Not ‘A Central Part’ of the Mission? Why Statement on ‘Social Justice’ Is Stirring Debate Over Church’s Role in Justice, Mercy

Publisher’s Note: The following is a special report brought to you by Christian News Network discussing “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel.” This in-depth report was compiled after a series of interviews with the statement’s framers and those who are expressing concern over some of the statement’s potential implications. Read time: Approx. 40 minutes

SPECIAL REPORT | Debate has been stirring in regard to a recent statement that sought to defend orthodoxy and Scriptural fidelity in the face of what were considered unbiblical advocacy efforts that have arisen in the Church in the name of “social justice,” asserting that “political or social activism” aren’t “a central part” of the mission of the Church, and that any emphasis on “social issues” can lead to a “departure from the gospel.”

“It is not the Church’s mission to engage society or try to busy itself with fixing injustices of any type in society,” Justin Peters of Justin Peters Ministries and Kootenai Community Church in Idaho, one of the drafters of “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” told Christian News Network. “That’s what we’re concerned about.”

While there has been much agreement in refuting the progressive mindsets the statement sought to address, some also believe the effort is overreaching in its declarations and could potentially discourage actions pursuing biblical justice, as well as the commission of good works.

“Dear American Christians, in our rightful condemnation of the social justice movement, please let us not forget to work for true and biblical justice,” Trevor Johnson, a missionary with HeartCry Missionary Society, wrote to social media. “Our faith does, indeed, drive us to vigorous action, including social action and protecting the rights of the poor and oppressed. If there is injustice anywhere, we should be the first to address and rectify it.”

“I see lines being drawn on these issues and statements being made and signed, but it is important that we do not overstate our case,” he said. “The Church has always worked for justice and missionaries have always defended the rights of the poor and needy. Let’s defend the gospel, yes, but let’s remember that this gospel leads to action!”

WHAT CONSTITUTES ‘SOCIAL JUSTICE’?

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According to reports, Josh Buice of Pray’s Mill Baptist Church in Douglasville, Georgia organized a June meeting with other Reformed leaders in Dallas, Texas to discuss concerns surrounding the burgeoning secular “social justice” movement and how the world’s concept of justice had infected the Church.

The catalyst for the statement—though not provided in the statement itself—most significantly surrounded three recent matters: an open letter by Beth Moore calling for reformation in light of what she called “misogyny” against female leadership in the Church; the Revoice Conference in St. Louis, which centered on the Church and “gay Christians;” and the MLK50 conference in Memphis, which held forums on race relations and the Church—talks that had also been taking place online in the form of evangelicals advocating for racial reconciliation.

Ascol

In an interview with Christian News Network, Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Community Church in Cape Coral, Florida, explained that there were 14 participants in the meeting to talk about these developments. Out of that meeting, he said, Ascol was “tasked with coming up with the original draft and outline” that served to address the concerns discussed, honing in especially on the matters of homosexuality, racism and feminism.

The statement originally had 13 points, including sections on Scripture, God’s law, sin and salvation, and was shared with the others for input. Ascol said that after his draft was completed, Peters “felt very strongly” about inserting a section on the Church. Peters then wrote and submitted what is now Article VIII for inclusion.

“In view of questionable sociological, psychological, and political theories presently permeating our culture and making inroads into Christ’s Church, we wish to clarify certain key Christian doctrines and ethical principles prescribed in God’s word,” its introduction reads.

“Specifically, we are deeply concerned that values borrowed from secular culture are currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality,” it outlines. “The Bible’s teaching on each of these subjects is being challenged under the broad and somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for ‘social justice.’”

The statement also cites the matters of “intersectionality, radical feminism and critical race theory” as being concerns, contending that “socially-constructed standards of truth or morality, and notions of virtue and vice that are constantly in flux, cannot result in authentic justice.”

In addition to Buice, Ascol and Peters, “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” lists among the initial signers: John McArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California; Voddie Baucham of Grace Family Baptist Church in Houston, Texas; Phil Johnson, director of Grace to You; Anthony Mathenia, pastor of Christ Church in Radford, Virginia; and apologist James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries.

An introduction to the statement notates that these signers are “grieved” that they have to take “a stand against the positions of some teachers whom we have long regarded as faithful and trustworthy spiritual guides,” but does not identify who the spiritual guides are or the specific concerns about what they were doing.

Peters

Peters told Christian News that the framers purposefully decided not to include any names so as to give the individuals time to give consideration to their words, but advised that the statement also sought to generally address the “dangers that this movement poses and the undermining of the gospel, [the] undermining of the sufficiency of Scripture.”

While the statement sought to confront causes that are not authentic or biblical justice, because it did not define the term “social justice,” and denied that activities considered “political or social activism” are either “evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ,” concerns were raised among a number of readers regarding its implications.

