John MacArthur recently wrote, “This recent (and surprisingly sudden) detour in quest of “social justice” is, I believe, the most subtle and dangerous threat so far.” Agreeing with John Macarthur, Josh Buice says that social justice is the top issue for the church in the last 100 – 200 years (18m:25s). Small wonder then that John MacArthur, Josh Buice and eleven others wrote the Statement on Social Justice & The Gospel.
Why the statement was written
John MacArthur in particular wants to protect the Gospel. From his vantage point, he sees some talking about social justice in ways that mix social justice with the Gospel. And he has a point. Many today speak of a “truncated” or “reduced” Gospel. By these terms, they mean that the Gospel includes more than just the message of personal salvation; they mean that the Gospel carries cosmic implications that entail stopping injustice as part of the Gospel (or least a Gospel issue).
MacArthur clearly affirms the need to battle injustice and the reality of social ills (8m:00ff). He in no way gainsays such matters. He nevertheless asserts that the social justice is not part of the Gospel and that it “does severe harm to genuine Gospel efforts” when viewed as part of the Gospel (8m:32s).
On this line of reasoning, including social justice into the Gospel may simply be the tip of the iceberg. As someone pointed out to me (by pointing me to the following quote by D. A. Carson), losing the Gospel comes in stages. As Justin Taylor recalls, Carson defines four stages of losing the Gospel:
“Losing the gospel doesn’t happen all at once, it’s much more like a four generation process too:
The gospel is accepted —>
The gospel is assumed —>
The gospel is confused —>
The gospel is lost.”
It is possible that MacArthur and others see the social justice issue as one of the stages in which the Gospel gets lost. We have assumed the Gospel, and perhaps we are now entering into a stage of confusing it with social justice.
While this concern is real, we should nevertheless consider the arguments of MacArthur and others more carefully before making this conclusion.
Who the authors of the statement are concerned about
While the framers of the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel disagree with a general pattern of teaching, they do sometimes cite individuals with whom they disagree. It is important to note who they cite because this will narrow down their particular concerns. The statement itself tackles “deadly ideas have spread from the culture at large into churches and Christian organizations—including some that are evangelical and Reformed.” Who are these evangelical and Reformed representatives?
Josh Buice answers in a recent podcast. In the episode, he explains that he became worried when he heard Christian leaders speaking of social justice and giving open apologies. He specifically highlights the MLK50 conference here (15m:23s) and seems to allude to T4G in which David Platt and Ligon Duncan spoke on racism. For Buice, the problem lies in Christians discussing social justice and repentance for racism. The latter point needs further explanation since Buice would certainly approve of repentance for racism.
John MacArthur’s recent article on social justice clarifies matters (published on August 27, 2018). In the article, MacArthur objects to repenting for past injustice against African Americans (or others) when someone is not individually responsible for said sin.
Discussing white privilege, MacArthur wrote:
Supposedly, [white people’s] skin color automatically makes them culpable for the racism of the past. One influential evangelical leader, in an article titled “We Await Repentance for Assassinating Dr. King,” suggested that racial reconciliation in the church cannot even start until white Christians confess their parents’ and grandparents’ complicity in “murdering a man who only preached love and justice” (meaning Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).
The evangelical leader that he cites is Thabiti Anyabwile. In his article, Anyabwile’s point seems to be that white Christians should admit that their predecessors did wrong to African Americans. Without admitting such, then reconciliation will be a non-starter. Three weeks later on April 25th, Anyabwile further explained what he meant. On his part, he sees the mourning of past tragedies to be one vehicle for repentance, citing Luke 13:
The Lord Jesus called his disciples to repent at the tragic news of a collapsing tower and a madman murdering worshipers (Luke 13). Though they had nothing to do with those events, the lesson was made painfully clear: Unless you repent, the same could befall you.
Anyabwile does not appear to argue what MacArthur asserted he did in his article that is cited above; Anyabwile does not claim that all white people are culpable for the racism of the past.
Instead, Anyabwile argues that white Americans should admit that their parents/grandparents were racist to start the reconciliation process. As the memory of the tower of Siloam encouraged people in Jesus’ day to repent, likewise it could do the same for white Americans today. He writes, “The announcement of the tragedy should excite us to turn to God. So should reminders of this country’s sinful past.”
Despite this misunderstanding, MacArthur still adds clarity to what he calls the greatest threat to the church so far. He strongly believes that individuals should not repent for the sins of their forebearers. He by no means denies the reality of injustice or the need to care for injustice; he objects to replacing the Gospel with social justice (~ 07m:00s).
