, it's fundamentally a systemic problem." So, external systems of oppression, they can be blamed for all suffering and they can be fixed through social activism. Whereas a biblical worldview is going to say, "Yes, there's evil systems." "We frame injustice by statute," is the way the Old Testament puts it, and we ought to seek justice and overthrow corrupt systems. But again, it cuts deeper and says, "There are sinners who make those systems unjust." Sin resides in every human heart. It can only be redeemed by the regenerating work of God through the gospel.
And so I think that gives us a certain humility as we approach injustice, because it's all out there, in which case I could become really obnoxiously self-righteous. Biblical categories give us a way of saying, "A lot of that evil's in here, too, so I need to do some serious repentance."
Another point of difference is that guilt, according to a lot of what's called social justice these days, guilt can be assessed on the basis of somebody's skin tone. You can be condemned based on the collective guilt of a group identity or something, and then there's forms of penance and reeducation to alleviate that guilt. Whereas in a biblical worldview, every ethnicity, every skin tone, every gender stands guilty based on our group identity in Adam. This is Paul's argument in Romans; we're all guilty in Adam, and that guilt is only erased by finding our new and deepest identity in Jesus, the second Adam. There's another big point of contrast.
Another one is, according to a lot of contemporary social justice, evil is three categories: there's the patriarchy, capitalism and whiteness. Those are the three evils that need to be confronted; the patriarchy, capitalism, and whiteness. In the biblical worldview, evil is, as the reformers used to put it, the world of flesh and the devil. It just has a different definition of the source of evil. So, there's a few points of contrast. There's 22 more that I list, but hopefully that gives a good appetizer.
Sean McDowell: How about the nature of love?
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah, that's a big one. In a biblical worldview, because there's a different view of what it means to be human — in a biblical worldview — we're broken. My desires are far from perfect. I have unjust sentiments, is the way C.S. Lewis would put it. And because my sentiments are unjust, because my feelings are messed up and my heart's broken, I'm loved well when people help expose destructive feelings, destructive behaviors in my life. There's something redemptive about love when I acknowledge I'm not perfect.
But with a lot of the new social justice movements, there's no category of sin, because there's no category of the holiness of God. So, in my current state, what I feel is sacred and perfect and unquestionable. So if you don't accept me exactly as I am, and if you don't celebrate exactly who I am, then by definition, you're a bigot. I think that definition of love, you're only loving me if you're accepting me exactly how I am in my current form. I just don't know of a relationship in the world that actually works like that. You know?
If I look at my 7-year-old and say, "You know, I saw you haul off and slap your little sister. And I'm just going to accept and celebrate that behavior," then I don't think I'm being a very loving parent, right? I recognize that she's a work in progress, and she needs help, and she needs to be loved out to having more just sentiments towards her sister. So I think the biblical view of love can be a lot more redemptive.
Now, that doesn't mean we go be self-righteous about it and we obviously have to remove the planks from our own eyes first. But I think there's a lot more redemptive power to biblical love over and against, "I'm just going to accept everything about you." I don't know any relationship that actually works like that.
Scott Rae: Thaddeus, you've said already that there are points of contact between the way the church pursues justice within a biblical framework, and the way that culture pursues it. You also pointed out some of the contrast there. There's some rather sharp contrast between those approaches. I know you don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this, and just have Christian faith become this individual pietistic faith without any kind of social implication, because that seems to me to be a truncated and incomplete expression. As you said, from the start in the Old Testament, especially the prophetic tradition, Christian faith was intended to have a social dimension to it. It wasn't just an individual moral code.
Thaddeus Williams: Sure.
Scott Rae: Give us some examples, maybe an example or two, of where you think the current so-called social justice movement has run amuck.
Thaddeus Williams: Sure. I would say if you look biblically at the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5, it says that the fruit of the spirit — love and joy and peace and patience, kindness — this list of virtues that the Holy Spirit infuses in us. Where I see a lot of the contemporary social justice movement getting off the rails is, look at the fruit that it produces. I've seen a lot of my friends where instead of love and joy and peace and patience and kindness, you end up with hostility and suspicion and divisiveness, whereas biblical love, according to First Corinthians, love is not easily offended. A lot of the new social justice movement encourages offendedness and rewards offendedness. It's a mark of virtue. I'd say that's one of the biggest points of contrast, is what kind of character is it forming in us? I'd say that's one of them.
But I would add to that, if we were to hop in a time machine and go way back to the second century, you had this plague ravage the Roman Empire. Some historians would say that almost a third of the Roman Empire was wiped out by this mysterious plague, and if you look at how the culture responded back then, it was, "This life is all we've got. I'll be damned if you're going to take it from me," so they went running for the hills, away from the plague. Except for our brothers and sisters, who loved Jesus. They went running to the bedsides of the plagued, and gave them dignity and treated them as image bearers of God.
Now, it wasn't, "You will agree with our sexual ethic, or we're not going to help you," or anything like that. It was, "We will love you because of the gospel, because you bear the image of God." And a lot of our brothers and sisters dropped dead of the plague in the second century for living the gospel.
