Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted. Why does the wicked renounce God and say in his heart, “You will not call to account”? But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation, that you may take it into your hands; to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless. Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none. The LORD is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land. O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more. (Psalm 10:12-18)
I’d like to preface my discussion of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel (henceforth SSJG) with a brief reflection on this passage from the psalter which the Lord providentially dropped into my lap this morning.
Psalm 10 would be sound rather new and strange coming from modern, American lips. Perhaps the contemporary evangelical version would be something to the tune of: “Arise, O LORD, and save a handful of souls, but don’t touch all that cultural stuff until you return.” Is that a caricature? Yes—but not too far from how many of us are accustomed to think.
But Yahweh is a man of war. He takes back from his oppressed people what’s been robbed from them. Pagan nations that perpetuate systems of sin through unjust laws will perish from God’s presence as he zealously contends for society’s marginalized. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of the kingdom; having died for sin and risen from the dead to redeem a global people for himself and construct a new humanity, the Lord Jesus is now reigning from heaven spreading his good news, conquering spiritual evil and its cultural fruits, and readying the world for his return (Ps. 110:1-2; 1 Cor. 15:1-4, 24-27). Thus, while the gospel, strictly defined, pertains to redemption from sin, true religion expresses itself in holy living and social concern (Jas. 1:27). The lordship of Christ makes demands on the world to repent, turn to Jesus for salvation, and follow his will, expressed in his law, in every sphere from government and education to the arts and humanities.
As a result, Christians, whose true citizenship is in heaven, are nevertheless inextricably bound to a concern for earthly things: justice, equity, and righteousness in the realm of human relationships and civil government. That’s a tension for sure, but one in which all Christians are called to operate as preserving salt and purifying light.
That’s why, in spite of some of the bitter arguments that have brought us here, I’m glad the SSJG is shedding light on the issue. If there’s anything about which Christians cannot afford to be neutral, it’s the way in which we engage the world around us from here until we cross eternity’s threshold.
I considered dissecting the statement point-for-point, but the task proved too tedious. I’d simply be tacking on repetitive “amens” to the earlier parts of the statement, which are, largely, broad-brushed truisms aimed at bringing together both sides of the social justice/racial reconciliation conversation within the Reformed community. (And, with any luck, perhaps it’s starting to do that.) There are also other fine gentlemen like Ryan Burton King and Dr. Joel McDurmon, whom I deeply respect, who have detailed their concerns with the statement—many of which I share. So, rather than plod over ground that plenty of others in the blogosphere have covered, I decided to share a few points unique (maybe) to my perspective: three reasons I signed, and three reasons I almost didn’t.
First, the reasons I almost didn’t sign.
1. A lack of definition
It is a bit flummoxing that a statement on social justice never uses or defines the term “social justice.” Other terms are equally wanting for definition like intersectionality, postmodernism, radical feminism, and critical race theory. One may rightly point out that there some truths in these ideologies that Christians can agree with. Oppression does happen, and can be layered in its effect on certain marginalize groups. Modernism was wrong to make scientific inquiry the measure of all things. Women have been marginalized throughout most of human history and Christians should be at the forefront of commending their dignity and worth. And on the list goes. To issue a blanket condemnation without offering definitions is troublesome. Simply put, this statement is no ecumenical creed. It’s terse, and it’s far from giving satisfying answers to all of the questions it raises.
That said, I think I know what the document’s framers meant by these terms. I believe they are referring to these ideologies in their purest forms as proffered by the secular, leftist ideologues who have been nesting throughout university campuses for a few generations now. There is, of course, a good case for Christians adopting and repurposing the term social justice. But what we are talking about here is the unfiltered, unvarnished humanist worldview that views everything in life—everything—through fixed, inescapable castes of privilege and oppression, the social equivalent of the materialist dialectic of the haves and have-nots. And if that is the ideology in view, I can gladly agree that these theories should be shelved in favor of a robust, life-encompassing application of God’s law—defined by Scripture—under the rulership of Jesus.
2. Inadequate treatment of present and historical racial/ethnic injustice
This is a major hesitation I have about the document in its current form. I don’t know what the authors’ plans are, but if there are addendums in the works as conversation progresses, I would hope a section addressing historical and current ethnic strife would be at the top of the list.
