The Christian Church has successfully weathered many centuries of cultural and geopolitical shifts by reinventing itself from time to time in order to fit the changing times. Like any other organism, it has evolved to withstand the pressures of time and change through a process of mutation and natural selection. Those versions of Christianity which fit a bygone era eventually die away while newer, more creative reinterpretations take their place and speak to a different generation or cultural situation.
Incidentally, I doubt the early Christians would recognize what the Church has become around the world today. But luckily for today’s Christian subcultures, none of those people are around anymore to explain to us just how different “the unchanging truth” has become from what it once was.
White evangelicals today like John MacArthur* represent the old guard of the most recent generation, and fortunately they’re still alive, reminding us of just how far we’ve come from what we once were as a religious subculture. You’ll have to forgive me for sometimes speaking as if I’m still a part of that culture. In many ways I still am—I live in Mississippi, and almost everyone close to me in real life is a devout evangelical.
Another Statement? Again?
Over the last few years men like these have issued public statements, offered with considerable gravitas, declaring just how against things they really are. They’re against saying “bad” words. They’re against sex in almost every context save for a handful of ecclesiastically approved scenarios. They’re against people blurring the lines between the sexes (a woman’s place is in the home). Come to think of it, most of what they’re against has to do with sex. It’s almost as if the diversity of human sexuality is the greatest threat to the Christian faith today.
Men like these (women don’t count) have already sounded off on proper gender roles (see “The Danvers Statement“) and gay marriage (see “The Nashville Statement“), but they still don’t feel they’ve made enough statements, so this week they’ve issued another one. Because the last two made such a huge cultural difference.
The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel sounds off on important matters like racial inequality and gender inequality, clarifying that, in the minds of the signatories of this declaration, the message of Jesus and of the Christian Church must never focus on actually changing the social inequalities of the world as it actually is, focusing instead on a world yet to come, I suppose.
The “good news” of Jesus Christ, according to these evangelical luminaries, does nothing at all to remedy the racial divides that are tearing our country apart today. It is very important to these men that you understand this. In fact, they clearly would prefer that you not notice those tensions at all because the Bible itself doesn’t recognize those tensions. And as the writers of this new statement want you to understand, if an issue didn’t concern the people who wrote the Bible two thousand years ago, it shouldn’t concern you today.
The gospel is a static thing, you see, and cannot grow to accommodate the changes of modern life.
I’d like to take a few moments today to pull out a few passages from their statement in order to show just how backwards and internally inconsistent the ideology of these men really is. Maybe it’s for my own entertainment, I don’t know. It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to change the mind of an evangelical minister who has enjoyed any modest measure of financial success. But I seem to specialize in speaking truth to subcultures that will never change. So we proceed.
If the Bible Doesn’t Care About It…
First off, the men who wrote and signed this statement want you to know that if the Bible doesn’t address an issue, it’s not important. Or perhaps more to the point, any new cultural developments of thought on those issues must be resisted.
We affirm that the Bible is…the final authority for determining what is true…and what is right… All truth claims and ethical standards must be tested by…Scripture alone.
We deny that…intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching.
I mean it’s not like the “good news” of Jesus has anything to do with improving the lives of women and minorities. God is engaged in much more important matters than that. And since the Bible doesn’t address those inequities, they don’t matter and the Church should be against any changes in those areas.
They go on to proclaim that while people today let their own cultural environment determine which things they value and which things they don’t, the Bible itself is somehow completely abstracted from the cultures which produced it, as if in this one place God spoke without the use of mouths or minds which belonged to any specific time or place.
WE DENY that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture…socially-constructed standards of truth or morality…cannot result in authentic justice.
Evidently the cultures out of which the Bible was written exerted no influence whatsoever on the people who wrote it. All other values and standards of justice are social constructs. But anything uttered by Moses, Peter, Paul, or John exists in a vacuum, completely independent from cultural bias of any kind.
The writers of this statement go on to assert:
We further deny the legitimacy of any charge of sin or call to repentance that does not arise from a violation of God’s commandments.
Of course this perspective is the very same one which condoned and legitimized slavery in the early days American history. Since the Bible never actually says it’s bad to own a human being, the Confederate states enjoyed the protective support of white evangelical ministers back then as they would today, if they hadn’t have lost the war.
Related: “Evangelicals and the Whitewashing of Jesus“
There is no commandment in the Bible that disparages the institution of slavery. Come to think of it, no commandment stipulates that women aren’t a man’s property, either. On the contrary, in the Ten Commandments women are counted along with the other personal belongings which a man should not covet (see Exodus 20:17). And since there’s no commandment that says otherwise, anyone who suggests that women aren’t property really has no biblical leg to stand on.
Which Beliefs Are Essential?
The white evangelical ministers who crafted this statement seem a bit confused about which matters are essential to the Christian message and which ones aren’t.
…[I]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.
WE DENY that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church…we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission…
They are making themselves perfectly clear, although one wonders which gospels they are actually reading.
