There is much to say about the recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, and much has been said, some of it very concisely and some of it (we love you, Alastair), at exhausting length. Evangelicals are struggling at present over whether and how fully to absorb secular and progressive thinking about “social justice,” with all its applications to race, gender, sexual orientation, and economics, as well as whether such a term is even compatible with Christianity. It’s a good struggle to have, because many causes that are twisted, godless, covetous, and murderous have marched under the banner of “social justice.” Unhappily, this particular effort goes well beyond condemning these evils to making some fundamental errors about Scripture, morality, and the implications of the Gospel.
The statement, a series of affirmations and denials authored by John MacArthur and a dozen other Christian leaders, focuses on condemning social justice without clearly defining it, or even mentioning it by name after the introduction. Its purpose, however, is not ambiguous. It is designed to expose divisions in the evangelical church, and it’s done that quite handily. Some of those divisions probably weren’t the ones the authors intended to expose. They’re a major reason why I am not signing the statement (sentencing myself instead to the opprobrium of well-intentioned but overenthusiastic friends who seem to think it’s a modern Ninety-Five Theses).
First, there is the statement’s unabiguous biblicism. By “biblicism,” I mean the peculiar misunderstanding of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura as teaching that only the Bible has anything to tell us about God, faith, or morality. As I’ve written before, that is not what Sola Scriptura means. But the statement on social justice clearly takes this false meaning for granted. For instance (emphasis mine):
“We deny that Christian belief, character, or conduct can be dictated by any other authority, and we deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching. We further deny that competency to teach on any biblical issue comes from any qualification for spiritual people other than clear understanding and simple communication of what is revealed in Scripture.”
“We further deny that Christians can live justly in the world under any principles other than the biblical standard of righteousness.”
“We affirm that God’s law, as summarized in the ten commandments, more succinctly summarized in the two great commandments, and manifested in Jesus Christ, is the only standard of unchanging righteousness. Violation of that law is what constitutes sin.”
“We deny that any obligation that does not arise from God’s commandments can be legitimately imposed on Christians as a prescription for righteous living. 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.”
“…any other authority…” “…any qualification…” “…any principles…” “…the only standard of unchanging righteousness…” “…what constitutes sin…” “…any obligation…” “…any charge…”
The language here is crystal clear. The writers of this statement would have us believe that not only is Scripture the final standard of doctrine and sole infallible, inerrant rule for faith and practice (which is the historical teaching of Sola Scriptura), but the only standard, and only relevant source for all moral and religious considerations.
As I wrote here a couple of months back, this rejection of the whole realm of moral thinking beyond Divine positive law is a major reason why the secular culture is chewing evangelicals up and spitting them out. We can’t explain why gay marriage, for example, is misguided and nonsensical or why abortion is murder without uttering the words “the Bible says…”. This may come as a shock to some, but making conversion to Christianity a prerequisite for all political and ethical conversations with our secular neighbors isn’t a very effective strategy.
Furthermore, taking the Bible’s commands and proscriptions as the only catalog of moral norms is not only strikingly unbiblical (the writers of the New Testament constantly appeal to a discernible moral and teleological order built into nature, generally-revealed and accessible to all people), but undermines the whole field of natural law, the basis on which the Apostle Paul says God holds the entire world “without excuse,” even if they’ve never seen a Bible. In other words, if no “charge of sin or call to repentance” is legitimate without a chapter-and-verse reference to “the biblical standard of righteousness,” then no one can actually sin unless they’ve read the Bible!
Doubtless the authors of the statement would dispute this characterization of their position. But this type of biblicism is the inevitable conclusion of their premises. The special commands of Scripture are here being treated as rules without reasons—impositions on nature by grace, not restorations of nature through grace.
Next up, there’s the statement’s radical moral individualism, which appears to me to owe more than a little to Baptist presuppositions. I’m not saying only Baptists have signed the statement (I know otherwise), or that Baptists inevitably hold these false presuppositions (again, I know otherwise)—only that the statement assumes certain, hyper-individualistic premises typically held by American Baptists.
For example, consider this excerpt:
“We deny that, other than the previously stated connection to Adam, any person is morally culpable for another person’s sin. Although families, groups, and nations can sin collectively, and cultures can be predisposed to particular sins, subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins. Before God each person must repent and confess his or her own sins in order to receive forgiveness. We further deny that one’s ethnicity establishes any necessary connection to any particular sin.”
