Social justice has become a current hot topic in American Christianity. Debates over its meaning, biblical basis and application to church life have caused significant hurt, anger and frustration. “Dialogue” is not a correct description. “Screaming” might be more apt.
Out of this maelstrom have emerged two “statements” on Christianity and social justice that could not be more different. One, spearheaded by evangelical pastor John MacArthur, is called The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. The other, produced by the group Progressive Asian American Christians, is called the Statement on God’s Justice. I believe these two statements represent two extreme perspectives on the current debate in American Christianity.
Drawing a hard line opposed to social justice
The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel intends to confront and repudiate the pursuit of social justice among American Christians. Although the framers acknowledge the sin of individual racism and the biblical mandate to walk justly in this world, they condemn evangelicals for engaging in social justice efforts.
At times, the statement makes assertions that seem logically to lead to pursuing social justice. For example, “We affirm that societies must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice” (Article III).
Other times, however, the statement undermines those same assertions, slams other Christians for embracing what the framers have deemed “unbiblical” ideologies, and makes some explicitly ethnocentric arguments—such as the following from Article XIII: “We affirm that 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.”
The statement also includes an article affirming complementarianism—the belief that women should not teach or hold authority over men in the local church and wives should be subordinate to their husbands. I reject that part of the statement, but one need not be egalitarian to reject the rest.
For a thorough critique of The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel from an evangelical (and complementarian) perspective, see Ryan Burton King’s, “Why I cannot and will not sign the ‘Social Justice and the Gospel Statement.’” For a broader analysis and response from a black Christian perspective, consider Jemar Tisby’s “Battle lines over social justice: Gospel or heresy?”
An overreaction to an overreaction
The Statement on God’s Justice was written as a direct response to The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. This statement argues—rightly, in my opinion—that Christians are obligated to speak out against all injustice and seek to fight it. This statement condemns racism, sexism and imperialism, among other wrongs.
Although I agree with much of the Statement on God’s Justice, I think it has some significant problems. The very first article is entitled “Biblical Errancy.” The statement rejects biblical inerrancy while arguing that the Bible is without error in certain fundamental proclamations, such as Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection.
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Although I myself have complicated feelings about the term “inerrancy,” I think this statement approaches the issue poorly. By openly rejecting inerrancy, the framers of the Statement on God’s Justice immediately alienate innumerable Christians who otherwise might agree with them. A rejection of biblical inerrancy is completely unnecessary to embrace social justice.
TheStatement on God’s Justice also includes an article calling for the full acceptance in the church of same-sex marriage and non-binary sexual and gender identities. I find this article frustrating because I hold firmly to the traditional—and I would say biblical—Christian stance on sexual morality: sex belongs only in marriage, and marriage is only between one man and one woman.
This statement approaches “justice” in a way that alienates and condemns most traditional Christian believers—particularly those from non-Western societies. If true social justice demands the unqualified support of same-sex marriage and the abolition of the gender binary, neither I nor most Christians can support social justice.
Humility or a non-existent middle ground?
As I have attempted to demonstrate above, both The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel and the Statement on God’s Justice leave me unable to support either. Each makes claims with which I cannot agree. Where have I to go?
As I started writing this piece, I thought I might split the difference between the two statements and offer a middle position of my own. I realized, however, doing so would not solve the problem.
I am a straight white man living in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. And I am a sinner. My perspective is severely and painfully limited, which does not automatically invalidate my perspective but ought to humble me.
The truth is, people like me are part of the problem. We think we understand things when we do not, and we want to offer definitive pronouncements when we should not. The existence of the internet and social media has given us the ability to shoot rapid-fire hot takes into complex and difficult situations. And boy, have we taken advantage of that.
When you control your news feed and have the option to “unfollow” or “unfriend” people who disagree with you, it’s easy to cultivate a perspective that only sees one side of the story.
Humility and learning to listen to the opposition
True listening, on the other hand, requires vulnerability. It requires sacrifice. It requires humility. To sit and really listen to people who disagree with you, especially on important topics like social justice, is incredibly hard.
Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry but do not sin.” Many people are angry. People of color, women, LGBTQ+ people and many more feel some incredibly justified fury. God’s wrath, too, burns against wickedness and injustice.
But James 1:19-20 also instructs us, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
The slowness of humble listening is hard. In this time and place, humble listening may be the most difficult command for American Christians to obey. Could it even be impossible?
But there is good news: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student and graduate assistant in the Office of Ministry Connections at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas.