Is Social Justice in the Christian Gospel?
A critical examination of the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel and what it means for America's culture war.
Let’s talk about The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel, which I will henceforth refer to as The Statement. I will be clear from the outset: I am not in favor of The Statement in any way. While I consider myself a Christian in the basic sense that I am a follower of Jesus, I no longer consider myself a member of the American Evangelical movement. So I look at this statement as someone with very specific reasons to be critical of Evangelicalism—particularly its mainstream conservative flavor—yet I remain open to well-reasoned arguments for Evangelical positions and try to engage with them with good intentions and respect.
This statement makes that very challenging.
Released on September 4, 2018 by a coalition of conservative American Evangelicals, The Statement consists of an introduction outlining the necessity and urgency of clarifying what the Bible does or does not say about social justice, along with a series of affirmations and denials which seek to explain the “doctrines of God’s word” regarding such matters. The Statement claims that when it comes to “questionable sociological, psychological, and political theories presently permeating our culture and making inroads into Christ’s church…there is every reason to anticipate that these dangerous ideas and corrupted moral values will spread their influence into other realms of biblical doctrines and principles.”
I want to explore the impact of this statement from three different angles: the format of the statement, the topical breadth of the statement, and what this statement means for the “culture war” in America along with Evangelicals’ role in that debate.
The Format of the Statement
Regarding the “we affirm…we deny…” format that is used here, following in the footsteps of many such statements in recent years, I’m unable to fathom why this format is considered the best tool for the job. I don’t find it useful in any way. If the goal is clarity, it fails utterly. I attempted to research where this style of statement writing first originated but wasn’t fruitful in my search.
To illustrate my point, let’s see if the first portion of the U. S. Declaration of Independence would be a clearer and more powerful read if it were rewritten in the affirm/deny format.
We affirm that it may become necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature of Nature’s God entitle them.
We deny that disrespect should be shown to the opinions of mankind regarding the causes which impel people to the separation.
We affirm that it is a self-evident truth that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
We deny that people have no right to alter or abolish any Form of Government whenever it becomes destructive of the ends of the above affirmation. We further deny that it is wrong to secure these rights by instituting a new Government which shall seem most likely to effect people’s Safety and Happiness.
Well that’s much better, don’t you think?
Seriously though, I can’t help but feel that the format of these affirm/deny statements is written not as a persuasive argument intended to convince another party to change their mind, nor is it even a worthwhile attempt to explain the party’s thinking on the matter so as to garner understanding and respect from others in the midst of disagreement. Rather, this statement is nothing more than a weapon for crowd control within the party’s own ranks.
Before The Statement, you could claim to be an Evangelical Christian in America and also be supportive of claims of racial injustice and the corrosive nature of white supremacy in both its overt and systemic forms. After The Statement, you aren’t actually following Biblical principles and thus aren’t a legit Evangelical, because if you were, you too would “reject any teaching that encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression.” (Article XII)
And if you dare to question the moral authority of these gatekeepers of Evangelical orthodoxy, beware the fallout.
Lest you think I’m being hyperbolic here, a September 7th blog post on The Statement’s website by Phil Johnson makes this clear. He recounts an argument he recently had—not with an atheist, not with a secularist, not with a liberal deconstructionist, but with an Evangelical! A woman comes up to him after the Sunday service at his church and tells him:
“Despite what you think,” she said, “it is a gospel issue.” “Injustice is everywhere in the world. I am fighting it full time. Right now I have several lawsuits pending against injustice in the health-care industry. Don’t tell me that’s not gospel work. You’re not being a faithful witness unless you’re fighting for social justice. It’s built right into the gospel message: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Instead of agreeing with the woman, Phil Johnson proceeds to attempt to invalidate her claim and asserts that “social justice isn’t really even a biblical theme.” He labels her a “self-styled full-time evangelical social justice advocate”—meaning that she isn’t a real Evangelical who’s advocating for social justice, she’s only a self-styled one. In other words, she may think she’s an Evangelical, but she’s actually not.
In summary, the purpose of The Statement is abundantly clear: to purge the Evangelical ranks of anyone advocating for social justice, and to once-and-for-all vindicate those who are already on the stauch conservative side of the debate.
