Concerning John MacArthur and Social Justice
John MacArthur is in the middle of a series of posts unpacking his concerns about the evangelical focus on social justice. The posts (up to four now) have generated quite a stir, both in support, and critical of his ideas. John MacArthur has been a great help to many over the years, and I don’t doubt that he is intending to be so now. However, his argument contains problems which work against both unity and a healthy application of the gospel he seeks to defend.
In this post, I have no intention of going point-for-point with his argument, but rather strive to note a few areas of critical reflection and analysis which those who are inclined to agree with Dr. MacArthur would do well to consider.
In his second post MacArthur identifies his past work in the struggle for truth. He documents his firm stance against those who deny inerrancy, the lordship of Christ, continuationism, psychotherapy, and pragmatic church growth strategies, identifying each as a “subtle, in-house attack on core gospel convictions.”
In his third post, he locates the growing evangelical commitment to social justice squarely within this stream. Right alongside egalitarian thought and revisionist sexuality, the pursuit of social justice is “the next logical step for a church that is completely ensnared in efforts to please the culture.” In short, he identifies the motive for social justice as a capitulation to the culture the church is desperately trying to please through whatever pragmatic means necessary.
Now, before we proceed, let’s all acknowledge that pragmatism is no bogeyman. Far too many churches have absolutely and completely capitulated to culture, both in some of the ways MacArthur listed (though I object to his lack of nuance on some of the issues), and in other ways.
Furthermore, as long as there has been a gospel to preserve, there have been gospel-substitutions threatening orthodoxy – including socially-focused ones. Not that far up modern evangelicalism’s family tree sits the fundamentalist struggle against the Social Gospel. We are not so far removed from that bitter conflict that MacArthur is unjustifiably concerned about losing the heart of the gospel to a social substitution. Gospel drift is a real thing, still happens, and must be discerned and defended against at all costs.
However, the main issue at stake is not whether gospel drift happens, but whether that which MacArthur targets as such is really what he says it is.
Let me explain.
He defines “social justice” thusly:
“Social justice” (in the world’s usage of that term) entails political ideas that are deemed sophisticated—namely, identity politics, critical race theory, the redistribution of wealth, and other radical or socialist policies. Those ideas were first popularized and propagated in the secular academy, where they are now regarded as received wisdom and have become a dominating part of popular culture. Evangelicals who are chasing the culture are latecomers to the party of those who advocate “social justice.”
If social justice is defined in this way, then it’s a short hop and a skip to legitimately equate any and all evangelical concern with social justice as pure cultural capitulation. But is that what’s going on?
Among some, yes, to be sure. But we must underscore that there are many Christian thinkers, writers, pastors, leaders and church members who see the need for the church to be socially engaged with a clear, prophetic voice, out of a firm commitment to orthodoxy. I am one of them.
Such people are driven by the conviction that our new birth in Christ creates a new community of the beloved, within which there ought to be an increasing and glorious alignment to the righteousness of God. We believe that the gospel not only grants us forgiveness, but sets pre-prepared good works before us (Eph. 2:10), a rightly ordered love for the oppressed and marginalized (Luke 10; Rom. 12:16; James 2; et al.); an ache to see God’s righteous kingdom come in all its glory and goodness (Matt. 6:10, 33); and in the waiting, a church characterized by love, justice, mercy and truth.
These believers recognize that not all is well within the social reality in which we live. Racial wounds persist; ethnocentricism continues to plague our culture; the politics of power continue to seduce our institutions. And so, these imperfect disciples, driven by a desire to see Jesus glorified in all areas, and the truth of God declared in every sphere, seek to lead the church forth utilizing the categories available to them.
The problem lies in the fact that MacArthur appears to cast such a wide net that he captures both the gospel-less social justice proponents alongside the gospel-fueled social justice proponents, and dismisses the entire lot out of hand. To be fair, the shared nomenclature may cause confusion. But it does not justify excluding the good and right work being done. As Joe Carter rightly argues, “Social justice, as a biblical concept, is not a term we should abandon without a fight.”
The Erasure of Gospel Implications
But this is only part of the problem. There is also a historical reason many are concerned about social justice. Over the years, I have grown increasingly concerned about the relationship between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right action), especially as I have learned my history.
Many stalwart defenders of orthodoxy spent their lives in the costly pursuit of right doctrine, all the while either tolerating, permitting or even promoting race-based slavery or Jim Crow laws. How does such a thing happen? To be sure, we all have blind spots. But right knowledge is always and necessarily married to right action in Scripture (Matt. 7:15-27; James 1:21-27). When confronting the severe disconnect which would permit people to comfortably sidle up next to the horrors of slavery or Jim Crow, we have to ask, “What went wrong?” For after all, we surely do not want to repeat the mistakes of our forefathers.
But see, here’s the rub: MacArthur is so concerned that this inclination toward social justice is birthed out of a desire to conform to culture that he fails to see the ways in which our forefathers were shaped and catechized by their own culture. For after all, the main problem wasn’t that many 19th century Christians didn’t have a Bible, but that they had capitulated to racist culture.
Does this not strike a humbling trepidation in your heart? It does mine. What many gospel-centered, clear-thinking, Bible-believing Christians are trying to do is to say, “We must question our cultural assumptions, and we must confront the unbiblical ones lest we capitulate.”
But MacArthur, in so classifying social concern and rejecting the pursuit of justice in society as a distraction from the gospel, merely ends up erasing the impetus to pursue the social implications of the gospel. Rather than carefully helping people differentiate between gospel-less social action, and gospel-shaped social action, he lassos the entire bunch, labels it capitulation, and thereby eliminates legitimate Christian approaches to social justice.
