John MacArthur has told the story of when he visited the Lorraine Motel the day after MLK Jr was assassinated. He and a friend stood at the very spot King was murdered. He saw the blood stains on the landing. That was a monumental occasion, no doubt. The most pressing question arising from it, however, is:
Why did the conservative Christian leaders get there a day too late?
Today, we have another monument that may help us answer that question. Founders Ministries has combined with others, including MacArthur, to address the evils of so-called “social justice.” The resulting document and campaign has led to requests for comment from me.
While there is much in it that is agreeable, the document has flaws that will produce serious consequences. I will not sign the document for several reasons, among them:
- The document leaves crucial terms undefined.
- The document nevertheless makes spiritual judgments and condemnations based upon undefined terms.
- The document combines disparate social issues (race, marriage, sexuality) under one overgeneralized label.
- The document marginalizes Christian social responsibility.
- The statement and its theology provide no alternative.
- The document weakens the truths of Lordship salvation.
- This document could have been signed by the antebellum slaveowners, etc.
- What the document seeks to condemn can be condemned in better ways.
- The fundamental principles the document upholds are protected better by other statements.
In the name of a “closer examination” of the issues, the document not only offers no real “examination,” but precludes any future discussion on aspects central to the topic. It brings unnecessary division, demagoguing, grandstanding, pigeonholing, and fearmongering—all while neglecting any defined or substantial discussion of some of the actual points of disagreement or denial.
This document is not about issues, even though it uses pointed buzzwords. It is about power and alignment—tribalism. In the name of standing firm for Gospel truth, it works to solidify one group of believers against another group by demonizing the other with broad, undefined labels. The result is something like the following sentiment: “social justice” (undefined) is evil, and either you agree with us (sign the document), or you are dangerous to the church.
There are other problems, and I won’t have space to expand upon even these listed, even as long as this response already is. Here are some of the pressing matters to me:
Damning the undefined and overgeneralized
Among the disappointing aspects of this document is that it makes sweeping condemnations based on broad, undefined terms. This would not be acceptable in a high school book report, let alone a document purporting to speak for “the Church of Christ” as a whole and “the glory of God among his Church and throughout society.”
For starters, the document is entitled, “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” (my emphasis). Yet the body of the document—its affirmations and denials never once even mentions “social justice.” It’s bad enough that the document never defines the term, but that it never even mentions the term makes the whole endeavor and its title somewhat laughable.
The term “social justice” only once appears in the whole effort: in its Introduction (which is not included in the long-form pdf version). In this lone mention of the term, the Introduction states that the general cultural use of the term is a “broad and somewhat nebulous rubric.” In light of this, you would think that the document would give at least some definition to it, or better yet actually define the terms it seeks to condemn and weaponize against other believers.
You would expect a Statement on Social Justice actually to state what Social Justice is.
I would especially think that when charging other believers with whom we disagree with teaching “deadly ideas,” “dangerous ideas and corrupted moral values,” and “an onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ,” we might want to be specific about what exactly those ideas actually mean.
To specify a few problematic aspects or incidents here and there is good. To get a few wrong or even questionable, however, is enough in itself to avoid signing on to such a sweeping condemnation. To demonize everything that falls under a general label which you have already admitted up front is “broad and somewhat nebulous” is simply irresponsible.
The same problem besets certain appeals in the body of the text. Consider the denial that “postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching.” On the surface of it—certainly to most conservatives whose only experience with those terms is in contemporary parochial dialogue—this seems like a no-brainer.
But wait a minute. Not one of these terms is defined: postmodern, intersectionality, radical feminism, or critical race theory. Not one is defined anywhere in the document, and no context is given. They just appear, ominously, and we are supposed to fear them, answer the call, sign the document, and line up with swords drawn ready to kill the beasts on the other side, or slay anyone who doesn’t line up.
Question: do the authors or signers of the document oppose women’s suffrage? Because that was certainly considered “radical feminism” by many conservative Christians not too long ago, and still is by some (some of the documents signers in fact).
If you respond that that’s an exceptional case and I’m splitting hairs, I will respond, says who? Says what? Where? I will respond that crucial documents with sweeping condemnations don’t have exceptions. They need definitions, distinctions, and clarity.
If, however, you argue that different people can interpret its terms differently, I would suggest you don’t have as big a problem with “postmodernism” and relativism as you say you do.