I seem to recall Jesus himself making a big deal out of social justice, going so far as to inform rich people that they could not possibly enter the kingdom of heaven while still rich. It seems Jesus believed that sharing their financial bounty with the less fortunate was essential to their calling as his followers. According to the Bible, the early church was practically communist (seriously, have you ever read this?)And don’t even try bringing up to them how Jesus taught his followers to treat foreigners. The mental gymnastics that follow will astound you.
I also recall Jesus going so far as to suggest that admission into that kingdom wouldn’t be determined by what people believed per se, but by how they treated those less fortunate than them. Evangelical theology recoils at any such suggestion, of course, because it sounds too much like “works,” or “earning your salvation.” And yet there is Jesus, tying the two together. It’s almost as if these theologians find only what they want to find there.
I must also point out a glaring inconsistency in the authors’ application of this distinction between matters which are essential and non-essential to the Christian message.
We further affirm that heresy often involves the replacement of key, essential truths with variant concepts, or the elevation of non-essentials to the status of essentials…We affirm that the accusation of heresy should be reserved for those departures from Christian truth that destroy the weight-bearing doctrines of the redemptive core of Scripture.
But then only a few sentences later they go on to say:
…We reject “gay Christian” as a legitimate biblical category.
Huh. That’s interesting. In one breath they boldly proclaim that non-essential matters must not be made central to the Christian message, but in the next breath they have to throw in that you cannot be a Christian and also be attracted to members of your own sex.
I feel like these guys need to fall back and regroup—spend some time rehashing exactly what it is they are trying to say, because they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth.
One Culture to Rule Them All
One thing they are exceedingly clear about, however, is that women should never be given positions of spiritual authority over the Church.
In the church, qualified men alone are to lead as pastors/elders/bishops and preach to and teach the whole congregation.
And of course this isn’t because women happened to be second-class citizens in ancient Mesopotamian cultures at the time the New Testament was written. No, somehow this particular stance must be seen as universal and completely immune to any cultural bias, thereby enjoining us today to adhere to the same sexually segregated social norms to which people were subjected thousands of years ago.
Toward the end of their statement, these ministers zero in on the fundamental assumption undergirding this entire belief structure:
WE AFFIRM that some cultures operate on assumptions that are inherently better than those of other cultures because of the biblical truths that inform those worldviews that have produced these distinct assumptions. Those elements of a given culture that reflect divine revelation should be celebrated and promoted. But the various cultures out of which we have been called all have features that are worldly and sinful—and therefore those sinful features should be repudiated for the honor of Christ.
Evidently they believe that the cultures which produced the Bible were themselves free from bias or “worldliness.” Can they not concede that ancient Levantine cultures could have operated under faulty assumptions about basic human rights, or at least that they could be improved upon in some way by future generations? Apparently not.
It seems to me that they have invented a new kind of immaculate conception, one in which the cultural matrix out of which the Bible was written must itself be as infallible as the book it produced. Because Moses and Paul felt owning slaves and wives as property was fine and dandy, we must think of those issues the same way. Of course, they know better than to say this out loud (well, most of them do), so instead they simply say for example that the woman’s place is in the home because that’s the way things worked back during the days when the Bible was written.
Evidently this one culture from this single time and place in history establishes the norms for all future societies, and anyone who disagrees is rebelling against the unimpeachable authority of God himself.
Real Christians Don’t See Color
Lastly, the writers of this statement want their congregations to understand that racial injustices are not the concern of the gospel or of the Church.
We reject any teaching that encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression.
On a superficial level this sounds like an equitable statement. But the inclusion of the second clause indicates that they reject the concept of institutional racism outright. Clearly they decline to acknowledge any multi-generational effects of racism woven into the history of American culture.
Brown people and white people are living identical lives, you see, being treated essentially the same according to the signatories of this public statement. And shame on any church which focuses on addressing the alleged differences in the treatment of people from non-white communities. The church should be completely color blind, these men affirm, which means that any claims of differential treatment must be rejected out of hand.
Social privilege is not a thing these men are willing to acknowledge exists.
It’s not every day that ministers so blatantly reject any social responsibility for the way things are. But at this point they’re only saying on the street corners what they’ve been intimating from the pulpit since the earliest days American history.
To sum up, these men want you to know that the church must not take part in any effort to address matters which impact the social fabric because they themselves would never, ever, privilege one race over another:
We 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 (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel…such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.
So there you have it. The “thought leaders” of white evangelicalism today want you to know that they will take no part in addressing social issues in the world today. Jesus is coming back soon, you see, and he’s going to torch the place anyway. You don’t polish brass on a sinking ship. It’s best to just let any social inequities in the world today (no concern of theirs anyway) run their course. It’s not the Church’s responsibility.
Thanks for clarifying the matter, fellas. You’re actually helping the rest of the world move on, leaving the antiquated social norms around which you’ve built your identity on the compost pile of history.
[Image Source: Pulpit & Pen]
* Initially this article mentioned Reformed pastor John Piper and featured his image, but he was not one of the signers. I must be slippin’.
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