But beloved, this must not be. In light of our particular American history, we cannot afford to slide back into a narrow theology that focuses so intently on personal piety, there is no room left for concern about the injustice, wounds or marginalization experienced by our brothers and sisters in broader society. Or as Carl F. H. Henry put it so many years ago, “A Christianity without a passion to turn the world upside down is not reflective of apostolic Christianity.”1
Experience and Stories
MacArthur seems genuinely surprised that the conversation about race is happening. He says things like,
“Four years ago, I would not have thought it possible for Bible-believing evangelicals to be divided over the issue of racism.”
But is this a justifiable surprise? Or merely a betrayal of a failure to perceive the social reality in American society over the past decades and centuries?
He tips his hand when he goes on to write,
“As Christians we know that the human heart is evil, so undoubtedly there are still people who secretly harbor animosity against ethnicities other than their own. But any open expression of acrimony, ill will, or deliberate antagonism across ethnic lines will be scorned and emphatically rejected across the whole spectrum of mainstream American life today.”
He is partially correct. Yes, outright expressions of white supremacy are generally condemned by broader society, and usually by the evangelical world. And yet (and this is a big yet), we have often seen a heartbreaking reticence to readily denounce white supremacy.
We must be honest about the state of such things.
So why does he not see what seems to be so clearly there? The sociological explanation, provided by Emerson and Smith nearly 20 years ago still serves us well. In their book Divided by Faith, Emerson and Smith unpack the notion of the “white evangelical tool kit,” a set of beliefs about the way the world works common to the white evangelical world.2 They perceptively argue that those shaped by such assumptions are unable to see the effects and acts of structural racism today.3
Because MacArthur qualifies authentic racism with words like “purposeful, willful, or ideological” and “angry,” it becomes clear that he has no category for the systemic effects of centuries of racist thought. In fact, he betrays just this in discussing his convictions in light of his experience. He writes,
“I thought the evangelical church was living out true unity in Christ without regard for race. That has certainly been my experience in every church I’ve ever been part of, and it’s also what I have seen in the wider evangelical world.” (emphasis mine)
I will readily admit that Dr. MacArthur is far more well-read, well-traveled and pastorally experienced than me. And yet it is not relative experience that concerns me; it is his transparency in the acknowledgement that he restricts his grasp of the issues to his experience. The problem, of course, is that people of color have different experiences. And white evangelicals, to be frank, have been too long in their willingness to pause and listen.
Here’s where Jesus’ intention for His community becomes so important. Dr. MacArthur is writing to and for evangelicals. And because this is a conversation within the church, for the benefit of the church, texts such as Phil. 2:3-4 and Matt. 7:1ff must frame our discourse. But to take Phil. 2:3-4 seriously in this context, we must compassionately listen to the stories and experiences of those who differ from ours. To take Matt. 7:1ff seriously in this context, we must respect those stories without assuming that those telling them are power-grabbing, divisive, pity-seeking gospel-deniers.
If I choose to form objective judgments about others’ intentions from my own experience, yet refuse to permit others’ stories to shape my judgment, I am operating out of a fundamentally isolated and selfish position. Love requires that I stop and listen.
But once we start listening, then we quickly discover we have a responsibility to respond. Broader American society has never truly righted the wrongs of the past. Allow me a bold, incomplete metaphor. We know that, in a damaged personal relationship, there can be no true healing until a) the wrong is acknowledged; b) the wrong is stopped; c) forgiveness is sought; and d) restitution takes place if necessary. As a society, we have mostly done the first, generally done the second, yet never really moved into the third, and certainly never accomplished the fourth.
If individual relationships are stunted and harmed by a failure to move through the reconciliation process, what damage must entire societies undergo?
To be sure, the church cannot speak for society. But this does not release us. Churches have a responsibility to address racial wounds when they see them; to care for those who have experienced the pain of marginalization; to condemn racism when they see it; to eliminate all vestiges of racism through humble listening, learning and transformation in the pursuit of true, self-sacrificing unity. Sometimes this means group repentance. Sometimes it means personal repentance. Sometimes it simply means confessing ignorance.
But even if there is no concrete sin to repent of in own lives, we are still called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). We are still called to embrace one another in full awareness of our stories. To come alongside and say, “I love you and I hear your pain.” To speak publicly with empathy and the recognition that, yes, our society remains this broken.
The healing balm of gospel-reconciliation cannot work its way throughout Christian community as long as we deny the wounds which it alone can truly heal. Speaking of racial reconciliation and social justice is not the problem. The problem lay in refusing to speak clearly about the social brokenness of our world. It is only when we see brokenness and injustice clearly that we can begin to skillfully and faithfully apply the truth and glory of the gospel to those very wounds.
Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. ↩
Emerson and Smith note that this tool kit functions as a way for “individuals and groups to organize experiences and evaluate reality,“ and consists a series of beliefs, including “'accountable freewill individualism,‘ 'relationalism’ (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences).” (Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001], 76) ↩
By "structural racism,” I mean social structures (laws, institutions, widely-accepted social norms) that intentionally or unintentionally favor or oppress one group of people over others. Unlike individual racism which is self-contained, structural racism affects entire systems into which we are born and in which we function. The power of structural racism is that racist ideas can be encoded into systems which live on far beyond those ideas. This appears, for example, in the effect of housing discrimination on the current makeup of our cities. Some currently controversial subjects, such as mass incarceration are made clearer when we understand the reality of the structural side of racism. For a balanced and helpful discussion, see More Than Just Race by William Julius Wilson. ↩