In seminary, my discipleship courses had a particular focus: passing on what the apostles had taught about doctrines like the Atonement and practices like Bible reading and prayer. For me, as for many evangelicals today, this made discipleship mainly a matter of nurturing faith and spiritual growth.

Michael J. Rhodes had a similar experience. But then one day he heard John Perkins speak: “He pointed out all this stuff in Scripture I’d never paid attention to, stuff that had never crossed my discipleship radar.” Poverty relief, love for other races and ethnicities, and other justice issues were central to the discipleship modeled by Jesus and the apostles.

Rhodes, a pastor and an Old Testament professor, came to realize that community justice needs to be part of Christian discipleship, “not because of some liberal agenda or to ‘keep up with the times,’” but “because ‘the Bible tells us so!’” And so he devoted himself to this fuller perspective in his own ministry. His book Just Discipleship: Biblical Justice in an Unjust World is the fruit of that work.

The book is structured in four parts. The first gives a biblical definition of justice and shows its place within the Bible’s mandate for discipleship. As Rhodes observes, the American church in particular has “offered the world a justice-less, or at least justice-light, version of our faith,” but Scripture is a story of unjust people being justified and renewed in God’s just image.

Part 2 explores several ways God’s people were shaped for justice in biblical times, distilling key concepts from those examples for our own day. Rhodes explores the just community created through Israel’s feasts as described in Deuteronomy, including how they bonded “orphans, widows, Levites, debt slaves, and dependent strangers … as kin.” He also reflects on the cries for justice sung in the Psalms, the essential role of justice within the wisdom instruction of Proverbs, and the continuity of these Old Testament moral priorities within the ongoing mission of grace in the New Testament.

The book really starts to shine in part 3, where Rhodes draws out additional justice resources from Scripture, in particular the jubilee principle, and applies them to some of the most controversial social questions of our day.

The jubilee principle (or “jubilary imagination”) is rooted in the Levitical Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25). This was the crowning application of Israel’s sabbath year cycles, celebrated every seventh seven years (that is, every 49 years). On the Day of Atonement that year, family lands previously lost through indebtedness were restored. Family members who had fallen into debt servitude were also released. The Jubilee, Rhodes explains, shows God’s “politics of holiness.” He gave every household in Israel a part in the nation’s socioeconomic assets, and he taught Israel practices to prevent multigenerational poverty.

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In the final part of the book, Rhodes shifts gears from specific justice issues to explore (and critique) various approaches to politics deduced from Scripture. The “Romans 13 Only” approach, for instance, views government as instituted by God and thus to be obeyed, but it largely avoids thorny questions of involvement in government. After all, the idea of political involvement was not even conceivable in Paul’s day, when running for office or holding authorities accountable through protests were not options for conquered subjects of an empire.

Rhodes next considers the “Joseph Option,” patterned after the example set by Joseph in his rule on behalf of Pharaoh. “At first glance,” he writes, “Joseph seems like the perfect model for wise, faithful action.” But on closer examination, Joseph used his power to protect his own family while gradually enslaving the Egyptians under Pharaoh’s absolute rule.

As with many Genesis stories, Joseph’s rule is an origin story with an ironic purpose. It shows how the very system that gave Pharaoh so much power to oppress the Hebrews was created by a Hebrew to preserve life! This irony magnifies the injustice of Pharaoh for enslaving the Hebrews, but it does not justify employing Joseph’s political method.

What Rhodes calls the “Revelation Only” option offers another extreme: regarding government as an always-evil beast like the monsters in John’s apocalypse. Rhodes affirms that governments often do take on beast-like roles, but that is not a complete picture.

Revelation was written to those who were powerless before mighty persecutors, and its message is still relevant for the persecuted. But some, Rhodes observes, wrongly interpret Revelation “to suggest that this powerlessness is normative.” On the contrary, there are societies where believers can exert political influence for good.

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After assessing the various alternatives, Rhodes finally lands on the “Daniel Option.” Daniel was able to operate within the Babylonian government while retaining integrity to speak truth to power and oppose corruption. “Joseph pursues his political goals without ever confronting the regime,” writes Rhodes. “Daniel, on the other hand, recognizes that you cannot seek the welfare of the empire without confronting the rampant injustice of the empire.”

Just Discipleship is both convicting and inspiring. There is plenty to critique, of course. In particular, the book gives little attention to biblical law (apart from the festivals and Jubilee). Even the Ten Commandments go unmentioned, which is surprising given their profound influence on Christian discipleship throughout history. Drawing upon this heritage could have strengthened the book (although, in fairness, Rhodes repeatedly admits his work is not comprehensive).

Evangelicals today are highly vocal on certain social issues, like abortion, gender, and homosexuality. But they are often muted on others—like racism, poverty, and immigration. Rhodes’s book is a timely exhortation to adopt the whole work of holiness taught by Jesus, whose priorities are formed in us through just discipleship.

Michael LeFebvre is a Presbyterian minister and a fellow with the Center for Pastor Theologians.

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Just Discipleship: Biblical Justice in an Unjust World
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
Just Discipleship: Biblical Justice in an Unjust World
IVP Academic
Release Date
August 8, 2023
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