Five Senses of Justice in the Bible

Over the last few years I’ve done a good bit of writing and study on the subject of justice in Scripture. Almost every time I do though, I later realize that my thoughts on the matter had missed some important element.

In short, I hadn’t done justice justice.

It occurs to me though that there are five major ways in which justice (Heb. mishpat) is used in Scripture (there are other ways too, but these occur over and over). Here’s a basic overview.

  • First, justice is often described as an essential element of God’s own nature.

Gen 18:19“For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”

Job 8:3          “Does God pervert justice, Or does the Almighty pervert what is right?

Ps 101:1         I will sing of lovingkindness and justice,  To You, O LORD, I will sing praises

Ps 111:7         The works of His hands are truth and justice; All His precepts are sure.

  • Second, a concern for justice should be a fundamental quality of God’s people.

Deut 16:19“You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous. “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.

Deut 27:19  ‘Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’

Ps 106:3         How blessed are those who keep justice, Who practice righteousness at all times!

Prov 21:3      To do righteousness and justice Is desired by the LORD more than sacrifice.

Isa 1:17          Learn to do good; Seek justice,  Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.

  • Third, justice is a characteristic of God’s saving acts.

Isa 1:27      Zion will be redeemed with justice And her repentant ones with righteousness.

Isa 9:7     There will be no end to the increase of Hisgovernment or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justiceand righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.

  • Fourth, God expects rulers to rule with justice.

2 Sam 8:15   So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered justice and righteousness for all his people.

1 Kgs 3:11 God said to him, “Because you have asked this thing and have not asked for yourself long life, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have you asked for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself discernment to understand justice,

Eccl 5:8  If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them.

  • Fifth, God and his people should pay close attention to extending justice to the most vulnerable, because their lives are the most fragile.

Deut 10:18 “He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.

Job 36:6         “He does not keep the wicked alive, But gives justice to the afflicted.

I think there are a few important conclusions to be drawn from this. First, God himself provides the standard for justice and ensures that it doesn’t fade into subjective speculation or personal preference. Second, biblical justice is very social–it always has to do with relationships (with God and others) and therefore its inaccurate to say the Bible doesn’t speak about “social justice.” It does, frequently. Second, we must carefully note the covenantal character of justice for true justice is grounded in God and includes reconciliation with God, who is the just judge. Third, justice should be a major concern for God’s people in every area of life.




Church Growth and the Global South: Toward a Biblical and Missional Ecclesiology

One of the most prominent divides in Evangelical missiology comes from divergent understandings of Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18-20). This divide represents in many ways different approaches by church growth advocates form the West and proponents of radical discipleship from the Global South. The divide between these approaches, commonly referred to as “frontier missions” and “holistic mission” centers especially on the meaning of evangelism and discipleship. This paper explores critiques of the Church Growth Movement (CGM) by scholars from the Global South—specifically, René Padilla, Orlando Costas, and David Bosch. This paper concludes that both approaches have something to offer and a solution can be found in the articulation of a missional ecclesiology.

You can download the paper here.

Download two free chapters of “For the Love of God: Principles and Practice of Compassion in Missions.”

Wipf and Stock has recently made available two free chapters of our book, “For the Love of God: Principles and Practice of Compassion in Missions.” To download the pdf. click here.

You can order the book at the Wipf and Stock website here. I’d love to hear your feedback here in the comments section, or in any reviews you might post on or other sites. Thanks and hope you enjoy!

*Used with Permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers

Are Democrats Welcome in Your Church? Some Thoughts on Election Day

During this election cycle, as with all elections I suppose, passions have run high. I get that. We all care deeply about what we believe and we want the best for our nation. Yet, we differ sharply on what “the best” means and on how to achieve it.

But I’m always concerned during election years by the tendency to align the gospel with a particular candidate and/or political parties. What I mean is that sometimes our defenses of particular candidates suggest that one must support so-and-so in order to truly be a Christian. I am especially shocked by the number of pastors who publically declare their support for candidates. Not only is this a dangerous violation of a church’s 501(3)c non-profit, status, but it is (more importantly) a violation of the church’s biblical mandate according to the New Testament. The primary purpose of the church is to provide entrance into the Kingdom of God (Matt. 16:13-19), not to endorse a political agenda. By tying the church to a candidate or party, we risk minimizing the church’s effectiveness among the very people we are called to reach.

Now, before I go further, allow me to come clean. I’ve certainly had my share of public discussions (via Facebook, for example) on the various candidates running. But, (1) I’m not a pastor, and (2) I haven’t endorsed anyone. Yes, I’m a missionary and in some circles we call anyone with minister credentials a “pastor.” But a pastor is (biblically speaking) the shepherd of a flock, one who leads a group of people in their journey of discipleship. So, a true pastor is one who leads (or helps lead) a church. Not everyone who has ministry credentials fits this description.