It’s difficult to believe that anyone who has read the Old Testament can make such claims. With the sole exception of Ezekiel 18 (which doesn’t quite say what people think it says), the uniform testimony of the Hebrew Bible is that peoples and nations, especially those in covenant with God, can be held collectively liable for the sins of certain individuals. I think of the children who died in the Flood and (presumably) in Sodom and Gomorrah, the firstborn children of the Egyptians and the entire nation which suffered for Pharaoh’s stubbornness, the people of Israel (and ultimately his family) when Achan hid spoils from Jericho, the children killed in the conquest of Canaan for the detestable ways of their parents, the entire nation of Israel again when God punished David by raising up Absalom in rebellion, the sailors when Jonah fled from God, the faithful remnant when Elijah shut up the heavens because of Ahab’s and Jezebel’s wicked rule, the entire nation yet again when the Assyrians conquered them and the Babylonians hauled them off into captivity.
The writers of the statement seem to recognize this dissonance on some level, acknowledging that “families, groups, and nations can sin collectively.” But it’s not clear how they reconcile this with the prior sentence denying that, “other than the previously stated connection to Adam, any person is morally culpable for another person’s sin.” Which is it? Unless every member of a family, group, or nation sinned individually and in the same way, then God does in fact hold some people “morally culpable” for the sins of others! At the very least, he visits the chastisement for the sins of some on the many.
And on what basis is the exception for the imputed sin of Adam added (other than how explicitly it is taught in the New Testament)? If God doesn’t hold sinners to account collectively or covenantally as a rule, how is He just in doing so universally on the basis of Adam’s sin?
Categories we need to make sense of the Bible are plainly missing from this statement, but so are categories we need to make sense of American society and its sordid history of racial injustice. In what sense am I guilty for slavery, by virtue of being descended on at least one side of my family from slave-owners? Well, I believe that having denounced the sins of my ancestors and turned to Christ for forgiveness of my own sins, I am absolved of all moral guilt before God. But doesn’t the fact that I needed to renounce the sin of American slavery in the first place (in a way that someone from, say, Singapore would not have to) tell us something?
Nehemiah never personally committed idolatry, as far as we know. Yet we find him personally repenting for the 70-year-old idolatry of his forefathers and of the whole nation, praying: “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.” (Nehemiah 1:6-7 NIV).
Whatever this means, it cannot be that one’s ethnicity establishes no “necessary connection to any particular sin.” Perhaps this is easier for me to accept, believing as I do that God deals with households, and that my children are welcomed into the church and to the baptismal font on the basis of my faith and the faith of my wife. But that is another conversation for another time.
Half a Great Commission
Finally, I can’t put my name to the statement on social justice because it introduces a false antagonism between the Gospel and its implications for human society. The drafters of this statement and I seem to share an initial assumption: We both seem to accept J. Gresham Machen’s understanding of the Gospel as a declaration of what Jesus Christ has done and is doing, not a moral command or social action program to which we must respond. The new life in Christ is produced not by “exhortation,” Machen writes, which alone is impotent, but by “the narration of an event,” or rather series of events, which Paul summarizes in 1 Corinthians 15:1-9, and which the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds repeat and elaborate upon. Jesus’ Incarnation, His birth of a virgin, His miracles, His high-priestly intercession for us, His death in which He crushed the Old Serpent’s head, His resurrection, His ascension, His present rule, His future return, and His promise to give us bodies like His, set the world aright, and dwell with us forever in a City where He will be our God are all part of this proclamation. In short, Jesus Himself and all He has done for us is the Gospel—the euangélion—the “good news.” News is not a command or activist agenda. On that, we can all agree.
But the statement veers from there into a bizarre antagonism between the announcement of the Gospel, and the imperative implication’s of Jesus’ kingship for society. Here’s what the statement says:
“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.”
“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.”
Come again? Teaching the nations to “observe all that I have commanded you,” is not “a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head”? Those words are the end of the Great Commission, which is quite literally “the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head”!
Efforts to make a more just society are not “evidence of saving faith”? What happened to the Protestant understanding of James 2—what became of faith without works being dead? Can faith that does not work for the good of others now be considered living and active?
Lectures on social issues and activism aimed at bringing the broader culture into conformity with God’s design and Christ’s rule “tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel”? Don’t tell that to the Apostle Paul, who said “…if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” The manifestation of love toward our neighbor—for instance, our black neighbor who says he is being mistreated by police—is evidently a “distraction” from the Church’s real business of proclaiming the Gospel!
This kind of dilemma between the Gospel and good works is, of course, unnecessary and unbiblical. They go together, and are both indispensable aspects of the Church’s marching orders as given by Christ. He commanded both as He ascended into the clouds to take His place at the Father’s side. To pit them against one another is to bifurcate the Great Commission. And whatever the abuses of the concept of “social justice,” I’m not going to tell Jesus His last words to His people were a distraction, nor can I sign any statement that treats them as such.