Now, if you fast forward to the 1980s, it's a very parallel situation. This mysterious plague breaks out. It seems particularly to be affecting homosexual males. Their immune systems are shutting down for some reason. Everybody's scared, and where's the church in the 1980s? They're right where the pagans of the second century [inaudible 00:22:06], which was running for the hills, and often times turning over our shoulders to yell, "That's the wrath of God coming to get you."
So I think there's a deep context behind the way we talk about justice in the culture, where there's some areas where the church needs to say some sincere apologies. Because that's where I see the rift and the polarization and the us-versus-them thinking. There's a lot of room for the church to step up and say, "You know, there were times that we were not living compatible with the gospel." There's a few thoughts.
Sean McDowell: Let me ask you this question. We're at a moment where I hear increasingly from voices in the church and without, that the Christian position itself on the natural family is bigoted and hateful, and harming other people; meaning the Christian position itself is injust. We're told if we want to be just, we have to change our position. How is it that we hold to historic Christian doctrine and still live out and make a case for justice in an environment that increasingly sees Christian theology that way?
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah, that's a great question. I think when it comes to ... The new social justice movement tends to see any kind of hierarchy, any kind of power differential is the way they'll often describe it, it's automatically evil because the ultimate end game, the goal, is equality across the board.
In fact, I saw a video last night of an author arguing that we need equality between parents and infants, and what that needs to look like is parents need to seek consent before changing a diaper. There's a sense of, we need to even break down the hierarchy between parent-child, because all hierarchy is inherently evil. And I think biblically, we need to show that, yes, there's a lot of ways that power differentials, because of sin, can get really evil and really oppressive, and we need to combat those. But we also need to be able to tell a beautiful and compelling story about certain hierarchies and certain differences that are part of God's good original design for human flourishing.
So, think of the whole Bible opening up with these benedictions, right? God is making stuff and saying, "It's good. It's good. It's good," at the end of every creation day. Now, what he's doing is, he's making differences. He's saying the heavens and the earth, he's separating the two and saying, "It's good." He's separating the waters above from the waters below and saying, "It's good." And he's separating the dry land from the oceans. "It's good."
And then you get to the first malediction in the Bible, the first bad word. The first time God looks at something and says it's not good is when he looks at Adam all by himself and he says, "It's not good for man to be alone." Well, why is that? Because there's a lack of diversity there. So then God makes woman, and it's the only day of creation where God doesn't just say it's good. On day six, he says it's exceedingly good, according to some translation.
So, that fundamental distinction, the male-female distinction that reflects something of the image of God, is something beautiful and to be cherished, and not something to be erased as if it's irrelevant. So I think particularly in this cultural moment, being able to not only understand the deeper biblical theology about why these differences are beautiful and should be celebrated, not erased, but actually living that out in a compelling way for the culture, so they can see, "Oh, that's the beauty of family; when a family is living its built-in telos the way God designed family to function. I think that's a big part of it.
Scott Rae: Thaddeus, we appreciate your perspective on this. This is a really complicated area of discussion, seems to me, because as you rightly pointed out, the Bible's really clear about the mandate for the community of God's people to be concerned about issues of justice, not only for individuals who are wrong, but also in the broader society and culture. Yet there are some things about the current social justice emphasis that I do think are framed in a way that's quite foreign to the way the Scripture would do that.
So, to pursue this well, while at the same time being discerning about how we talk about this and how we do it, seems to me a real ongoing challenging for the church. Seems to me the credibility of the gospel is at stake with our ability to see some of these justice issues really well. This may not be quite as true here in the West, but especially in parts of the world where injustices run rampant on every street corner. It's just impossible for the gospel to have credibility if we're also perceived as having our heads in the sand about these matters of justice.
So, I appreciate trying to parse this in a way that's faithful to Scripture, yet at the same time, doesn't downplay the need for that mandate being fulfilled, I think is a really tricky balance to maintain.
Thaddeus Williams: Yeah, and I think it's important here for the church ... It could very easily just be reactionary and say, "Well, there's a huge debate raging in the culture over race, and well, some people approach that from a perspective where we see some things that are incompatible, therefore let's just ditch the whole conversation, or let's just rail against it." And I think that kind of reactionary Christian thinking is pretty superficial and un-biblical. I think it's a great time to be alive and to love Jesus, to be able to model how the gospel speaks into that. Because at the end of the day, if our core identity is in Jesus, then you get this beautiful every tongue, tribe and nation, diversity united under Jesus.
It's very important right now to not just take, "Well, we're against everything, and we're going to be the moral referees of culture, blowing the whistle any time we see something unbiblical." Not so much that as much as living out the beautiful, biblical alternative, and show how the gospel speaks into sexuality and tells people your core identity is not your sexual attractions. It can be deeper, your identity in Jesus. Your core identity is not your economic status. Your core identity is not your racial identity group. Jesus transcends all that in a way that ends up redeeming all of it. And so I think, yeah, it's just an important time for the church to step up and think in gospel-centered ways about all these important issues.
Sean McDowell: Thaddeus, thanks for your work in this area. Our listeners will check out your book, Reflect. Thanks for your ministry and for coming on the podcast.
Thaddeus Williams: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, gentlemen.
Sean McDowell: You bet. This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” To learn more about us and today's guest, Thaddeus Williams, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.