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The Problem is Not with Social Justice

By September 13, 2018 No Comments

In a recent post, Ariel chimed in about the recent statement on social justice and the gospel and why she signed it. I want to provide my take on it, which is a bit different from hers and I initially posted on my blog.  I read the statement and largely agree with many of the points and had trouble with others. My overall take, as I read through it was it seemed to set up a dichotomy where one was either for the gospel or for social justice as if orthodox believers can’t be involved in matters of social justice and still hold to biblical Christianity as historically articulated.

In his response to the statement, Joel McDurmon has expressed my concerns well;

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.

The aspect about power is a hefty charge that I’m not sure about. But I wholeheartedly concur that underneath the nebulous buzzwords lies a dividing stake that says either you are with us and for Christ or against us and against him. I’m pretty sure the crafters of this statement were sincere about upholding Christian orthodoxy and wanting to take a stand on factors that, at least in their mind, worked against it. But the the premise of the concern rests in an area in which there is a spectrum of beliefs that all do not work against the church. 

Herein lies the problem. Now I surely understand where there can be legitimate concerns about slides into liberalism and undermining of the gospel of Jesus Christ as historically defined rooted in the whole counsel of Scripture. I get that intrusion of a “social gospel” might be a concern though we should be judicious in how we define that.  And I can certainly appreciate the admonition regarding worldly paradigms. But what the document does is pretty much label anyone who upholds to any form of social justice as an enemy of the church.

Listen, we can have disagreements on the role of the church and social issues without it necessarily devolving into a social gospel. I don’t see McDurmon as advocating for ideologies that run contrary to the gospel. He is not. Rather, I see him saying that a lack of definition produces uncritically examined labels that demonize the other side without the benefit of considering circumstances that give rise to addressing such concerns. He specifically says,

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.

We don’t have to capitulate to Marxist based ideologies to engage in responding to God’s world with care for our neighbors and where we see injustices occur according to a framework of biblical ethics. We are after all called to good works (Eph. 2:10), told to be salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13-14) and commanded to love neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37). That’s more than just preaching the gospel but living as those who lives have been impacted by it. We are not disembodied beings, disconnected from the effects of a fallen world. I find it hard to believe, if for example, the crafters and supporters discovered a sex trafficking ring going on in the vicinity of their churches, they would do nothing to address that situation and minister to the victims. At least I hope not. That’s social justice.

Kevin DeYoung has provided a helpful and clarifying delineation of “social justice” according to living out our Christian witness in the world.

 If “gospel issue” means “a necessary concern of those who have been saved by the gospel” or “one aspect of what it means to keep in step with the gospel” or “realities without which you may not be truly believing the gospel,” then social justice is certainly a gospel issue. When biblically defined, social justice is part and parcel of loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s part of keeping the second table of the Decalogue. It’s part of doing the good works God has prepared in advance for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10).

I don’t think we need to restrict the concept of social justice to definitions that arose out of Marxist ideology, as Samuel Sey describes here (and I do agree with this premise). But I’m afraid, without an appropriate definition, the term has become a nebulous buzzword that is drawn as a weapon to define who is or is not acting within the confines of biblical Christianity rather than focusing on the actual definition aligned with biblical truth. I can find a whole other group of Christians who affirm Christian orthodoxy and also advocate for addressing social issues in the world. But a problem rests on that side too, when addressing social issues becomes the litmus tests for legitimate Christianity according to mandates that need to be addressed (i.e., white supremacy, police brutality, etc.).

By setting up this dichotomy of who is or is not for Christ and his church based on broad stroked allegations and without the benefit of parsing out where people actually stand with respect to orthodox beliefs of the work and person of Christ, we do nothing more than create “I follow Paul” and “I follow Apollos” camps (cf. 1 Cor. 3:4). Is Christ divided?

This is why I say the problem is not about social justice really but about how we are treating Christ’s body in an already noisy, divisive world. Are we lumping our brothers and sisters in these divided camps and demonizing them because we don’t agree with their stance on social issues? Are we striving to see if one upholds the tenets of Christian faith before accusations of opposing Christ and his church? Because here is the question that matters more than these broad brushed statements;

  • If you believe in the eternal Son of God, the Christ who laid down his life for our transgressions according to the Father’s will;
  • If you’ve confessed him as Lord and trust in his all sufficient sacrifice for sins;
  • If you believe in the work of the Holy Spirit that he has baptized us into ONE body even with all our differences, different personalities, histories, experiences and perspectives that yes, sometimes will ruffle one another’s feathers;
  • If you believe that God called that body to reflect his glory;
  • If you believe that he is sanctifying us, to present us to himself as a body without spot wrinkle or blemish in that day of redemption even through we have different perspectives on issues of this day;

Then I probably should treat you as one who belongs to the family of God over one who opposes it. We need to stop treating each other as enemies and strive in earnest to join together for the glory of the One who calls us friend.

Lisa Robinson

Author Lisa Robinson

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