I’ve spent the last three days in Nashville at the Getty Music Sing! 2018 Conference. I was there with about 8,000 of my closest friends (including this rowdy group).
(present, but not pictured is our photographer, Matt Gurney)
The conference was all about the subject of worship: Personal, family and corporate. And it was about where music, and specifically, the book of Psalms, fits into how we worship.
I drove home this afternoon, processing much of what we heard and experienced at the conference. I also spent time meditating on the last half of Esther 1 in preparation for our time of corporate worship this Sunday.
I will likely have thoughts to share with you about the event in coming days. But this week, I want to turn over the opening part of this newsletter to someone else. Someone I respect greatly and someone who has helped me think through how we apply the scriptures on a wide variety of biblical issues. He’s a pastor from North Carolina named Kevin DeYoung. And if you haven’t read any of his books or you’re not following his blog, I’d recommend him as someone you should get to know.
Let me set a context for something Kevin wrote this week that I found very helpful.
Over the last two weeks, there has been a lot of back and forth happening online around the subject of how the gospel and social justice fit together.
The tweets and blog posts on the subject were in response to a recent statement that was drafted by a group of evangelical pastors (with John MacArthur giving leadership to the group). The statement makes the case that a growing number of Christians are drifting away from the core message of the gospel and focusing on social issues instead of salvation issues (you can read the statement here. Be forewarned: It will take some time to work through it).
The statement has had a polarizing effect among evangelicals. Some have made signing the statement a test of orthodoxy and fidelity to the scriptures. Others have accused the signers and the drafters of the statement of, among other things, racism and a lack of concern for “the least of these” in our midst. And many have stayed silent on the issue, recognizing that often these issues are better discussed and considered IRL and not online (if you’re wondering, IRL is internet shorthand for “in real life”).
I’ve spent a couple of hours this week reading and discussing and thinking about where I agree and where I disagree with both the statement and some of its critics. And while I was trying to pull some of my own thoughts together on the subject, I found this post from Kevin DeYoung that was, in my view, the most helpful post I read.
So I decided that while many of you weren’t even aware there was a controversy going on here, Kevin’s article might be helpful for all of us to read through as we think about how, as individuals and as a church, we ought to respond to the very real social justice issues in our day.
Here’s how Kevin DeYoung answers that question.
Is Social Justice a Gospel Issue?
There is a simple, straightforward answer to that question: it depends.
I’ve written before that social justice is a nebulous term, unassailable to someand arousing suspicion in others. For some Christians, if you aren’t into social justice, then you must not care about racism or abortion or sexual assault or inequality or the imago dei itself. Conversely, if you put in a good word for social justice around other Christians, they may assume you hug trees and hate police officers. The term has no shared meaning, or at least no precise definition we all agree on.
As far as we know, the term “social justice” dates to the 1840s when it was first used by a Jesuit philosopher named Luigi Taparelli (1793-1862). Taparelli was a strong supporter of papal authority and a conservative Catholic who argued that social inequality is not a violation of justice but a byproduct of justice, which he understood to be the right ordering of constitutional arrangements. Taparelli’s use of “social justice” bears little resemblance to how the term is used in common conversation today.
Before we can evaluate the connection between social justice and the gospel, we have to know what we mean by the former. If “social justice” entails specific policy proposals, certain candidates Christians should (or shouldn’t) support, and definite conclusions about economic and racial disparities, mass incarceration, immigration reform, and a host of other debatable topics, then we ought to be extremely cautious about linking something as politically prescriptive as social justice with something as universally salvific as the gospel.
Of course, Christians can (and should) have biblically informed convictions about policy proposals, candidates, and any number of controversial subjects. I would never wish to shut out Christian citizens and Christian thinking from the thorniest problems of our day. Some arguments are better than others. But we must distinguish between good and bad arguments and Christian and non-Christians positions. On the right, I sometimes hear that if you care about abortion (which, according to the Bible, is a sin) you must support Trump, while from the left, I hear that if you care about racism (which, according to the Bible, is also a sin) you must never support Trump. While I certainly have my opinions about our President, the church must not go beyond its God-given authority and power in binding the consciences of her members to positions or conclusions that honest Christians can disagree on.
