Economic Justice and the Bible

Written by: Dr. Samuel L. Adams


Our political and cultural interactions often divide along tribal lines, making it difficult for a pastor or civic leader to be a prophetic voice in the public square. Finding an acceptable vocabulary can even be a challenge, since many phrases are controversial. One such term is “social justice,” which is often associated (negatively) with American progressivism and the “welfare state.” Pushback often occurs for those who speak about “justice” from the pulpit or classroom.

Yet “justice” is one of the most important concepts in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. When the Israelites enter the land, God commands Moses and the people to build a society where everyone has enough to eat and the rich do not trample upon the poor.  Along with highly specific advice on how to create a fair society, God gives the people a direct mandate: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).  Prophets like Amos and Micah follow in this same tradition, proclaiming that God is a special advocate for the poor.  Both of these prophets criticize unfair loans and other oppressive practices that benefit the wealthy and marginalize those who are struggling. Micah’s famous question, “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8), is not really about spirituality, but concrete action on behalf of vulnerable persons.

The first disciples of Jesus follow the model of the Israelite prophets in seeking a society where every one has access to essential resources and the ability to appear in public without shame. The clearest example of this is in Acts 4:32-37, which describes a spirit of “fellowship” (koinonia) and sharing resources “to each as any had need.”

Questions for Reflection

  1. Protestant churches and denominations have been wrestling for decades about how the Bible speaks to hot-button cultural questions, primarily with regard to LGBT rights. Yet Scripture has very little to say on such matters, but the biblical texts focus a great deal on economic justice. Why do you think there is such a reluctance to address justice in Scripture and the relevance of this witness on economics for today?
  2. In a polarized society, how does one discuss highly specific passages about economic/social justice, such as one finds in the Pentateuch, the prophetic books, and the New Testament?
  3. Do you think a focus on economic justice can be a form of evangelism? If so, how might this play out in churches and communities?