“Definitions are important, and they have been very problematic in this conversation,” Ascol told Christian News Network, stating that evangelicals at large haven’t defined certain terms surrounding the matter. “That’s part of the problem, people use terms … like social justice, like gospel issue, like racism, without clear definitions that allow us to think biblically about them.”

However, he said that the group likewise didn’t define “social justice” in the statement for a reason, and that is because it only sought to address certain ideologies and not the concept as a whole.

“People have asked us why we didn’t give a definition for social justice, and our concern, as we try to state at the onset, are the ideologies that are flying under that banner,” Ascol explained. “People have all different kinds of ideas. Our focus was on the various philosophies and theologies that seem to be driving a lot of this movement that is flying under that banner of social justice.”

He said that the group wanted to also leave room for conscience and interpretation because various churches will do things differently and “would view cultural engagement in significantly different ways.” Ascol said that those at the meeting even had differences on how issues are to be addressed by the Church.

“There are some things that are not going to be defined precisely because we want people’s consciences to be free in those areas within given parameters, so that’s why the language is the way that it is,” Ascol explained.

Christian News asked Peters for a definition of “social justice” to understand what the statement sought to address.

“Essentially, the social justice movement is subtly trying to, if not completely, reorient the nature and the direction of the Church—at least to an extent—redirect it to be that the Church is to be concerned about social justice issues,” he said. “And it seems like the vast majority of the emphasis of this is on racial issues. There are some that are calling for reparations or restitutions, [and generally asserting] that the Church is to be engaged in social activism.”

“And this is just not the nature of the Church. It’s just not the Church’s mission,” Peters asserted. “It’s one of the reasons why I wrote Article VIII, is because all of us see a danger in the Church’s mission being sidetracked.”

He characterized “social justice” as “pushing for societal activism” and requiring others to get involved in the cause, while seeing oneself as oppressed. Peters said that for the evangelical version, he takes issue with those who would say that if you’re not “trying to right society,” for example, by “picketing” abortion facilities or talking to the women, then you are not living to your full potential as a Christian.

Christian News Network also sought to obtain clarity on the parameters of “social justice”—when a Christian crosses the line from simply being active in good works into “political or social activism,” and at what point the emphasis becomes inappropriate—but the distinctions remain unclear.

“I don’t know,” Ascol replied when asked if someone becomes what has been negatively referred to as a “social justice warrior” when there is heavy attention to social activism, including biblical justice matters. Peters was also asked when a person crosses “the border into ‘social justice’ activism, as opposed to simply carrying out the work that God has called for him or her to do”—such as William Wilberforce—and becomes a “social justician,” but a response to the question has not been received as of press time.

Timed with the release of the statement, lead signer John MacArthur delivered a sermon series about “social justice,” in which he defined “social justice” as “a term that describes the idea that everyone has the right to equal upward mobility … equal social privilege, equal finances or equal resources.”

He said that the concept refers to those who feel that they have been victimized in society, such as women, homosexuals and ethnic groups, as well as the rampant sensitivity to “micro-aggressions” on college campuses.

However, while his sermons mostly focused on warnings to the Church not to coddle the current “victim mentality” of the unsaved—outlining that men will never come to Christ if they view themselves as good people that have been victimized—MacArthur also spoke about social action in general, expressing a fear that attention to even good and positive “social work” by the Church could become a danger and a threat by taking the focus off the gospel.

He characterized the modern “social justice” movement as a “return to an old enemy,” pointing back to events not long after the Reformation when, he said, “great state churches, great denominations across Europe began to be assaulted and attacked by what was then social concerns.” MacArthur also pointed to a time in America “in the early 20th century as the major denominations in this country began to collapse and die.”

“There were people suffering, there were people who were poor, there were people who were needy, and the Church [felt it] needed to take care of that,” MacArthur outlined. “They needed to do social work, and eventually the social work would replace the gospel.”

“Well, this is another form of that. We are being caught up in what is socially needed in our society,” he said. “History would tell us that when it begins to make inroads into the Church, it doesn’t stop until the gospel has completely disappeared.”

MacArthur argued that some are trying to make such efforts a part of the gospel, and that it “does severe harm to genuine gospel efforts.” He also released several blog posts with similar statements, contending that there is a “current campaign to move social issues like ethnic conflicts and economic inequality to the top of the evangelical agenda,” and that the “detour in quest of ‘social justice’ is, I believe, the most subtle and dangerous threat so far.”

THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH

While much of MacArthur’s sermon series largely focused on how playing into the “victim mentality” of the lost hinders them from coming to Christ, an article released by organizer Josh Buice outlined that the statement was “not framed to address the secular culture’s version of social justice,” but to “point out the inaccuracies of the evangelical version.”

And while much of the document focuses on unbiblical calls for justice or reform in the Church, as well as philosophies borrowed from the world, Article VIII on the role of the Church—in contrast to the rest of the document—sought to address any and all “political or social activism” aimed at affecting change, stating that such is “not a central part of the Church’s mission.”

