Social Justice

(Volume 24, Issue 6, December 2018/January 2019)

Of the hot-button issues circulating right now, in both society and the church, nothing has drawn more interest and debate than social justice. In society at large much unrest and controversy is evident particularly in regards to three areas.  First, there are the interrelation concerns, expressed most clearly in the #MeToo movement, which is an effort directed at the alleviation of sexual harassment and assault, primarily targeting women. Next are the debates involving human sexuality, especially LGBTQ items.  Finally, matters of race and ethnicity have surged afresh in recent years.  As these concerns filter down to the church, to a certain extent the response of God’s people is clear. The Scriptures powerfully condemn all forms of immorality, sexual misconduct, and abuse.  Sadly, the church has not been totally spared the accusations of sexual misconduct, with a number of high profile leaders recently being exposed for the misuse of their positions of power and abuse of women.  Concerning the LGBTQ agenda, the Word speaks with equal clarity.[1]  However, this has presented a considerable dilemma for the attractional church which is trying to create a church setting in which the unbeliever is comfortable and happy to join. Those following this model of “doing” church are struggling with how to attract unbelievers while condemning LGBTQ morality which has become increasingly acceptable within our culture. Finally, contrary to some Christians in the past, there are few today who would question the evil of racism. All human beings are created in the image of God and stand on equal footing before Him, and should before us as well.  But in our present time and environment, the matters surrounding race and ethnicity are not all that simple. Misunderstandings, accusations, division, and anger abound, and the church has not been spared.  It is primarily disputes regarding race that have gained the most attention of late and will be the subject of this paper.

The issues involved in the recent social justice controversies are not new; they have ancient roots. Known in previous times as the Social Gospel, it was at the heart of the rise of liberalism in the 1700s and 1800s; it was central to the Fundamentalist/Modernist divide in America in the 1880-1930s; it was key to the separation between the evangelicals and fundamentalist in the 1950s and beyond; it was at the core of discussion during the Civil Rights movement, and it is front and center today. The so-called Social Gospel discussions of the past are very similar to those of the present, which is more often called social justice today. “Social justice” seems to have fewer pejorative overtones than “social gospel.”  The latter implies that the gospel itself has been altered, something roundly condemned in Galatians 1:6-9. Of course, this is exactly what happened with the original Social Gospel movement perpetrated by liberal theology and Higher Criticism during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.  Richard Niebuhr’s summary of that movement could hardly be improved upon: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” True conservative evangelicals would never subscribe to such a description of their core beliefs.  The divide, however, within evangelicalism in the earlier Social Gospel movement was over what role social justice plays in Christianity.  Those who saw social concerns as secondary to evangelism and discipleship chose to not make social issues a major part of their ministry and focus.  These Christians, later known as “fundamentalists,” did not totally disengage from culture, something they are often falsely accused of doing,[2] but saw their primary calling as proclaiming the gospel rather than changing society through direct political and social activity. If the world is to be improved, they reasoned, it will be improved primarily through the penetration of the gospel with its life-changing message.  Those who disagreed, known as “neo-evangelicals” at first, and now merely “evangelicals,” saw the social agenda equally, or at least nearly, as important as proclaiming the gospel, and in fact, many have made it part of the gospel itself. Over the last 70 years or so, the tension over these social gospel issues has waxed and waned but has never gone away.  More recently the heat has been turned up, especially over the three issues mentioned earlier in this article.

The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel

Bringing things to a head is the release of “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” in September of 2018.  Also known as the Dallas Statement because it emanated from 14 pastors who met at a coffee shop in Dallas, Texas, “having all expressed our growing concern with much that was taking place within evangelical circles under the banner of ‘Social Justice.’”[3]  Christianity Today offers this commentary on the statement:

The statement comes at a time when a series of blog posts and sermons attacking social justice from [John] MacArthur, a popular California pastor and author, have sparked controversy in the evangelical community. The harsh reaction to MacArthur’s ideas was shaped by the events of the past four years, says Washington, DC, pastor and Gospel Coalition council member Thabiti Anyabwile.

