On John MacArthur’s (Very Racist) Statement on Social Justice

On John MacArthur’s (Very Racist) Statement on Social Justice September 12, 2018

Several weeks ago, I came upon a Christian Post article titled “John MacArthur Says He Doesn’t Know Any Authentic Evangelical Church Where Racism Is a Problem.” I tried not to laugh. MacArthur’s use of the word “authentic” can’t be accidental—MacArthur is likely clearing the ground to claim that churches that still frown upon interracial marriage, or who operate Christian schools that use textbooks that speak of “darkest Africa” and are critical of the civil rights movement, are not actually real evangelical churches.

I grew up in a white evangelical megachurch. I was taught that we are all part of one race—the human race—and that all people are God’s children. I was also taught that “black culture” is feckless and lazy and the reason black people in America have been held back, and I spent many hours reading books detailing the adventures of white missionaries in “savage” Africa—so many books. White supremacism may hide its name in evangelical churches, but it is in no way absent, despite what MacArthur says.

But MacArthur, the pastor of Grace Community Church in California, was just getting started. He was thrust into my view again last week when he published a “Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel”—an anti-social justice laundry list that was quickly signed by well over 4,000 evangelical pastors.

MacArthur’s statement begins as follows:

In view of questionable sociological, psychological, and political theories presently permeating our culture and making inroads into Christ’s church, we wish to clarify certain key Christian doctrines and ethical principles prescribed in God’s Word. Clarity on these issues will fortify believers and churches to withstand an onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Specifically, we are deeply concerned that values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality.

MacArthur’s concern about the influence of secular values on gender and sexuality on the church is unsurprising, given his religious orientation. Conservative evangelicals have long opposed feminism and the LGBTQ rights movement. But race? Why is race included on this list? What is going on here?

In sum, it seems that MacArthur has a problem with progressive evangelicals who view anti-racism activism part of their Christian duty. In outlining his concern, he demonstrates something ugly.

WE AFFIRM that the primary role of the church is to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost. We affirm that when the primacy of the gospel is maintained that this often has a positive effect on the culture in which various societal ills are mollified. We affirm that, under the lordship of Christ, we are to obey the governing authorities established by God and pray for civil leaders.

WE DENY that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head. We deny that laws or regulations possess any inherent power to change sinful hearts.

One wonders, given MacArthur’s last statement, what he would have said about the civil rights movement had he been preaching in the 1950s or 1960s.

Curious, especially given that MacArthur appears somewhat older in pictures, I looked up MacArthur’s bio, wondering what he was doing in the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1960s, MacArthur attended Talbot Theological Seminary, a school under the umbrella of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA). Samual Sutherland, president of BIOLA, was the institution’s defining during that decade.

Sutherland was no fan of the civil rights movement. Not in the least. Indeed, in July 1965, Sutherland published an article titled “Rights Run Rampant”:

Mobs demanding their rights are appearing with more and more alarming regularity. It is frightening to realize how these groups are springing up and making their voices heard in every quarter of our land. There seems to be no concerted effort on the part of our politically-minded government officials even to try to stop it. …

… Few are those who give any indication whatever of having any sense of real responsibility toward any one else any where; everyone is claiming his own rights. Every march, every demonstration, every petition signed by a group of individuals, every set-in, sit-down, kneel-in, or lie-in, is a proclamation to the fact that, ‘We are demanding our rights.’ Is there no voice to be heard anywhere in the land that emphasizes the individual and collective responsibility under the law?

The modernists of fifty years ago began to minimize the preaching of the cross and the Gospel message as revealed in the Word of God and, instead, began to preach a so-called social gospel. … Many, who until just a few years ago were preaching a solid soul-searching Gospel message, are now being caught up in this maelstrom of theological vagaries. … We are unalterably opposed to the so-called “social gospel.”  

Sure, this was written by Sutherland and not by MacArthur. It’s theoretically possible that MacArthur spent his years studying at Sutherland’s institution disagreeing with Sutherland’s position on race and civil rights activism. Given the extent to which MacArthur’s current approach to social justice so clearly mirrors Sutherland’s approach to the civil rights movement during the 1960s, I find that unlikely.

MacArthur’s statement continues:

WE AFFIRM God made all people from one man. Though people often can be distinguished by different ethnicities and nationalities, they are ontological equals before God in both creation and redemption. “Race” is not a biblical category, but rather a social construct that often has been used to classify groups of people in terms of inferiority and superiority. All that is good, honest, just, and beautiful in various ethnic backgrounds and experiences can be celebrated as the fruit of God’s grace. All sinful actions and their results (including evils perpetrated between and upon ethnic groups by others) are to be confessed as sinful, repented of, and repudiated.