Article XIV also states that “lectures on social issues” have a tendency to be a “distraction” from the gospel.

“Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the Church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head,” Article VIII reads.

“And we emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the Church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel,” Article XIV outlines.

Peters, who wrote Article VIII on the Church, explained to Christian News that the framers of the statement are concerned that activism of any kind by the Church can deflect from the gospel, or worse. He said that the statement’s usage of the word “church” refers to the body of Christ “as expressed through local bodies.”

“The apostles lived under Roman Caesars that would make the worst of our leaders look like choir boys, and you don’t see them engaging the government of the day,” he said. “You don’t see them lobbying the Roman Senate or trying to get laws changed, and they lived under horrific persecution.”

“Their mission was to preach the gospel, evangelize the lost, teach sound doctrine, refute those who contradict, observe the ordinances—all the things that the Church should be doing. They did not busy themselves with trying create a more just or more fair society,” Peters stated. “Anytime that element gets into the Church, gets a foothold in the Church, it almost always, always, always without exception leads to theological liberalism.”

“This is really our primary concern,” he explained.

Trewhella

Matt Trewhella, pastor of Mercy Seat Christian Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, disagreed that the Church has to divorce itself from the political realm. He said that the Church has a responsibility before God to speak up when rulers make law contrary to God’s law, and that when the Church fails to do so, “wicked men put their thinking and policies into play” and the nation is overrun with evil because of it.

“It is a central part of the mission of the Church when the governments of men make law contrary to the law of God,” Trewhella told Christian News Network. “The Church cannot sit by and tolerate that. The Church has a duty as Christ’s ambassador to speak out to the civil magistrates and warn them about impugning God’s law and to call them to repentance and proper governance.”

“And so, we can sit there and wonder why our government is so awful and propagating so much evil, and just about every law they make is in complete contradiction to the law or word of God. The reason is because the Church has abandoned her duty to speak to the magistrates,” he stated.

Trewhella said that throughout the Scriptures, and in early Church history, the prophets, apostles and apologists always addressed the civil magistrates and reminded them that they must repent of their evil and rule in accordance with the law of God.

“The problem is the Church is sitting off over in the corner thinking they can ignore the civil realm. Well, the truth of the matter is the prophets addressed the civil realm,” Trewhella outlined. “We see in the New Testament that the apostles addressed the civil realm, the magistrates. And then, of course, the early Church [was] the same way. The apologists of old, who wrote from about 150 to 300 [A.D.], addressed their apologies to the civil magistrates to begin with—to the emperors, to the governors, to the Roman Senate—and then of course to the people themselves.”

“When you read the writings of the early churchmen, Psalm 2 was quoted over and over again,” he continued. “They expected Christianity to impact the nations. Even in the book of Acts, the apostles quote Psalm 2 in their prayer in Acts 4, which of course is talking about Christ, and how God is giving them nations, and how the kings should tremble at His rule.”

Ascol said that he believes that the Church should indeed be a “prophetic voice” into the government—speaking out in the name of Christ whether it does good or bad—but holds to the view that speaking into the government, or pursuing biblical justice or committing acts of charity, are not “a central part” of the mission of the Church or “primary to” it.

He advised that the statement is not meant to suggest that doing so is wrong.

“It’s not intended to be a statement that says that if the Church trains people or engages in specific declarations—which it certainly ought to do on social issues and justice issues and morality issues—that that’s wrong. Not at all,” he said. “The concern is that the Church not be a political action committee. It would lose its mission if that became central to its purpose.”

Christian News asked Ascol for a definition of “political or social activism” as used in Article VIII, and was advised that the term is “broad.”

“It can entail anything in our context from pulling a lever in a voting booth, to forming a political action committee, and lobbying congress,” he said.

When pressed further in inquiring whether speaking up for the unborn outside abortion facilities, for example, would be considered political activism, Ascol advised that he has done so himself, but reiterated his view that “it’s not integral to gospel ministry.”

“The Church has been given the responsibility to preach the gospel. Nobody else has that responsibility,” he stated. “Lots of other entities can do these other things and we applaud them when they do them well, and we’re not saying that we’re only citizens of Heaven and therefore we don’t participate in the city of man on earth—we certainly do. But that is not our primary calling, and things we do like that—political and social activism—grow out of our primary calling.”

Christian News Network inquired of Peters as to why Article VIII’s delineation of the role of the Church did not include caring for the poor, orphaned and widows as outlined in James 1:27 as being “pure and undefiled religion,” but a response was not received by press time. However, he affirmed during an initial interview that these aspects come naturally to a Christian, agreeing that such activities should be considered as among the duties of the Church.

“The social justice movement is different than that. They are pushing for social activism; you have to be involved. You have to see yourself as a victim; you have to see yourself as oppressed,” he said. “We’re talking more along the lines of trying to change the government, trying to busy ourselves with changing various laws, or that kind of thing. But just doing good for people who need help, of course, all of us would affirm that. I would affirm that as part of living out the Christian life.”

