What's Wrong With the Recent Evangelical 'Social Justice' Movements?
The term "social justice" has become quite a buzz word in evangelical circles in recent years. Social matters like immigration, racial reconciliation, and sexuality are taking center stage in conferences and online discussions, with loud voices expressing strong options.
Other voices are beginning to object to the direction of such discussions, expressing concerns over the impact of secular leftist political and social thought upon some of these evangelical movements. John MacArthur and others are starting to weigh in, and all signs indicate that these debates aren't going to calm down any time soon.
As I've followed with interest these controversies over the past few years, I've come to see that although there is a lot of discussion about these things, most of it has involved throwing terms and philosophies around with little clarity, and there are very few places to go that carefully explain the nature of concerns with where these recent evangelical "social justice" movements appear to be headed.
I count myself among those with concerns about much of what is being said by these "social justice" evangelicals, and I would like to simply lay out the nature of my concerns. I do not mean to speak for all who are concerned, but I think what I write here summarizes many of the problems with these recent developments within some quarters of evangelicalism. This essay is meant to inform, not necessarily fully explain or defend.
A little background
First, where are these discussions happening?
I think two cultural matters sparked recent tensions within evangelicalism over social issues, and they were occurring around the same time: immigration policy (especially with Islamic refugees attempting to enter the US) and prominent shootings of African Americans (including Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown). Sexuality entered the mix with claims that some evangelicals were starting to soften their views concerning homosexuality. These funneled into the 2016 Presidential election, with Donald Trump's personal behavior and rhetoric adding fuel to an already growing fire.
Several prominent evangelicals raised strong opinions about immigration, refugees, shootings, and Trump, creating tension among evangelicals over political and social matters that appears to be unprecedented.
Within the last year, some of these evangelicals have organized conferences that further sparked debate. Conferences like MLK50 (sponsored by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC along with the Gospel Coalition), Together for the Gospel (with several message explicitly addressing social justice and racial reconciliation) and Revoice (a conference "supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality") have brought the tension to maximum combustibility.
Don't we support social justice?
So why are some of us concerned about these recent conferences and discussions? Are we against justice? Are we in favor of racism?
Hardly. It is simply irresponsible and dishonest to claim, as I have seen many times on social media, that those who are concerned about recent evangelical "social justice" movements are in favor of injustice or racism. Such a claim is an unfortunate straw man.
What we are concerned about is how such discussions are being framed, how terms are being redefined, and the influence of secular leftist ideology on such discussions.
Confusing race, ethnicity, and culture
The first concern I have with recent social justice movements is that many evangelicals have seemingly adopted very secular (i.e., not biblical) categories of race, ethnicity, and culture. For one thing, according to Scripture, there is only one race—the human race (Acts 17:26). The whole notion of racial distinctions based on genetic and physical distinctiveness comes from Darwinian evolutionary theories and is simply unbiblical (not to mention scientifically disproven).
Scripture does have the category of ethnicity, which biblically refers to various people groups unified by geography, politics, heritage, and culture (e.g. Rev. 7:9). But the problem is that many evangelicals have also adopted the common practice of equating ethnicity and culture, which is also invalid biblically. Ethnicity refers to a group of people united and living together, while culture refers to the common behaviors of a group of people. The two categories are not equivalent. All people of every ethnicity are equally good and made in God's image, while cultures (understood as systems of behavior) are produced by beliefs, values, and worldviews, and thus may be better or worse when compared to the values, beliefs and patterns of behavior advocated in Scripture (1 Peter 1:13-19).
Secular racists (like white supremacists) and leftists (like multiculturalists) perpetuate these confusions over race, ethnicity, and culture. The former assumes that one group is genetically superior to another. The latter assumes that all ways of life are equally good and valid. Neither is biblical.
This also broadens considerably what should be accurately defined as racism. With these secular definitions, any criticism of one set of behaviors as wrong or inferior to another is considered racist.
It would do evangelicals well to re-evaluate their definitions of these categories based on how Scripture discusses them. The rest of the problems I am going to elucidate are, I believe, symptoms of this fundamental problem, which is why I devoted a chapter to the subject in By the Waters of Babylon and have written several articles and blog posts on the issue, including the following:
- Culture and Race
- Why equating culture with ethnicity is inherently racist
- The Common Problem with White Supremacy and Multiculturalism
- On racism, ethnicity, and culture
- A New Testament Understanding of Culture
- Toward a Biblical Understanding of Culture
- Is culture the same as race?
- Culture, Not Race
A related problem is the notion of intersectionality. This perspective divides various groups into segments based on these faulty notions of race, ethnicity, and culture, along with other issues such as sexuality and economic status, ultimately pitting the groups against each other. One group's flourishing tends to mean another group's oppression. Furthermore, the needs, beliefs, perspectives, and values of each group are entirely different from one another, and only members of a group are capable of understanding what the group needs, further exacerbating tensions between each group.
What's more, this perspective teaches that a person's individual identity is actually bound up in the intersection of various characteristics of who they are, leading to further fragmentation of groups. In other words, an identity group made up of white heterosexual middle class males is entirely distinct from a group of black heterosexual middle class males, which is completely different from a group of black heterosexual middle class females, and so forth.
An assumption inherent to this view is that if a particular group has flourished more successfully than another group, this is incontrovertible proof that the more successful group has oppressed the less successful group and possibly even used its power to create a system within which the less successful group can never flourish. Advocates of this position are convinced that whole societies have been engineered to give unfair advantage to a certain intersectional group, such as so-called "white privilege," and inherently suppress other groups, rendering whole political systems, societies, cultures, and even religious convictions as "systemically racist." This is sometimes also called critical race theory.
