On Social Justice, Sparked by John MacArthur

This post began as a YouTube comment on a video from November 2, 2018, which I saw recently when it appeared on my newsfeed (embedded below). It morphed from just a response to this particular video into a more broad look at the concept of “social justice.”

The conversation around social justice is complex, controversial, and sometimes confusing. I want to acknowledge this reality and the inadequacy of a single blog post to fully explore the nuances of this topic. So before I get into my response to John MacArthur’s comments in this video, I wanted to link to a very well-thought-out podcast from Love Thy Neighborhood entitled “Where the Gospel Meets Social Justice.” On to my thoughts.

As I understand him, in this video MacArthur argues that Christians are not to get involved with political activism or sweeping cultural change, but rather should stick to preaching the gospel and meeting physical needs on a small, person-to-person scale. His view is likely more nuanced than this video presents, and he hints at something larger than this when he says “we are to care for the oppressed,” but the broad sweep of his argument is that, as Christians, we love those around us in their immediate needs and do not seek to overturn anything on a larger societal scale. It is based on this understanding of his viewpoint that I will proceed.

My immediate response is to ask, how can I be loving others and caring for their needs and not seek to, in a respectful and God-honoring way, change parts of society that ultimately harm them? I’m not an anarchist or a Marxist. I agree with MacArthur that riots are not what we are called to as Christians. I believe what Romans 13 says. But I’m experiencing major cognitive dissonance between MacArthur’s interpretation of that passage and the words of Isaiah 58:6-7 (NIV):

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

I think we like the second half of that passage more than the first. Volunteering at a soup kitchen is easier than breaking yokes hardened by centuries of oppression. Yes, loving the people around us and living quiet and peaceable lives is important and biblical. But when being quiet allows for the continued injustice suffered by those around me, how is it loving and God-honoring for me not to do what I can to speak up and act to help loose the chains of injustice?

Yes, we are to “honor the king.” But honoring the authorities does not necessarily mean completely agreeing with them about everything. In some ways I think that it is more honoring to say “because I respect you, I’m going to try to help you improve in your areas of weakness,” rather than to simply turn away in apathy. As Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” True love sometimes looks like confrontation. If I truly love you, if I truly honor you, how can I see you causing harm to yourself or others and turn a blind eye or agree with you?

I am reminded of Jesus healing on the Sabbath, something that truly infuriated the religious elites of His day. He asked them, “which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4 NIV). I think that if there is an apparent conflict between Paul’s hope “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:2b NIV) and the many, many calls for justice throughout the Bible (such as the one from Isaiah quoted above), this question that Jesus asks is a good guiding principle. What will save life? How can I do good? How can I best love both God and people? If I am unwilling to engage in peaceful protest or political advocacy because “Christians don’t storm the streets,” but my inaction is perpetuating a cycle of oppression for so many others, how am I saving life? How am I loving my neighbor as myself?

At the risk of over-extrapolation, I think that 1 Timothy 2:1-2a (NIV) provides helpful context in understanding Paul’s meaning: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Paul clearly has a concern for the people in authority, and absolutely we are to respect them and pray for them, as MacArthur points out. In context, it certainly seems that Paul’s emphasis is on praying for the salvation of those in leadership. But it is highly plausible that Paul’s desire in asking for prayer and intercession for those in authority was not only for their personal salvation, but that they may be moved to govern well and wisely, even through their conversion. In our system of government, we as the people actually have the ability to influence to some degree the priorities of our leaders through our actions. It is unfathomable to me that it would be acceptable to pray for change, and yet not ask the people God has given the power to make change in person as well.

MacArthur makes the distinction between loving and caring for needs and “the saving gospel.” I agree. The ways in which we help others do not contribute whatsoever to our salvation, though I would not go so far as to say it does not contribute to their journey towards salvation. With that said, actions of love in themselves devoid of any presentation of the truth of God’s redemptive work through Jesus are not enough. We must share the truth of who Jesus is and what He has done. But simply sharing truth in a disembodied fashion is not likely to draw many to the God who delights in them, the God who did not commute in from heaven but took on a body and lived among those made in His image.

