Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Social Justice and Legalism

This goes back to a series of posts about legalism, which I am calling covenant path marking so we can get it into our heads that humans have an inevitable tendency to turn specific behaviors into actions whereby we judge ourselves and others as fit for God. Each of them is seen in positive terms by practitioners because they are seen as actions that express faithfulness to the covenant. But, each of them can lead to distortion if they are divorced from the main vocation: to love God and others for the good of the world.

How does “legalism,” or covenant path marking, make its appearance in what Foster calls the Social Justice tradition of how to configure the Christian life?


First, Foster appeals to his all-time favorite, John Woolman, to Amos, and then to Dorothy Day. You can’t find three better examples, though I would have appealed here to Jim Wallis. There are three great themes in the Social justice understanding of the Christian life: justice, mercy, and peace. Three arenas: personal, social, and institutional structures. The strengths are the call to right living, the enhancement of ecclesiology, the bridge between personal and social ethics, the concretization of what love means, a foundation for ecology, and the relevance of the impossible idea. The potential perils are that it can be an end in itself, a strident legalism, and (too often) too close of a connection with a political party/agenda. To practice the social justice tradition, Foster suggests we be open to being used by God, get the facts, become advocates for the marginalized, support relief agencies, become politically involved, write on behalf of persons, pray for the world.


How then does this become an issue for covenant path marking? Social justice becomes a covenant path marker whenever Christians identify themselves more with a political party than with Christ (which would lead Christians to unity with other Christians even when they differ politically), whenever participation in our “special cause” is used to judge our own righteousness, someone else’s righteousness or the unrighteousness of someone else, whenever the State becomes “right”, whenever a political party becomes our place of identity, whenever we see social issues overwhelming the fullness of the gospel — which is designed for the whole person and for the whole of society. Whenever evil is urbanized and systemic structures are suburbanized.


Again, this has to do with where our heart is: social justice concerns are good — after all, the Bible brings up poverty constantly and Jesus was at heart concerned with the marginalized. The issue is not the concern, but whether or not we are using those concerns for the good of others or for the advancement of our own self.

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Mark Miron

posted June 14, 2005 at 2:52 pm

“Social justice becomes a covenant path marker whenever Christians identify themselves more with a political party than with Christ.” Think I will quote that if you do not mind. It is short and concise and speaks to the heart of what I have been worried about in the identifying Christianity with one political party. Thanks.

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Scot McKnight

posted June 14, 2005 at 2:57 pm

More than welcome, Mark.

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