“They land in the midst of an evangelical movement that is already fraying and fracturing under the weight of the last five years, if I’m dating this back to the Mike Brown shooting and the fallout,” said Anyabwile. “Evangelicalism as a movement splintered instantly as to how they understood that issue and different quarters circled one another in suspicion and sometimes outright attack.”[4]

It is apparent that with the publication of “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” the debate on social justice has been given new energy. The statement itself contains 14 short sections dealing with everything from Scripture to the image of God to the gospel and various related social issues such as complementarianism, sexuality, and racism.  It is only slightly over 6 pages in length but is accompanied by a series of articles unpacking its meaning.  Authors of these articles include Tom Ascol (the editor of the statement and pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida), Phil Johnson, James White and of course John MacArthur. In addition, transcripts from four sermons by MacArthur are attached and I assume more articles are forthcoming. In general, here are some important features of the statement (all quotes are taken directly from the document):

  • It expresses concern that the evangelical church is borrowing from the culture’s values in such a way that Scripture is being undermined in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality.
  • Going further, the statement challenges the present social justice movement because it is confusing both the message and the mission of the gospel and the church:
  • “The obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.”
  • It denies “that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church.”
  • It “rejects any teaching that encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression. While we weep with those who weep, we deny that a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behavior, oppression, or prejudice.” The authors are deeply concerned that the social justice movement is perpetuating the idea of victimization, especially of blacks.
  • The framers of the statement deny that only those in positions of power are capable of racism, and they deny that the contemporary evangelical movement has any deliberate agenda to elevate one ethnic group and subjugate another.
  • And, “We emphatically deny that lectures on social issues are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture, and that historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.”

Opposition

As might be expected, in the present explosive evangelical environment, a statement that addresses primarily racial issues and which is as bold, “in-your-face,” dogmatic and authored by 14 white men, would face considerable push-back.  And the response to the Dallas Statement does not disappoint.  It has the potential to draw a line between former friends including frequent speakers at Together for the Gospel conferences and within The Gospel Coalition.  One observer quickly listed a number of prominent evangelicals who will be marginalized including Russell Moore, Thabiti Anyabwile and Tim Keller.

Some critics have come out firing such as Dennis Edwards, who opens his commentary with these angry words which expressed deep animosity but says nothing about the issues involved:

We’re witnessing the death rattle of white Protestant fundamentalism in America. And as it dies, the empire has been striking back. Some aging white men fear the loss of their power, prestige, and heretofore unquestioned authority to tell others what to believe. Consequently, we receive from them edicts, often in the form of theological statements, designed to build a fence around their traditions, constructing walls of separation from others—even those who also take the Bible seriously.[5]

Equally as caustic on the other side are these comments by the editors of Pulpit and Pen:

The statement has been a long time coming, as Pulpit & Pen has repeatedly warned for years that a rift was developing among Calvinistic evangelicals. Under the leadership of progressive leftists, Russell Moore and Tim Keller, sides have been chosen in what is promising to become what amounts to a spiritual civil war between the two factions. On one side are theological heavyweights who have pined for the applause and appreciation of a lost and fallen world, who are cloaked in a coat of political correctness, and who in the name of “Gospel” have made progressive talking-points into their own political but pseudo-theological agenda. Make no mistake about it, this side has the bulk of the power and prestige. Advocates for the Social Gospel include D.A. Carson, Mark Dever, Albert Mohler, Russell Moore, Tim Keller, David Platt, Matt Chandler, Beth Moore, J.D. Greear, and Ligon Duncan. In other words, a number of the leaders of that faction have been speakers at John MacArthur’s Shepherd’s Conference over the years and are his longtime friends.[6]

