History’s Warning about the Current Social Justice Conflict

If you are unaware, there is a conflict underway. This conflict centers around the issue of social justice and racial reconciliation in the Church. These issues are sensitive and personal to many on both sides of “the racial divide,” making them that much more explosive. Racial reconciliation is a Scriptural principle when it is defined as having been accomplished by Christ; all other definitions are unscriptural. Scripture affirms that Christ has reconciled all manner of men to Himself by His work on the cross (Gal 3:28-29; Eph 2:14-16). Not only are all people created in the image of God, but in Christ, all who are born again by the Spirit of God are supernaturally made one new man; this one new man is called the body of Christ.

Paradoxically, the current movement that seeks to push the envelope beyond the Bible’s teaching actually reduces this important principle to something far less, something earthy and worldly. Therefore, far from elevating the role and deeds of the Church in today’s society, the movement poses a great danger to the gospel work of Church. It is gravely concerning that the trajectory of the social justice movement has as its direct aim the state of the Church and the purity of the gospel.

Because history is a valuable record that can and should be learned from, I believe it is crucial to broadly understand the historical events that highlight the great peril of those in the Christianized social justice movement. This peril is so great that it may lead to nothing short of an eventual departure from biblical Christianity. This post will trace the historical development of liberalism, the Social Gospel, New Evangelicalism, and the ramifications of these movements on the current state of affairs.

First, a Caveat

I fear that if I don’t add this, this post will fall on some deaf ears. Racism is a real thing, and I have no desire to hide, ignore, or minimize the sinfulness of it. All true believers in Christ must hurt for any human being who experiences racism. Prejudice in any form is nothing less than a great sin of the human heart, as it denies and violates the Scriptural truth that all men were created in God’s image. White Christians should grieve over racism that any minority Christians have experienced and currently experience. The rub, however, comes with the definition of “racism.”

Many people point out that Protestantism has an “individual” vs. “community” view of sin, and that is true. However, this is the biblical view of sin for the New Testament church, especially in light of the clear differences between the theocracy of Old Testament Israel (in which communal sin was indeed an issue since the very governing of Israel was to be done according to the Torah) and the nature of the New Testament Church (regarding which the idea of communal sin can not be found in the New Testament).

In this post, I will not be focusing on the bible’s teaching on racism and racial reconciliation. Instead, I think it is essential to show the historical progression that demonstrates the danger of the rhetoric and methods of the Christianized social justice movement. In future posts, the rhetoric and methods will be dealt with more directly. 

The Rise of Liberalism

Around 150 years ago, the Church in America began to face some serious opponents. These included the threats of Darwinism, Higher Criticism, and the Social Gospel. Darwinism challenged the biblical account of creation and opened the door for science to reign over Scripture; Higher Criticism made the Bible man’s flawed literature about God, rather than God’s perfect revelation of Himself; the Social Gospel redirected the mission of Christianity to affect social rather than spiritual change.

Packaged together, these three components formed the basis of what is called “Modernism” or “Liberalism.” This new movement became so divergent from Christianity that it was, as J. Gresham Machen wrote, “not Christianity at all.” [1] Liberalism essentially rejected historic Christianity in favor of a “Christianity” that would be in vogue with the modern spirit of the 19th and 20th century. This is a crucial detail: Liberalism claimed that it sought to preserve the Christian faith in light of the onslaught of modernity and scientific progress. In short, Liberalism sought to change Christianity to fit culture.

The historian George Marsden observes three main strategies of Liberalism designed to adapt to the cultural changes of the late 19th and early 20th century[2]:

1. “Deifying historical process:” Liberalism held to the idea that God “revealed Himself in history” and the Bible is man’s record of that. According to Marsden, this resulted in the outlook that “The progress of humanity, then, especially in the moral realm, is identified with the progress of Christ’s kingdom.” The kingdom of God was a philosophical concept rather than a spiritual reality.

2. “Stressing the Ethical:” Because Liberalism did not hold to any biblical doctrine as dogmatic objective truth that was essential for true Christianity, it inevitably adopted a social and ethical focus. As Marsden writes, “The key test of Christianity was life, not doctrine… This [the ethical], said the liberals, was the heart of Jesus’s teaching. Jesus… had emphasized the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of mankind.” This ethical stress led men like Walter Rauschenbusch to “rediscover and develop ‘the social message of the faith’” (p.35). Thus the outward expression of Liberalism was a social and ethical focus, rather than the doctrines of Scripture and the “word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18).

