Since the Council of Nicaea, Christians have been prone to issue joint statements designed to draw the boundaries of orthodoxy — and cast their rivals beyond them. Another one, not quite in the same league, was recently issued by a group including John MacArthur, a prominent (and very conservative) evangelical pastor and Bible teacher.
“The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” claims that social justice is not, in fact, a definitional component of the gospel, and that it is heresy to elevate “non-essentials to the status of essentials.” As you might expect, the document affirms traditional beliefs on same-sex relationships and “God-ordained” gender roles. But it seems particularly focused on rejecting collective blame in racial matters. “We deny that . . . any person is morally culpable for another person’s sin,” the statement argues. “We further deny that one’s ethnicity establishes any necessary connection to any particular sin.”
In case this wasn’t clear enough, the document goes on: “We reject any teaching that encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression. . . . We deny that a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression or prejudice.” Christians, in the view of MacArthur and his fellow signatories, must condemn both “racial animosity” and “racial vainglory.”
By way of background, it seems this statement was created in outraged response to another group of evangelical Christians — the Gospel Coalition — that held a conference on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. MacArthur clearly wants to paint the participants — including prominent pastors Tim Keller, Russell Moore, Thabiti Anyabwile and John Piper — as liberals at risk of heresy.
Where to start a response? First, there is the matter of judgment. MacArthur surveys the evangelical movement in 2018 — increasingly discredited by rank hypocrisy and close ties to an angry, ethnonationalist political movement — and concludes that its main problem is too much . . . social justice. It is a sad case of complete spiritual blindness.
Second, there is a matter of history. Elsewhere, MacArthur complains that evangelicals have a “newfound obsession” with social justice. This could be claimed only by someone who knows nothing of the evangelical story. During the 19th century, Northern evangelicalism was generally viewed as inseparable from social activism. Evangelist Charles Finney insisted that “the loss of interest in benevolent enterprises” was usually evidence of a “backslidden heart.” Among these enterprises, Finney listed good government, temperance reform, the abolition of slavery and relief for the poor. “The Gospel,” preached abolitionist Gilbert Haven in 1863, “is not confined to a repentance and faith that have no connection with social or civil duties. The Evangel of Christ is an all-embracing theme.”
But most damaging is the MacArthur statement’s position on racial matters. What could a group of largely white evangelicals, many of them Southerners, possibly mean by criticizing “racial vainglory”? Is it vanity to praise the unbroken spirit of Africans in America during more than four centuries of vicious oppression, which was often blessed by elements of the Christian church? Is it vanity to recognize the redemptive role played by African American Christianity in calling our nation to the highest ideals of its founding?
The purpose of “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” is clear enough. It is, as one prominent evangelical leader put it to me, “to stop any kind of real repentance for past social injustice, to make space for those who are indeed ethnonationalists, and to give excuse for those who feel Christians need only ‘preach the gospel’ to save souls and not love their neighbors sacrificially whether they believe as we do or not.”
The MacArthur statement is designed to support not a gospel truth but a social myth. The United States, the myth goes, used to have systematic discrimination, but that ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Racism is now purely an individual issue, for which the good people should not be blamed. This narrative has nothing to do with true religion. It has everything to do with ignorant self-satisfaction.
It is neither realistic nor fair to ignore the continuing social effects of hundreds of years of state-sponsored oppression, cruelty and stolen wages. It is neither realistic nor fair to ignore the current damage of mass incarceration and failed educational institutions on minority groups. Prejudice and institutional evil are ongoing — deeply ingrained in social practice and ratified by indifference. Repentance is in order — along with a passion for social justice that is inseparable from the Christian gospel.