What this results in is a multiplicity of intersectional social groups competing for power and influence, some considered more dominant, and others considered more marginalized. The more "victimized" a particular intersectional group is determined to be, the louder voice they are afforded in policy decisions and cultural discussions. This also means that racism exists only in the direction of a more powerful "race" toward an oppressed "race"; racism, in this view, cannot happen in the reverse direction. Further, the sins of individuals (racist or otherwise) within a particular intersectional group renders the entire group guilty.
This is class warfare through and through, what some have rightly observed to be "cultural marxism," that is, the intentional division of groups into various classes and pitting the ostensibly oppressed classes against those perceived to be more powerful or privileged. It wrongly assumes that flourishing or not is a result of systemic privilege or oppression, not a result of individual decisions or cultural practices that actually hinder human flourishing. If there are economic disparities, for example, between different kind of groups, this has nothing do with systemic racism or oppression, as Thomas Sowell has brilliantly argued in his trilogy of books, Race and Culture, Migrations and Cultures, and Conquests and Cultures. Economic disparity is a result, rather, of differences in culture, and some cultures are simply not as able to sustain human flourishing as others are.
This is simply biblical thinking. Individuals or groups whose cultural behavior runs contrary to the natural created order and God's moral law will inevitably find themselves in disorder and ruin (Romans 1:26-32). Conversely, those who live accordingly to God's moral principles will flourish (Prov 14:34).
This all leads to the problem of where one finds ultimate identity, especially a Christian. Secular intersectionality argues that true identity is found in the intersection of one's racial, ethnic, cultural, sexual, economic, and social status, each of these already defined unbiblically.
The problem with this idea is that, while each person's perspective is certain impacted by his or her background, experiences, and personal values, these never bind a person. And a Christian's ultimate identity must always be found in his or her relationship to Christ, not any of these secular categories. Unity in the church, for example, is rooted in a Christian's identity in Christ, not in how well a church caters to particular intersectional identity. Christians are a new ethnicity (1 Peter 2:9-10) united by shared values, beliefs, and behaviors that have little to do with the old ethnic divisions. In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male nor female (Gal 3:28).
Bottom line: intersectionality ignores two biblical principles: first, individual and collective behavior (not systemic oppression) is what results in flourishing or not; second, ultimate group identity for a Christian should be found in Christ and his church rather than something else external.
The tragic result of allowing all of these categories to be defined, not by Scripture, but by secular ideology, is that it has led to a redefining of biblical justice to fit into the secular idea of "social justice" as framed by these secular categories.
"Justice," for many evangelical social justice advocates, has become characterized by tearing down traditional structures deemed to be evidence of "systemic oppression" and by marginalized intersectional groups "standing up to power," that is resisting and even fighting against the influence, control, and values of more powerful majority intersectional groups. Those more powerful groups, then, are expected to withdraw their influence, repenting of and making reparations for their group's collective oppression of minority groups, and give the marginalized groups a more prominent voice, which usually takes the form of "affirmative action" hirings and appointments to leadership positions based on the color of one's skin rather than competency, character, and skill.
On the contrary, biblical justice is simply choosing to do what is right. If there is something that is wrong, justice makes it right. Justice biblically does not entail blaming the sins of individuals on "systemic" problems, unless of course you consider original sin a systemic problem, which I suppose it is for the entire human race (Eph 2:2-3). In fact, Scripture is very clear that true justice will mean favoring neither the majority, powerful, or privileged group nor the less privileged group (Exodus 23:2-3). Justice is simply doing right without any notion of intersectionality.
What creates injustice in the world is sin, plain and simple, and sin is a problem for every individual of every group of individuals. The only solution to injustice in the world is belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A final related problem is mission drift within churches. Christ was clear: the mission of the church is to make disciples (Matt 28:19-20). This means faithfully proclaiming the gospel to unbelievers, baptizing new converts into churches, and teaching them to observe everything Christ commanded them. This central mission should control everything a church (or its leadership) does in its official capacity.
The problem is that dealing with even admittedly debatable social and political matters, such as immigration policy, what to do with refugees, poverty, or which political candidate to support falls outside this mission. The church (or its official leaders) have no business speaking authoritatively on these matters. Likewise, parachurch ministries that are funded by and meant to represent autonomous local churches should likewise resist speaking authoritatively on such matters. To do so inevitably leads to forsaking the unique mission of the church in favor of political activism in debatable matters.
Even with issues like racism, poverty, and other terrible societal realities, the ultimate solution is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only when people come to faith in Christ and find their ultimate identity—including their beliefs, values, and cultural behavior—in the church will any of these tragedies be resolved. And ultimately, they will not be solved completely until Jesus comes again, when he will eliminate the only truly systemic problem of all humanity—sin.
Making problems worse
No thoughtful Christian who has expressed concerns over these recent trends approves of true racism, injustice, or oppression when it exists. But I truly believe that by adopting these secular, leftist categories, which are rooted in ideologies explicitly intended to divide people, well-meaning Christians are making divides within Christianity and even broader society worse rather than better.
The more biblical solution would be to resist secular ideologies and simply preach Christ to those who do not believe and to teach believers to observe all that Christ has commanded them, which includes teaching all Christians, whether they believe they are flourishing or not, to celebrate their oneness in Christ and resist all divisions within Christ's body.
This essay was originally published at Religious Affections Ministries.