"Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." This call to pursue justice in Isaiah 1:17 is just one of many such exhortations in the Bible. And yet many churches view justice as secondary to, and distinct from, evangelism, discipleship, and worship. As vice president of church mobilization at International Justice Mission, Jim Martin helps churches understand and engage the biblical mandate to seek justice for the oppressed. His new book The Just Church (Tyndale, 2012) shares practical strategies for churches looking to respond to that call. BuildingChurchLeaders.com editor Laura Leonard spoke with Jim about why churches should prioritize justice issues and how they can meaningfully respond to the most pressing issues in our world.
The title of your book is The Just Church. What does a "just church" look like?
A just church is a church that has the concept of biblical justice in its DNA. Just as evangelism and worship are in a church's DNA, and these concepts shoot through every ministry, justice really ought to be the same. That would mean that it would be difficult for someone to come to faith in Jesus and not have their worldview affected by the concept of justice.
Just churches are generally both courageous and willing to engage these issues around them with enough humility to come alongside organizations that have been working for justice in their communities for a long time. These are churches that have, in a disciplined way, moved beyond the anger and outrage that issues like sex trafficking cause, and they have found a way to a deeper motivation—a biblical conviction—that the church ought to be concerned about these things, and are on the road toward finding meaningful engagement themselves.
How would you describe the church's historical relationship with justice?
There have always been branches of the church that have championed the call to justice, because it is such a deeply biblical call. In the last 100 years, though, evangelical churches, particularly those in the developed world, have really struggled to see the call to justice in the Scriptures as well as what a church could do to have any sort of impact on issues of justice in the world.
So why should churches prioritize justice? How does the Bible talk about it?
The whole of Scripture speaks to the issue of justice and the call of God's people to engage. Reason one: God is a god of justice, and anyone who follows Jesus as a disciple should have that DNA in them.
It could be helpful to make a distinction between the concept of social justice and the concept of biblical justice. They are both good, but the question is ultimately one of motivation. Social justice is something that caring people do because they are concerned about the plight of people suffering in the world—that's a great thing. Biblical justice is something that disciples of a just God do because they long to mirror this aspect of the Ancient of Days in a world of desperate need.
That's a helpful distinction. A lot of people hear the term social justice …
And we sort of cringe, right? As Christians it puts us in a difficult position. Of course we don't want widows thrown off their land, that's not right. We certainly don't want children sold for sex. But we're at a loss to explain why it is that the church should be involved.