3. “The Centrality of Religious feelings:” Liberalism centralized the importance of religious feelings. These were not the God wrought affections of His love in our heart (Rom 5:5) but rather subjective religious feelings that were in step with the “romantic and idealistic standards of the day.” Objective truths were no longer the measure nor means of Christianity. Instead, sentiment became king.

Liberalism posed a great threat to the historical Protestant Christianity, and many recognized its danger. The great contrast between Liberalism as a human movement and Christianity as the supernatural creation of God resulted in a great controversy and a great divide. This was called the “Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy.”

The Fundamentalist Response

Today, when the word “Fundamentalist” is thrown around, it usually brings to mind angry suit-clad Baptists yelling about the soul destroying evils of dancing, movies, and alcohol. Historically, however, fundamentalism was originally a far more complicated movement. Fundamentalism was a term coined by Curtis Lee Laws in the Baptist publication Watchman Examiner in 1920. [3] The term was designated for “those who still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals;” [4] thus, fundamentalism referred first to those who held to the historical and fundamental doctrines of Christianity. These included the virgin birth, the resurrection, the inspiration of scripture, and more.

Fundamentalism began as a coalition of confessional denominationalists (like conservative Presbyterians and Baptists), dispensationalists, and others from holiness movements. [5] Despite the many differences between these groups, they all understood the great importance of preserving the fundamental Christian doctrines and Gospel.

Great men, such as the Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen in his works “Christianity and Liberalism,” “The Origin of Paul’s Religion” and “The Virgin Birth” produced robust and biblical defenses of orthodox Christianity. Another crucial 12 volume work titled “The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth” was published around 1910 by dispensationalists and was provided to pastors all around the country. Many other valiant efforts to defend the faith were made during this time.

Exemplified by Machen, fundamentalists did not mince words but realized the absolute importance of verbal clarity. The fundamentalists realized that, though Liberals spoke about many Christian things (such as the resurrection), they used such terms in a completely different way (such as Jesus’s resurrection being nothing more than “a persistence of personality” [6] rather than a literal bodily resurrection).

This insistence that words have meaning is a vital principle for engaging with any sort of worldview, philosophy, or religion today. It must be kept in mind and terms must carefully be defined. It is also important to know that early fundamentalism was not afraid of engaging liberalism or the culture, but rather challenged them head-on from a biblical perspective.

This assault was successful and forceful up until 1924-1926. Liberalism began appealing to “the strong American tradition of tolerance.” [7] Unfortunately, this was a successful counterattack upon fundamentalism, and eventually the conservative fundamentalists were divided into two groups: inclusivists, who wanted to allow Liberalism into the church to preserve unity and exclusivists, who militantly opposed liberalism. [8] This greatly slowed down the fundamentalist cause and resulted in two different streams of thought and practice, the fruits of which would blossom later in new evangelicalism. Liberalism began making great strides, and fundamentalism evolved into its stereotypical expression of militant separatism and moralism.

However, fundamentalism was a boat floating upon the earlier 19th century waters of broad evangelicalism. [9]This meant that the current of revivalism and evangelistic zeal that characterized Christianity prior to the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy had not stopped flowing, and it would not be long after fundamentalism’s defeat that conservative Christianity would reemerge in strength.

Neo-Evangelicalism Rises

After the collapse of fundamentalism, the strictest fundamentalists had effectively shut themselves off from the Christian world at large, advocating for extreme separationism. However, most fundamentalists adopted a “positive strategy” that only involved separating halfway from “the denominational mainstream.” [10] This introduced a milieu of fluidity between fundamentalists and denominationalists, and allowed moderate fundamentalists to begin building evangelistic empires. This was done namely via crusades and radio ministries.[11] Through the rise of Billy Graham and organizations like the National Alliance of Evangelicals, moderate mainstream fundamentalists began to become a united force during the 1940’s.

The growth of these evangelical alliances caused many strict fundamentalists to become “increasingly uneasy.” [12] As time went on, tensions rose and erupted in 1957. The leading new evangelical evangelist Billy Graham partnered with the liberal organization Protestant Council of Churches; this move “deeply offended” the strict fundamentalists and caused a deep schism. [13] The moderate (positive) fundamentalists became the “new evangelicals,” a term coined by Harold Ockenga. The strict (negative) fundamentalists retreated deeper into separatistism.