WE DENY that Christians should segregate themselves into racial groups or regard racial identity above, or even equal to, their identity in Christ. We deny that any divisions between people groups (from an unstated attitude of superiority to an overt spirit of resentment) have any legitimate place in the fellowship of the redeemed. 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.

The second paragraph above only gets worse on second reading. In fact it’s so bad that it’s worth breaking down sentence by sentence.

WE DENY that Christians should segregate themselves into racial groups or regard racial identity above, or even equal to, their identity in Christ.

There are very real historical reasons predominantly black neighborhoods exist that are completely different from the reasons predominantly white neighborhoods exist, and yet the two are treated the same. And it’s worse than that. Black people viewing themselves as African Americans—viewing their radicalized experience and history as an important part of who they are—is treated as though it is in the same category as white people ascribing to white supremacy and joining the Ku Klux Klan. It’s not.

We deny that any divisions between people groups (from an unstated attitude of superiority to an overt spirit of resentment) have any legitimate place in the fellowship of the redeemed.

Once again, both sides are accused of wrongdoing. As though white supremacism is somehow equivalent to black people resenting centuries of enslavement, disenfranchisement, theft, and murder.

We reject any teaching that encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression.

This item no longer focuses on both sides—it is only directed at anti-racism activists, and not at all at racists or white supremacists. Because it’s anti-racism activism that is the problem.

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.

Once again, this is not even pointed at both sides in some sort of false equivalence. We’ve moved beyond that to bashing anti-racism activists while ignoring the actual and real existence of racism and white supremacy. The priorities evidenced here are galling. And appalling. And horrifying.

It’s no wonder MacArthur doesn’t known any churches that have a problem with racism. He doesn’t recognize it in himself. He’s so steeped in it that evangelical churches’ baseline racism—which often includes the sort of equivalences he’s drawing—looks neutral and normative to him.

Ok, next section:

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. We affirm that whatever evil influences to which we have been subjected via our culture can be—and must be—overcome through conversion and the training of both mind and heart through biblical truth.

WE DENY that individuals and sub-groups in any culture are unable, by God’s grace, to rise above whatever moral defects or spiritual deficiencies have been engendered or encouraged by their respective cultures.

Full on white supremacism. I see. At least there’s no ambiguity? I mean, he went there. MacArthur straight-up writes that some cultures—he’s not going to say which, but it’s the ones informed by biblical truths—i.e. the ones historically informed by Christianity—i.e. the ones that started in Europe—but it’s totally not a race thing—are better than other cultures.

He goes on to say that every culture has its own moral deficits, but come on. He already said some cultures are inherently better than other cultures. You can’t fix that.

WE AFFIRM that racism is a sin rooted in pride and malice which must be condemned and renounced by all who would honor the image of God in all people. Such racial sin can subtly or overtly manifest itself as racial animosity or racial vainglory. Such sinful prejudice or partiality falls short of God’s revealed will and violates the royal law of love. We affirm that virtually all cultures, including our own, at times contain laws and systems that foster racist attitudes and policies.

WE DENY that treating people with sinful partiality or prejudice is consistent with biblical Christianity. We deny that only those in positions of power are capable of racism, or that individuals of any particular ethnic groups are incapable of racism. We deny that systemic racism is in any way compatible with the core principles of historic evangelical convictions. We deny that the Bible can be legitimately used to foster or justify partiality, prejudice, or contempt toward other ethnicities. 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 and the exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.

In other words, we didn’t do it, but we’re not going to help fix it either.

In fact, fixing racial problems is a distraction.

Yes, systemic racism exists and it’s not compatible with “the core principles of historic evangelical convictions”—but those core principles are also not compatible with efforts to end systemic racism.

Because somehow that makes sense.

And remember—MacArthur doesn’t known of a single “authentic” evangelical church that has a problem with racism. Because this horrifying statement he wrote—this godawful statement that has been signed by thousands of evangelical pastors—somehow does not demonstrate a problem with racism.

MacArthur’s statement highlighted the very thing he claims doesn’t exist—the racism of white evangelicalism. We wouldn’t be talking about how very racist white American evangelicalism is right now if he hadn’t brought it up and demonstrated it so amply. I mean my god, multiple pastors from my hometown alone have signed it. Have a look at the list. This is where we are.

I rarely see someone do something that backfires so colossally.

Reading MacArthur’s statement, I still feel like surely this must be some sort of elaborate parody. It’s that tone deaf—that unaware. And that, my friends, is where white evangelicalism sits on race today.

This is a problem—a very serious problem.

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