So, where are the definitions? This problem alone is reason enough to decline from signing.
While some of these terms may have their origin in radically liberal circles, and have been used mostly by leftists, they nevertheless have genuine concerns or ideas at their core which Christians should have addressed to begin with. This hardly means we need to capitulate to leftism; but we had better understand the problems that led to their existence to begin with. Those real problems are in large part our social duty to begin with. Conscientious Christians need to take those concerns seriously, not cut and run at the sight of broad and nebulous terms.
For example, “intersectionality” in its most general form refers to how different classes of people in society experience power or the lack of it differently, and how belonging to multiple classes can compound that one way or another.
That may lead to all kinds of Marxist claptrap about class warfare, etc., but it is not an illegitimate idea altogether. If you were a helpless widow in first century Israel, you would not have judged it illegitimate at all. If you crossed multiple social classes and were, for example, a Greek-speaking widow in the first century church, you may have been the first to recognize you were being overlooked, neglected, left out, and you may have complained about it in those terms. This is exactly what happened (Acts 6:1–7).
When faced with just such an example of intersectionality in the early church, the Apostles went the extra mile to make sure the marginalized group was cared for. The church met this intersectional social concern directly and ordained six Greek-named deacons to serve the Greek speaking widows among their Hebrew society.
If you today were to speak up about it like they did, as “Greeks against Hebrews,” though, I am afraid the authors and many signers of this document would not have acted with as much empathy as the Apostles. This Statement would instead have you accused of acting like “entitled victims of oppression,” and the leaders would probably have demanded you apologize to whichever leaders felt offended by such a complaint.
In short, there are people who wrongly pose as entitled victims of oppression, but there are also genuine entitled victims of oppression, but this Statement provides a platform by which both may be overlooked without distinction.
Likewise, to be a slave in antebellum America was obviously one level of oppression. To be a female slave, however, carried additional burdens, particularly regarding sexual vulnerability and the lack of legal protections for it. Like it or not, this is intersectionality.
Long story short, it is hardly a concept to be dismissed summarily in such a manner, let alone blanket-condemned as unbiblical.
Similarly, “critical race theory” can be abused and more often than not is. At its core, however, it recognizes something the church, especially in America, has historically been slow even to acknowledge in hindsight, let alone confront, and in which it has often been complicit: that power structures have been used throughout history in ways that oppress the vulnerable. Their perspective of this reality is much different than that of people who don’t experience it. Many aspects of societies reflect our perspective while neglecting, suppressing, or even denying theirs.
I am sorry to have to say it, but people with power do not experience life the same way as those who suffer from it. This is why empathy is a thing. This is why we have to be commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Take the power structure of the law for example—a key place “critical theory” has been applied in academia. I was not fully aware, for example, of how pervasively bad law was for blacks in America until I did what so many neglect to do: actually read the history of the laws. It took me some 200+ pages to compile the history of laws written and executed specifically to oppress and exploit blacks in our history from the 1620s up until the 1960s. “Systemic” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Yet in school coming up, I never heard any of it, except maybe “slavery was bad.” Then, hardly a word about a black person or the law all the way through college even.
A black person’s perspective on the history of American law, however, is different from our status quo. If we look at history critically—and Scripture commands us to look at all things critically (1 Cor. 2:15)—from a black perspective, we will learn something new to say the least.
At its most general, critical race theory asks, “Can you walk a mile in another person’s shoes?” It’s not even that demanding. “Can you look at things from another person’s perspective?” “Can you even listen long enough to hear another person’s perspective?”
At their most basic root level, both intersectionality and critical race theory simply ask for empathy.
Granted, again, these things are badly misused and perverted by some people. The reason, however, that secularists have a virtual monopoly on these things is because when it comes to law, history, economics, and more, too many Christians have abdicated or downplayed social theory and responsibility. This leaves a vacuum, and it has allowed nonbelievers to monopolize social theory, including empathy.
Some Christians will reply that Christians can have no influence in the Academy because the “cultural Marxists” have used their “long march through the institutions” to destroy Christianity by dominating the funding and the positions of power. The liberals have used the government and power structures to marginalize Christians and stamp out dissent.
Sounds like “victims of oppression” if I’ve ever heard it. Sounds like our Christian leaders can be critical theorists when they want to be.
