Lately, John MacArthur and many of his peers have been speaking and writing against something they perceive as a distraction from the gospel: social justice. For MacArthur and company, an emphasis on “living justly” is a “heresy” that steals focus from the real gospel message. MacArthur and co. have systematized their argument in the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. When I first read the Statement, 4,400 pastors—all men, no women—had signed it. Since then, over 2,000 others have signed it, including a handful of women.
I am concerned about the influence this Statement might have on American society; social justice activism has a long history of effecting equality for all peoples in the United States, and its roots in Christian ministry demonstrate its relationship to the gospel message—social justice, or “living justly,” is a real and tangible response to the biblical message of Christ. In fact, in my reading of the gospels and the rest of the Christian scriptures, I find a clear, undeniable emphasis on “living justly” as the only tangible, measurable response to the good news of God’s salvation. To call “living justly” a “distraction” from the gospel puts the vulnerable in American society at risk of serious harm.
Below, I offer some of my own reflections on several parts of the Statement, which I find to be both illogical and ahistorical, as well as absent of the Spirit of Christ.
Article I: WE AFFIRM that the Bible is God’s Word, breathed out by him. It is inerrant, infallible, and the final authority for determining what is true (what we must believe) and what is right (how we must live). All truth claims and ethical standards must be tested by God’s final Word, which is Scripture alone.
WE DENY that Christian belief, character, or conduct can be dictated by any other authority, and we deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching. We further deny that competency to teach on any biblical issue comes from any qualification for spiritual people other than clear understanding and simple communication of what is revealed in Scripture.
First, according to John 1, Jesus Christ is God’s Word. Jesus Christ is the inerrant, infallible final authority for determining what is true and right. God’s final Word is Christ. The Bible is God’s word with a small w. The Bible is our sacred text that gets us in on the story of God and God’s people, but the Bible is not to be worshipped as truth and authority. Only God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is to be worshipped as truth and authority.
Second, Article I can only make sense if the Bible’s existence, and by its existence also its meaning, is static. In other words, “Scripture alone” can only be the final test for “all truth claims and ethical standards” if the Bible is only ever interpreted literally in every aspect. A literalist hermeneutic deems the Bible nonsensical—Saul dies twice, Goliath is killed three times by two apparently different people, Jesus traveled around Galilee for one year but also three years. Furthermore, systematic and other types of theology become purposeless in light of a literalist hermeneutic. If the Bible is the final test for truth, what do we do with situations or topics that have no analogy in the Bible? How can the Bible inform the fields of biotechnology, social media, gene editing, autonomous vehicles, robotics, virtual reality, energy storage, geoengineering, space technology, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence—all subjects not discussed by the biblical writers? Theologians cannot—and do not—use literalist hermeneutics when dealing with contemporary issues without direct biblical analogies.
Third, the rejection of intersectionality, feminism, and critical race theory necessitate the rejection of patriarchy and white supremacy, but the signers are primarily white men. The hermeneutic of the Statement appears to be an intersectional hermeneutic—a hermeneutic at the intersection of whiteness and maleness.
Article II: WE DENY that God-given roles, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, sex or physical condition or any other property of a person either negates or contributes to that individual’s worth as an image-bearer of God.
Mental realities do not exist apart from physical realities. What goes on in a person’s mental space is happening in that person’s brain and nervous system and other parts of the physical body. There is no separation between the body and mind; in other words, body-mind dualism does not exist. Homosexuality and transgenderism, therefore, are physical conditions that do not exist apart from the physical body that enables mental reality. Therefore, Article II affirms the status of homosexual and transgendered persons as image-bearers—but we know that such people are by and large not welcomed in the churches pastored by those who have signed the Statement. Therefore, Article II is at best ineffective for shaping ecclesiology, and at worst self-contradicting.
Article III: WE AFFIRM that since he is holy, righteous, and just, God requires those who bear his image to live justly in the world. This includes showing appropriate respect to every person and giving to each one what he or she is due. We affirm that societies must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice.
WE DENY that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture. We further deny that Christians can live justly in the world under any principles other than the biblical standard of righteousness. Relativism, socially-constructed standards of truth or morality, and notions of virtue and vice that are constantly in flux cannot result in authentic justice.