However, while Peters confirmed that the statement was borne out of concerns such as the Beth Moore letter, the Revoice conference and MLK50 (and similar discussions), it is unclear as to how those events relate to what Article VIII sought to communicate in regard to Christians having an “effect on the laws of a society.”

PRESENT-DAY BIBLICAL JUSTICE: THE ABORTION HOLOCAUST

Photo Credit: Seth Fargher

“If thou forbear to deliver them that are drawn unto death, and those that are ready to be slain, if thou sayest, ‘Behold, we knew it not,’ doth not He that pondereth the heart consider it? And He that keepeth thy soul, doth not He know it? And shall not He render to every man according to his works?” – Proverbs 24:11-12

Ascol said that various endeavors can be pursued individually, but advised that he doesn’t believe the function of the Church is to collectively be involved in social issues, such as abortion.

“That’s the way we do it in our church,” he explained. “We have people who are intimately involved in especially the abortion issue, but also other issues, of education and trying to do good here in our community and trying to help in situations where people haven’t been given very many opportunities. And we support them in that; we want our members to do that.”

“But that’s not going to be something that our church is going to [say], ‘As a church we’re going to go down and protest the abortion clinic,’” Ascol outlined. “We don’t think that’s the church’s function.”

“Individual members, absolutely,” he continued. “We want to educate them, we want to teach them what’s going on in the world, we want to help them to understand what’s going on in the school classrooms, and then empower them and educate them to act. And they will often do that by themselves, but we’re not going to put that on the church’s agenda.”

Ascol pointed to historical accounts of Christians 300 years after Christ’s resurrection rescuing babies who had been abandoned by their parents and left out in the elements—placed on an “exposure wall”—to die. He stated that there is no mention of such in the Scriptures and for a reason, contending that although the early Church was active in good works, it was not its focus.

“Abortion was going on in the first century. Christians were rescuing babies off the wall, and they were taking babies that were thrown out, but you don’t find anything in the letters (epistles) admonishing the churches to organize and protest and do these things as a central part of the mission,” Ascol said. “That’s the point. There’s a difference.”

However, Trewhella, who in addition to serving as pastor, has lead the organization Missionaries to the Preborn for 28 years, told Christian News that just because the Bible doesn’t cite the activity doesn’t lessen the importance of being active in such situations, or make it not “a central part” of the mission of the Church.

He said that he finds it “reprehensible,” although common, that churches are against being a collective public voice regarding moral issues. Trewhella’s church regularly schedules abortion outreach, and members will join him on the street when their availability allows. They go to universities, abortion facilities, and other locations to call men and women to repentance and faith in Christ.

He lamented that many modern American churches are all too eager to schedule recreational and entertainment outings as a congregation, but when someone mentions engaging in an activity that involves confronting evil in the world, they are often urged to simply stick to preaching.

“If you [as a pastor] announce that you’re interested in defending the preborn down at the abortion clinic, or going to some meeting to help defend marriage as God designed it between a man and a woman, or help some good candidate get elected, you immediately get this objection from pastors and churchmen who say, ‘Oh, we should just preach the gospel,’” he said.

“[T]hey don’t say that when you’re at church and someone says, ‘We’re going to have a potluck dinner.’ Nobody jumps up and says, ‘Wait a minute! We should just preach the gospel.’ Or when the church softball team is being organized, no one jumps up and says, ‘Oh, wait a second. We should just preach the gospel.’

“The only time they use that slogan … is when you want to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ into conflict with the culture, when you want to actually love your neighbor out at the abortion clinic, or defend the created order of God regarding marriage,” he mourned. “And it’s meant to neutralize Christians from being involved in the civic realm.”

Trewhella said that his children have asked numerous local youth groups to show a video on abortion, but not one has been willing to do so.

Green

Dennis Green of Life and Liberty Ministries, who has been active in ministering outside abortion facilities for nearly 30 years, made similar remarks as Trewhella. Green was arrested numerous times for peacefully sitting with others in front of the doors of abortion facilities to prevent the murder of babies during the “rescues” of the 1990s, and has regularly been accompanied by his children in his local efforts to reach abortion-minded women with biblical truth and the gospel.

“All these churches have a fellowship meal, or they’ll have a scheduled softball game or a scheduled picnic,” he outlined. “Why is scheduling a softball game more important than scheduling saving a child from being decapitated?”

“So often, those things that feed our flesh, we make those priorities, and it sounds really pious to say it’s all about the gospel, but we’re really slow to do the things we’re biblically commanded,” Green lamented. “[And] we won’t address the things that we do schedule that the Bible says nothing about.”

The late 19th century preacher Alexander Maclaren, dubbed “The Prince of Expositors,” likewise sorrowed over the lack of action of the churches in his day, writing in his commentary on Proverbs 24:11-12 that while there were those “drawn unto death” and “ready to be slain” within “earshot of our churches and chapels,” it would be an “exaggeration to say that the bulk of our congregations cast even a languid eye of compassion” on them.

