On March 6, 2019 a tempest in a conference tea cup broke out at John MacArthur’s popular Shepherd’s Conference (“ShepCon”). The buzz hasn’t died down yet. “Wretched” personality Todd Friel (who seems like a great guy!) called it “painful” and “awkward.” The storm erupted at the panel question and answer session, hosted by MacArthur’s assistant Phil Johnson, with Mark Dever, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, Sinclair Ferguson and John MacArthur. The issue was “social justice.”
Last September John MacArthur, with Johnson and others, spear-headed “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” (“the Dallas statement”). Of the men on the panel, notably none of them, except MacArthur himself and his aide, signed on to it. None, like in no one. The moderator, Johnson, decided that was a good opportunity to ask why. The gentlemen on the panel didn’t answer.
Herein lies the tempest: some immediately demanded an answer, protested that their unwillingness to explain themselves is some kind of moral cowardice, that they are MIA in our newest front in the culture war, the front against the social justice/cultural Marxist/victimology/”intersectionality” leftist ideology they claim is infiltrating even stalwart evangelical institutions and, like commandos dynamiting bridges behind enemy lines, bringing them down. Evangelicalism is about to collapse, they claim, because of the insurgent social justice warriors. But they are bravely stepping up to counter these insurgents. They are Social Justice Contras.
That siren warning spiked at the end of that same week (March 9) when Reformed apologist James White, himself a leading drafter of “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” tweeted, “Social justice/cultural Marxism/intersectionality/victimology thinking has taken over Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary” (SEBTS), the Southern Baptist seminary at Wake Forest, North Carolina. This is a remarkable claim for an official seminary of a conservative, evangelical denomination; a seminary that not only requires its professors to adhere to the conservative Southern Baptist Faith and Message (the denominations’ creed) but also the “Abstract of Principles” (the same statement of faith originally drafted for the conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky); also the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (that precisely defines belief in the Bible as without error), the complementarian Danver’s Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that asserts Biblical principles in contrast to feminist ideology and a seminary that bills itself as committed to the Great Commission.
In spite of what appears to be an impressive and strictly conservative set of regulating articles of faith and commitments, James White charged that SEBTS is now overcome with “cultural Marxism.” Indeed, he stated, “This is a given.” His evidence: SEBTS’s “Kingdom Diversity” program. That program exists, according to SEBTS, for “equipping groups who have been historically underrepresented on our campus to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission.” Part of it offers scholarships to minorities so that they can take part in short-term mission trips. That may sound innocent enough to most but to White it’s incontrovertible evidence that SEBTS has fully succumbed to leftism, to “cultural Marxism.” Since SEBTS has already fallen, he said on a “Dividing Line” program the same week as ShepCon, and Al Mohler is now wobbly, as he supposedly demonstrated at the Q & A, then Mohler’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary may soon fall too and with it the entire Southern Baptist Convention.
If he and those now denouncing Dever, Mohler, and Duncan sound like Chicken Little, please don’t insult panicked chickens by associating them with such hysteria. What’s going on?
I believe it is Social Justice Contras striking back. It’s true that some evangelical Christians have gone too far in their embrace of “social justice” concerns, picking up catch-phrases, if not whole arguments, pregnant with unbiblical, perhaps out-right leftist, philosophies. They sound much like their secular “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs), constantly harping on racism like Uncle Tom’s Cabin was current events, while conveniently ignoring abortion and either silently complicit with the LGBTQ agenda or even embracing it. Evidence: Sojourners. We’ve always had a problem with worldly Christians who are swept along by the current cultural trends.
But the temptation in response is to be defined by what you’re against and react to the leftist extremists with extremism of our own, to fall into the error that if movement X says something wrong, then everything from movement X is wrong and anything contaminated with anything shared from movement X is thoroughly wrong. The Nazis built good roads therefore good roads are evil and anyone who wants them is a Nazi. Or, Wescott and Hort (famous 19th century pioneers of modern textual criticism) were somewhat liberal therefore all textual criticism is a capitulation to liberalism. They studied the occult, therefore they were practicing occultists and everything they did is a product of the occult. (The truth was they studied it for academic reasons and never believed it.)
