The doctrine of the fall of humanity is easy to verify — all we have to do is pay attention to the news. Injustice is easy to spot, both blatantly and subtly, in institutions such as the Church, government, corporations, families, and my own field, Christian higher education.
Yet, the Good News is that on this side of the Resurrection, God empowers us through the Holy Spirit and the written Word to at least glimpse the world through the eyes of Jesus. He also calls us to labor to set things right. It’s simply doing justice, and something that I confess, in a spirit of repentance, that I and the organization that I lead as chief operating officer have often failed to do.
Justice as Scriptural Imperative
The study of Scripture invites us to joy and celebration, invites us to repentance and change. The One who discloses Himself represents boundless love, teaching us that love for God cannot be separated from love for neighbor. He calls us to Shalom (peace with Him, our neighbor, the land, and ourselves) and compels us to do justice, that is, to set things right. When faced with tough choices and decisions, I simply ask myself, “What did the Triune God intend with His creation in the garden before the fall?”
The dignity of humanity is deeply rooted in creation, beginning with the three successive sentences in Genesis 1:27, 28. God created humanity in His image, called us to relationship with him and with each other, and gave us enormous stewardship responsibility for the world in which we live. This requires that we live in humble dependence on Him, seeking his will and living as He expects us to live. All understanding of the value of humanity and its rights are ultimately derived from the Creator. Human dignity is therefore seen through the eyes of relationship to God, each other, and how the earth is treated.
Human equality, dignity, and worth call us to respect human rights. However, there is a biblical twist toward rights that our individualistic culture often fails to understand. Scripture takes a different approach than the common understanding of rights — it emphasizes your rights, not my rights.
Scriptural passages such as Deuteronomy 10:17 indicate that God shows no partiality to the rich, the celebrities, or the powerful. The same book of the Bible instructs judges to show no partiality to great or small, but to do justice for all. This doctrine does not imply that we are all the same and should operate on some sort of conveyor belt. The Creator takes delight in his creativity and the variety that result!
To illustrate the seriousness to which God, through the Scriptures, takes the theme of justice, apply an imagined or real yellow magic marker to your Bible. If you only highlighted every passage in the Psalms and Proverbs alone, you would be profoundly struck by the clear call to justice. Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 32, 2 Samuel 11, 1 Chronicles 18, Isaiah 32 and 42, Jeremiah 33, Lamentations 3, Amos 5, Micah 4 and 6, and Zechariah 8 all remind us that God wills justice. These passages remind us of God’s response to systemic injustice and sin. And this is just the beginning. This is the fallen context entered by the magnificent incarnation of Christ.
As serious companions of Jesus, we can’t escape the call to do justice and bring freedom and healing to the lives of others. If we were only left with His words in Matthew 25:31–45 to “do it to the least of these” we would stand convicted. This responsibility is profoundly stated in our Master’s declaration in the synagogue of his home town as He read out of the scroll from Isaiah declaring good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:14–21).
These themes are not only declared by Jesus, but also lived out by Him. If we decide that we are the Body of Christ and that we belong to Him, how can we do otherwise? Devoted followers of Jesus are “Justice People.”
Jesus’ actions in John 4, best known as the story of the woman at the well, illustrate his perspective on justice. In this passage Jesus engages a person who religious leaders would have considered “wrong” in every way. She was the “wrong” gender. She was the “wrong” ethnicity, since Samaritans were descendents of both Jews and Canaanites. She had the “wrong” theology, since Samaritans did not worship in the Temple like the Jews. And, to top it all off, after being married five times she was now living with her sixth man!
Jesus’ encounter with this woman demonstrates a new way — a way that breaks through stereotypes and affirms the image-bearing of each and every person. This encounter demonstrates incredible balance between grace and truth. Jesus saw into this woman’s soul, her image-bearing, without compromising His commitment to help her live a life redeemed from sin. Don’t we tend to lean toward an overly-rigid emphasis on truth without grace, or an overly-permissive emphasis on grace? Yet Jesus offered the Samaritan woman both truth and grace. He was simply doing justice.
Justice and the Uses of Power
The call to justice applies to all of us. Every person has certain forms of power. We all have seen power used to destroy and power used for good. How do we best use the power that we have, in whatever form it takes?
David C. McCelland and David H. Burnham have written a classic work on power and leadership called “Power is the Great Motivator” (reprinted in the Harvard Business Review, January 2003). The authors describe three motivational or model groups of leadership called affiliative leaders, personal-power leaders, and institutional leaders.
