My Concerns with the Statement on Social Justice

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Yesterday, a group led by the the well-respected pastor, John MacArthur, released a document similar to such evangelical statements like last year’s Nashville Statement. This document, called the Statement on Social Justice, followed a continuing blog series by MacArthur describing his views on social justice. Several notable pastors and theologians were initial signers, such as Voddie Baucham and James White. Some of the signers are friends, all of the signers are brothers in Christ.

It would not shock any of my faithful readers that I have long been concerned with racism and ethnic division within the church. Yet, I love John MacArthur and I have been extremely blessed through his ministry including his defense of the Gospel over the last half century. So I read his blog expecting to side with my personal hero. Surprisingly, as I read MacArthur’s blog and similar posts by evangelical leaders, I became concerned that MacArthur’s views of social justice were unnecessarily harsh and in some cases simply divisive. This Statement on Social Justice is unfortunately more of that. Here are my issues with the statement:

1. Mystery Audience

I have read the statements several times in depth, but I am still in the dark regarding whom this statement is intended. It combats issues that no one (at least mainstream) is raising. For example, if one were to read the section on Scripture you would find the statement, “...we deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching.” This threefold objection seemingly defines the rejected philosophies throughout the entirety of the statement. The problem is not the rejection, all of those ideologies should be rejected, but why raise this point at all? Perhaps a few extreme individuals are attempting to elevate these ideologies within the church, but no one of substance has done so. Who is this statement for? What is it against if it’s main objection is toward something that virtually no one would hold?

2. Definitions

MacArthur’s blog posts have made it clear that he does not like the term “social justice” which he says is “the language of the law, not gospel - and worse, it mirrors the jargon of worldly politics, not the message of Christ.” Yet, the statement readily employs similar concepts to state biblical views such as describing injustices due to “cultural prejudice.” Rather than use the term “social justice,” the statement substitutes a new term “authentic justice” to describe what Christians should pursue. These are semantics. Social justice is not a dirty word. It simply means doing justice in a social setting and it may be used to describe fighting these “cultural prejudices.” But if that’s really these pastors’ main concerns I’m fine with using “authentic justice” because at the end of the day, the title does not matter as much as the actions.

3. “Inherently better”

Throughout this statement, I see words that would appear to be very prideful. None more so than the point that is mistakenly elevated into a main segment of this statement, “We affirm that some cultures operate on assumptions that are inherently better that those of other cultures...” I have read this section dozens of times and I do not understand why this was necessary to insert into this statement at all. While I desire to give my brothers who crafted this document the benefit of a doubt, it reads as alarmingly arrogant. The only culture that is “inherently better” in this world should be within the local church.  Also statements like the following are over simplistic and downright hurtful, “...We deny that a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression, or prejudice.” This statement feels very much like a “get over it” type of statement which does no one any good. These feelings are generally genuine because the actions/intentions are generally and genuinely hurtful. These inflicted wounds should not be shrugged off.

4. Gospel Application

It seems the writers of this document are drawing their line in the sand of where they believe the Gospel is being compromised in regards to this issue of social justice. They are correct in stating that only the Gospel is what one must believe in order to be saved. Application of the Gospel’s implications are not necessary for salvation, but they are part of the Gospel. The Gospel does not end at justification, this is a small view of salvation. While justification is what is necessary for salvation, the Gospel goes beyond justification to sanctification and righteous living as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount among other Scriptures. As Martin Luther said, “Faith alone is what saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.” So I understand what the writers are meaning by “the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.” But a true Gospel believer will strive (and fail at times) to live out the ethics of the Kingdom defined by Christ.

5. Belittling of social issues

Obviously the Gospel that justifies is primary, no one is arguing that. Social justice will not redeem anyone. Yet, statements like this under Racism are just insensitive, “And we emphatically deny that lectures on social issues...are as vital to the life of the church as the preaching of the gospel and exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.” Categorically this may be true, so caution must be taken, but brothers and sisters are suffering from true pain within the church, not to mention the world, and the Gospel is what they need. In speaking that Gospel, it will illuminate false philosophies and ideologies such as racism and prejudice. These too must be discussed. No one is saying take the Gospel out of that conversation, rather discuss these issues head-on through the lens of the Gospel.

Again, I love these brothers and look forward to strengthening my friendships with many of them in the years to come, and while I find large sections of this statement helpful, I also heartily disagree with many of the definitions, attitudes, and implications of these words. I believe these brothers had the best intentions, but I believe that they are getting lost in the faith vs. works argument. Social justice is not a prerequisite for salvation and racists may be saved. Yet, the Gospel compels believers primarily to evangelize, but also to fight for the oppressed. Consider John Bright’s words in The Kingdom of God from 1953, “We can no longer, as “liberals” have done, preach the ethics of Jesus leave arise his person and works as if it were a Cumbria’s and superfluous theological baggage. As least if we do so, we must know that we do not preach the Jesus of the New Testament faith. Nor can we, as “conservatives” have tended to do, sneer at the “liberal” for not preaching a full gospel and then, because we urge men to salvation though faith, feel no need even to confront ourselves and our people with the demands of he righteousness of the Kingdom. This, too, is not to preach the Christ of the New Testament, but an incomplete Christ. We have not two gospels, social and personal, which view for the limelight. We have one gospel, the gospel of the Kingdom of God, and it is both.”

Dean


Cited Works:

  1. The Statement on Social Justice
  2. Social Justice and the Gospel by Dr. John MacArthur
  3. The Kingdom of God by Dr. John Bright