The excellent video series For the Life of the World is so named in answer to the question, “what is our salvation for?” To untangle the previous sentence, the series makes the case that our spiritual journey does not consist merely of a moment of attaining salvation, but that, after that moment, we then live that salvation out “for the life of the world.” Living only to “get people saved” is truly a shallow vision of the ministry of reconciliation God has given us. It cheats us of joining Him as a part of His grand design in the full sweep of history for the redemption of His creation. Who does the redeeming? Not us–He does. But I find this “wallpaper theology” (as Dr. Mark Cosgrove puts it) to be a truth always hovering in the background: God generally prefers to work through people.

Ultimately, all our problems are sin problems. I don’t deny that. But part of what makes an issue systemic is that doesn’t require much or any active human agency to negatively affect certain people. We must preach the gospel of salvation through Jesus, absolutely. But if we only preach the gospel and love our neighbors through the important but small kindnesses of daily life, and do not address the deep roots of our society’s unique structural expressions of sinfulness through practical action, we are living out an incomplete picture of the implications of that gospel. It is reminiscent of what is described in James 2:14-18 (NIV):

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

I think most Christians would agree that buying a meal for a person experiencing homelessness is a righteous and just action. How much more just would it be to walk alongside that person and thousands of others in the same position and advocate for them as they seek to get back on their feet? However, when we start speaking about changing the large-scale structures that contribute to the root causes of societal blights such as homelessness or racism, there is a backlash from parts of the Church that is frankly flabbergasting.

The head-scratching thing is that MacArthur does indeed speak of ministering to people’s needs. He didn’t have a real chance to flesh that thought out here, but his argument makes it sound like he is of the mind that, in poetic terms, we are to merely give people the occasional fish, rather than teaching them to fish or (to borrow from John Perkins) stopping to wonder, “who owns the pond?” Yes, we absolutely can and should help people in small, everyday ways; this is vital to the work of Jesus-followers. But if that is all we do, we are slapping band aids on on the symptoms of deep-rooted issues instead of addressing pervasive societal diseases through practical measures. We cannot make legislation that will change the sin in all of our hearts. But we can improve the legislation to make our society more reflective of God’s original good design and of the redemptive work He is doing.

MacArthur rightly points to Jesus as our model, especially His acts of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and raising the dead. Jesus certainly did this on the individual level. But when He looked on the hungry crowds of four or five thousand men (plus women and children), He did these things on a much larger scale. So certainly the scale at which Jesus addressed these needs was not a problem for Him. Why should we not then also address needs on the broader societal level?

I do not personally believe governmental programs are usually the most efficient way to help meet people’s needs; ideally, the immediate community and the Church would fill this role. However, in the reality we currently inhabit, the government does play a role in doing the very things Jesus and MacArthur advocate for. Should not we as Christians therefore strive to ensure that our government runs as well as possible, that those in power are truly meeting needs and serving the people in a just way? Should we not in love seek to voice our disagreement and advocate for change when policies are destructive to the individuals who make up different sectors of our society?

Social justice is a controversial term that means a lot of different things to different people. Perhaps to some it does indeed mean disrupting society in a harmful way and destroying culture. But I believe that often when the term is used, especially by Christians seeking to love their neighbors well, it means something to the effect of “a love for both my immediate neighbor and the larger community which leads to a healthy challenge to the status quo where it supports continued oppression and injustice.”

Is there some level of societal disruption in this? Yes, in the same way the Emancipation Proclamation was a disruption of the unjust society that was the American south in the 1860s, in the same way that Brown v. Board of Education was a disruption to the unjust segregation of our country, in the same way that Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others disrupted our society during the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s. And yet, I think nearly everyone who will read this (which admittedly may not be a statistically significant number) would agree that the changes that were brought about by these movements and moments were good, right, and necessary. In its best and truest expression, social justice does not conflict with the gospel. It begins with the gospel.

Thanks to Jesse Eubanks and the folks at Love Thy Neighborhood for helping shape my thoughts on this and giving me some of the language to write about it, i.e. “social justice begins with the gospel,” and “in this moment, how can I best love God and others?”

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