He similarly proclaimed in his sermon “The Christian Attitude to Social Sins” that it is the responsibility of the Church to address the sins of a community and nation.

“[I]f Christian people think they have done all their duty, in regard of clamant and common iniquities, by simply abstaining from them and presenting a nobler example, they have yet to learn one very important chapter of their duty,” he declared. “A dumb church is a dying church, and it ought to be. For Christ has set us here in order, among other things, that we may bring Christian principles to bear upon the actions of the community, and not be afraid to speak when we are called upon by conscience to so.”

“[I]f Christian people would only hold up the mirror of Christian principle to the hosts of evil things that afflict our city and our country, they would vanish like ghosts at sunrise. They cannot stand the light, therefore, let us cast the light upon them.”

Both Green and Trewhella agreed, as have all in the conversation, that the proclamation of the gospel is first and foremost. However, they believe it must be made clear that it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation when it comes to preaching the gospel and confronting societal ills.

Green stated that there is no dichotomy in the Bible, pointing to James 2:17, which declares that “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” He also cited Matthew 28:20, in which Christ instructed His disciples to teach the nations “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”

“[The gospel] needs to be the motivating factor, and also speaking the gospel must be central,” Green outlined. “The primary goal of the Church is to, of course, tell about salvation. … [But] you can still be going about the gospel work, and fulfilling this command of God, doing one without having a heart to do the other. I don’t see that in Scripture.”

He said that he preaches repentance and faith while being a voice for the voiceless, as instructed in Proverbs 31:8.

“I’m not there protesting. …. We’re there to offer help and preach the gospel,” Green explained. “I would say if I was only trying to save babies, is that a good thing? Yes. It would still be a good thing. But I think the Scripture commands us to do more than that. We must go preach the gospel. So, we do that and save babies, both of which are commanded in Scripture.”

Trewhella recalled that when he first started confronting the issue of abortion in the public arena, a number of pastors sought to advise him that he had to choose between simply preaching the gospel and going out on the streets to turn women from the sin of murder.

“I had many older ministers tell me, ‘Oh Matt, you’re either going to have to quit the ministry and do ‘this abortion thing,’ or quit this abortion thing and get back to just preaching the gospel, because you can’t do both,’” he recalled.

Trewhella said that he continued on anyway, finding that his opportunities to preach the gospel actually were expanded because he stepped out from behind the pulpit to go where the lost are.

“What I found was that by my getting involved in defending the preborn … it provided me more opportunities than ever to talk to people about Jesus Christ and to point men to Him,” he outlined. “It was not an either/or, it was a both/and. I could speak up on behalf of my preborn neighbor and be a pastor.”

Trewhella stated that, contrary to Article XIV, preaching on the sins of a nation does not distract from the gospel.

“When mere history or theory is talked about, they could possibly be distractions,” he acknowledged, “but when evil is in the land, it’s not a distraction [to preach about it] as it must be confronted. We have to confront it when we see actual evil in the land.”

“For us to say, ‘Well, this whole matter about the slaughter of the preborn, that’s distracting us from the mission of the Church,’ is ludicrous because of the fact that God’s word says ‘You shalt not murder,’ and the governments of men have said, ‘You can murder in this case,’” Trewhella opined. “For us to be silent, to me, is sinful. He who knows to do good and does it not to him it is sin. We know this murder is wrong. We have a duty to speak up about it.”

That’s not to say that every Christian has to be physically present at an abortion facility, Green said, noting that there are a variety of ways to help others and confront evil, and not everyone will be doing the same thing.

“People have to be taking care of the widows and feeding the [hungry], and doing everything else, but they should be doing it,” Green stated. “They should be active in some role of the Church, and I don’t think that makes them a second-tier Christian where they’re just doing the social thing. That’s the world’s construct.”

DEBATE AND DIVISION

In the days that have followed since the release of “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” many opinions have been published and much debate stirred over its text. The statement has generated agreement from over 9,000 signers as of press time, such as those who opine that it is “necessary [because] it deals with the topic from the starting point of Scripture” and “it does not prescribe a set of overly specific applications or attempt to micromanage Christians’ consciences.”

“I believe the statement could … serve to flush out both theological extremists who are a threat to the gospel, as well as pragmatic opportunists who might be so concerned about or swayed by public opinion—or perhaps being perceived as a bad ‘ally’ to other Christian or even secular ‘social justice’ advocates—that they are unwilling to stand for basic biblical truth,” wrote Hohn Cho, who attends MacArthur’s church.

Some believe that the statement downplays the role of the Church in society and conflates bad and good activism with no affirmation of the latter, and others argue that it simply seeks to keep the gospel front and center and doesn’t necessarily state that “social justice” is bad.