While strict fundamentalism has withered over the past half century, new evangelicalism has grown exponentially through the work of Billy Graham, Daniel Fuller, C.F. Henry, Harold Ockenga, and many others. The main difference that distinguished strict fundamentalism and new evangelicalism was new evangelicalism’s desire to bring Christ into the culture and to be socially minded. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. To be without an eye to society is to be blind to wise and prudent evangelistic opportunities. However, through too much cultural engagement, new evangelicalism began planting the seeds of social justice in the soil of the Church. Those seeds have taken root and now threaten to divide conservative Christianity.

The Evangelical’s “Social Conscience”

Sherwood Eliot Wirt, pastor, theological, and distinguished journalist, wrote what C.F. Henry (a leading new evangelical figure) called “A wide window on social concern in the authentic evangelical spirit.” [14] Wirt’s book, The Social Conscience of the Evangelical, was written in 1968, during the peak of new evangelicalism. Though not a well known nor seminal book, Writ’s work documents well the direction of new evangelicalism, and reveals that its early stage was built upon a cultural perspective on social issues. The purpose of this section is not to offer any sort of critique, but rather demonstrate the progression of new evangelical thought.

Wirt wrote quite a bit regarding the role of evangelicals in society. He emphasized that evangelicals should be like “the Hebrew people that… produced so many centuries ago the first known champions of social justice” and that Mary’s Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55) reveals her “social conscience.” [15] The social conscience of new evangelicalism also reveals itself in Wirt’s exegesis. Wirt remarked that Jesus quoted Isaiah 61:1-2 to “set forth a universal concept of spiritual liberty affecting every form of bondage and oppression upon mankind in every age.” [16]

Though Wirt looks back favorably on historical fundamentalists, calling them “stouthearted zealots who took up cudgels for the purity of the faith,” he criticized them in the same breath for being “blinded by all the smoke from the theological brushfires” that he failed to “look out for the needs of his neighbor.” [17] Regarding racial issues, Wirt wrote that “The evangelical Christian of the new generation wants to apply the biblical standard to bring social justice to racial minority groups” in the context of laws and society, and he does not shrink back from rightly challenging the disapproval of intermarriage. [18]

However, in his eagerness to address the social conscience of the evangelical, Wirt did not hesitate to quote men who supported him yet were unorthodox in their theology. For example, to criticize the social quietism of the Church, Wirt quoted Walter Rauschenbusch, the formulator of the Social Gospel movement. Rauschenbusch was a classic liberal, and the Social Gospel focused entirely upon charitable and ethical moralism rather than the doctrines of scripture. Wirt quoted Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrcich Bonhoeffer, Neo-Orthodox men whom the stalwart Cornelius Van Til and D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones viewed as dangerous in their theology. [20]

This is perhaps the greatest historical concern for new evangelicalism. In its arguably noble desire to engage with society and the world at large, new evangelicalism set a precedent (as demonstrated by Wirt) of using the works, theology, and systems of men that supported the evangelical position in one particular area, such as social justice. However, with such openness comes negligence and the high risk of adopting some of the more unbiblical views of such men.

Unfortunately, the social agenda of new evangelicalism has only grown and expanded, and new evangelicalism has opened itself up to influences that I fear are not biblical.  Eventually, this may lead to a split akin to that of 1957 and the earlier Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. This is largely due to the preponderous upswing of social justice in new evangelicalism, specifically in the stream of New Calvinism.

New Calvinism and Social Justice

It did not take long before movements began sprouting out of new evangelicalism, and perhaps the largest and most rapid has been New Calvinism. New Calvinism shares many of the same goals and interests as New Evangelicalism, but with a Calvinist twist.

A personal anecdote: When I was first saved, I was saved in a New Calvinist church that was part of the Acts 29 network. I was immersed in New Calvinism. I ate up Matt Chandler sermons, John Piper books, The Gospel Coalition articles, and I sought to be “missional.” Personally, I am quite acquainted with New Calvinism. If you are not, here is a broad summary from Mark Driscoll (a founding member of New Calvinism) [21]:

Old Calvinism was fundamental or liberal and separated from or syncretized with culture. New Calvinism is missional and seeks to create and redeem culture.

Old Calvinism fled from the cities. New Calvinism is flooding into cities.