This Statement’s glaring oversights and vagary, yet with universal condemnation built upon them, make it a document no thoughtful Christian should sign. It is vague in the places it needs to be specific, and specific where it does not matter. Where it is specific, it is either redundant or misguided. It is redundant to the real creeds and confessions of faith. It is misguided on several statements about social justice and other crucial terms, even if leftists abuse them sometimes, or even most of the time.
I could have much more to say in detail. In the interest of space here, I would suggest reading this critique for more particulars on such matters. I agree in almost every word of what it says.
This Statement and its shortcomings are not the stuff of which theological confessions are made, but rather propaganda, unnecessary division, and shameful legacies. Now, let’s talk about that angle:
This is a document the slaveholders could have written and signed
With the possible exception of a few lines in the section on “Racism” (but even there in some cases), this document could have been written, affirmed, signed, and would have been circulated proudly by the old slaveholders, ministers of the antebellum South, Jim Crow era leaders, segregationists, anti-civil rights leaders, etc. It creates all the caveats and says all the technically-right things in the right places. It appears as a solid champion of “the Gospel,” paying lip service to important counterpoints, while yet relegating actual social issues and activism to secondary status for Christians.
This will mean what it has always meant since the first black bondservants arrived in 1619: inaction. Inaction means what it has always meant: real problems never get addressed. As Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from the Birmingham jail:
For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
It was the same theology as this Statement precisely by which the Southern theologians made space for the whole system of American slavery. Sure, they paid lip service to “abuses” and “justice,” but they did nothing about it, rarely if ever even disciplined their own members for abuses, and condemned as radicals those who tried.
But they would have been the first to say they were the foremost champions of the legal rights of black slaves, that they deserved due process, protection, and justice for the slightest abuse! And of course, they were the first to “preach the Gospel” to the slaves.
It was this theology that defended separate water fountains under the guise of “the church” remaining neutral in civil affairs.
Yet when such sinful practices occurred right under the noses of such Christian leaders, they not only adamantly refused to repent at almost every turn—from slavery, through Jim Crow, right up through the Civil Rights Act—they did exactly what these gentleman have done:
They condemned liberals for making an issue of it, and associated the issue as a whole with liberalism.
The Old South leaders blamed it all on the liberalism of the abolitionists and their agitation for freedom. Robert L. Dabney wrote a whole section on “Abolitionism is Jacobinism” in his defense of the Old South—Jacobinism of course being the proto-communism and equalitarianism that brought about the French Revolution. Hardly a southern leader could address abolitionism without mouthing some condemnation of Jacobinism, radicalism, “Red-Republicanism,” or other labels of the leftism of the era.
Leading up to the Civil War, the masterful southern politician, John C. Calhoun, blamed “slavery agitation” for ruining the unity of the Christian denominations, and leaving only force as the remaining option.
See that? It wasn’t the systemic slave laws oppressing blacks that was the problem! It was those unorthodox meddlers who agitated about it!
A month before South Carolina declared secession, Presbyterian minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer preached a widely-published sermon in which he condemned abolitionism as “a reckless radicalism which seeks for the subversion of all that is ancient and stable, and a furious fanaticism which drives on its ill-considered conclusions with utter disregard of the evil it engenders” (see The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, 265, for this and much more like it).
Yet Palmer and his ecclesiastical friends were always the first to argue how much they loved and cared for the blacks. In fact, they thought they did more for them than anyone else in the world! These same men agreed with Palmer: Divine Providence intended the South’s purposes to be “to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.” Yet with their own affirmations of their own benevolence and sense of justice coupled with their defense of orthodoxy, many of these men these men could have signed this document.
Not much changed historically between 1860 and 1960 regarding the attitudes of whites or their theologically orthodox inaction toward oppressed blacks. Running for president in 1964, segregationist Governor George Wallace of all people claimed, “I personally have done more for the Negroes of the State of Alabama than any other individual.” He said the segregated State as a whole was “not against the Negro citizen. We fight for the betterment of all citizens in our State.”
Like the old slaveholders, and like our Statement writers today, Wallace downplayed any real problem and blamed liberals: reports of real problems were “propaganda distributed by various organizations,” or worse. “As a matter of fact, we have never had a problem here in the South except in a very few isolated instances and these have been the result of outside agitators.”
Meanwhile, the KKK had just bombed a black church in Birmingham, killing 4 and injuring 22. Meanwhile, Wallace himself had just stood personally blocking the door of the University of Alabama, trying to prevent desegregation.