Institutional leaders use their position to influence rather than to personally achieve or simply be liked by everyone. The affiliating leader wants to be popular, stay on good terms with everyone and not offend, often leading to unfortunate compromise and limited changes around them. The personal-power leaders are achievers who focus upon their own success rather than the development and success of others.
Institutional leaders are influencing leaders. They have a keen sense of justice and are willing to sacrifice their own self-interest for the greater good. While interested in their own development and growth, they are nevertheless mission-minded and committed to building up the institutions they serve.
This “influencer” (institutional) model certainly applies to both men and women. Like a stone thrown into a lake, each decision we make has ripple effects. Where and how are we using the powers that we possess? We must steward our influence responsibly and never underestimate it. Using influence well also requires a spirit of humility and a strong sense of purpose. Leadership positions (such as teaching, pastoring, counseling, managing, parenting) offer wonderful opportunities to advance the lives of those around us. Are we using those positions to empower others? It’s simply doing justice.
Justice and Gender
As influencers, men have a special and significant responsibility for gender justice as long as some men continue to “bar the door” to women and justify it with a few obscure scripture passages. We men can open doors, provide opportunities, and break down barriers for women by confronting our fellow men.
The empowerment of women cannot be done by women alone. Outstanding female scholars such as Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Ruth Tucker, Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, and many others have certainly led the way. However, I think that contributions from male scholars are also needed to transform insecure men and to overwhelm proof-text defensiveness, cultural confusion, and emotional blindness. The gold mine includes the works of Ken Kantzer, Walter Kaiser, Walter Liefeld, Gilbert Bilezikian, John Stott, Gordon Fee, Roger Nicole, Stanley Grentz, and others. The list goes on and insecure or foreclosed men cannot easily write off their work.
The way Jesus treated women should speak to us most loudly. Women are clearly called disciples in the Gospels, an amazing fact when we consider the historic cultural context. Jesus treated women with a sense of equal intellect and spiritual acumen, such as affirming Mary of Bethany for taking the posture of a disciple at Jesus’ feet instead of tending to the kitchen. And He uses feminine images for himself, describing himself as a hen desiring to gather her chicks. Are we men willing to take such a clear stand in support of women without our egos being threatened?
Although steady progress has been made, I have often observed a double standard in my own profession, Christian higher education. As an educator, I am troubled that while we offer women equal education (60% of today’s college students are female), segments of the Church and society continue to impose limits on women’s leadership. I have also witnessed institutional boards demand twice as much from female leadership candidates than from male candidates. This double standard even occurs among women involved in making the selection!
Where have we men failed to speak up when we have seen a woman treated by such a double standard, or patronized and mistreated simply because of her gender? Where have we failed to demonstrate a commitment to equality in our own relationships? When have we failed to challenge a fellow man about his emotional insecurities? What are we afraid of? Do we ignore the incarnation of Jesus and His clarion call for us found in the Luke 4 and John 4 passages?
We live in a culture in both the Church and the marketplace where women are paid less than men for the same job, and where many churches deny women the use of their spiritual gifting. Does Romans 12 divide gifts between men and women? Is Truth divided between a “blue gospel” and a “pink gospel”? Since when are the prophetic, teaching, and leadership gifts intended only for men?
It is time for some of us to step aside and empower women to take leadership, even demand it. We men need to challenge one another, and, perhaps we must even be willing to sacrifice our own privileged positions to bring about change. This is the influencing model of leadership. This is simply doing justice.
So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.
Together, male and female, we have the shared responsibility to mentor emerging generations and to model the delight of empowering others. We share the responsibility to live out shalom. We are called to do justice, express the dignity and worth of all people, both men and women, of all ethnicities, all abilities, and all age groups.
We must begin with repentance for our systemic sin of expecting those different from us to assimilate to our own sub-cultural world views, and for failing to understand cultural differences. In fact, we must proactively empower people different from us to be influencers themselves.
The task is great. We live in a world where many women are denied education, property ownership, and voting rights. It’s a world where approximately 75% of the population lives in substandard housing, 65% are unable to read, 33% do not have access to a safe water supply, and hundreds of thousands of children suffer from sex trafficking. In fact, if we live in a context where there is a meal in your refrigerator, you are dressed, have shoes and have a bed and roof over your head, you are better off than 70% of the world’s population.
We have much work to do, not out of guilt but out of the joy of being followers of the Son of God. Men and women must act in partnership to declare good news to the poor, set captives free, bring healing to the blind and freedom to those who are oppressed. And, living this side of the Resurrection, we have the joy of the presence of “Christ in us,” living life as in the garden instead of as a grind. It is a matter of simply doing justice.