Commentary
By Bekah McNeel 9-07-2018

In my time as a student at The Master’s College, I consistently found John MacArthur to be sharp, winsome, and gracious. I sat under his teaching — both in weekday chapel and Sunday church services. It ministered to my heart in profound ways.

MacArthur, at least as I remember him, is not a bitter old man. But he sure sounds like one in his blog series, “Social Injustice to the Gospel.” In fact he sounds exactly like my grandfather who repeatedly says, “I don’t see why everything has to be about race all the time.”

MacArthur is also the lead signatory of “For the Sake of Christ and His Church: The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel.” That document is a shareable, signable version of his blog series.

The blog series describes the social justice movement as “the most subtle and dangerous threat” to the gospel that MacArthur has ever seen. He also expresses surprise at how “suddenly” the movement sprang up within the church, as though publications like Sojourners have not been around for decades. It is the kind of reactionary blustering typical of the contemporary evangelical church, which ignores all prophetic voices until people start listening to them, and then burns them at the stake.

MacArthur’s own beliefs about the total depravity of man should be helpful to him here, as they were helpful to me as an arrogant college student. He says he hates racism — but neatly categorizes it as the territory of the KKK and other such overt bigotry, and thus he misses a great chance to talk about how sin has broken our core institutions in this country and led to the oppression of millions.

The fact that he passed on that chance, and then wrote a blog post chastising those who have not, is less surprising when you consider the conservative church’s long history of blowing it when it comes to race. MacArthur is only the most recent in a long line of white evangelicals to stumble over racial injustice, and lead the church away from repentance, reconciliation, and deeper application of the gospel.

While the Statement focused on the pantheon of progressive causes — feminism, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, etc. — the blog series seems to focus most on racial justice. He has not yet published the posts explaining his gospel-centered alternative to social justice, his interpretation of “Biblical justice.” However, he has set the stage for his argument using five of the tried and true fallacies that have been sheltering injustice in the church for centuries.

argumentum ad ignorantiam

“I thought the evangelical church was living out true unity in Christ without regard for race. That has certainly been my experience in every church I’ve ever been part of, and it’s also what I have seen in the wider evangelical world.”

MacArthur’s understanding of social justice is rooted, of course, in his own experience as a white, straight, man who has made a living being listened to, and treated as a minor celebrity by most of the people he comes into contact with on a daily basis. From that vantage point, I guess, saying “we’re one in Christ” pretty much solves it.

Given that his enormous church is in Los Angeles, it’s a safe bet that more than one of his black congregants has been the target of racism, however subtle or explicit, at the hands of another evangelical. That’s just a guess, based on the testimony of black and Hispanic people, and observation of white people.

Tone policing

“The evangelicals who are saying the most and talking the loudest these days about what’s referred to as “social justice” seem to have a very different perspective. Their rhetoric certainly points a different direction, demanding repentance and reparations from one ethnic group for the sins of its ancestors against another.” (emphasis mine)

Again, MacArthur is just the latest in a long line of failed leadership on the issue. It was Billy Graham, in an op-ed for the New York Times, who said that Martin Luther King Jr. needed to “put the brakes on a little bit.”

Or perhaps we should discuss the public flogging of Beth Moore, and the #churchtoo movement, and how many times pastors have essentially told women to stop talking.

The evangelical church typically hates when people get up in arms over injustice. They’d rather them get all fiery over things like pre- or supra-lapsarianism.

I can’t help but imagine these pastors walking up to Jesus, mid-table-flip, and telling him to calm down and stop hating on capitalism.

For a man like MacArthur who has spent his life, as the blog series points out, debating the minutia of non-salvific doctrine on the basis of the “slippery slope” argument, telling people to calm down about subtle, embedded biases that have scaffolded and supported generations of hate and oppression is … weird.

But humbly standing aside, deferring to brothers and sisters of color, is very difficult for some pastors as they seem to think that it is their unique burden to speak with authority on every single issue as an objective voice. Many pastors cannot seem to acknowledge that they are gendered, racial beings with a particular place in society. They genuinely think that they come to the application of the Bible tabula rasa, uncorrupted by their own experience.

Genetic fallacy

“ … as the issue of racial division has become more and more a focus in the secular academy and in the news media, evangelicals eager to engage the culture have taken up the issue. Unfortunately, many who have spoken on this issue have simply echoed the wisdom of this world rather than addressing the issue in a truly gospel-centered way. ” (emphasis mine)

I’ve been accused of this personally, when my fellow Master’s College/University alumni have read work I’ve done for Relevant online. As much as I’ve searched and searched for what the Bible says about how to address restrictive housing covenants, police brutality, and inhumane immigration policies within a constitutional republic, I just can’t find it. I have to borrow some terms coined by non-Christians. I also use terms like “Judeo-Christian ethics” and “pro-life,” both of which were coined by atheists (George Orwell and Erich Fromm, respectively).

