Witness

Reflections After the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel: What’s This Really All About?

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This is part one of a two-part response.

We’re witnessing the death rattle of white Protestant fundamentalism in America. And as it dies, the empire has been striking back. Some aging white men fear the loss of their power, prestige, and heretofore unquestioned authority to tell others what to believe. Consequently, we receive from them edicts, often in the form of theological statements, designed to build a fence around their traditions, constructing walls of separation from others—even those who also take the Bible seriously.

Recently Pastor John MacArthur and other men issued a Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. Our initial response was to ignore it because we already anticipated some of what would be in that statement. However, after thousands of faith leaders signed the statement, it seemed appropriate to offer another perspective.

Protestantism has long debated what constitutes the Gospel of Jesus. Does the Gospel consist of the right propositions? The right actions? The right confessions? Social action has been put in opposition to proclamation. We won’t take the time and space to try and refute the aforementioned Statement point-by-point; not all of it is controversial. Additionally, many others have already thoughtfully expressed their concerns, such as Pastor Rasool BerryGrace Sangalang Ng, and Michael Gerson.

Much has already been said, but there’s more conversation to be had. In this piece, I’d like to address the sections of the Statement that:

  • Reduce the gospel of Jesus Christ to certain theological categories and propositions by ignoring or minimizing the teachings and character of Jesus.
  • Seek to reestablish patriarchy and the cultural hegemony of white, Protestant American men while demeaning the voice of women and ethnic minorities who have historically been marginalized by the dominant culture.
  • Suggest a blindness to the political, anti-imperial nature of faith in Jesus as shown throughout the New Testament.

My good friend and colleague, Adam Gustine, will follow this piece with a response of his own.

The Good News According to Jesus

When it comes to defining the gospel, the statement declares 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.

Much of that is on target, yet the “work” of Jesus Christ the statement has in mind consists of categories derived only from a particular understanding of Pauline theology and does not include the words and actions concerning Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. For example, Mark’s Gospel, which makes no mention of the virgin birth or “atonement,” begins with Jesus preaching about the nearness of the Kingdom of God—that is the “Good News.” The Good News is manifested not only in the forgiveness of sins (Mark 2:1-5), but in physical healing (2:6-12; 5:25-34) and also in liberation from demonic oppression (Mark 1:23-28; 5:1-20). Luke 4:18-19, the Lord’s own “job description,” so to speak, says,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

It’s also in Luke’s Gospel that the famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) teaches us, among other things, that loving one’s neighbor means working to address wrongs. The Good News, or Gospel, is not merely a set of tenets to be believed; it is a way of life to be followed.

A Gospel that Shows No Partiality

The Statement on Social Justice asserts:

Though there is no difference between men and women before God’s law or as recipients of his saving grace, we affirm that God has designed men and women with distinct traits and to fulfill distinct roles. These differences are most clearly defined in marriage and the church, but are not irrelevant in other spheres of life … In the church, qualified men alone are to lead as pastors/elders/bishops and preach to and teach the whole congregation.

… Some cultures operate on assumptions that are inherently better than those of other cultures because of the biblical truths that inform those worldviews that have produced these distinct assumptions.

To this point, We state emphatically: Scripture depicts women in various leadership roles, as teachers, and as spiritual models. Click To Tweet Although there are a few passages that restrict the role of women in a particular context, the overall picture is one that shows women disciples to be “fellow heirs” of God’s grace (1 Pet 3:7), and not second-class citizens in God’s kingdom (Gal 3:28). While the Bible emerged from a patriarchal society, it does not endorse patriarchy. (The same could be said of slavery: the ancient world behind the Bible took slavery for granted, but that is not the same as saying the Bible consistently endorses slavery).

It doesn’t take long to see that the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel understands the cultural assumptions of white Americans to be better than those of other groups. The Statement is fodder for hostility between cultures. It would be better to heed the lesson the apostle Peter learned upon his encounter with God and Cornelius:

I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him (Acts 10:34-35).

The Political, Anti-Imperial Gospel

The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel says:

We affirm that, under the lordship of Christ, we are to obey the governing authorities established by God and pray for civil leaders… WE DENY that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church.

Yet the gospel of Jesus Christ is a political announcement. Returning to the Gospel According to Luke’s presentation of Jesus, we witness a deliberate contrast between the Lord’s life (including his birth and teachings) with that of Caesar Augustus. Many know that Augustus was called the “son of god,” had his birth heralded as “good news” (euangelion), wore the title “lord,” and offered peace (i.e., the Pax Romana). Luke’s portrait of Jesus is political in that it communicates that Jesus is lord and Caesar is not. Even Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is politically charged. Verses 52-53 exclaim:

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

Pontius Pilate, for the crucifixion of Jesus, required a sign on the cross—in the local languages of Greek, Latin, and Aramaic—that read:

Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

The crucifixion of Jesus was a political act because Jesus threatened the status quo. And while reflecting on the Incarnation, humiliation, and exaltation of Jesus, the apostle Paul tells the patriotic Philippians that God exalted the risen Jesus so that:

…at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11).

Actions that were typically reserved for Caesar—bending the knee and addressing him as lord—actually belong exclusively to Jesus. Paul’s assertion is a political announcement.

Furthermore, the political announcement of the gospel has ramifications for how (and if) we submit to the current governing authorities. The New Testament command to obey governing authorities comes with qualification; e.g., “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority’” (Acts 5:29). There have been times when Jesus-followers challenged governing authorities; even the apostle Paul demanded just treatment, appealing to his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:35-39).

The Statement’s denial that political activism can become primary in the church’s mission follows from the definition of the gospel given in the Statement, a definition which, as we’ve previously stated, ignores what Jesus himself said about the message he came to proclaim. The 'Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel' fails to take into account that, at times, the primary mission of the church—to love God and love others—requires social activism. Click To Tweet Political and social activism are sometimes the tools available to Christians to make right what is wrong in society. The dismantling of Apartheid and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.A. are examples of times political activism became primary to the mission of the church.

In the End, It’s a Question of Powerand Who Has It

Much more could be said about the Statement’s approach to racism, about the role of advocacy—even in the political realm (e.g., didn’t political action help to dismantle slavery? Didn’t political action serve to bring just labor laws?), as well as other topics.

Yet perhaps in the final analysis, the important question being overlooked isn’t one about definitions; i.e., what is the Gospel? What is justice? What is racism? Et cetera. The question at stake is one of power. Biblical interpretation is an act of power and in America, that power has been vested in white Protestant men for as long as the country has existed.

That we find ourselves fussing and fretting over such a needless articulation of a narrowed theological vision is evidence that we have, perhaps, internalized the centrality of the white, male voice in our common hermeneutics. It might be better if we responded to such statements with charitable indifference. But, the day has not yet come when such statements don’t further hobble the church, making it difficult to get out of our own way as we seek to inhabit faithfully the world of Christ’s kingdom.

But things are changing. The white evangelical/fundamentalist movement in America, which has for so long considered itself to be the authority and arbiter of Christian faithfulness, is now flailing behind sisters and brothers from around the globe. More people, of various backgrounds, are bringing their eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to Scripture and raising their voices in service to the Lord Jesus Christ. Such a movement is unsettling to those whose authority has been virtually unchallenged. Yet, the Holy Spirit may very well be moving to broaden our understanding of God’s work in the world by speaking through fresh voices whose view of the world has been from the side or the bottom, and not from the top.

In the end, we think it is important to ask ourselves a different kind of question when we see statements like this. Namely: Who gets to decide and define what is “biblical”—and why?

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