I would commend to readers on all sides of this controversy McDurmon’s The Problem of Slavery in Christian America. You don’t have to be a social justice warrior or a neo-Marxist (McDurmon is neither) to recognize that a variety of American institutions, including major denominations, have the bloodstains of racism in their past. The so-called “spirituality of the church” doctrine, much like some of the more radical R2K arguments, did significant damage to the collective evangelical conscience regarding issues like slavery. And racial injustice in America did not end in 1863; Jim Crow carried on the spirit of slavery in the absence of the institution. Contrived vagrancy laws, coupled with convict labor sanctions, created their own subjugated, impoverished black workforce and birthed the police state in the process. Neither did racism end in 1968. Racist attitudes still persist in many pockets of the country, and even where segregation is no longer formal policy, integration efforts have been often stunted. The black community in America is in crisis—a crisis which includes from black-on-black violence and a literal holocaust at the hands of Planned Parenthood’s eugenicist agenda. In sum, systemic racism is actually a thing.
That said, I am grateful for what is said:
- “We affirm that societies must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice” (from the section “Justice”).
- “We affirm that God’s law, as summarized in the ten commandments, more succinctly summarized in the two great commandments, and manifested in Jesus Christ, is the only standard of unchanging righteousness” (“God’s Law”).
- “We affirm God made all people from one man. Though people often can be distinguished by different ethnicities and nationalities, they are ontological equals before God in both creation and redemption. ‘Race’ is not a biblical category, but rather a social construct that often has been used to classify groups of people in terms of inferiority and superiority. All that is good, honest, just, and beautiful in various ethnic backgrounds and experiences can be celebrated as the fruit of God’s grace. All sinful actions and their results (including evils perpetrated between and upon ethnic groups by others) are to be confessed as sinful, repented of, and repudiated” (“Race/Ethnicity”).
Churches must talk about these issues and bring the law of God to bear. Racial reconciliation—and by that I mean, the efforts of Christians and churches to love their neighbors and advocate for ethnic unity on the basis of the imago Dei and the new humanity forged by Christ in redemption (Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11)—matters. We must “weep with those who weep,” no buts (Rom. 12:15 is referenced in the statement). And for what it’s worth, I wish more had been said along these lines in the SSJG.
3. A potentially truncated gospel
Returning to the theme of my introduction, some have accused the statement of teaching a reductionistic gospel—a Jesus who saves individual souls for heaven but is unconcerned with the civil sphere now. And I can see why this criticism might be lodged.
God’s grace leads us into a hearty embrace of his commands, but relatively little time is spent in the SSJG unpacking what a true application of God’s law on issues of ethnicity and race might be; love for God and neighbor is about as deep as it goes. As one who might be called a “general equity theonomist” (I dig Bahnsen’s rhetoric, but not all his conclusions… this is akin to having the cake and wanting to eat it too), I contend that what we need is a full-orbed view of God’s law applies to family, church, and state. (One might say, a truly Reformed view.)
But if the SSJG’s gospel is truncated, so is Paul’s.
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor. 15:3-5)
Or better yet:
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:1-2)
Here Paul gives the gospel without one mention of school vouchers, the tax code, or plastic straws in California. Such a thing is not only possible; it’s apostolic.
My hesitations with the document are significant. And at the end of the day, it’s no ecumenical creed. Flying-car-driving believers worshiping on the ash pile formerly called America 2,000 years from now won’t be reciting the SSJG in their liturgies (I think). So why did I sign?
For as many tweaks as I and others would like to make to the document, to reject it out-of-hand might be one symptom of late-onset cage stage syndrome: the “nothing is precise enough to satisfy my superior knowledge of theology, culture, and politics” reaction.
I think it’s worth finding agreement where we can find agreement, and it’s worth putting together a statement that nearly expressing an thoroughly orthodox stance on social engagement. Let’s realize that while conservative and Reformed Christians are bickering about the grammatical nuances of SSJG, the cultural rebellion is in full swing, and progressive “Christians” are out selling the farm on every social issue.
There’s a Philistine giant laughing at us, and we’re huddled in the camp with Saul’s men squabbling about what size armor David should wear or how many pebbles he should pack.
I’d encourage anyone thinking of signing to sign. Here’s why.
1. To explicate the gospel
It would have been nice to see a fuller definition of the gospel in the SSJG—the gospel of the kingdom, of Christ’s rule over all of life and culture. But if we preserve the gospel as something unique and distinct from its implications, what we have is still the gospel, albeit in embryonic form. Collapse the gospel’s implications into the gospel itself and you’ll lose both.
Given how many people in this debate have thrown around the h-word, it’s vital to get the gospel we all agree about on paper. An individual on Twitter has even accused evangelicals of having never had the gospel in the first place. We need a foundation from which to launch further conversation and cultural engagement, and by cultural engagement I don’t just mean movie reviews.