Early responses, such as the ones above, hardly look like the Dallas Statement will be opening up productive dialogue resulting in “iron-sharpening-iron” discussions. As is all too common today, gracious theological debate turns into a bloodbath of slander and accusations with little progress being made. The key ingredients of such statements, and of those who disagree, are too often left unaddressed as supporters and distractors go on the attack.  Before we analyze these ingredients, a few more reasonable opponents should be mentioned:

Eric Mason who has written Woke Church.[7]  He defines “Woke” as “no longer being naïve nor in mental slavery…It is a term for being socially aware of issues that have systemic impact” (p. 25).  Mason believes that justice issues are not separate from the gospel (p.14) and that the evangelical church is asleep to the racial tension and injustice, and needs to be “woke” (p. 22-25). To do so the evangelical church must

  • Become aware of the issues.
  • Acknowledge the injustices of the past, for the past binds the present.
  • Become accountable for the injustices of the present such as the high concentration of black men in prison and the public school to prison pipeline system.
  • Be active: “White Christians must reach across the color line and begin building respect and trust for minorities, and minorities must respond with open arms and hearts to these efforts.” [8]

Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, claims to be disheartened to see the church repeat the same mistakes as in the past and compares what is happening now (in reference to the Dallas Statement) to rhetoric during times of slavery.  He apparently would side with Mason on including social justice as part of the gospel.[9]

Tim Keller who says that he would agree with much of the statement line by line but, due to “speech act theory,” believes we have to look beyond the words to the motivation behind them.  What do the authors of this document really mean? Apparently, they are attempting to ignore racial issues and injustice and continue white supremacy within the church, according to Keller.[10]

Albert Mohler says he will not sign it because “it has been interpreted by some as denying the reality of racism and its continued reality.” This is a step up from Keller but seems to accept speech act theory and allows the interpretation of others to determine his own views and response.[11]

Eric Waldon is a personal friend of mine who pastors a church in Cleveland, Ohio.  I interviewed him to get the perspective of a black pastor, ministering in the inner-city, who I highly respect because of his stand on Scripture and the gospel. He is in agreement with much of the Dallas Statement but does not think it goes far enough.  When feelings of guilt and injustice are expressed by the black community, dismissing them is not helpful and he believes the statement has the feel of dismissal.  He thinks the principles of 1 Corinthians 8 should apply to the social justice divide.  If our brother is stumbling over something we do, we need to take some responsibility. We may not be personally at fault but we can listen, love and care even if we do not fully agree.  He recognizes that the Black conscious movement is growing not only in society but within the church, and it deeply concerns him.

Analysis

As might be imagined, in addition to the comments above, there have been many responses, from robust support to strong disagreement and everything between. Those who crafted and signed the Dallas Statement are deeply concerned that the gospel is being compromised by adding to it a social element foreign to the New Testament.  And, if in fact the gospel is modified or expanded to include social concerns, such as the rectifying of racial tensions, then the mission of the church will also be revised to include the betterment of society, as well as the proclamation of the gospel and making disciples of God’s people.  Two foundational doctrines are therefore at stake.  First, and most important, is the gospel itself.  Is the gospel the good news of Christ living, dying, and resurrecting in the place of sinners in order to bring reconciliation between God and man, or is it something else?  This gospel message is clearly articulated throughout the New Testament and most comprehensively in texts such as 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 5:1-21; 2 Corinthians 5:21; and 1 Peters 2:24. If solving social problems which exists, throughout all cultures due to the corruption of sin, are added to this gospel message, then, the gospel has been expanded to include something never found in the New Testament. Pain and suffering which are experienced on this planet as we await the return of Christ should not be minimized as unimportant, but they must not be included in the gospel message itself, for to do so results in redefining the gospel in ways not supported by Scripture.  The Lord could not be clearer than when the Holy Spirit-inspired Paul penned Galatians 1:6-9 warning us that to define the gospel in any other way than God defined it would result in distorting the gospel itself, which was soundly condemned.  Any Christian, no matter how sincere and well-meaning, will want to take this warning very seriously, as being declared anathema by the Lord as is promised for gospel-distortions in the text, is a frightening thought.  It is the message of the biblical gospel that the crafters and signatories of the Dallas Statement are most eager to protect.  It reads:

We deny that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel.  This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.