The Topical Breadth of the Statement
What’s most surprising about the nature of The Statement isn’t its attempt to clarify the relationship between the modern social justice movement and scriptural texts, but its attempt to define the Gospel itself—and in doing so create a wall around an understanding of the Gospel and thus the fundamental tenets of Christianity.
Article VI of The Statement titled “Gospel” states:
WE AFFIRM 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.
WE DENY that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel. This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.
In other words, the Gospel = Humans are separated from God because of sin > Jesus died and rose again to pay the penalty of sin > God forgives you if you believe in Jesus as Lord > Now you are saved. If you talk about the Gospel as it pertains to anything other than this very strict, narrow interpretation, then you’re not talking about the Gospel at all but some sort of “perversion.”
The very real problem this poses of course is that you have to throw out the majority of the Gospel scriptures (aka Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in order to hold this view! Both the ministry of John the Baptist as well as the ministry of Jesus himself dealt heavily with issues of social justice. In Luke 3, John the Baptist is asked by the crowds how to seek salvation from God, and his set of replies is very telling.
The crowds asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.” “What should we do?” asked some soldiers. John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.”
–Luke 3:10-14 NLT
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the obvious: every single one of John the Baptist’s exhortations is all about social justice! And lest you argue that John was just teaching some useful moral principles before Jesus came along with the full message of the Messianic mission, the whole point of John’s ministry was to be a forerunner for Jesus—to be the “opening act” that would warm up the crowds to the feature attraction of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus continues in John’s footsteps with such famous teachings as the Sermon on the Mount and parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Even the Gospel of John, which deals the most with matters of faith and belief and for the most part is less concerned with moral precepts, ultimately points to the reality that belief in Jesus results in a new view of moral behavior and conduct. One time when Jesus was in danger of being stoned he said to his accusers:
“At my Father’s direction I have done many good works. For which one are you going to stone me?” They replied, “We’re stoning you not for any good work, but for blasphemy! You, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus replied, “It is written in your own Scriptures that God said to certain leaders of the people, ‘I say, you are gods!’ And you know that the Scriptures cannot be altered. So if those people who received God’s message were called ‘gods,’ why do you call it blasphemy when I say, ‘I am the Son of God’? After all, the Father set me apart and sent me into the world. Don’t believe me unless I carry out my Father’s work. But if I do his work, believe in the evidence of the miraculous works I have done, even if you don’t believe me. Then you will know and understand that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.”
–John 10:32-38 NLT
What this text indicates is that the miracles and other good works which Jesus performed were far more than simply evidence that Jesus was one with God the Father. They were outright demonstrations of God’s will. They were the “Father’s work.” To claim that Jesus’s efforts towards healing, restoration, generosity, lifting up the poor and needy, and reconciliation between people and people groups were somehow secondary purposes in the earthly ministry of Jesus is denying the primacy of these works within Jesus’ own narrative! What of Isaiah’s prophecy Jesus claimed he was fulfilling while he read it to the Jews in Nazareth?
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the LORD’s favor has come.”
–Luke 4:18-19 NLT
The poor will be encouraged. The captives will be released. The blind will see. The oppressed will be set free. The time of the Lord’s favor has come. What do these statements speak to? Social justice! In light of this and many other similar passages, I would go a step further and make this bold declaration:
The Gospel is demonstrated and validated by the visible outworking of social justice.
In other words, there is simply no way to ascertain if the good news of Jesus Christ is having any meaningful effect on people other than by evaluating if social justice is increasing in their midst. It is exactly as James states: “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” (James 2:18 NLT) Paul seems to agree in Romans 6:
Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? …For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.
–Romans 6:1-2, 4 NLT
Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God.
–Romans 6:13 NLT
There’s a straightforward pattern here: belief in Jesus gives us new lives, and the proof that we are living out these new lives of faith in Jesus is by doing what is right. Doing what is right by others—honoring God’s desire that “the oppressed will be set free”—is the very essence of social justice.
But the authors of The Statement try to negate the centrality of social justice within the Gospel narrative simply by redefining the Gospel to exclude social justice. If you’re looking for an honest evaluation of what kind of social justice can be found in the scriptural texts concerning Jesus’ ministry, The Statement simply won’t provide that to you. At the end of the day, it’s not a statement on social justice at all. It’s a statement on what is or is not the Gospel, and the authors and signers of The Statement have decided that they don’t like a Gospel that includes social justice at its core.
