The current evangelical debate mainly exists online with four (or more) basic positions: (1) Some say that social justice and the Gospel are basically the same thing, (2) some emphasize that social justice necessary follows from the Gospel, (3) some are mostly concerned that social justice does not replace the Gospel, and (4) some say that the Gospel does not necessarily entail engagement with social justice.
Within or around these four views are various positions that can overlap with broader cultural concerns. Jared Wilson, to my mind, has demonstrated how fluid some of these categories can be. With this said, I suggest a sort of moratorium on the debate because the same evangelicals who are debating each other basically agree with each other and don’t hold the positions that they assume the other side holds.
In other words, this whole debate is sadly about a misfired gun.
Consider the views
Union Seminary represents the first view above. They think social justice overlaps with the Gospel. No or few evangelicals maintain that position. Most fall under positions 2 and 3. John MacArthur, for example, wants to protect the Gospel against its replacement by social justice. In essence, he objects to position number 1. And while he may be concerned about the views of Thabiti Anyabwile and Russell Moore, he does not think (as far as I can see) that they are replacing the Gospel with social justice.
Anyabwile and Moore probably belong in category 2. So they see social justice as a necessary entailment of the Gospel since good works flow from faith.
Position 4 belongs to those who deny that social injustice exists—or at least that systemic sin exists. This group seems to only live online and probably overlaps with certain social concerns, namely, the denial of systemic oppression against African Americans. MacArthur would not deny this. So this group lives to the far right of him.
The same is true about those who make the Gospel overlap with social justice. This group (e.g., Union Seminary) live to the far left of people like Anyabwile and Moore.
So here is the problem
The online debate among evangelicals, however, seems to involve primarily positions 3 (MacArthur) and 2 (Anyabwile/Moore). And position 3 people sometimes attribute position 1 to position 2 people. In other words, they seem to think Anyabwile and Moore mix social justice into the Gospel as Union Seminary does. They do not.
Position 2 people sometimes attribute position 4 to position 3 people (MacArthur’s view). So they call MacArthur’s position a denial of social injustice. That’s not quite right either. Certainly, MacArthur and those with him may deny expressions of social injustice, including some forms of systemic racism. But that is different than wholesale denials of social injustice.
And here is the point
The vast VAST majority of evangelicals preserve the integrity of the Gospel while affirming the reality of social injustice. MacArthur, Anyabwile, and Moore agree here. The rub is in what constitutes true systemic injustice, how to define the term social injustice, and how to deal with it.
The current debate online thus seems to be a colossal misfire. Real differences exist. And MacArthur seems to deny certain societal ills and solutions that Anyabwile might affirm. But this is entirely different than differing on the priority of the Gospel and the necessity to do good works in society which both sides clearly affirm.
So pause the fight.
And get thinking about the real differences such as systemic sin, what that might look like, and how to deal with it. No one in these groups deny the Gospel. Nobody is saying that no systemic sin whatsoever exists but only that some kinds do not exist or are not rightly understood.
And this is a real and serious issue. So we must know what the debate is about before we can fruitfully engage in solving the problems that the church faces. Attacking each other for denying the Gospel or not being worried about justice, however, misfires.
We need to be slow to speak, quick to listen, and charitable with each other because Christian unity is important. Christ died to make us one new person. Let’s not gainsay this unity over a lack of clarity or by impatiently listening to one another.
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