This is a response to the blog “Social Injustice and the Gospel” written by Dr. John MacArthur and posted August 13, 2018. It is my intention to respond to each installment of this subject as he produces them.
Some have argued in social media that there is little point in responding to these blogs and that unless the peers, specifically the white ones, of Dr. MacArthur do not confront him on the this subject, then the words of others will fall upon deaf ears. It is my belief that the accurate application of the Word of God to an issue is never a waste of time, because it is God’s Word and that Word always accomplishes His purpose. Furthermore, many people respect Dr. MacArthur, and not without reason, for he has done many things of merit in his ministry. These admirers need to understand that he is making cultural arguments as if they are spiritual ones. They need to understand that the contradiction and confusion that they feel when reading these arguments do not indicate that they are crazy, but that they are sane. We cannot fail the flock of God by neglecting to address the full counsel of God in all of its implications for all believers. Finally, it is the responsibility of individual Christians to hold all men to the standard of scripture.
Dr. MacArthur is making preliminary statements for the purpose of summarizing his views on the subject. He has not yet advanced his biblical arguments, so I will limit my discussion to the points that he has made.
The Divorce of The Gospel from Christian Discipleship
In his first paragraph, Dr. MacArthur does not open with a scripture about the gospel or social injustice, but about government [Rom 13.1-4]. He observes that due to the fallen natures of men, government itself must be at least partially unjust. He goes further than this to say that government can be systematically unjust. He then offers an illustration of this accurate observation in America’s policy towards black people, from slavery to at least the Civil Rights movement.
Just as he anchors his initial observations regarding social justice to government. Dr. MacArthur ties his understanding of the concept of “social justice” to race and the civil rights movement. Consciously or otherwise, it appears that he may be laying the groundwork to disassociate these issues from a broader context of justice. He goes into some detail regarding his own activity in the south during the civil rights era. He identifies his activity as evangelization, which I am sure is true. However he appears to see no connection between the time, place, circumstances and audience of his efforts and their social consequences. When I say social consequences, I mean the impact these actions have upon the larger society in matters including, but not limited to, social justice. Despite the fact that he recounts an interaction with what he calls a “local sheriff—an openly bigoted character straight out of In the Heat of the Night” which illustrates the direct intersection [pardon the phrase] of the spiritual [evangelization] and the social [state sanctioned oppression of perceived troublemakers] spheres. The inability to see this connection is one of the fundamental weaknesses of those who argue that there is an incompatibility between biblical justice and social justice.
It frustrates some Christians that those who consider social justice an adulteration of the priorities of the church pick and choose when to see it as such. MacArthur himself indicated that he was voting for Donald Trump not because of the man, but because he was voting for a “worldview.” Since I do not believe that Dr. MacArthur suspended his belief in the scriptures while in the voting booth, it was his sanctified Christian sensibilities that he believes led him to that political action [voting for Trump]. In other words, what you believe about the bible and about God drives your behavior in other spheres, including secular spheres, rendering them to some degree a part of the demonstration of your discipleship to Christ.
Another illustration of the principle that action in social spheres [as well as other “secular” spheres] are influenced by the quality of one’s spiritual discipleship may be found close by: Phil Johnson, a very good bible teacher and member of the staff of Grace to You.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Phil Johnson of Grace To You made public an email exchange with a man regarding whether a believer should vote for and promote the candidacy of Mr. Trump. The following is one of Johnson’s comments to the man:
“You are refusing to think in any category other than what’s politically expedient. My concern is not about politics; it’s about righteousness in the sight of God, and our testimony as Christians in the eyes of a watching world. [emphasis added-rw] What I’m saying is that it’s inconsistent with our biblical duties and our Christian convictions to cast a vote for anyone, for any reason, whose character is dominated by the open practice and celebration of evil and who cheerfully boasts of his or her own wickedness. That applies to candidates from all parties [emphasis in original].When we’re confronted with two choices that are both supremely evil, we can’t cast a vote in favor of either choice. And it would be a vile, hypocritical sin to close our eyes to the wickedness of one candidate just because we oppose the politics of the other candidate. We live in an era where appalling wickedness (on the scale of Sodom and Gomorrah) is being celebrated and even promoted by government policy—at an ever-accelerating rate. It is a foolish delusion to imagine that America might be led in a better direction by a man who considers repentance unnecessary.”— Phil Johnson
The issue here is not for whom one should vote, this is not my point at all. My point is that Christian discipleship has social implications and real social impact. Phil Johnson [who shares Dr. MacArthur’s views regarding social justice] is basically saying this above. Wrong or right, Mr. Johnson is laboring to show someone the implications of the gospel in making political judgments. His admonitions are pastoral in character. God has called pastors and teachers to be intimately involved in the development of Christian disciples [Acts 20:25-28; Gal 4.19; Eph 4.11-13; Col 1.28]. Therefore, the attempt to separate evangelization from discipleship when it comes to “certain” social issues is unbiblical and illogical.