The supporters of the statement are not opposed to justice, relief for the poor, or fair and gracious treatment of minorities and the helpless, but they are opposed to including such actions into the definition of the gospel. In an explanatory article accompanying the Dallas Statement, Darrell Harrison, reminds his readers that one of the key spokesmen for the earlier Social Gospel movement, Walter Rauschenbusch, wrote, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven… The essential purpose of Christianity was to transform human society into the kingdom of God by regenerating all human relations and reconstructing them in accordance with the will of God.”[12] It is this kind of thinking that concerns framers of “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” for they see the evangelical community headed down the same pathway that led ultimately to theological liberalism 150 years ago. John MacArthur is transparent in a related sermon, “Social justice is nowhere included in any New Testament passage about the gospel… So on its face, it is not part of the spiritual gospel… That is not to say that we’re not to love people and live justly, and care for them, and minister to the people who have been treated unfairly and unkindly and mercilessly; we are as Christians [to do so]… That is the result of the salvation [but] social justice is not a part of the gospel… It is a serious hindrance to the gospel.”[13]

If the gospel is expanded to include a social dimension, either in fact or in practice, then the mission of the church is changed from evangelism and discipleship to include the betterment and improvement of society and cultural conditions on planet earth. While no signatory of the Dallas Statement denies that enhancing life on earth is a good thing, they do deny that it is the mission of the church.  Harrison bluntly suggests “that social justice activists would do well to remind themselves that Jesus is a Savior, not a divine Social Worker.”[14] Phil Johnson, in another accompanying article writes,

Blending the gospel with social activism has been tried many times. It has always turned out to be a shortcut to Socinianism, carnal humanism, or some more sinister form of spiritual barrenness. The social message inevitably overwhelms and replaces the gospel message, no matter how well-intentioned proponents of the method may have been at the start…Nothing borrowed from worldly discourse should ever become a major theme in the message we proclaim to the world.[15]

Even a superficial glance at the New Testament reveals a people highly motivated to spread the good news of redemption, minister within the body of Christ, and glorify God with their lives and in their worship.  But one will search in vain to find either teachings or activities related to alleviating injustice in the world at large.  While there is much evidence of the church taking care of its own, there is no encouragement to change society by means of politics, social programs, or challenging governmental leaders.  Loving one’s neighbor, in any number of ways, is mandated and the natural outcome of a people called to be salt and light in the world.  As Christians, we are to have a positive effect on the world around us because of Christ who is in us.  But attempting to change the world, a world corrupted by sin and ruled by the devil, through social programs is not our calling.  This is why blending the Great Commission with any form of the social gospel has always gone astray.

Racism and Victimization

But as important as the gospel and social justice in general is, the debate and division over the Dallas Statement swirl around discussions of racism. The framers do not deny racism exists, but they are concerned that some minorities are claiming that racism is exclusively a sin of white men against primarily black people.  When racism is understood in this narrow way it fosters and perpetuates a victimization mentality. Josh Buice, in his article linked to the statement, writes, “It must not be understated that one of the central problems with the social justice agenda is its fascination with victimology.”[16] The most controversial assertion in the document seems to be this, found under Section XIV “Racism.”

We reject any teaching that encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression. While we are to weep with those who weep, we deny that a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression or prejudice.

