I came across Dr. John MacArthur’s piece at Grace to You in which he appears to be strongly critical of evangelical use of the term “social justice.” Of course, there are a lot of people who feel that way, and I would never spend time interacting with them all, but my reasons for interacting with Dr. MacArthur are:
1) The scope of his platform. When he speaks people listen and he sets the tone for how a lot of evangelicals in America think about issues (for better or worse).
2) Even in his first post, there is evidence of cardinal rules of good disputation already being broken.
Pastorally, my concerns are that based on his initial post, he will create fear, spread confusion, and thereby cause unnecessary division by his failure to engage social justice advocates with clarity, fairness, or accuracy.
Of course, time will tell if that happens, but there is a frustrating amount of evidence of it already beginning to happen in his very first post. Let me show you:
“The evangelicals who are saying the most and talking the loudest these days about what’s referred to as “social justice” seem to have a very different perspective [than the evangelicals who participated in the civil rights movement].”
For fair debate, the proper questions to ask at this point are: 1) ‘Dr. MacArthur, who exactly do you have in mind?’ and 2) ‘Dr. MacArthur, what exactly have they said that, in your judgment, is out of step with the civil rights movement of the 60s?”
MacArthur never answers those questions in this blog. Or at least charitably, he hasn’t answered those questions yet. But until he does, he has put himself in a coveted position in debate. He has made a serious charge and criticism that cannot be critiqued, because we don’t know who he is talking about. He has positioned himself so that he can only be right, or at least not wrong.
Pastorally, what he has done with a comment like this is create fear in the hearts of faithful Christians that ‘someone, somewhere out there’ is compromising the faith. And due to the lack of specifics, one is led to believe that Dr. MacArthur may think ANYONE who uses the phrase “social justice” is compromising the Faith and abandoning the Gospel–no matter how much they 1) preach salvation by grace alone, through faith alone on account of Christ alone or 2) define social justice exclusively in biblical terms. The potential damage done in churches by these kinds of insinuations is catastrophic. Friends, that is not how you do good, truthful Christian debate.
“Their rhetoric certainly points a different direction, demanding repentance and reparations from one ethnic group for the sins of its ancestors against another.”
Again, we return to our ‘who and what’ questions. Who are we talking about? What specifically have they said?
Dr. MacArthur reframes this to be about “rhetoric.” Is that because, he himself realizes he’s already overplaying his hand with his previous comments?
Also, it’s a little odd for someone as close to the civil rights movement as Dr. MacArthur says he was to suggest “reparations” rhetoric is a departure from the civil rights movement. It isn’t. Dr. King talked about this too (see: here).
Another curiosity is this business of “demanding repentance… for sins of its ancestors against another.” The question naturally falls: what do you find objectionable in this? (I have thoughts on it, but I need to hear WHAT specifically is found problematic in this?)
But again, we are left with criticisms that are a mixture of vagueness and, frankly, historical inaccuracy.
“It’s the language of law, not gospel—and worse, it mirrors the jargon of worldly politics, not the message of Christ.”
We again have the ‘who and what’ questions emerge. To whom are you referring and what exactly have they said? We are left with vagueness.
Also curious: is law wrong? Is there no ministry of the law in the Christian life? Do you believe Christian reconciliation happens without grappling with sin, turning from it, and fleeing to Christ? It is the law that presses the need for repentance. If racism is a sin, as Dr. MacArthur says, is there not a law-work that must be done in the heart and life before the healing balm of the Gospel can be felt? And are we not always living in that dynamic of recognizing sin, repenting of it, and resting in Christ?
Christians need the law because it instructs us where to walk in the strength of the Gospel. It also ‘calls us out’ when we walk in directions that are out of accord with Christ. Contrary to what Dr. MacArthur suggests, “law” is not bad.
I must say, it’s surprising to hear Dr. MacArthur be fuzzy on that, because historically I have found him to be very clear on the need for repentance and the function of the law. The law shows the problem. And I would say in all candor that any preaching of the Gospel that does not demand repentance is cheap grace, and no Gospel at all (and by extension accomplishes no reconciliation at all).
“It is a startling irony that believers from different ethnic groups, now one in Christ, have chosen to divide over ethnicity. They have a true spiritual unity in Christ, which they seem to disdain in favor of fleshly factions.”