This is why I don’t find myself all that worked up about some of the legitimately questionable aspects of The Statement in relation to issues of sexuality, gender identity, racial identity, and so forth. There’s a far bigger problem at play here. By redefining social justice as being outside of the bounds of the Gospel, the authors of The Statement have done something extraordinary: they have undermined the persuasive power of their own statement! You can’t have it both ways. Either the Gospel is about the life and ministry of Jesus and how that should play out in human society today, or it’s strictly a matter of adherence to theological true/false claims divorced from societal and cultural directives.
By pushing back against the view that social justice is vitally important to Christians because of Jesus’ ministry, the Statement categorically shuts down worthwhile debate. Now it’s no longer a question of whether or not complementarianism is Biblically-valid social justice regarding gender roles in marriage, the church, and beyond, or whether egalitarianism is a more coherent and just Biblical model for gender roles. Instead we’re having to debate the nature of the Gospel itself—a clear case of misdirection. The Statement’s authors and signers would much prefer a battlefield of theology, rather than cultural ethics where their moral standing is rapidly deteriorating.
What the Statement Tells Us about the State of the Culture War
If The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel is truly representative of conservative Evangelical thought on the topic of social justice, then conservative Evangelicals have undeniably lost the culture war in America. The Statement isn’t coming from a place of calm confidence, of legitimate strength of conviction. It’s coming from a place of fear and of loss: loss of power, loss of authority, loss of influence.
I’ll be even more damning and assert that the architects of The Statement are engaging in religious masturbation. I use this shocking and obscene language on purpose. If the connotation of masturbation is that you receive all of your pleasure from within yourself, free from consideration of the other person’s needs or the necessity to persuade them of your desires, then that is a perfectly apt description of The Statement. It’s a document obviously directed inward towards the cheerleaders of the document themselves. As I wrote on Twitter soon after The Statement was released, it has no persuasive force. It only serves to puff up the signers, and in stark contrast to the Apostle Paul’s conviction on how he had to become “all things to all people” in order to reach some, the authors of The Statement have become nothing in order to reach nobody.
There’s been a valid debate for years now on the efficacy of group statements in general to cause any sort of positive movement towards a particular cause or ideology, but as far as group statements go, the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel is particularly unhelpful—far less useful a jumping off point for discussion on particular issues than 2017’s Nashville Statement preceeding it. The Nashville Statement almost entirely concerned itself with specific matters of sexuality and gender identity. We can agree or disagree with its claims (and disagree I do), but at least it doesn’t attempt to rewrite the entire scriptural and historical arc of the Jesus story.
In summary, The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel is poorly conceived, badly written, much too ambitious in the breadth of topics it touches on, and simply doesn’t do anything worthwhile towards convincing skeptics of its merits. It indicates a movement within American Evangelicalism which is collapsing inward upon itself and is increasingly incoherent to all except its staunchest defenders.
What makes me the saddest is how desperately dim their Jesus appears to be. Why would anyone follow such a figure? Why would anyone follow a savior who has nothing to say about the injustice and tragedy we witness on a daily basis? Why would anyone in the first century living under the tyrannical and abusive rule of Rome follow a religious figure who had nothing useful to say about tyranny and abuse? While it’s true that Jesus didn’t come preaching a message of overt uprising against Roman authority, it’s undeniable that Jesus did something far more subversive: he preached a message of love, compassion, fairness, and equality. And it was a message diametrically apposed to the cultural epoch, where hate, power over others, hierarchal authority, and deep-seated bigotry and inequality were tolerated and encouraged.
The dilemma is not that I wish to debate articles of faith concerning the Jesus that the signers of The Statement and I both profess to believe in. It’s that I don’t even recognize their Jesus. I don’t know who it is we’re supposedly following together. Are we following a Jesus who’s principally interested in the state of certain souls in the afterlife? Or are we following a Jesus who weeps when friends die, drives bankers out of temples, heals damaged body parts during sacred festivals, and entreats us to love even our enemies?
The Jesus I follow isn’t only tangentially concerned about social justice.
He embodies social justice.
And, as the Body of Jesus Christ in the world today, we must go and do likewise.