It is these words which receive the most attention from Al Mohler. Mohler lines up pretty well with most of the statement, agreeing that there is indeed a detrimental victimization mentality in our society and that much of the social justice agenda is drawn from Marxism.  Still, he refuses to sign the document because he believes racism is still an “urgent issue.” He says, “I can’t associate with any assertion that we do not have a massive problem—in society and in the church—with claims of racial superiority…and with the fact that remnants and ongoing manifestations of those claims of white racial superiority continue.”[17]

And while Mohler’s point is well taken, it does not seem to be substantially different from what the Dallas Statement is saying.  Yes, racism exists and yes, white supremacy is real and, yes, there are real victims in this world. Where the two entities differ is that the framers of the statement are claiming that racism is not exclusively a white issue; the vast majority of true evangelicals has no desire, or agenda, to support or live out racism, and that a victim mentality, if embraced, will lead to more harm for everyone rather than to solutions. While some might argue that the wording could have been better, or a different approach would have produced happier results, the points being made in the Dallas Statement seem neither sinister nor out of line with Scripture or reality.  At least that would be the interpretation coming from the perspective of the authors of this statement. How might it be viewed from a different perspective?

The Woke Church

From the perspective of many black evangelicals, the Dallas Statement is saying something else. One such leader, who definitely see things differently, is Eric Mason who was referenced above as the author of Woke Church.  Mason wants a pursuit of “honest reconciliation that faces the issues of our broken past.”  To begin this process, we must “revisit our history, proclaiming the gospel to each season and seek reconciliation, restoration, and restitution, as it is appropriate.   This is the gospel mandate,” he claims.[18] While Mason attempts to distinguish the gospel from the effects of the gospel, nevertheless he has broadened the definition of the gospel to include a social component when he writes that the goal of his book is to “shine a spotlight on one of the aspects of the gospel that has been neglected and dismissed.”[19] Today “we are at the cusp of another church movement that will determine the trajectory of the church in America for some time to come” (p. 89).  By this, Mason is referring to the rise of black consciousness and “Black Nationalism” which seek the restoration of black dignity and respect.[20]  The past binds the present to such an extent, Mason believes, that moving forward seems unlikely…unless “we can wake up from our slumber.”[21]  Mason accuses America of telling African Americans to forget about the past, but he is convinced that we haven’t yet even talked about it.[22] Since so much injustice is in the system, the Woke Church must stem the tide of injustice in three categories: intervening, preventative and systematic.[23] With this in mind, his church has launched numerous social betterment programs which apparently are to lay the pattern for the Woke Church.[24] Unfortunately, he borrows from the playbook of the liberal branch of Christianity and from pioneer psychologist Abraham Maslow’s now debunked theory of “hierarchy of needs” and claims, “You can’t help a person who has experienced injustice and a lack of the basic needs of life without first intervening for their current needs.”[25] With this as foundational Mason spends his last two chapters offering concrete suggestions for a Woke Church in action and these suggestions are primarily social programs.  While grieving the increasing racial injustice in our country, “what needs to happen to the body if we are going to work together cross-ethnical is that white Christians must reach across the color line and begin building respect and trust for minorities.”  Minorities must respond with open arms and hearts to these effort.  “We would be light years ahead,” Mason claims, “if minorities weren’t the only ones talking about racism.”[26]   This is perhaps the thesis of his book.

The Woke Church gives the perspective of one evangelical black pastor on the racial divide and tension facing both our culture and our churches in America.  His perspective most certainly is representative of many others, yet the book leaves a lot to be desired.  First, it is not a view drawn from the Bible. Second, Woke Church is filled with generalized, exaggerated statements, and misrepresentations. Third, documentation, scholarship, and fair analysis are lacking throughout.  Fourth, virtually no discussion takes place about how to deal with crime, reform of the community and most importantly, the breakdown of the family.  Fifth, gearing the church up for social programs to deal with the issues is not the biblical model and sixth, the author unfairly ignored the many good steps and actions that have been taken or are in process, within both black and white evangelicalism.

A Way Forward

It must be recognized that some of the problems Mason identifies are real and pressing.   Whites and blacks, even within the church, are often insensitive to the others’ respected hurts and backgrounds.  True, honest, loving, non-defensive dialogue and attempts to understand one another need to happen on a regular basis.  The past must not be allowed to determine the present, but neither should it be dismissed.  Our love and forgiveness for one another should be real and evident.  Perhaps if the church of God, regardless of color or race, would take these steps, progress can be made and the world will know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another.

