The “Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” has crystallized a deep divide among evangelicals on how to view race relations in America. Some evangelical leaders have signed the statement, which now has over 9,000 signatures, yet many prominent evangelical leaders refuse to sign.
When I began to research this piece, I intended to document the major voices and organizations that have crossed swords as this controversy unfolded. Instead, I will only touch on the arguments they have made. Partly, this is to avoid uncalled-for personal attacks. I have shared intimate fellowship with church communities in both camps, and I consider churches and their pastors on both sides to be models of orthodox Reformed teaching and faithful Christian living. More importantly, if this article adds to the division between groups of faithful Christians, then I will have hurt the cause of Christ. Paul rebuked the church in Corinth for following specific teachers instead of finding their identity in Christ alone. Given the popularity of the preachers involved, if I were to name them, I fear I may prompt some readers to espouse similar unbiblical factions. Learning which preachers are on which side is not difficult (especially with links included below), but Christ and his Church should be the emphasis—not men.
What caused the split over social justice?
Evangelical confusion about social justice dates back at least to 2014. One pastor named the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the ensuing race riots as the moment that shattered the evangelical movement. Evangelicals could not agree how to respond, and many began searching for an explanation.
One such explanation that was ready-and-waiting in the secular academy was critical race theory, which would become one of the bogeymen of the Statement on Social Justice. Unfortunately, there is no consensus on what comprises critical race theory; the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas defines it as “a very loose collection of scholars, not all of whom would agree on this or any other platform or set of defining tenets.” However, most critical race theorists would hold to some notion of structural or systemic racism. The Aspen Institute defines structural racism as
“A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist” (emphasis added).
It adds that systemic racism is “mostly synonymous.” Some evangelicals adopted this idea and began criticizing “America’s systemic racism problem.” One pastor expanded on this them in an article titled, “We Await Repentance for Assassinating Dr. King.” In the article, he editorialized,
“This is a sick society. … Racism, prejudice, hatred and bigotry is not a cold. It’s a cancer. It mutates. It metastasizes. And despite our protest and insistence otherwise, this sickness gets passed on in a kind of social hereditary action, sometimes unconsciously and unsuspected, sometimes systemically, and sometimes intentionally and virulently.”
As a result, he concluded, “the entire society killed Dr. King. This society had been slowly killing him all along.” He wanted white fellow Christians to “start by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man who only preached love and justice” (emphasis in original). Such strong language has prompted even a critic of the Statement on Social Justice to admit that “victimization culture” is “breaking into evangelical circles.”
The notion of systemic racism is similar to individual racism in name only. Individual racism is a sin for which an individual is guilty based upon his or her choice. In contrast, systemic racism relies upon two notions: first, that that an individual can bear collective guilt for choices made by other members of a collective group, without ever assenting to that choice; second, that an individual can bear inherited guilt for choices made by previous generations of their collective group, without ever assenting to that choice.
A pastor instrumental in drafting the Statement on Social Justice responded hotly to this notion of collective, inherited guilt. He preached for an entire month on Ezekiel 18, where God spends an entire chapter clarifying the individual nature of guilt and innocence, so that no one could misunderstand. The chapter’s theme is succinctly stated in verse 20, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” In keeping with this scripture, the Statement on Social Justice acknowledged that “families, groups, and nations can sin collectively” (that is, each individual in the group can choose to engage in the same sin), but “subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins.”
Perhaps evangelicals’ greatest substantive disagreement is over whether there can be such a thing as collective sin (where a group bears guilt for the choice of some of its members), as opposed to individual sin (where each individual bears guilt for his or her own choices, whether singly or in groups).
Why is the Statement on Social Justice so controversial?
Critical race theory didn’t lend itself to evangelical rhetoric without strings attached. It deals with racial discrimination, which the secular culture equates with all discrimination, using a theory called “intersectionality.” “Intersectionality” is a highfalutin academic term from the 1980s that only recently gained traction in popular speech. Merriam-Webster did not provide a definition for intersectionality until April 2017, but now says it is “What happens when forms of discrimination combine, overlap, and intersect.” So this word provides a catch-all excuse for linking any form of discrimination to every other form of discrimination. If only the forms of “discrimination” wouldn’t keep changing every few years!
As a result of the constant redefinition of “discrimination” which dominates our culture, the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel could not limit itself to one issue, and it could not definitively pin down the ideas it sought to oppose. The preamble warned against “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.” These teachings covered a range of issues under the “broad and somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for ‘social justice,’” including the “areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality.” Article I specifically denounced “postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory.” In hindsight, it appears that this enterprise bit off more than it could chew and failed to digest it thoroughly.
Often the very vagueness of terms like “social justice” provoked backlash. “They’re so imprecise in the terms that are used and defining those terms. What exactly is meant by social justice?” said one pastor. Another theologian interpreted the statement’s condemnation of social justice as condescension toward all forms of activism. He said he “can’t tell women working at crisis pregnancy centers across the country that they’re distracted” from the Gospel. One critic suspected that white supremacists and racists could hide comfortably behind the sweeping claims in the declaration. Another criticized the statement because it did not “lay forth a positive vision of justice.”
The Statement on Social Justice tried to articulate a Biblical position on a range of culturally relevant issues. In the process it tried to define itself in opposition to false, relativistic ideologies creeping in from the secular academy. These ideas are so murky and slippery that they muddied up the whole affair.
What effect will the Statement on Social Justice have on the evangelical movement?
The Statement on Social Justice does present a Biblical vision, but it remains to be seen whether it will have a lasting impact.
The Statement argued that “the primary role of the church is to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost.” It said “political and social activism” were not “integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church.” At the same time, “believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society.”
But there is, and must always be, an order. Christians must prioritize spreading the Gospel through evangelism and discipleship (that is, after all, the Great Commission). Social activism comes afterwards, as part of the “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them”—as part of, and not a replacement to, the fruit of the Spirit. It is not part of the Good News by which we are saved, but it is part of how we demonstrate that salvation. Making social activism our top priority distorts the Gospel and mars our witness—just as if we had abandoned social activism altogether.
At least among churches who faithfully preach the word of God, and submit themselves to Scripture, there will be no racism or prejudice. Why? Because there is only one body of Christ. “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” This will be true whether the church’s pastor signed the Statement on Social Justice or not.
Ultimately, I believe the two parties still share the same Gospel. As long as that is true, it means they share the same goal—the glory of God. In this age of polarization, if the two sides continue to dialogue, it may be that truth will vanquish error and the two groups will reconcile. It gives me hope that some of the most prominent voices on both sides of this controversy shared a stage back in April at a conference called, “Together for the Gospel.”
In the meantime, we would be wise to do two things. First, “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Second, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” We must never allow our vigilance to lapse.