Now, the Social Justice Contras are telling us, the social justice movement says we need to intentionally go out of our way to include people of neglected minorities; the social justice movement is built on Marxist (therefore atheistic) ideas and so anyone who wants to intentionally include neglected minorities is a cultural Marxist and ideologically atheistic (whether they know it or not). The technical, academic term for that line of thinking is “nonsense.”
Social Justice Contras (SJCs) are getting as loud, as shrill and as dogmatic as their leftist mirror images. They are upset that Dever, Mohler and Duncan wouldn’t frankly respond to Johnson’s inopportune question and embrace his statement. They’re right that the gentlemen were evasive. Johnson poked, “Are you not offended at the liberalizing drift?” Mohler retorted, “I’m not going to be forced into a twitter conversation of 140 characters about these issues.”
He’s right. First, “social justice” is a complicated issue. Biblically the adjective “social” is totally unnecessary. But justice is a concern. ‘He has told you, oh SJC, what is good and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice – yes, really, justice --, love mercy – like on excluded people – and walk humbly with your God – like by not passing God-like judgment on an apparently thoroughly evangelical institution because it has a commitment to diversity you don’t understand’ said Micah (6:8) with only slight amplifications. Mohler was right that these issues are more complicated than can be answered in a few minutes on a panel discussion.
Second, the gentlemen on the ShepCon panel were right to dodge because it’s just good manners. They had reasons for not signing. Either they thought the statement was deficient in some way, as I do and explained last October here; or signing it wasn’t advantageous for their ministry. Whatever their reasons, those reasons still were in play when Johnson decided to ask them about those reasons. So asking the gentlemen about those reasons in public, in front of thousands live in the house of the man whose statement they wouldn’t sign and many more watching live-stream, was boorish in the extreme.
Sure, part of me would love for Mark Dever to have turned to Johnson, looked him in the eye, and stated, “Phil, I didn’t sign your incomplete and pastorally irresponsible statement because I know the issues far better than you do. If you want to learn what’s wrong with that statement, read John Carpenter’s excellent article in The Christian Post.” Such are my fantasies but wise men don’t do that. As Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said, “A gentleman is a man who never gives offense unintentionally.” Dever, Mohler, and Duncan are gentlemen and would have offended someone, perhaps Johnson and MacArthur themselves, if they had answered forthrightly. As gentlemen, they didn’t intend to give offense so wisely evaded.
The SJCs, though, claim that now they want transparency; they want honest, open discussion, they say. When White, whose fan I have been for years, avidly listening to his “Dividing Line” program, issued his tweet attacking SEBTS as now being, apparently, a new bastion of leftism, he also tweeted “Any unwritten but obeyed rule that says “Silence—no warning!” Is poison to the church.” (That is, any rule that censors someone for speech without warning is dangerous. Fair enough.) Everything should be discussed bluntly, even if that means, I guess, telling John MacArthur he has a huge blind spot on the issues of race in his own church, that his statement was pastorally clumsy; even if that means one Southern Baptist leader publicly denouncing another just because we want to see the cat fight.
I politely asked White for documentation beyond the apparently innocuous “Kingdom Diversity” program. He blocked me. Such are SJCs’ passion for open discussion.
This is a tragedy. SJCs are discrediting themselves in the eyes of many and discrediting the institutions and leaders they are attacking in the eyes of others. James White, though he may sound hot-headed and irresponsible here, is, in fact, a brilliant man who has minted spiritual gold on King James Onlyism, Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the like, defending the faith astutely and with respect and gentleness, honoring Christ even in mosques, preaching the gospel in stocking feet to Muslims who’d likely only heard of Christians before. But all of that is being ruined because of logical fallacies he would skewer if they were coming from King James Onlyists.
The tragedy of the SJC backlash is that they are trying to force us into deciding between the devil of “social justice” leftism and the deep blue sea of SJC cold, dark abyss of doom. If we’re not for their vision of color-blindness, their cultural obtuseness, their absolute exclusion of anyone and any institution that shows a concern for ethnic diversity, then we are, they say, traitors to the cause of Christ; we’re the useful idiots of “Social justice/cultural Marxism/intersectionality/victimology” totalitarian leftism. We must say “no.”
Sure, we should say “no” to the Sojourners types, preaching the agenda of the political left dressed in the thin veils of Biblical language. But so too should we say “no” to the Social Justice Contras who would force us into unnecessary divisions, call down fire from heaven on any evangelical institution that strives for diversity. They don’t know what spirit they are of.