As everyone knows who has struggled with the people that believe that there is a biblical justice which excludes and is incompatible with social justice, this distinction fades away when they are discussing abortion, usually around election time when church members are being warned about “worldview” and the need to pack the Supreme Court. Somehow these folks understand abortion, which is a great social evil, to belong to some other category wrongdoing and its correction is apportioned to the ledger of biblical justice. On the other hand, when asked point blank about the killing of unarmed black men by police, Dr. MacArthur stated that, in the church, it is in a certain sense a “non-issue.” It appears that he ascribes to a currently popular form of logical argument: “truth is not truth,” murder is not murder, death is not death.
I wonder if Dr. MacArthur believes that his statements about justice are as powerful a form of disciple making as anything else he teaches upon. Through these faulty and dangerous arguments he is creating not only an specific species of Christian, but a specific species of citizen as well. The “governing authorities” of Romans 13 consist not only of unbelievers, but also of Christians: what kind of Christians are they? The people in the pews not only vote, they hire and fire, they sell real estate, they wear badges, they are legislators and judges apportioning congressional districts, they raise future citizens. It is how pastors teach the gospel and its implications that have a tremendous impact upon the social climate of our nation and of any nation. It is as if he believes in the first part of the Great Commission, but not the second part.
Matthew 28:18–20 (KJV 1900) 18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. 19 Go ye therefore, and teach [G:3100 make disciples] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
Dr. MacArthur is convinced that “the only long-term solution to every brand of ethnic animus is the gospel of Jesus Christ.” It is the definition of the gospel and its scope which is the center of his argument, in at least this document. He has argued elsewhere that he personally is incapable of dealing with the hatred that is in the hearts of men. He apparently trusts in the power of the gospel to accomplish this task. However, it also appears that, with reference to social issues such as race, he expects “the gospel of Jesus Christ” to work like magic, without having to call individuals to repentance and to systematically teach people that their thoughts and actions regarding race and other social issues have spiritual implications in this life and are subject to divine evaluation here and in the life to come.
Straw Man Arguments
The main defense of the dichotomy between biblical and social justice relies heavily upon straw man arguments. Dr. MacArthur’s blog is no exception. He states: Evangelicals talking the loudest about “social justice” are demanding “repentance” [What is wrong with that: I have read “The Gospel According to Jesus”] and “reparations.” [I assume he will identify these folks in future blogs.] This is the beginning of the straw man argument. The arguments by bible believing Christians for what they call “social justice” are deliberately conflated with the claims and demands of the Social Gospel, a non-biblical construct. Liberal “Christians” have argued for social justice in this faulty sense since Niebuhr and long before that. If we need join forces to pile theological sandbags against liberal post-millennialists or ecumenists who plan on personally beating swords into plowshares, I will join that battle. This is not the argument that true bible believers should be making. No matter, however, because this straw man must stand, in order that the entire conversation about the failure of pastors to address the full implications of Christian holiness be knocked down with it. This gives Dr. MacArthur’s position the look of one working to maintain a social order, or, as he puts it, a “worldview” that is not Christian, but definitely American. What exactly did Dr. MacArthur think that the gospel would do to those southern blacks he visited long ago? Many of the children of these same people are simply expecting a discipleship that is in alignment with the character of that gospel.
He continues, “these social gospel evangelicals are also about extracting repentance and reparations for the sins of ones ancestors.” The problem here is not sin in 1718, but sin in 2018. That sin, in the context of this discussion, is not the sin of America, but the sin of Christians and especially pastors who know what social justice is when it comes to the unborn, but not when it comes to other ethnicities. The sin in view is todays sin of denying the full implications of a genuine discipleship as impacting how the Christian behaves in the workplace, as a citizen and in his community. It is the sin that acknowledges the need for holiness but excludes the issues of race in our preaching and teaching and devotional priorities, despite the magnitude of the sinning going on in the pews. It is the sin of confusing the gospel with magic which heals a wound without being applied to it. If your church has a problem with adultery, or divorce, would you address it in preaching and teaching once a year; twice a year? Would you simply say that “the adulterers have a true holiness in Christ” in spite of their behavior, just as Dr. MacArthur said that we “have a true spiritual unity in Christ” and lets just leave it at that?
If the first straw man is conflating the social gospel with social justice, the second straw man is that social justice is being placed, improperly, at “the top of the evangelical agenda.” Dr. MacArthur wants the gospel to be “clear, precise and at the center of our focus.” This appears to mean “and free from its implications in discipleship and holiness when it comes to certain social issues.” Again, it’s as if the great commission stops at Mt 28.19 and had no verse 20. If the gospel is to be clear, precise and at the center of our focus, then it must include the concept of making disciples, because that what the bible says. Disciples have the character of Christ being formed in them, disciples crave to be holy, disciples love the brethren, their neighbor and their enemies. Disciples hate evil, not simply in principle, but in all of its incarnations. Inasmuch as a great deal of righteousness pertains to human relations [people], righteousness is to that degree a social issue.
Social justice is a division or an aspect of biblical justice. It is not the totality of biblical justice, but without it a Christian cannot be properly identified as a Christian [1 Jn 3.10]. Many of the credibility problems that we face today as American Christians, and will face more severely in the future arise, not from the gospel, but from the perception that Christians are just a political special interest group disguised as a religion. If one possesses the actual gospel, he is a new creation, he does not make excuses for, under certain circumstances, retaining the character of the old creation.
1 John 3:10 (KJV 1900) 10 In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.