When to seek justice or bear injustice

Injustice, without question, exists. In our broken world, it exists all around us. It exists in society, it exists in our denominations and gospel partnerships, it exists in the church and it exists in our own hearts. Sinful people will cause injustice. Injustice, simply, is opposed to whatever is right. It is the inverse of righteousness, which is concerned with rightness. Injustice is the absence of what is just and right; it is unfairness and wrongness made manifest.

But what do we do about injustice? Options range from setting up campaigns and waging unrelenting war against it right the way through to actively encouraging it ourselves. But what should be our response as believers? I think there is a time to pus back against injustice and there is a time to wear it. The big question is, how do we know when to do either?

Helpfully, I think Paul offers us some pointers both in how he responded to injustice on a personal level and how he directed the church to address injustice. Let me land on four examples which, I think, give us some helpful guidance.

First, there is Paul’s imprisonment and beating in Philippi. You can read the full story in Acts 16, but the two pertinent sections are Acts 16:16-24 and Acts 16:35-40. The short story is that Paul and Silas are followed around by a girl with an evil spirit whom some men are exploiting for profit. She begins disrupting their efforts to share the gospel so Paul exorcises the demon in the name of Jesus and the girl is restored to her right mind. Her “owners” are miffed at the loss of profit so make up stories about Paul and Silas which led to them being beaten by the magistrates and chucked in prison. The next day, they are released without charge and Paul tells the magistrates they are Roman citizens who have been beaten and detained unlawfully and they expect a fulsome, public apology with an escort out of prison, which they duly did to stop word getting to their higher ups.

The second example comes later on in Acts 21-26. It kind of goes on longer than that, but you can get the main points in those chapters. This time, Paul is arrested unjustly in Jerusalem. Some Jews from Asia wrongly incite the crowd against Paul leading to a riot. A Roman Commander came down to sort matters out and again Paul cites his Roman citizenship. Only, this time, he doesn’t cite it to get out of prison, but in order to stay in! From chapter 22 to the end of Acts, Paul keeps appealing up the chain of command. He doesn’t demand release but speaks to the Roman commander, then to the Jewish Sanhedrin, then to the governor Felix, then because he as been left in prison so long, to his successor Festus. After that, Paul appeals to Caesar – to whom he goes next – but before he gets there he speaks to King Agrippa. At the end of Chapter 26, they are all agreed that had Paul not kept appealing up the chain of command he would have been released.

It seems prudent to ask why, in one case, does Paul take a beating and claim his rights as a Roman citizen after the fact while in another almost identical case he claims his rights beforehand to avoid a beating? Why, in one case, does he demand his release from unjust imprisonment and in the other keeps doing things that he knows full well will prolong his time in prison? In each case, Paul is unjustly imprisoned. In each case, his rights are being trampled all over. But he responds differently in both cases. Why?

As far as I can see, the answer seems to be for the sake of the gospel. In one case, the gospel was being maligned because of his false imprisonment. He wanted it to be made known that Christianity is not opposed to civil obedience. He wanted it to be known publicly that Christianity was no threat to public order and did not want the gospel to be tarnished with false views of what was being proclaimed, how it was being proclaimed and its views of authorities. The way to achieve that was to demand his rights and for the authorities to publicly escort him from prison, in full view, so that everyone would no the authorities find no charge, no problem with what Paul and Silas are saying and doing. In Philippi, Paul insisted the injustice was righted for the sake of the gospel.

But in Jerusalem, Paul was being presented with more and more opportunities to appeal to higher and higher level people with whom he would never ordinarily get an audience. The more he appealed to higher authorities, the more opportunity he had to share the gospel with them. In Jerusalem, Paul endured – even utilised – the injustice to serve the cause of the gospel. It is noted a few times that he could have been released, but Paul continues to appeal and appeal in order – not primarily to defend himself against wrongdoing – but to present the gospel to as high an authority as Caesar himself. In this second instance, Paul endures injustice and doesn’t seek to have it righted at all, for the sake of the gospel.

But this is not only a personal position that Paul takes. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul writes to the church in Corinth to call on them to expel a man in unrepentant, serious public sin. Sin that would make even the worldly pagans of Corinth shudder. Justice must be done in this case Paul insists. Not only for the sake of the individual who needs to be encouraged to repent, nor only for the sake of the church that will be sullied itself if it does not address it, but for the wider sake of the gospel locally. People will necessarily think that Jesus approves of this kind of heinous sin if the church does not publicly and clearly address it by removing the person from membership. So, again, for the sake of the gospel, Paul tells the church that justice must be done.

But in the very next chapter, to the same church, Paul tells the church that they really ought not to be going to court against one another. Now there is lots we might say about what Paul is and isn’t saying in these verses, but one point is very clear. He says, ‘to have legal disputes against one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves do wrong and cheat—and you do this to brothers and sisters!’ (1 Cor 6:7-8). There are instances, Paul insists, where it is better to suffer personal loss and injustice than to bring the cause of the gospel into disrepute. Now, there are lots of caveats and other things to say, but we cannot overlook that Paul is clearly saying – at least some of the time – that we must bear injustices for the sake of the gospel. Better to suffer personal loss than to cause the gospel to be brought into disrepute.

There are other scriptures we could look at, more that we can say, but let us just note from these examples one key point. There are times when it is appropriate to seek justice and times when it is best to bear injustice. The grounds for when to do what seem to always be centred around the gospel. Will this matter serve the cause of the gospel as I seek justice or will this matter bring the gospel into disrepute? Will I be able to serve the cause of the gospel better by seeking justice in this case or will I serve the cause of the gospel better by bearing this injustice patiently and leaving it with the Lord to judge one day?

So rarely in our quest for justice do we ask these sorts of questions. Often we seek justice because we think it will make us feel better and stick it to the one(s) whom we now hate in our heart. Similarly, we can bear injustice because we think it looks like hard work and it’s easier just to let it all slide away or we fear the reprisals of standing up for what is right. Neither of these are good reasons. The question at the heart of our personal quest for justice must concern the gospel. Will the gospel of the gospel be served by my pursuit of justice or by my bearing with the injustice? To be clear, I do not mean will my personal ministry be best served by it, nor the specific ministry of anybody else in particular, but the cause of the gospel itself. That may mean certain ministries come to an end and this being for the good of the gospel. It may mean particular people facing public justice for the good of the gospel. No person or individual is bigger than Christ and his kingdom. But we also have to reckon there will be times when these things are not the case and, for the good of the gospel, we bear injustice.

Now, I am not about to start pronouncing on specifics here. I am simply making the broad point. For the sake of the gospel, we will sometimes rightly – even very publicly – want to pursue justice. For the sake of the gospel, we will sometimes rightly – and probably very privately – want to bear injustice so that Christ is not brought into disrepute. I am not here to say exactly when we should do one or the other, simply that we must have some room for both being the case some of the time. The controlling motivation has to be, does this serve the cause of the gospel.