I have my concerns with the term “social justice” and with all that it connotes. But what if we press for a less culturally controlled and more biblically defined understanding? Several years ago, I worked my way through the major justice passages in the Bible: Leviticus 19,Leviticus 25, Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 22, Amos 5, Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46, and Luke 4. My less-than-exciting conclusion was that we should not oversell or undersell what the Bible says about justice. On the one hand, there is a lot in the Bible about God’s care for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. There are also plenty of warnings against treating the helpless with cruelty and disrespect. On the other hand, justice, as a biblical category, is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world. Doing justice means following the rule of law, showing impartiality, paying what you promised, not stealing, not swindling, not taking bribes, and not taking advantage of the weak because they are too uninformed or unconnected to stop you.
So for simplicity sake, let’s take biblical “social justice” to mean something like “treating people equitably, working for systems and structures that are fair, and looking out for the weak and the vulnerable.” If that’s what we mean, is social justice a gospel issue?
Again, we have to define our terms. If “gospel issue” means we are smuggling good works into the sola fide side of the equation, then clearly social justice is not a gospel issue. We don’t save the least of the these in order to save ourselves.
Likewise, if “gospel issue” means “as important as the proclamation of Christ crucified” then the answer must again be no. There is only one thing that can be of first importance, and that, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, is the message that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and was raised on the third day.
I’ll go even further: “gospel issue” should not be shorthand for “you must be passionate about all the same things I’m passionate about.” Nor should it be synonymous with notions of “building the kingdom” or “transforming the culture.” By the same token, preachers must be careful lest they allow CNN and Fox News, not to mention Twitter and Facebook, to set the agenda for their weekly pulpit ministry. If pastors in our day let cultural concerns crowd out the preaching of new birth, repentance, and justification by faith alone, it wouldn’t be the first time in the church’s history that the “gospel” became more social than gospel.
If pastors in our day let cultural concerns crowd out the preaching of new birth, repentance, and justification by faith alone, it wouldn’t be the first time in the church’s history that the ‘gospel’ became more social than gospel.
And yet, “gospel issue” need not mean any of these things. If “gospel issue” means “a necessary concern of those who have been saved by the gospel” or “one aspect of what it means to keep in step with the gospel” or “realities without which you may not be truly believing the gospel,” then social justice is certainly a gospel issue. When biblically defined, social justice is part and parcel of loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s part of keeping the second table of the Decalogue. It’s part of doing the good works God has prepared in advance for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10).
As in so many controversies, we must be quicker to define our terms than to define our opponents. No doubt, there are real disagreements worth exploring and exposing. But there also may be more agreement than some might initially imagine.
Depending on our definitions, social justice and the gospel may be miles apart, or they may be as close as loving God by obeying his commands (John 14:15).
Our planned trip to our new land to pray for our upcoming groundbreaking and building project had to be postponed on Sunday because of last weekend’s rain. We’re expecting dry conditions this weekend, so we’ll plan to head to the land right after our service concludes this Sunday. We’ll gather, spend 10-15 minutes in prayer for this new chapter in our life together, and then we can head out for lunch or naps or whatever.
Tomorrow night is the big night for serving dinner to lots of students from all over the world! Are you signed up? Here again are the details.
Ladies. Here are details about a few of the things happening this fall at church for you.
First, the upcoming Stay-treat will happen the weekend of September 28-29. Again, here are the details.
If Cathy Crowell has your email address, you can expect to start receiving a series of “heart prep” emails this week to help you be ready for the event
Keep in mind, you need to RSVP for the Stay-treat.
Also, on Monday night, September 24, from 7:00 – 8:30 at the church, there will be a kick-off time of prayer and preparation for the True Woman event. All women are welcome to attend.
And finally, the fall Women’s Bible Study begins on Monday night, October 1 at 7:00 pm and continues this fall for nine weeks. The women will be working through Jen Wilkin’s study of the Sermon on the Mount.
To sign up for the study and order a workbook, or for any questions, go to the Women’ ministry table in the foyer at church, or talk to Terry Morledge or Karen Houk, or contact Karen at firstname.lastname@example.org or text her at 501-247-0140.
In 483 BC, King Xerxes of Persia was clearly the richest, most powerful ruler in the world. He was also a prime example of how money and power and pride and anger can corrupt the soul of any man.
We’ll see what modern men can learn from the life and mistakes made by King Xerxes as we continue our study of Esther this Sunday.
See you in church.
Soli Deo Gloria!