So, let’s get back to the question. Are Democrats welcome in your church? I ask this because many of the pastors whom I’ve seen defending a particular candidate give the impression that to be a Christian one must first become a Republican. Now I know what you’re about to say, so let me say it for you: They don’t have to become a Republican, but they do have to side with Republicans on a number of issues, like abortion, for example.

But the truth is, good people can have sound reasons for disagreeing on the best way(s) to be pro-life, just as they can have good reasons for disagreeing on a host of other issues. For example, if a person thinks that a candidate is likely to start WWIII, then wouldn’t this also have to be factored into what it means to be “pro-life?” I could go a long way with this analogy, but you get the idea. One could argue that being pro-life ought to mean far more than just trying to reverse Roe v. Wade.

Whatever your take is though on this, the point is that pastors and churches have a primary responsibility to reach the lost. And we do that through one means and one means only—preaching Christ crucified, risen, and coming again. Whatever else we attach to that is not the gospel. It is the gospel—plus. The gospel plus nationalism, or the gospel plus Republicanism, or the gospel plus…whatever. The point is, the gospel plus anything is not the gospel, no matter how good our intentions may be. This is very much the point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. If the gospel plus Judaism was a corruption of the good news, how much more is the gospel plus Americanism?

Some are sure to interpret this as my being anti-Republican or even anti-American. Be sure, I am neither. I proudly served my country in the Armed Forces and have voted for Republican candidates for most of my life. But we must never confuse the ideals on which this nation is built with the tenets of the gospel. They are not the same thing and any attempt to homogenize the two is to ultimately dilute the significance of the cross.

When we align the gospel with a particular party or candidate, we risk diminishing the gospel when that party or candidate does something that is out of step with Christian values. And I promise you, every party and every candidate will eventually come up short. To paraphrase Greg Boyd, that is the nature of the kingdoms of this world, and why Jesus said, “my Kingdom is not of this world.” In saying this, Jesus explicitly rejected the this-worldly ways of achieving His purposes. So why then do we his followers so often act as though God’s purposes are dependent on worldly forms of government?

The primary role of pastors (and arguably, church members too) is to proclaim, not a party platform, but rather that Jesus says to a world searching for genuine hope and enduring love, “if anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.”

Let’s then do our best to ensure that “anyone” really does mean “anyone,” and not “anyone who agrees with my politics.”

From Solidarity to Sodality: Compassionate Missions, Local Churches, and the Fostering of Cross-Cultural Missionary Bands

Next week I will attend the national meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society (EMS) in Dallas. The theme of this event is Missions and the Local Church, and I will be presenting a paper titled “From Solidarity to Sodality: Compassionate Missions, Local Churches, and the Fostering of Cross-cultural Missionary Bands.”

In this paper, I argue that compassion constitutes a vital component in the development of indigenous missions movements and that because of this, missionaries should focus compassionate efforts on training and equipping local believers.

You can download the full paper here. I welcome your comments and feedback!

Conference details and program information are available here.


Review: Impossible Love by Craig and Médine Keener

Yesterday I had the chance to read the new book by New Testament scholar Craig Keener and his wife Médine. It was so good, I read it in one sitting. What especially gripped me about this story–this story of many stories that intertwine to form one amazing testimony to the faithfulness of God, was what great story tellers both Craig and Médine are. As I read, I laughed at Craig’s description of learning how to tie a tie and becomekeener1 a Baptist, and I wept at the horror of Médine’s ordeal in western Congo. And, I found myself deeply challenged by the practical, charismatic faith of these two scholars (Médine has a PhD from the University of Paris). Their story is a story about the triumph of love and faith over racism, war, bureaucracy, and doubt. That is to say, it is a story in which God is the hero.

As someone who lives and ministers in Africa I was reminded of (yes even for missionaries), how easy it is to become complacent about things like racism, or being desperate for God and wanting above all, His will and presence.
Many of us have learned a great deal from Craig Keener’s scholarship. His two volume edition on Miracles is one of my favorites. But the world also has something to learn from the way Craig and Médine Keener live their lives in the real tension between the present and coming Kingdom, between miracles and doubt, between human frailty and divine intervention, between violent war and inner peace, and between impossible circumstances and a mighty God who intervenes in dynamic ways simply because He loves us.

Impossible Love is worth a read and I highly recommend it. You can find it here:

*For full disclosure, I should mention that Craig sent me a complimentary copy of this book.