MacArthur would like to see the church, “just stick to the gospel.” This argument comes up a lot on social media whenever a pastor posts something about social justice. But no one seems to complain when the church spends 10 weeks talking about marriage, or three weeks on stewardship, or five weeks on parenting — all things that the Bible addresses far less frequently and clearly than God’s views on poverty and oppression.

Racial justice was the stumbling block that led denominations to split, with the Northern branches focusing on abolition, and the Southern branches, not wanting to discomfort the economics of their congregants, turning their attention to personal holiness, so as not to be distracted by social justice issues.

Because social justice is regaining some momentum after being sort of a niche battleground for a few decades following the civil rights movement, MacArthur insists that churches are only speaking up about it out of pragmatism — the desire to please the culture and fill their pews. As a product of the culture wars of the 1980 and 90s, he might be confusing his old foil — the academy — for culture at large. (Also, as a product of the culture wars, I don’t know if MacArthur and his contemporaries know how to correctly perceive their relationship to power, which is far more cozy than oppressed.) Given their support for Donald Trump and their feelings on Colin Kaepernick, one might argue that evangelicals are the demographic least enamored with social justice, and that ranting against it is far more likely to fill the pews.

ignoratio elenchi

“It’s quite common these days for Christian leaders addressing this issue to call for people who have never harbored a racist thought to confess the guilt of racism because their ancestors may have been racists. Expressions of repentance have been demanded of white evangelicals for no actual transgression, but because they are perceived to have benefited from ‘white privilege.’ Supposedly, their skin color automatically makes them culpable for the racism of the past.”

This is another tired argument, and one most certainly not derived from the Bible, which is replete with references to collective culpability and corruption. Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, the social justice movement has never been about the individual racist, but about the social systems built to advantage some and disadvantage others. We may not have stolen, but many of us have made our fortune on top of ill-gotten gain.

I’m speaking against myself here as well. I’m the land-owning descendant of land-owning Southerners and slave owners. When it’s reparations time, believe me, I owe.

MacArthur places quotation marks around white privilege in the same way that many white folks deride the same phrase on Twitter. Because they have either worked hard or struggled, they say they did not feel the effects of white privilege. This is a total misunderstanding of white privilege — which only means that your skin color has never been used against you in a material way.

Of course MacArthur has white privilege. And male privilege. He has used it toward a noble end, pushing the gospel into places it was desperately needed and would not have been heard if it came from a woman or a person of color. But now he, like Christians for hundreds of years, has reached his limit. With him go 4,400 other pastors, according to Relevant online, a testimony to the respect and esteem he has earned among his colleagues, and how devastating this failure may be.

Straw man

“Americans’ contempt for racial bigotry is now so acute that even accidental cultural or ethnic insensitivity is regularly met with the same resentment as blind, angry racism—and even a simple social gaffe is likely to be treated the same as bigotry.”

This is an overstatement, unless MacArthur has some particularly bellicose friends. Yes, a handful of college campuses have become problematically vigilant in some cases. Yes activists are becoming bolder in calling people out. I don’t doubt that it feels fraught, especially for a man who perceives himself to be faultless in this regard.

As someone who writes regularly and publicly about inequity, race, and social issues, I feel his pain. No sooner have I congratulated myself on my wokeness, than I get some email about how I’ve screwed up. It always hurts. I always get huffy (and steer clear of Twitter).

Life got a whole lot easier when I started taking the criticism and considering how others must feel, when I stopped clinging to my woke-righteousness, and started being open to the fact that I might have some growing to do — when I remembered that my heart was deceitful and desperately wicked.

Ironically, it was the church where I learned that verse from Jeremiah. Those reprimands on microagressions or implicit bias are no more harsh than the pastor who quotes to us that “our hearts are idol factories” or the Christian counselor who reminds us that all of our troubles are rooted in sin.

In this very blog series, MacArthur suggests that in adopting “rock-concert formats” the church is “pathologically addicted to the sin of desiring the praise of men.”

Again, it only feels needlessly aggressive when you thought you were without fault.

It’s clear from MacArthur’s opening anecdote in the opening blog post of his social injustice series, as well as from his occasional mentions of the diversity of his own church, that he holds his own anti-racist credibility in high regard. He’s in the twilight of his career, and it’s possible that his legacy is on his mind.

But if John MacArthur taught me anything, it’s that being confronted with our tendency toward sin — or our unintentional support for sinful institutions, or our sins of omission — is the tip of the spear, and we, as Christians, are the ones who should be using our security in Christ to lean harder, let it pierce our hearts, because we know that we are already forgiven, already redeemed, already reconciled; and we are called to work out that salvation in the world.

Bekah McNeel is a freelance journalist living in San Antonio, Texas. She reports on education, immigration, and inequity. In addition to local beat reporting, her work has been published with The Christian Science Monitor, The Texas Tribune, The Hechinger Report, and the 74 Million. She can be found on Twitter at @BekahMcneel and on her blog at www.bekahmcneel.com.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"The Latest Evangelical 'Statement' and a History of Stumbling on Racial Justice"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

Must Reads

Subscribe