In an article published on September 7, 2018, MacArthur further clarified his position by citing Anthony Bradley on Twitter:
Here’s the problem(and this will be hard): from a black church perspective, evangelicals have never had the gospel. Ever. Read the book “Doctrine A Race.” Here then is the actual Q: When will evangelicals embrace the gospel for the first time ever? #BlackChurch https://t.co/mLhPx6TGNa
— Anthony Bradley (@drantbradley) December 22, 2017
Bradley asserts that evangelicals have never had the Gospel according to “a black church perspective.” His point, as he seems to argue within his Twitter comment thread, is that a black church perspective on the Gospel would push for the full equality of the races whereas Evangelicals have historically privileged white Christians over against black believers.
Bradley also uses irony because he argues as strongly as he sees evangelicals arguing against those with whom they disagree:
Problem is, that’s not the charity evangelicals show toward Orthodox, Catholic, the traditional black church, or mainline Protestant Christians.
— Anthony Bradley (@drantbradley) December 23, 2017
He thus uses the same strong stance that evangelicals use against those with whom they disagree, which includes “the traditional black church.” Bradley returns fire for fire, as it were.
Still, to make his rhetorical point and to argue with the same strength as the evangelical church does (thus showing by practice how he sees equality), he overstates the case.
The most sympathetic reading of Bradley’s words would mean sitting in his shoes and thinking through what he might hear when someone says, for example, that social justice is the greatest threat to the Gospel so far. From Bradley’s point of view, such an assertation might be understood as making the argument that we should allow racism to flourish since justice matters little to the Gospel.
When MacArthur claimed that social justice was the greatest threat so far, he obviously did not mean that. And perhaps Bradley does not mean that no evangelical has savingly believed in Christ. Sometimes listening to each other over the chasm of different history, culture, and geography can be nigh impossible.
In summary, Buice and MacArthur are writing against those who emphasize social justice and repenting for the sins of their forebears. In particular, MacArthur and Buice cite Thabiti Anyabwile, Anthony Bradley, those at MLK50, and possibly those who spoke at last year’s T4G (i.e., David Platt and Ligon Duncan). The stated concern includes replacing the Gospel with social justice.
How people responded to the statement
For the most part, the response has mostly been silence from other evangelicals possibly in part because MacArthur, Buice, and others are arguing for the priority of the Gospel, which evangelicals celebrate. Albert Mohler, for example, has not signed the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel but admits that it makes important points. His concern involves how the statement will be understood.
I agree. The statement itself rightly affirms the Gospel and some entailments of the Gospel, yet its particular purpose and effect on the evangelical community still remain to be seen. And it’s unlikely that Thabiti Anyabwile, those at the MLK50 conference, or at the T4G conference have or will replace the Gospel with social justice.
Some Christians also see the statement to be a reduction of the Gospel, while others have critiqued it for numerous reasons (also here). The dust has yet to settle here. But these criticisms have the potential to advance an ongoing conversation about such matters and to bring further clarity to the relationship between social justice and the Gospel. And I think just about anyone can hope for that.
To add to this conversation, I find myself in disagreement with Buice’s statements in a recent podcast where he argues that social Marxists desire to create a “sympathy movement” (23m:00ff). The host of the podcast then cites Booker T. Washington who asserts that African Americans want to get sympathy to keep to their jobs. The host also cites Barack Obama who supposedly makes a similar point. Buice asserts that this quote is extremely important for framing this understanding—i.e., of what social justice is (25m:00ff).
Buice and the host appear to affirm that African Americans desire to garner sympathy for their victimhood so that they can keep their jobs. To my mind, their argument incorrectly grasps the situation. I don’t mean that certain individuals may use victimhood for gain; but this is not the regular pattern. Certainly, few if any African Americans have embraced the Jim Crow era or racism that they experience today.
While dismissing the Social Justice & Gospel Statement on the basis of infelicitous comments like these may not be wise, it certainly should concern Christians that one of the framers of the statement appears to claim that African Americans want to be victims for their financial gain.
Despite all of this, I follow Mohler’s council here by hoping that the statement adds to an ongoing conversation on justice.
This short summary cannot possibly cover every issue. But it might be a good starting point to understand what Christians are currently debating. Undoubtedly, the debate will go on for some time. And all of us can agree that we should hope for and strive for peace among all people. Let us hope that this debate results in a greater understanding and a fullsome reconciliation among believers who might have grievances with each other.