My wife came across this poem I wrote a few years ago in Zambia and I thought it was worth sharing. Merry Christmas friends!

By Jerry Ireland

Cornmeal and cases of orange drink.
Eight foot long poles of sugar cane,
babies, laundry, groceries, charcoal,
crates full of live chickens.
Water buckets and buckets
full of rocks, dirt and sand.
Iron beams, lumber and dirty dishes.
Things to sell, things to clean,
things to gather, things to throw away.
Work to be done.
This is what Africans do.
They bear burdens.
The small ones upon their heads
and upon their shoulders.

Death and funerals.
AIDs, malaria, children, orphans,
alcoholism, battered wives,
broken lives, jobless, hungry, cold.
Mosquitoes, flies, dust – dust all the time.
Dry and hot. New season. Rain, wet, damp,
drizzle, muddy, soaked. Bogged down.
Things to mourn, things to heal,
things to comfort, things to protect,
things to love.
Work to be done.
This is what Africans do.
They bear burdens.
The big ones on their minds and in their hearts.

Manger, baby, king, miracles, ministry.
Bread, Life, Way, Truth, Hope.
Arrest. Mocking, spit, fists, beaten.
Thorns, blood, cross, nails, flesh, death.
Sacrifice, forgiveness, resurrection.
Salvation to bring, captives to set free,
liberty to proclaim, healing to give.
Work finished.
This is what Jesus does.
He bears burdens.
All of them on the cross.

Full stop.

If You Care About Abortion, Do Something About Gun Control

It’s really that simple.

Evangelical Christians are losing credibility by the day when we declare out of one side of our mouths that we are “pro-life” and yet, over and over again reject any and all measures to make it more difficult for people to buy semi-automatic weapons like those used in San Bernardino that are designed, marketed, and sold for the purpose of taking human life. As was said in the first NY Times editorial to appear on that paper’s front page in almost 100 years: “It is a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency.”

We cannot continue, with any credibility at least, to say we are ‘for’ life, and do absolutely nothing to prevent it being taken by gun violence.

And let me add this. The president is right. If a person is on a terror watch list that prevents them from boarding a plane, then they should not be able to walk into a gun shop and buy an assault rifle. And yet, immediately after the attacks in San Bernardino, every Republican senator except one voted against measures that would have made that very thing hard to do. Yes, that is correct. Republicans in the Senate decided NOT to ban people on a terror watch list from buying guns. Their reasoning: such a law might accidentally keep somebody from buying a gun who is not a terrorist.

That is complete idiocy! I mean after all, accidentally keeping someone from buying a gun seems to me far less serious than accidentally executing the wrong person, something these same people seem completely unconcerned about doing. There are just inconsistencies piled upon inconsistencies here and its time we take stock of them if we are to be taken seriously in public debate (And no, I’m not unilaterally against capital punishment, nor am I a pacifist – in case you were wondering). Rather, It seems to me that this is an argument of convenience, and not one built on firm moral convictions (or else it would be applied broadly, no?).

No, stricter gun laws won’t prevent every atrocity, but they will most likely prevent some. That certainly seems to be the case with conservative-led Australia, and it may work here. In Australia, “There have been no mass killings — defined by experts there as a gunman killing five or more people besides himself — since the nation significantly tightened its gun control laws almost 20 years ago.”

Even if one mass shooting is averted, is that not better than none?

So what does all this have to do with abortion? I am appalled by the callousness of the pro-choice movement and its cry for abortion-on-demand simply because a baby would be inconvenient. Yet, I am becoming almost equally appalled by the unwillingness of gun owners and politicians to even budge on the issue of stricter regulations, regulations that would almost certainly curb SOME of the violence that is racking our nation. There can be no doubt that this unwillingness by certain politicians to give even a little ground is driven by an immoral gun lobby whose primary concern is their own financial gain. As far as I’m concerned, the gun lobby and the NRA in America have become the immoral equivalent of Planned Parenthood. Because of the gun lobby, Congress refuses to restrict the sale of body-armor piercing bullets and refuses to expand background checks. They are therefore morally culpable for the current wave tsunami of shootings.

At what point will Evangelicals become so fully “pro-life” that giving up a cherished privilege will not be too much to ask (like owning an assault rifle or purchasing “cop killer bullets”). When we will start caring enough about human life that we’re willing to do whatever it takes to reduce gun violence?

But what about the 2nd amendment? After all, I have a constitutional right to own a gun, don’t I?

Ok. If that’s your argument, here’s my (tongue-in-cheek) proposal.