Wallace concluded, “White and colored have lived together in the South for generations in peace and equanimity.” He calmly informed his recipient in a postscript that he was also sending her a copy of one of his speeches on “Communism.”
You see, they had no racism. They had “equanimity.” They loved blacks. The only real enemy was the news media, propaganda, and “Communism.”
On his death bed, Wallace looked back and reminded everyone how not-racist he really was:
“I never insulted black people by calling them inferior,” . . .
“That statement in 1963 about ‘segregation forever’ and my stand in the classroom door reflected my vehemence, my belligerence, against the federal court system that seemed to be taking over everything in the South.
“I don’t support white supremacy,” Wallace told me. “I’m the one who made them take ‘white supremacy’ off the roster that was the symbol of the Democratic Party in this state.”
If you need any more proof, just ask him. From 1968: “I am certainly not a racist.”
You see, he wasn’t really racist all that time. There was no white supremacy or black inferiority. He was just fighting liberalisms from taking over everything!
George Wallace would have been the first to say blacks deserve justice and equality, that there was no real problem, that any problems were the result of liberal ideologies and agitation, and he would have been the first to sign this Statement.
Yet all the racial problems continued, including bloodshed and violence under color of law.
What were the conservative churches doing during the segregated era? How did they respond to even the worst of the racist problems—lynching for example?
One study reviewed 1,003 Southern Baptist district association meetings during the height of the lynching era and found only nine references to lynchings. Worse, of 117 districts in which actual lynchings had taken place, and in which over half had pastors or other representatives from the lynching communities attending the meeting, only one single meeting even made mention of the incident.
While the main denominations, including Southern Baptists, at their highest levels did condemn violence such as lynching, they nevertheless abounded with silence and inaction in the local churches. . . . One questionnaire in 1935 asked 5,000 ministers if they had ever preached against lynching or written their congressman about it. Only 3.3 percent responded positively. In 1931, when a federal investigation of one lynching asked a local Presbyterian pastor why he refused to cooperate, he responded that he was too busy saving souls in a local revival. The official denunciations at the upper conventions and assemblies therefore did little more than provide plausible deniability for local ministers who sat idly by while violence proceeded, or who found other more pious priorities than fighting it. As one historian puts it, “Apparently it was more discreet to preach on foreign missions and revival work than call the civic conscience to account.” (See The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, 271.)
So it was, too, on more mainstream racial issues:
If the pulpits remained largely quiet on the extreme of lynching, their silence on segregation and race in general was deafening. One recent report from Southern Baptist historian J. Russell Hawkins confirms the passive agenda through the civil rights era. In his research, he had found a cache of letters from white evangelicals in the archives of the National Evangelical Association (NEA) expressing concern that the body had supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The NEA allayed their fears by reiterating its official position of neutrality. (272.)
From the Calvinist ministers who captained the ships bringing the first black bondservants to the shores of Virginia (1619), to the Southern antebellum pulpits, to the minister-fueled creation of the Lost Cause, to the damnable silence of the pulpits in the face of known lynchings, segregation, and all the way up to the official silence of the NEA, and beyond—the story has always been the same. The arguments and tactics have always been the same:
- We stand for orthodox theology.
- We stand for religious liberty.
- The church is spiritual, not political or social.
- The spiritual Gospel is above social activism.
- Changing culture is not our job.
- Everything is really not so bad.
- The problems are exaggerated by liberals.
- The real problem is outside agitators.
- We are defending the church against [fill-in-the-blank] (Marxism, atheism, radical egalitarianism, Jacobins, feminists, race hustlers, etc.)
The old south theologians did it. The slaveholding Christians did it. The KKK did it. The segregationists did it. John C. Calhoun did it. George Wallace did it.
They had some fine orthodox theology on the main things, though. They “preached the Gospel.” They upheld the right view of the inspiration of Scripture. They defended their local churches from “dangerous ideas and corrupted moral values.”
In short, they all could have signed this document in good conscience. This document represents virtually no more progress in the area of racial healing than the theological constructs in which those old guys operated, and the social evils continued right under their noses.
So what are you saying, Dr. McDurmon? That all these leaders and signers are racists just like those guys?
I am sure a few will be tempted to attribute that to me, but I am not arguing that. I am simply saying that this theological construct creates the space in which racial evils and prejudice continue unchecked in many ways, while the Shepherds and their signatories roll with the tide, assured in themselves by their excellent theological principles and their fight against liberal infiltrators and agitators.