First, Article III defines justice as “showing appropriate respect to every person and giving to each one what he or she is due.” This is a justice of entitlement. This is a justice of getting even. What is one due? Is a convicted murderer due the death penalty? Or life in prison? Or forgiveness? Who gets to decide? What does it mean to get even? Who gets to decide what one deserves? Justice according to Jesus Christ does not appear to be about getting even or giving to others what they deserve. Justice, for Jesus, appears to be resurrection, forgiveness, grace undeserved. Jesus Christ does not get even or give to people what they deserve. Is Christ just?
Second, biblical justice is always communal, never individualized. The Statement’s definition of justice is distinctly individualistic.
Third, in the Bible, which is a product of culture(s) (largely, but not exclusively, Israelite and Greco-Roman), “justice” is culturally defined and socially constructed. Notions of virtue and vice have always been “in flux;” since ancient times when humans first named virtues and vices, humans have been debating what is a virtue and what is a vice. Article III is difficult to affirm based on logic and history.
Article V: WE AFFIRM that all people are connected to Adam both naturally and federally. Therefore, because of original sin everyone is born under the curse of God’s law and all break his commandments through sin. There is no difference in the condition of sinners due to age, ethnicity, or sex. All are depraved in all their faculties and all stand condemned before God’s law. All human relationships, systems, and institutions have been affected by sin.
WE DENY that, other than the previously stated connection to Adam, any person is morally culpable for another person’s sin. Although families, groups, and nations can sin collectively, and cultures can be predisposed to particular sins, subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins. Before God each person must repent and confess his or her own sins in order to receive forgiveness. We further deny that one’s ethnicity establishes any necessary connection to any particular sin.
“All human relationships, systems, and institutions” includes the Church, which is constituted of humans, does not exist apart from human relationships, and is certainly both a system and an institution. The Church, then, as it is affected by sin, must repent and seek forgiveness from those whom it has wronged. The authors here emphasize the effects on sin on their churches without taking responsibility for—or even confessing—their own sinful thoughts and deeds.
Article V claims “subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins.” What this claim leaves out is the collective guilt resulting from the benefits subsequent generations receive from the sins of their ancestors. White privilege is a reality of American society and results from the sins of past generations. White Americans today may not approve and embrace the sins of those who constructed society in this way, but they still benefit from those sins.
Article VI: WE AFFIRM that the gospel is the divinely-revealed message concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ—especially his virgin birth, righteous life, substitutionary sacrifice, atoning death, and bodily resurrection—revealing who he is and what he has done with the promise that he will save anyone and everyone who turns from sin by trusting him as Lord.
WE DENY that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel. This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.
Curiously, when listing key components of the gospel, the writers left out the teachings and healings of Jesus Christ. Article VI reads like a statement that might have been written by Pharisees who decided to affirm Jesus as Lord without taking seriously his criticisms of them and their religious system.
Article VI claims “implications and applications of the gospel… are not definitional components of the gospel.” To paraphrase, doing anything about the gospel is not necessary to salvation. This is, at best, confusing. To affirm Jesus as Lord, to trust him as Lord, and/or to believe in him is to perform specific acts (affirm, trust, believe) and to hold specific opinions about who Jesus is and what he has done. Article VI describes the gospel as if it exists outside the relationship and activity of God and God’s people.
Article VIII: WE DENY that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head. We deny that laws or regulations possess any inherent power to change sinful hearts.
Here is a curious failure to define the words “political” and “social.” Political, from politic, comes from the Greek polis, which means city or body of citizens. Politics has to do with people. Politics then, is not just about red vs. blue; politics is a fancy word for how we deal with people. In that sense, then, everything is political. Further, since humans do not exist outside human relationships, everything is social. All activity toward the support or defense of people, ideas, legislation, freedoms, rights, and property is social activism. Article VIII fails to recognize the political and social aspects of everything. Additionally, Article VIII gives little to guide or discern which laws, governments, regulations, etc. have been “providentially established” and which are ungodly. Further, if the way we act does not constitute “evidence of saving faith,” what does? Article VIII, therefore, is neither consistent nor helpful.