Old Calvinism was cessationistic and fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. New Calvinism is continuationist and joyful in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

Old Calvinism was fearful and suspicious of other Christians and burned bridges. New Calvinism loves all Christians and builds bridges between them.

Overall, this is very similar to new evangelicalism. Like new evangelicalism, New Calvinism seeks to bring culture into society and redeem it, specifically by focusing on urban cultural centers. Also like new evangelicalism, New Calvinism aims to build bridges between Christians of all stripes without much distinction.

It would not be fair nor accurate to say this characterizes all who call themselves New Calvinists, but it is fair to say that these points do make an accurate picture of New Calvinism, and the similarities to new evangelicalism are fairly plain. As mentioned above, the syncretistic risk that new evangelicalism faced in seeking to build bridges remains for New Calvinists, and the effects of this unfettered practice of cultural engagement have begun revealing themselves in the blossoming flowers of social justice.

The Current Climate

It is difficult to trace the trajectory of New Calvinism into a full fledged social justice focus. New Calvinists produce lots of content (blogs, videos, conferences, etc) and to survey it comprehensively would require far more time than I have. However, I think a simple comparison of two major New Calvinist figures between 2010 and 2018 reveals just how much New Calvinism has drifted from where it began. As previously demontrated by Wirt’s book, a social conscience was inherent to new evangelicalism, and New Calvinism simply inherited it. The goal of this section is not to offer a critique but to provide a sense of direction of the movement.

Take, for example, Matt Chandler and David Platt. These men have been associated with the Gospel Coalition for a long time, and in a 2010 video, they addressed the issue of social justice. The video did not deal with specific areas of social justice, but rather issues of how the Bible addresses social justice, how social justice and evangelism fit together, and more. Platt stated that any sort of social justice activity needed to have a

“holistic.. big picture of love, a big picture of justice that has discernment to look at these different issues to see, to apply God’s word  and the Gospel to these different issues so that we don’t just get caught up in the waves of trends, what’s popular at different times, we need to latch on to this, okay this issue is in the past…” [22]

Matt Chandler, in an interview about his book The Explicit Gospel, warned that it is dangerous to take secondary issues like “social justice” and “swing it farther than the Bible does out of either personal experience, preference, pride, or an error that occurred in history. When that happens wars break out that don’t need to be fought. Godly people get vilified, and faithful brothers and sisters get portrayed as something they aren’t.” [23]

Yet a mere eight years later, things have drastically changed. With the media’s widespread coverage of the killings of young black men, such as Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and others, society has heavily focused upon the issues of racial reconciliation and social justice. Terms like “microaggressions,” “systemic racism” and “collective guilt” entered the mainstream. The cultural engagement of Gospel Coalition, ERLC, and other New Calvinist/Evangelical organizations have began adopting elements of critical race theory and liberation theology without considering the dangerous theological implications of such systems. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), and other New Calvinist and new evangelical organizations have began adopting elements of critical race theory and liberation theology, seemingly without even considering the dangerous theological implications of such systems.

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) recently held a conference to commemorate the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and to remember the civil rights movement. However, the conference was permeated by quotes from liberation theologians and critical race theorists. Martin Luther King, who denied the essentials of the Christian faith and held fast to the Social Gospel, was venerated as a great and faithful Christian preacher. Some weeks after the conference, a leader of the Christianized social justice movement shared a video of Martin Luther King Jr. “sharing his story of the bankruptcy of liberalism to comfort in suffering and how he had to find comfort in the tradition of the black Baptist Church and the Jesus of his youth that his father (Baptist Pastor) taught him about.” [24] However, even a cursory listen reveals nothing about King’s repentance from heresy nor adoption of orthodoxy.

At the recent joint conference put on by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Council of the SBC and the Gospel Coalition, Matt Chandler called white pastors to “say something” and speak out against systemic and structural racism. [25]

At the recent T4G conference, David Platt called pastors across the country to work together for racial justice and racial reconciliation, saying that God would not be pleased with the worship of His Church otherwise. [26] Platt also defined the term “racism” as

“a system (could be individual, could be institutional, could be societal) … in which race, and specifically as we’re talking tonight black or white skin color, profoundly affects people’s economic, political, and social experiences… A system of thought, practice, that is ever subtly present among us and me- just think along the most simple practical level… we’re not talking about blunt prejudice or animosity alone.” [27]

He then went on to assert that the Church should intentionally create multi ethnic community.