I say make black powder rifles the only legally obtainable guns. First, this would allow gun enthusiasts to exercise their 2nd amendment rights in the most literal way possible, as that was most assuredly the type of gun in mind when the amendment was written. Second, for the sport enthusiast, it would make hunting even more enthusiastically sporting. I mean, if you only get one shot at the bear before it comes after you, you better have darn good aim right? Third, these rifles require so much effort and hard work to use and maintain, I suspect it won’t be long before we’re back to pre-Civil War numbers on gun ownership in America: Somewhere around 14% of the total population.

But what about the fear factor? If only the criminals have assault rifles, and everybody else only has muskets, won’t they run roughshod over the country, raping and pillaging while we haplessly and helplessly stand by?

Ok. That’s a valid point. I’m being slightly facetious about the musket thing (only very slightly). But I’m doing so to make a point. We don’t need to ban all guns except black powder rifles. But why, though, can’t we keep a guy on a terror watch list from buying an a rifle designed for mass destruction? Because it might keep Bubba from getting one too? Give me a break!

The point is that our choice is not between a total ban on all guns and doing absolutely nothing. Its between doing absolutely nothing and doing something that may save even one life! And the something we can do is force our elected representatives to either enact stricter laws or lose their jobs.

So, back to my main point. If we have any hope of winning the argument against abortion in America, we need to start doing something about gun control. It is too late now to sit idly by and declare that this or that won’t work, when we haven’t so much as tried. Human life, all human life, from infants to adults, are too precious to do nothing. And if we are going to be credible in declaring that we oppose abortion because we are pro-life, then we must do at least something to show that we are consistent in this. Laws making it harder for people on no-fly lists to buy assault rifles would be a good start.

The Missiological Necessity of Presence: How Being Gives Purpose to Our Doing

In all honesty, I don’t always love being in Africa. I do love the people we work with and I love the work we do. But Africa itself can be a taxing place to live. This past week was a good example of the challenges, ranging from the mildly frustrating to the somewhat terrifying. On Tuesday I spent hours trying to stay online long enough to do something as seemingly simple as book airline tickets. Then, we spent the next two days running back and forth to the clinic because our daughter had malaria. In the midst of all this, I found myself asking…

…Could we not be more productive in a country with slightly better infrastructure and a little less malaria?

After thinking about this for sometime, I’ve come to the conclusion that productivity is perhaps the least important reason we should pack up our family and move to a foreign country as missionaries.

In missions, we are often driven by the need to do. Sending churches want regular updates telling, not about what we have thought about, prayed about, or read about, but rather what we’ve actually done. Because of this, cross-cultural missions work tends to be action-oriented. Plus, I think as Americans, we’re sort of wired that way to begin with (at least the adult versions of us are).

But Jesus taught that presence is more important than productivity. And I think there is a significant missiological implication to this.

In the Gospel account of Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42), we find a discussion that well captures the importance of being. While Martha is busy making preparations, she becomes agitated with her sister Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet, listening carefully to what He has to say.

The point of the story is not to make Martha out as the bad guy for being productive. Productivity is a good thing and is commended in Scripture (Prov. 10:4). Rather, there is a cultural dynamic that one might easily miss in this passage. In Jesus’ day, women were not usually considered worthy of receiving religious instruction, and instead were usually confined to domestic tasks. As one commentator observes, “Jewish women were normally cast in the role of domestic performance in order to support the instruction of men rather than as persons who were themselves engaged in study.”[1]

Jesus though transforms this cultural norm. Martha, in her busyness, has missed a golden opportunity. She was looking for her sister to provide a little temporary relief from her domestic burdens, not realizing that Jesus was offering that very thing in far greater measure!

Mary would surely at some point return to her domestic chores. But she would do so as one who had sat at the feet of Jesus, heard his words, and been transformed by them (cf. Luke 6:47–49). She would never again be simply a woman going about her duty in a society that had little regard for women. She would be a woman forever born along by the transformational Words of her Lord. She would return to her work knowing that her work did not define her as it seemed to define Martha. Rather, Mary would be defined by the radically different door to self-understanding that Jesus had opened to her. She was now one worthy of instruction in the things of God, and not just somebody who set out the coffee and doughnuts for others.

So what is the point of the story then? I think it’s this: Presence gives greater meaning and greater significance to our productivity. Otherwise, we can be very productive in a lot of things that really don’t matter very much. But spending time with Jesus transforms us and gives us clarity about who we are and what we should do. This is true of us spending time with Jesus, and its true of Jesus’ disciples spending time with each other. Our being with Christ should compel us not to busyness, but to community:

“By entering into fellowship with Jesus, who emptied himself and became as we are and humbled himself by accepting death on the cross, we enter into a new relationship with each other. The new relationship with Christ and the new relationship with each other can never be separated.”[2]

So what precisely is the missionary implication of this? I believe the key is exactly the point made by the story of Mary and Martha: effective doing depends first on effective becoming.