Let’s not forget that the parts of the statement we consider to be truisms aren’t likely to be considered as such by the Jonathan Merritts, Rachel Held Evanses, Rob Bells, and Andy Stanleys of the world. It is not a waste of time to remind folks that feeding the poor and passing legislation isn’t the gospel, that all of Scripture is actually inerrant (even the parts that make us squeamish), and that as a result the Old Testament law has abiding implications for culture today.
I once had a frank conversation with a consistent, volunteering attendee of my former church, and asked, “What is the gospel?” Her response was, “Loving God and loving others.” We simply cannot afford to assume people finally understand the law/gospel distinction, because in each generation it must be taught afresh. The current activist generation is not exception.
If we are truly gospel-centered, then writing down the good news and distinguishing it from all our other callings and causes is critical to our integrity.
2. As a basis for cultural engagement outside the U.S.
A friend made a good point to me the other day in church—one which, to me, outweighs the critique that the statement doesn’t dig deeply enough into the American church’s past struggles with racial equality. His point was simply that the SSJG should be useful in other cultures; it shouldn’t just be an American document. It ought to be a tool believers across the globe can reap benefit from.
His observation not only encouraged me to see the statement in a new light, but it’s a gentle rebuke to the whole social justice debate in North America. Friends: we aren’t the only Christians in the world, and we are far from being the only believers on the planet struggling to pull together disparate ethnicities and cultures into cohesive congregations. The church worldwide has been doing this for a few millennia now, and the body of Christ in the global South is outgrowing the Western church by leaps and bounds.
We can’t be so myopic as to keep the conversation limited to American political concepts and public policy. If we make Scripture our sole measure of true justice, then we’re modeling what all our brothers and sisters in the Lord can be doing in their respective cultures as well.
“Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the LORD” (Prov. 20:10). Definitions of social justice that shift as various sociological theories gain or lose traction can’t ultimately be relied upon to bring lasting reconciliation. The contemporary media outrage machine will always be churning out new controversy. And if we swallow hook, line, and sinker everything the broader culture is telling us about social justice right now, we will find that we’ve adopted a set of uneven scales for weighing future injustices.
3. As a basis for future conversation
My perception of the spirit of the SSJG changed significantly when I read Tom Ascol’s appendix on its history and formation, especially this remark:
“We have spoken on these issues with no disrespect or loss of love for our brothers and sisters who disagree with what we have written. Rather, our hope is that this statement might actually provoke the kind of brotherly dialogue that can promote unity in the gospel of our Lord Jesus whom we all love and trust.”
The spirit of Ascol’s explanation, I believe, casts the whole statement into a different light than perhaps social media would convey. In spite of the vitriol of the Twitter debate, we are brothers and sisters in the Lord united in the gospel. It’s a conversation that needs to continue, just in a far healthier way.
As it does, one question in particular needs to be answered: How deeply have we allowed Donald McGavran’s homogeneous unit principle to filter into our ecclesiology? Put another way: is the modern conception of “multiethnic” really a biblical requirement for a congregation, or to what extent should the makeup of a church reflect a cross-section of the community? While it’s natural for people to gather with those who are like them, are we letting that fact inform our ecclesiology, rather than actively calling churches to obey the implications of texts like Revelation 7:9—that is, that churches on earth should begin to slowly, imperfectly mirror the makeup throne room in heaven? (We covered these topics in two episodes of The Missions Podcast: “Collin Hansen on Social Justice, Racial Reconciliation, and Missions,” and “Church Planting: Multiethnic or Homogeneous Units?”.)
Make no mistake: we need to contend for biblical justice in the social sphere globally (social justice, if you will). This is why I began with Psalm 10. We should stand against the lingering effects of segregation in South Africa and the U.S. deep South. We should call for repentance from the sin of abortion. We should proclaim the lordship of Christ over the institution of marriage. We should preach the freedom offered in the gospel to those caught in sex trafficking world wide. And if our gospel doesn’t necessarily lead us into these ventures—either individually or corporately in some way, or at least through our prayers—then our gospel is not filtering our view of all of life as it should.
In spite of its flaws—some gaping—I think the statement can be a useful way of drawing us back to the gospel, keeping the “main thing the main thing,” and give the current conversation participants enough common ground to start building on. I’d like to see a second draft, a forum, or something else aimed at visibly, publicly moving the ball forward.
Although these statements are rarely as influential as I’d hope, I at least want my own children and grandchildren looking back on my work and writing someday to know that I stand with Scripture. For these reasons, I signed the SSJG.