Like all those men of old, they can ignore problems, even deny or refuse to look at the problems, rest assured that it’s not really their job, they’ve done a good job trying to save souls, and that anyone who says otherwise is spreading “dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.”
That’s not merely my opinion. It is what has happened in every single age. It is an abdication of social responsibility, and it has no alternative to fill the void.
A critical look ahead
There are still many areas in which racial reconciliation, healing, and even equality before the law still need attention. It’s a sad fact, but not everything is fine. It is also a sad fact that just as in the days of old, these leaders sidestep the problem as not a priority. They divide justification from justice. They create a self-reverential holy space for indifference and inaction.
That is what this document accomplishes. But it is a losing proposition for the church and for the Kingdom of God. It is a losing proposition especially for those most affected.
And just as in the days of old, God will allow nonbelievers to pick up where the church has once again failed. Irony of ironies, that in the name of fighting liberals and Marxists, these men hand over the whole society to liberals and Marxists.
In another generation, the grandsons of these people will have the same uncomfortable family legacy to report as is the case for so many today. But our grandsons, or sons and daughters hopefully, will have already acknowledged the problems and advanced the necessary solutions. The churches, if they catch up, will only follow along afterward, probably kicking and screaming, and trying to find ways in which their fathers actually weren’t that opposed after all but were just too busy faithfully “preaching the Gospel.” If someone reads them the whole truth, they will squeal about evil liberal revisionism.
But the problem will be solved, and another generation of liberals, some of whom may have spilled their blood while Christians watched, will be the heroes. We will name more streets and buildings after them, and rightfully so. They will inherit another generation of culture.
That is, this will be the case if the rest of church does not act any better than the signers of this unfortunate repetition of the same old pattern.
These signers—the leaders especially—stand to become the type of footnotes to the history of our era that George Wallace was to his, or Dabney and Thornwell were the century before. They cannot see this yet, because those previous men are so obviously wrong today—cringeworthy, in fact. But those previous men did not think they were wrong at the time, either. They thought they were the last bastion of orthodoxy, just as these men do today, and they had hundreds of thousands willing to line up behind them, sign the papers, rally, and even shed blood for misguided bigotry in the name of God.
On the flip side, we today believe and actively live out so much of the “radical” worldview for which the despised opponents of those orthodox men and women stood back then, but which was sneered at as Jacobinism, humanism, depravity, unorthodoxy, heresy, Communism, antichrist, and much more. Yet here we are: we are all abolitionists now. If that is Jacobinism, we are all French Revolutionaries. If race-mixing is Communism, as was openly and widely believed in the 50s and 60s, then we are all Communists now also.
If, however, we have seen past all that fearmongering and demagoguery, maybe we should back off a bit this time, too, and make an actual “closer examination.” Maybe we should mark that which is good and important—that which is social about biblical justice and biblical about social justice—and not throw the baby out with the baptismal water. Maybe we need a less ham-fisted, knee-jerk reaction and a more thoughtful one based on God’s law and its outworking of love in the church and society. Maybe, just maybe, the conservative, Bible-believing churches ought to try to lead a social movement on biblical principles, not let the liberals pick up where we fail again, and not circle the wagons again.
John MacArthur visited the Lorraine Motel the day after King was assassinated. He saw the spilled blood of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today, he not only tells us social issues are secondary, but is attempting to lead all other conservative Evangelical leaders in confessing that those who, like King, challenge their comfort zone in the name of justice are the greatest danger to the Christian church he has ever seen. A body of other similar leaders have signed in agreement with him.
It is Christian leaders like these who create the pious cover and safe spaces in which the Calhouns, Taneys, Wallaces, and James Earl Rays of the world do their things. With theological constructs and power structures like this, another MLK will probably have to arise. You can bet he won’t be fully orthodox, because the orthodox people won’t address the truth. So, God will send another liberal to do the job the church should have been doing all along while it was allegedly fighting liberals.
Question: where were the conservative church leaders the day before King got shot? Why did MacArthur get there a day late?
Answer that question, and you are on your way to preventing MacArthur’s current effort from making us a day late next time, too.
With every next one, or just with every single minority who suffers and bleeds due to injustices that could have been prevented, the blood stains will not just be on the landing at their feet. It will be on their hands, too.