Recently due to world events, many people have asked “is the Christian God a God of justice?” and the Bible believing Christians answer with a resounding response “of course!” Isaiah 30:18 states it explicitly “the Lord is a God of justice.”
However, whether social justice should be undertaken by the church has been a point of global disagreement. Turning ideals into practice is even harder. In our social justice class in the Higher Education program at Hillsong College, we explore different views or theologies on justice across the Christian church throughout history.
But here are seven simple points from the Bible to show us that the early church was into what is now often considered social justice issues, and that we should be also concerned about these things.
1. Jesus was about restorative justice
It’s extremely hard to imagine the “the Followers of the Way” were unaware of the justice issues around them, given their proximity to Jesus. In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus publicly announces his mission or purpose very clearly:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on Me,
because He has anointed Me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It’s clear here that Jesus was about a type of justice that has social impact. Similarly, the church sought to carry on Jesus’ mission with the Spirit’s empowerment.
2. The Early Church was Women and Men Together
You have to work hard to remove Jesus’ female followers from the Bible. Not only did women who had been radically healed travel with the disciples, but the funders of the movement were also women (Luke 8:1-3). Biblical scholars have pointed out that in Matthew 12:46-50 Jesus stretched his hands out towards his “disciples” and then used the words “mother” and “sister” as well as “brother” about them.
Similarly, the early church had men and women together. Women such as Junia were the house leaders of the early churches. Prisca, Junia, Julia, and Nereus’ sister, Mary, Persis, Euodia and Syntyche, are all named in the letters in the New Testament. We can’t remove women leaders from the early church.
3. The Early Church was Diverse in language and culture
From the beginning the early church was made up of ethnically and lingually diverse believers. Not only did each of these groups have a place, all were also given new languages:
“And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability” Acts 2:4
This resulted in each group hearing the message in their own language and cultural terms. The early church was marked by a diversity of language via participation in the Spirit.
4. A Shared or Common Life
Not only was the early church made up of men and women from a wide range of ethnicities, but they also shared their life in sacrificial ways.
For example, it says in Acts 4:32 “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”
This life that was shared between the Christians even affected their economics. This had to be a radical kind of love for the community to interact in this way. And it was because of this love that the church grew!
5. The Corinthians responded to Poverty
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote of the generosity of heart the Corinthians had shown in responding to the Macedonian church.
“I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians, telling them that since last year you in Achaia were ready to give; and your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action.” (2 Cor 9:2)
The early church was generous towards those who were in financial need, or who were in poverty.
6. Accepting Slaves as Equals
Slaves were common in the ancient world. Within the Bible Paul implores the slave master Philemon to receive his runaway slave Onesimus back as “a beloved brother” in Philemon 1:16. Whether Paul intended Philemon to free Onesimus is a matter of debate – it wasn’t explicitly requested.
However, for a former slave to be considered a true brother in Christ is a change of relationship. In this case, it is even suspected that Onesimus had perhaps stolen money from his master (Phil 1:18). In Paul’s letter Onesimus is humanized as an equal.
7. Care for Creation
Although we often read the bible from an anthropocentric viewpoint, in fact the Bible does have things to say about the environment. Jesus assures us that God cares about the sparrows being sold cheaply in the market in Luke 12:6 and Matthew 10:29.
The Christian message Paul declared includes “The earth is the Lords, and all that is in it” (1 Cor 10:26). And Romans 8 describes Jesus’ work as freedom or liberation from bondage for the whole of creation.
While the early church certainly didn’t live in an age of environmental crisis, Paul was clearly conscious of the world around him, and the early Christians likely engaged in creation care as they took their faith seriously.
Dr. Tanya Riches
Ph.D., M.Phil., M.A., B.A., Cert IV (TAE)
Tanya has been part of Hillsong Church for decades and is currently our Master’s Program Director for Higher Education. She oversees all Masters students at Hillsong College, including all research projects on our campus.