Again, we are left to return to our “who and what” questions? To whom are you referring? What exactly have they said that is problematic?
Further, it is odd to suggest, as Dr. MacArthur has that once we become Christians we may no longer talk about racial sins or tensions without necessarily being divisive because of our unity in Christ. All I can say is that the New Testament offers no support for Dr. MacArthur’s point of view on that (see Acts 6:1, Acts 15, Romans 14, Galatians en toto, etc).
Dr. MacArthur’s misunderstanding seems to be that once the church gains an identity in Christ, that identity can never be imperiled in practice by sins present in the church. But that is simply not true. The church is one, and it is called to pursue that unity in real life situations. The church is called to ‘live into’ that identity.
But unity is experienced through practices of compassion, forgiveness, love, and repentance. Unity is not “magic fairy dust” that settles on a congregation. It happens as Christians practice repentance of their sins against each other. When one side does not repent, the church necessarily is divided. But it is not divided by the call to repent, but by the refusal to repent.
What I must say I find so confusing in all of this is: even if you do not like the language of “repenting of the sins of ancestors” (understandable) can you TODAY reject everything they practiced related to racial injustice, and put on all of the practices that they should have done towards people of other races? And would your brothers and sisters of another race agree with you that you have rejected everything they practiced related to racial sin?
“Evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of “social justice” is a significant shift—and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results.”
It’s not accurate to say evangelicals have a “newfound obsession” with social justice (and it’s ‘poisoning the well’ to accuse them of being ‘obsessed’ with it.) I have read and heard evangelicals talking about social justice for at least 20 years, going back to my IVCF days in college.
That it may be talked about more today is, naturally, because of current events with police shootings. There is nothing weird or unseemly about that.
Also this charge, “I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results.”
Who and what specifically? Who and what specifically?
Which leaders? What’s the evidence they are soft peddling the Gospel now? Dr. MacArthur offers no evidence at all. Just accusations and insinuations. As I said, in charity we can hope that specifics are coming in future posts.
Also, what “many other movements and denominations” is Dr. MacArthur talking about? I hope he means something other than theological liberalism, as it is not accurate at all to say that concern for society moved mainline churches away from Christian doctrine. The doctrine was gone first as a result of Enlightenment rationalism which then led to a redefinition of the Faith around social causes. That is very, very different than evangelicals saying boldly that the atoning work of Christ is the basis for social justice.
“This recent (and surprisingly sudden) detour in quest of “social justice” is, I believe, the most subtle and dangerous threat so far.”
Is it cynical of me to say that I feel as though Dr. MacArthur uses this rhetoric about every view he critiques? But it is quite surprising to me to read him say that of all of the errors that threaten the cause of Christ, social justice is the worst. More than atheism? More than Progressive sexual ethics? More than scientific materialism, the prosperity Gospel, fundamentalist Islam, communism, secularism, denials of specific cardinl doctrines like substitutionary atonement, the Trinity, the doctrine of sin, etc.?
I hope folks feel like Dr. MacArthur is overstating his case. And if so, consider that perhaps his perspective is not as balanced on this topic as one might hope. Even if we never see eye to eye on this, there are worse errors to make.
“We’ll see why biblical justice has little in common with the secular, liberal idea of “social justice.”
I may write something at a future point in time about how Christians have used cultural words throughout the ages, and how it is not modeled well here by Dr. MacArthur. But let me just say that many minority brothers and sisters believe that if evangelicals would’ve been about “biblical justice,” they never would’ve felt the need to use the word “social justice.” The word came into use to address more specifically and precisely an area of justice that Christians were not pursuing–justice for marginalized neighbor and society.
Also, while Dr. MacArthur apparently sees the word “social justice” as overwrought with ideologies. According to the dictionary.com, “social justice” simply means “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” Or perhaps we could say it just means pursuing justice in society (and naturally philosophies and ideologies will differ as to what exactly that will mean). It’s hard to see why “justice in society” is such a terrible thing for Christians to be concerned about.
Moving forward, Dr. MacArthur needs to feel the burden of being more specific or else this threatens to be little more than gossip, and possibly slander through insinuation. Specifically, who is he talking about? What have they specifically said? Without that precision, all that this will amount to is causing needless division in a lot of churches because of vague and ill-defined criticisms.