Having said that, we must not minimize the serious theological divide concerning social justice and the gospel.  These differences concern the message and the mission of the church.  Does the New Testament teach that the gospel message is about the cross-work of Christ whereby people who are alienated from a Holy God due to their sins can be redeemed and reconciled to Him, or does it also include a social dimension whereby people are liberated from the effects of sin in a fallen society and on this planet now? The answer to this question will inform the answer to a second question – what is the mission of the church?  Has the church been mandated to take the biblical gospel of spiritual redemption to lost people, and when they receive that gospel disciple them in order that they might live for the glory of God, or has the church also been commissioned to solve the world’s problems and injustices brought about by the corruption of sin?

The present debate hinges on the answers to these two questions.  I believe the New Testament is abundantly clear that the church has a unique message and mission.  It is to spread the gospel and disciple believers.  Believers in turn are to be the salt and light to the world which in many instances will bring about social changes in society, but that is not the Christian’s direct calling.  Yes, the church should preach, and stand against sin, all sins, including societal evils such as racism, injustice, greed, slander and hatred.  We should be concerned for this planet for after all we are citizens not just of heaven but of this earth as well. But one will search in vain to find in the New Testament examples of, or instructions to, the church attempting to change culture through political involvement, poverty reduction, rebellion against government, or social programs, and the like.  Those who argue otherwise do so without the support of Scripture.  Let us stand against sin; let us show compassion for the needy; let us take the opportunities the Lord gives us to demonstrate the love of Christ; let us condemn social injustice, and let us actively take our place in society.  But let us not dilute the unique message of the cross, or the unique ministry of discipleship, by adding social justice issues to Christ’s gospel or mandate.  This has been done before, always with the same results.  What begins as a mere addition to the biblical message and mission soon becomes equal to them, and then overwhelms them, and ultimately replaces them.  May we carefully consider these issues before we head down this pathway again.


by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher, Southern View Chapel

[1] See my article on this subject: https://tottministries.org/?s=LGBT

[2] See the excellent work by Jim Owen, The Hidden History of the Historic Fundamentalists 1933-1948, (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2004). This well-documented book corrects the propaganda directed toward fundamentalists accusing them of being uninterested about this world and the happenings within it.

[3] https://churchleaders.com/news/333017-the-statement-on-social-justice-and-the-gospel-stirs-up-controversy-and-conversation.html

[4] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/september-web-only/john-macarthur-statement-social-justice-gospel-thabiti.html

[5] https://www.missioalliance.org/reflections-after-the-statement-on-social-justice-and-the-gospel-whats-this-really-all-about/

[6] https://pulpitandpen.org/2018/09/04/a-line-in-the-sand-the-dallas-statement-on-social-justice/

[7] Eric Mason, Woke Church, an Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018).

[8] Mason, p. 163.

[9] https://www.christianpost.com/news/russell-moore-john-macarthur-social-justice-statement-bible-doesnt-make-these-artificial-distinctions-227368/

[10] See the Christianworldview.org where David Wheaton interviews Cameron Art from GTY).

[11] https://churchleaders.com/news/334586-al-mohler-sign-statement-on-social-justice.html

[12] Darrell Harrison, “The Fault in Their (Social) Gospel,” p. 2.

[13] John MacArthur, “Social Justice and the Gospel” part 1, August 26, 2018, pp. 3-4.

[14] Harrison, p. 3.

[15] Phil Johnson, “A Gospel Issue?” p. 3.

[16] Josh Buice, “Social Justice is an Attack on the Sufficiency of Scripture,” p. 3.

[17] https://churchleaders.com/news/333017-the-statement-on-social-justice-and-the-gospel-stirs-up-controversy-and-conversation.html

[18] Eric Mason, p. 43.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., p. 90.

[21] Ibid., p. 93.

[22] Ibid., p. 96.

[23] Ibid., pp 129-141.

[24] Ibid., pp. 139-139, 162.

[25] Ibid., p. 235.

[26] Ibid., p. 162.