What I mean is that when we spend time with Jesus and with fellow believers, we become defined (like Mary was) by his transformative words rather than by cultural definitions of success or significance. For cross-cultural workers, this means we cannot know our task or even ourselves until we know Christ and the faith community to which we belong.

Remember, Jesus’ missionary commission to the disciples was followed by the promise of His presence: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Likewise, Paul frequently spoke of the necessity and importance of being with those he served. To the church in Thessalonica he said, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). Therefore, we need not only time in the presence of Jesus through personal devotion, but time in his presence through fellowship with the saints. We need to be with each other in order to be truly for each other.

Whether living in West Africa or the West Bank then, our reason to be there must first be about who we become in the shared reality of togetherness. Only when we have through the power of community become who Jesus wants us to be, can we then begin to do what Jesus wants us to do.

[1]Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), n.p.

[2] Henry Nouwen, et. al. Compassion (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 48-49.

How To Do Research: 5 Basic Questions to Get You Started

During my student days, I had very little, if any, formal instruction in how to actually go about the research process. Of course, I had writing classes and instruction on how to outline a paper and so on. But the proper way to do research often went unaddressed and over the years there were times when I found myself buried in a pile of books, sticky notes, and legal pads, not quite sure how I got there, or how to get out.

So, I thought I would write a brief and simplistic description of the approach that I now use, which I mostly developed during my PhD studies through a process of trial and error. This is the cliff notes version, though and meant to be very simple. A complex project, in my view, needs a simple beginning. And for me, this is it. These are five basic questions that I use to start the research process, to help get things moving in the right direction. I’ll be sharing these with an undergrad class next week, and so I thought perhaps others might find them helpful as well. So here goes:

  1. How’s the view from up there? Start with a bird’s-eye-view of your subject. Get a good overview and discern the crucial peaks (and valleys) related to your topic. Topical dictionaries are a good place to start. The peaks would be those issues that rise above everything else and command the most attention. These often will feature prominently in your outlines. But don’t neglect the valleys, or the less noticeable, and seeming less interesting places. Treasures lurk in the shadows!
  2. Who are the main actors? What names come up over and over again in the literature? What are the classic texts to which everyone who writes on this issue refers? A word of warning though: its not enough to just know the key players; you also have to understand why they are key! For example, some key players have prominent positions related to this topic simply because of their historical importance. But this does not mean that their argument still stands. Another word of caution: good research isn’t just about summarizing the arguments of others and using their perspective to defend yours. Its about getting into the nuts and bolts of those arguments and finding  the lose parts. Good research crafts a new proposal that borrows from yesterday and reaches into tomorrow. It is not creativity for the sake of novelty, but reasoned and learned creativity for the sake of resolution.
  3. What’s the question? Your not ready to really begin a research project until you can state your topic in the form of a question. Without a question, you don’t have a problem, and without a problem you don’t have a reason to conduct the research to begin with. As you survey the material, some questions should emerge. Write them down and somewhere along the way, one or two very interesting but unanswered questions should appear. That is your topic.
  4. What’s the dominant story line? Every research question is likely to have some standing answer that dominates current thinking. Or, sometimes there will be competing story lines that are widely supported. Competing story lines often hold great promise for new research projects, especially if you can locate a false presupposition or untenable position in one line of thought.
  5. Where do you fit in? I think this is the most important and the most often neglected aspect of research. The researcher forgets to ask where they fit into the equation. Yes, you are to try as much as you can to set aside your prejudices and strive for objectivity. Good research depends on this. But you can never set aside yourself (entirely) nor should you. There is something in you that is driving you to consider this topic. Some part of you must genuinely care about it, because you (hopefully) chose it. So why? Why does this topic matter to you and why do you think YOU have something unique to contribute? Perhaps you have an interest in an aspect of this topic that most have not cared about or thought irrelevant. Because of this you will discern a long neglected aspect. It doesn’t matter (so much) that others have studied and written on this topic (of course they have!). But the exciting part is that YOU have not (yet) studied and written on this topic, and surely what you bring that is unique, is, well, you!

Finally, I would add that these are not sequential questions to explore, but rather ones that sometimes you have to examine and kick around simultaneously. For me, yellow legal pads are an invaluable part of the kicking around part. This is especially true if you have a general idea of what you want to tackle, but don’t yet have the precise question. So don’t be afraid to chase the occasional rabbit now and then. Just know when to give up and move on (hint: when you’ve forgotten why you’re chasing that rabbit is generally a good time!).

Happy researching!