Dustin Messer, a senior fellow of theology at the Center for Cultural Leadership, wrote in a post on the Kuyperian Commentary website that while he believes “identity politics” are an “acid that’s leaving the fabric of our culture threadbare,” he also had reservations about signing the statement and decided not to do so.

“Words go undefined and assumed, leaving the reader unsure as to who or what is actually being rebuked,” Messer opined. “And then there’s the generally condescending attitude toward any sort of activism.”

He also said that he disagrees that preaching on societal issues leads to a departure from the gospel, as Article XIV states, since one can show the Bible’s applicability to current situations and prevalent societal sins in expositing the text. Messer also noted that Scripture takes issue with those who separate hearing from doing.

“Because of the inherent nature of Scripture, the preacher doesn’t have to apply the text, per se; rather, he has to show the text’s applicability,” Messer stated. “Thus, the line between expositing the passage and exhorting the people is always blurred. Indeed, the book of James demolishes the sort of hermeneutic that siloes hearing from doing.”

Joel McDurmon of American Vision said that he could not sign the statement, expressing concern that it provides no “alternative” to the secular world’s concept of “justice,” and doesn’t define exactly what the framers are against.

“While there is much in it that is agreeable, the document has flaws that will produce serious consequences,” he wrote.

“I will not sign the document for several reasons, among them: The document leaves crucial terms undefined. The document nevertheless makes spiritual judgments and condemnations based upon undefined terms. The document combines disparate social issues (race, marriage, sexuality) under one overgeneralized label. The document marginalizes Christian social responsibility. The statement and its theology provide no alternative.”

And Ryan Burton King, pastor of Grace Baptist Church Wood Green in London, said that he was sent a draft of “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” and asked to sign it, but declined to do so. He published several blog posts on both the statement and MacAthur’s blog series.

In regard to Article VIII on the Church, King argued that while political or social activism are not “integral” to the gospel, they “may very well be an integral component of the ministry of love and compassion given to the Church.”

“My Bible does not only tell me of a ‘Great Commission,’ but a ‘Great Commandment’, and acting like our focus on the former can excuse our horrific inattention to the latter would doubtless raise Christ’s righteous indignation,” he stated. “The scribes and Pharisees preached the law, but they didn’t have love for their fellow man. ‘Woe to you,’ Jesus cried.”

He also disagreed that such activities are a threat to the gospel. His writings focused on the issue of racism, which he believes is a valid topic that should not be dismissed from discussion, as there are those who remain concerned that Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in America.”

“[N]one of the people who have been most targeted by some of those involved in this statement are replacing preaching with lectures or evangelism with activism,” King said of Article XIV on racism. “They are, in light of so much biblical teaching, seeking to redress the balance from preaching and telling the needy and oppressed ‘be warmed and filled,’ to preaching and giving the needy the compassion and help they require.”

“This does not lead to a departure from the gospel (examine the lives and ministries of William Carey and Charles Spurgeon for example),” he contended, “but leads to a demonstration of gospel-transformed love in the life of the Church that further adorns the gospel tree with branches laden with good fruit.”

CLARIFICATION

Ascol acknowledged that the statement’s wording that it is not “a central part” of the Church’s mission to be involved in social activism could be misunderstood, since it doesn’t state that it is not “the” central part.

He and Peters also agreed that while Article VIII denies that various political or social activism “activities are … evidence of saving faith,” being active in society for the good is indeed evidence of saving faith—just not the determining factor that someone is saved.

“Christians ought to do these things, but unbelievers can do these things [too]. So, it’s not an infallible evidence,” Ascol explained.

“I would seriously question anyone’s conversion if they are not grieved by [people being mistreated],” Peters stated. However, “Just because someone is working for Habitat for Humanity or working in a soup kitchen, or doing things that in and of themselves are good and [that] we would affirm, doesn’t mean that the person’s a Christian. That’s the thrust of what’s being said there.”

Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible, written by British theologian Adam Clarke, who was an outspoken opponent of slavery, wrote in his commentary on Hebrews 13:16, “Praise, prayer, and thanksgiving to God, with works of charity and mercy to man, are the sacrifices which every genuine follower of Christ must offer, and they are the proofs that a man belongs to Christ, and he who does not bear these fruits gives full evidence, whatever his creed may be, that he is no Christian.”

Ascol said that he believes that just because the word “infallible” isn’t in the declaration “doesn’t make it untrue,” but “maybe it makes it less clear.” Peters stated that perhaps the point could have been expounded upon more clearly if he had more room, but was limited by the statement format.

Ascol outlined that Article VIII on the Church was likely the most debated of all the sections of the statement.

“We had clear differences—not that they are in opposition to each other—but we do have differences on how the churches should handle these issues collectively as a body,” he explained. “But, what we have is kind of the final consensus on that—that we believe that all of us could agree to, even though each one of us would probably say it in more distinctive ways if we were just writing it for our own assemblies.”

