Is John MacArthur Right About Social Justice? (Part 1 of 6)
“True Christian salvation involves a simultaneous turning toward God and humanity… When we submit to God, we submit to the common good.” Tim Suttle
Pushing back on a John MacArthur teaching is like challenging Steph Curry to a little one-on-one! But in this case I can’t help myself. Brother Mac is and always has been the real deal. He’s a passionate lover of Jesus and brilliant teacher of truth, at least insofar as he sees it. But I have to take exception to his take on the concept of “social justice” in his sermon series called: “Social Justice and the Gospel.”
As much respect as I have for him and his ministry, I intend in this series of my own to refute his theses that social justice is not a biblical idea, that anyone who seeks justice in a “whiner,” and that the only way to preach the gospel is to rub people’s noses in their sin.
I agree with him Mac that there are some pretty anemic versions of Christianity out there along with a lot of weak presentations of the gospel by preachers. Grace may be free, but it doesn’t come cheap. It cost Jesus his all to provide it and requires our all to live into it. I also concur with his stated and restated thesis that sin is sin and sinners are sinners. Nobody gets a pass for bad behavior by blaming-shifting onto others. We have to own our own stuff and release it to Jesus who paid for it in full. Brother Mac and I run parallel on these things.
But after reading the transcripts of each of his sermons in this series I have to say that I think he has deviated from a biblical worldview in regard to the themes of social justice, compassion for the vulnerable, and the role of the gospel witness. With a decidedly adversarial tone he claims that “social justice” isn’t even found in the Bible but is a socialistic transplant from secular society into the Church. He says therefore that preachers who are faithful to the gospel will eschew it altogether.
He goes on to attack as “whiners” all those who claim to have been victimized, whether by a person or by an unjust system. With broad and clumsy strokes Brother Mac paints those who disagree with him into a theological corner. As a street-preaching, Bible-teaching, social justice-advocating follower of Jesus I respectfully reject each of these claims.
Just as it took him several sermons to unpack his opinions it will take at least half a dozen posts for me to pose mine. These topics are not only dear to my heart, but are some of the very things that I believe the Evangelical Church gets wrong these days, which reduces the advance of the kingdom and depletes our reputation in the world. I say with all due respect that this sagely preacher gets it wrong in a few places and I mean to share why I think so. [FYI: Since I’ll quote him throughout, feel free to read or listen to his sermons for yourself and see whether or not I’m being true to their context.]
First of all, Mr. Mac says, “Social justice … is part of classic socialism.” Not true. The Bible is replete with examples and commands for believers to live justly in society and to preach it as an indispensible component of Christ’s kingdom. Of all the sins that roiled the prophets, besides idolatry, injustice in a social context was at the top of their list. Scan Isaiah through Malachi and see for yourself.
We can’t rightly separate personal piety from social justice. This alleged split between spiritual and social leads to a warped view of Scripture and eludes kingdom ethics. For instance, Amos condemned social injustice and sexual sin in the same breath, “They trample the heads of the poor; father and son go in to the same girl.” (Amos 2:7).
Brother Mac relegates “social justice” to the liberal wings of the Church and has written off their emphasis as a “salvation by works.” Those Liberals only care about the poor because they’re trying to work their way to heaven! Though, in some cases, there is some truth in that broad-brush allegation, it doesn’t expunge the biblical mandate for the justified to “do justly.” God requires, says Micah, not only that we “walk humbly with God,” but that we “do justly and love mercy.” (Micah 6:8)
Mr. Mac throws the proverbial baby out with bath water and seems to consider doing works of justice as extracurricular in favor of doing the real work of the church. Social reform is to him and his dispensational theology, “polishing the brass on a sinking ship.” The idea is that since the world will just get worse and worse till Jesus returns, we have no responsibility to make this a place that better reflects God’s new order and a better place for us and future generations. His is a “left behind” theology that relegates the world to such certain destruction that there’s nothing that can or should be done to abate it is a fatalistic theology to which I don’t ascribe.
“I think the church now must be more vigorously engaged in Scripture, after having been lazy for a very long time,” says Walter Brueggemann. “And the church must do a much better job of social analysis than we have done, because very many church people think that social analysis feels like communism. And clearly the prophets were doing social analysis before anybody ever heard of Karl Marx.”
Brother Mac’s gospel is, in my opinion, simply too individualistic and fatalistic. It is individualistic because it is only about me and God, and how my sins will be atoned. It is fatalistic because I won’t get the benefits of it until I die.
“The typical evangelical gospel is a gospel built for death,” says Tim Suttle. “But the gospel Jesus preached was a gospel built for life.”
Richard Stearns, CEO of World Vision says “There’s a hole in our gospel.” To my thinking, ours is not a “full gospel” until it improves the world. Following Jesus requires much more than just having a personal and transforming relationship with God. It also involves a public and transforming relationship with the world.
BTW, in case you think I have no value for evangelism, I refer you to my book on that topic: Reaching Rahab: Joining God In His Quest For Friends.
Next time we’ll talk about “Doing Justice to Justice.” Stay tuned… In the meantime, feel free to affirm or refute my thinking on this. I’d love to hear from you.