Article IX: WE AFFIRM that heresy is a denial of or departure from a doctrine that is essential to the Christian faith. We further affirm that heresy often involves the replacement of key, essential truths with variant concepts, or the elevation of non-essentials to the status of essentials. To embrace heresy is to depart from the faith once delivered to the saints and thus to be on a path toward spiritual destruction. We affirm that the accusation of heresy should be reserved for those departures from Christian truth that destroy the weight-bearing doctrines of the redemptive core of Scripture. We affirm that accusations of heresy should be accompanied with clear evidence of such destructive beliefs.
Although Article IX refers to “the saints,” I am concerned that it does not mention the historic Church Councils and resultant Creeds which determined heresy and heterodoxy from orthodoxy. Article IX takes a step away from Church tradition, ironically, in the name of Church tradition.
Article X: WE AFFIRM that God created mankind male and female and that this divinely determined distinction is good, proper, and to be celebrated. Maleness and femaleness are biologically determined at conception and are not subject to change. The curse of sin results in sinful, disordered affections that manifest in some people as same-sex attraction. Salvation grants sanctifying power to renounce such dishonorable affections as sinful and to mortify them by the Spirit. We further affirm that God’s design for marriage is that one woman and one man live in a one-flesh, covenantal, sexual relationship until separated by death. Those who lack the desire or opportunity for marriage are called to serve God in singleness and chastity. This is as noble a calling as marriage.
WE DENY that human sexuality is a socially constructed concept. We also deny that one’s sex can be fluid. We reject “gay Christian” as a legitimate biblical category. We further deny that any kind of partnership or union can properly be called marriage other than one man and one woman in lifelong covenant together. We further deny that people should be identified as “sexual minorities”—which serves as a cultural classification rather than one that honors the image-bearing character of human sexuality as created by God.
First, though the Statement elsewhere describes the authors’ affirmation of the (spiritual) equality of men and women, the use of the gendered “mankind” here implies superiority of men over women.
Second, how is Article X to be interpreted in light of ambiguously gendered persons, i.e. individuals born with partial genitals or with both biologically male and female genitals?
Third, how is Article X to be interpreted in light of those church fathers and mothers of polygamous relationships? In the words of Dr. Brian Lugioyo, “An argument for monogamy (which I hold) is complex and cannot be easily asserted biblically as designed by God, neither can it be substantiated through Jesus’ relation to the church as the groom—because that makes God polygamous (married to a lot of people).”
Fourth, if contemporary research and personal testimonies that being gay is not a choice are true, and therefore a gay person cannot stop being gay, then Article X denies gay people the opportunity to become Christians, experience the salvation of Christ, and participate in the life of the Church, which is Christ’s body. According to Article X, there is no salvation for the gay person.
Fifth, the term “sexual minorities” does not dishonor the Imago Dei; it simply denotes a group of people who hold relatively less power than another group or groups in a society.
Article XII: …While we are to weep with those who weep, we deny that a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression, or prejudice.
Article XII lists “a person’s feelings of offense or oppression” as the only evidence of sinful behaviors, oppression, and/or prejudice and denies the existence of other pieces of evidence.
Article XIV: WE DENY that treating people with sinful partiality or prejudice is consistent with biblical Christianity. We deny that only those in positions of power are capable of racism, or that individuals of any particular ethnic groups are incapable of racism. We deny that systemic racism is in any way compatible with the core principles of historic evangelical convictions. We deny that the Bible can be legitimately used to foster or justify partiality, prejudice, or contempt toward other ethnicities. We deny that the contemporary evangelical movement has any deliberate agenda to elevate one ethnic group and subjugate another. And we emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.
Here are lofty words to include in a statement denying the importance and relevance of social justice. The definite article “the” before “contemporary evangelical movement” implies that such a movement is singular in nature; in actuality, there are many contemporary evangelical movements and some of them explicitly have a “deliberate agenda to elevate one ethnic group and subjugate another,” as the Charlottesville riot made clear. Additionally, talking about deliberate agendas is easy enough, but Article XIV fails to account for implicit, unintentional, non-deliberate agendas in support of one ethnic group and against any other.
These are not the only reasons I cannot sign the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. Certainly more could be said, and obviously any brief creedal statements or articles of faith are at best only helpful and not alone sufficient for articulating doctrine or complex ideas. Nevertheless, I do not sense the Holy Spirit or the fruit of the Holy Spirit here in this Statement. May Christ and his Church protect the vulnerable made only more vulnerable by the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.