Ascol noted that the statement is a consensus document and is not infallible. He explained that churches vary in their approach as there are “those who are very socially and politically engaged … on one end and those who are pietistic on the other end,” and that the statement sought to be inclusive, not exclusive, in that regard.

He told Christian News that he believes Christians should take the statement for what it says, and not what it doesn’t state about engaging in efforts for biblical justice or good works.

A CALL TO BALANCE AND THE HISTORICITY OF MISSIONS

Johnson

Trevor Johnson, missionary with HeartCry Missionary Society, called for balance in light of concerns he saw from those on both sides of the matter. He told Christian News Network that it’s not an either/or issue when it comes to preaching the gospel and helping the orphaned, poor and widow—including through confronting what might be deemed political and social issues.

“I am a preacher of the gospel, but we should never separate ministry in word from ministry in deed,” Johnson said.

A Missouri native, Johnson lives among a remote tribe in Indonesia, where he has been helping to meet both the spiritual and physical needs of the people.

“I am there as a church-planting missionary, but in remote and poor areas, the ministry must be more holistic and there is no way to ‘just preach the gospel,’” he stated. “Christian compassion compels us to love the whole person. How can we not help the sick, or not feed the hungry, or not stand up for those we love?”

In addition to preaching and baptizing new believers, Johnson has also helped open a school and a health clinic, and is working to send nurses and teachers into those facilities to provide aid where such services are lacking. Johnson also recently helped to defend the land rights of a tribe in the Mamberamo region where outsiders were stealing crocodiles used to feed the people and support Bible translation projects.

“Missionaries have always been socially active, and our faith should never be merely academic but activistic as well,” he stated, providing several historical examples.

“The Baptist father of modern missions, William Carey, went to India to preach the Gospel and yet he engaged in a number of social issues as well, helping to end the evil practice of widow-burning. That little band of English Baptists that included William Carey and Andrew Fuller and others who launched the modern missionary movement also boycotted eating anything with white sugar in it because sugar was procured through the evil slave trade,” Johnson explained.

He also pointed to missionaries to Asia who, by the grace of God, successfully ended the practice of foot-binding on young girls, which deformed their feet. Johnson said that he is currently working to end child marriage among the remote tribe where he ministers.

Johnson shared quotes from the late Charles Spurgeon, a world-renowned 19th century British preacher often referred to as the “Prince of Preachers,” who, according to The Spurgeon Center, dedicated a significant amount of his attention and income to what some might have considered “activism.” He founded ministries to prostitutes and police officers, two orphanages and 17 almshouses for widows, and funded the Home Rescue Society for abused women.

In his sermon “Christ’s Word From the Cross,” Spurgeon declared that the church does not exist that men may give grand speeches or that those in the pews may “sit comfortably” in hearing words that will “pass away their Sundays with pleasure,” but to reach others.

“A church … which does not exist to do good in the slums, and dens, and kennels of the city, is a church that has no reason to justify its longer existing,” he stated. “A church that does not exist to reclaim heathenism, to fight with evil, to destroy error, to put down falsehood, a church that does not exist to take the side of the poor, to denounce injustice and to hold up righteousness, is a church that has no right to be.”

Johnson advised that he was recently wrongfully labeled a “socialist” for taking this position on missions. Paul Washer, the founder of HeartCry Missionary Society, said in a video posted to YouTube last month that discusses the work of Johnson and a fellow missionary to Indonesia:

“I know something of these two men, and I know that the gospel is their passion. And yet, I understand that at times they have come under criticism just because they’re meeting the medical and physical needs of the people also. What I find is that they have a perfect balance. It’s hard to witness to people when they die when they’re one year old. And so, the work they are doing, I think is right according to Scripture.”

Washer’s name was reportedly among the signers of the statement, but it was later removed. It is not known why.

Johnson said that what concerns him the most in light of debate following the release of the statement is that some on both sides are compartmentalizing the Great Commission from the Great Command.

“While we are trying to bless the peoples here on all fronts, I’ve been horrified to read social media and see American Christians begin to dig in their heels and give ‘either/or’ answers instead of ‘both/and’ solutions. I believe American Christians are dichotomizing issues that should not be dichotomized,” he stated. “It is not a matter of choosing justice or preaching the gospel.”

“My views on justice are that Christians are to always be striving for justice,” Johnson outlined. It’s just that “modern ‘social justice’ is not the same as true biblical justice.”

He shared an article written by the late theologian and pastor R.C. Sproul, who was a good friend of John MacArthur and also wrote about the 1900’s social activism push in the Church, but highlighted the matter from a different angle than what MacArthur preached in his sermon on “social justice.”

Sproul stated that while the apostate churches who were only focused on “social justice” were indeed a concern, the Church’s reaction was also faulty in that many consequently withdrew from ministries of compassion so as not to be involved in social activism and thereby appear liberal.