Furthermore, others in the New Calvinist movement have made similar trajectories.

Thabiti Anyabwile, a Council member of the Gospel Coalition, implied that whites needed to repent and admit their parents and grandparent’s complicity in the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. [28] Paul Tripp recently released an article mourning over his lack of involvement with social justice. [29] Matt Chandler’s church released a song that contains the word “microaggressions.” [30] On the Witness Podcast, the heretical liberation theology of James Cone was recommended to listeners as helpful because of the context in which he wrote. [31] Even today, Barnabas Piper, son of well known John Piper, tweeted a quote from James Cone. [32] This is dangerous pragmatism that tries to adopt “helpful” or “good” elements of unbiblical theologians, but in the end only leads one to the same heterodox positions.

When reviewed as a whole, these many facets of new evangelicalism coalesce and reveal one thing: there has been an undeniable shift in evangelicalism as a whole. Many are changing their tune to that of a worldly concept of social justice. Meanwhile, many others in the Church, myself included, are gravely concerned. Though some may accuse us of seeking to preserve racism, this simply is not true. We who oppose this new trajectory of evangelicalism nevertheless firmly detest all forms of racism, and we repudiate it boldly and openly.

To be clear, our concern is regarding the definition of racism being introduced into the church. We believe it is an invention of the world, and specifically from the field of Critical Race Theory. [33] This system of thought is neither biblical nor Christian; rather, it is a secular and worldly system.

Conclusion

History tends to repeat itself, and I am convinced that the factors and cultural climate that produced the conflict between Liberalism and Christianity and the embrace of the Social Gospel have come upon the Church once again. Because the nature of human beings has not changed for their entire existence, the sins and struggles known to mankind resurface again and again in a widespread way. The current issues in conservative evangelicalism are certainly no different in this regard. The storm that has been brewing for quite some time has finally reached gale-force winds and threatens to tear apart the fabric of Christ’s Church.

When I consider these things about those starting to follow the social justice movement, my heart is broken and grieved. I truly believe the majority of those following this movement are well intentioned and sincere in their desire to follow Christ. However, they appear to be no more rooted than a leaf in a stream. Indeed, that is exactly what they are like, aptly described by Paul: “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:14). History serves as a great warning to all of us, and I fear that the same 19th-20th century Liberal strategy of adapting Christianity to fit culture is overtaking many in the social justice movement. Let us instead learn from history and follow the example of great men like Machen and above all, Jesus Christ.

 

Sources

  1. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, p. 6.
  2. George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, p.33-36.
  3. Larry D. Pettegrew, “Will the Real Fundamentalist Please Stand Up?” Central Testimony, fall 1982, pp. 1-2
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 103
  6. Robert Moats Miller, Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet, 411.
  7. George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, p. 180.
  8. Ibid., 181.
  9. George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, p.68-70.
  10. Ibid., p.68.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 71.
  13. Ibid., 73.
  14.   Quote found on the dust jacket of The Social Conscience of the Evangelical.
  15. Sherwood Eliot Wirt, The Social Conscsience of the Evangelical, p.8-12.
  16. Ibid., 66
  17. Ibid., 46
  18. Ibid., 88-89
  19. Ibid., 40-41
  20. Westminster Theological Journal, November 1964, Vol. XXVII, Number 1, pp. 52-56
  21. http://theresurgence.com/new_calvinism
  22. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/social-justice-and-young-evangelicals-encouragement-and-concern/
  23. http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2012/april/explicit-gospel-interview-with-matt-chandler.html
  24. https://twitter.com/KyleJamesHoward/status/995385028002664453
  25. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/conference_media/house-divided-cannot-stand-understanding-overcoming-inconsistencies-white-evangelicals-racial-issues/
  26. http://t4g.org/media/2018/04/let-justice-roll-like-waters-racism-need-repentance/
  27. Ibid.
  28. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabiti-anyabwile/await-repentance-assassinating-dr-king/
  29. https://www.paultripp.com/articles/posts/my-confession-toward-a-more-balanced-gospel
  30. https://www.tvcresources.net/resource-library/music-videos/walk-with-you
  31. https://thewitnessbcc.com/james-cone-the-cross-and-the-lynching-memorial/
  32. https://twitter.com/BarnabasPiper/status/997100421884891136
  33. https://spacrs.wordpress.com/what-is-critical-race-theory/
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