“Many evangelicals at this period in history, in order to preserve the central significance of the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, gave renewed emphasis to evangelism,” he explained. “In many cases, this emphasis upon evangelism was done to the exclusion of the other pole of biblical concern, namely, mercy ministry to those who were poor, afflicted, and suffering.”

“So glaring was the dichotomy between liberal and evangelical concerns that, sadly, many evangelicals began to distance themselves from any involvement in mercy ministries, lest their activities be construed as a surrender to liberalism,” Sproul lamented. “The fallacy of the false dilemma takes two important truths and forces one to choose between them.”

He emphasized that the Church should not be urged to choose between the two.

“The problem with this fallacy, as with all fallacies, is that truth becomes severely distorted,” Sproul said. “The New Testament does not allow for this false dilemma. The choice that the Church has is never between personal salvation and mercy ministry. It is rather a both/and proposition. Neither pole can be properly swallowed by the other. To reduce Christianity either to a program of social welfare or to a program of personal redemption results in a truncated gospel that is a profound distortion.”

Dennis Green, apart from his abortion outreach ministry in the United States, also has served as a missionary to China for 14 years with Crumbing China. He agreed that Christianity entails both.

“The Son of God Himself brought that up, like, ‘This is [central] to love God and love your neighbor,’” he said. “That’s more than preaching from the pulpit that you should love your neighbor and hoping that your congregation will get in line; that’s to act in love.”

Green said that the Great Commission and the Great Command go hand-in-hand. He stated one without the other—whether good works with no gospel, or the gospel with no good works—is problematic and unbiblical.

“Preaching the gospel: absolutely essential. Obeying the word preached: absolutely essential. Equally so. He doesn’t ask us to do things separated from the gospel truth. He doesn’t ask us with head knowledge to preach biblical truth while not acting out what we say we believe,” Green stated.

“When there is a separation, you can have things like slavery and abortion and all these so-called social evils because the Church is having a Sunday School lesson about how they shouldn’t do it, but those kind of sins are raging … [and] they don’t have a prophetic voice of the Church speaking out against them consistently. They’re just talking to each other about it.”

He agreed that, for example, if blacks were being lynched as they once were, or if there was known sex trafficking across the street, the Church must work to put a stop to it out of love for their neighbor.

“Pretty much, if you go into other nations where there is sex trafficking, or [the] forced abortions in China, the Church has become acclimated because this whole generation has been raised with forced abortion. They don’t raise their voice. Very few raise their voice and most of the Church just falls in line,” Green lamented. “It’s like a frog in the water. It gets worse and worse and worse, and you acclimate yourself to the wickedness of society and you just don’t speak out.”

While the Church is often silent against evil in the present day, he noted that there have been times in ages past where the Church, by the grace of God, was credited with defeating evil.

“Anytime someone follows through [with living out their faith], whether it be with [confronting] child sacrifice, or in the first centuries with children being left out to die, or slavery, or feeding the hungry or clothing the naked, largely worldwide—in every culture—the ones leading the way are the Church,” Green said. “And they preach the gospel, and there’s multitudes saved. It’s just following the way that Jesus lived.”

“Not so very long ago our nation tolerated slavery in our colonies. Philanthropists endeavored to destroy slavery, but when was it utterly abolished? It was when Wilberforce roused the Church of God, and when the Church of God addressed herself to the conflict—then she tore the evil thing to pieces!” Charles Spurgeon declared in his 1883 sermon “The Best War Cry.”

“I have been amused with what Wilberforce said the day after they passed the Act of Emancipation. He merrily said to a friend when it was all done, ‘Is there not something else we can abolish?’ That was said playfully, but it shows the spirit of the Church of God! She lives in conflict and victory—her mission is to destroy everything that is bad in the land!” he said.

Spurgeon himself had preached strongly against slavery in the United States, and according to reports, his pulpit refutations of man-stealing were burned by those in the American South, and such animosity was stirred against his words that some sought to kill him. One op-ed published in The Weekly Raleigh Register in 1860 also asserted that “anyone selling Spurgeon’s sermons in Raleigh should be arrested and charged with ‘circulating incendiary publications.’”

NOT LESS ACTION, BUT MORE—AND OF A BETTER TYPE

Green told Christian News that he wishes “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” solely addressed “the true issues that truly are being separated from the gospel or separated from the commands of God, being real careful not to promote inactivity with regard to those things we should be fighting.”

Johnson said that he largely likes the statement, and is grieved that a conflict exists over the matter, but would just “like to see a better statement written which both condemns the Marxist categories of ‘social justice’ even while vigorously encouraging Christians to do more in all realms of life.”

“We need greater involvement in the world, not less,” he said. “There is no ‘Benedict Option’ for Christians. We must remain engaged—now more than ever. I am afraid Christians will get concerned about wrong conceptions of justice and shrink back from this realm, when the answer is not less social action, but more action, and of a better type.”

Editor’s Note: Johnson’s comments are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of HeartCry Missionary Society.


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