Amid ongoing discussion of social justice in the Southern Baptist Convention, more than 5,500 people – many of them Southern Baptists – have signed a statement claiming “lectures on social issues” in the church and “activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture” “tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.”
Since its publication Sept. 4, the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, with Bible teacher John MacArthur as the lead signatory, has drawn diverse reactions from Southern Baptists. The statement stemmed from a June 19 meeting in Dallas involving 14 evangelicals of various denominations.
The statement’s release followed a summer that saw multiple Southern Baptist leaders weigh in on social justice.
Georgia Christian Index senior editor Gerald Harris wrote in a July 30 editorial that “social justice” is among “new emphases subtly infiltrating Southern Baptist life.” The editorial garnered more than 9,300 likes on Facebook, and an Aug. 21 sermon by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley seemed to resonate with some of the editorial’s concerns – though Kelley did not use the term “social justice.”
Meanwhile, in a sermon at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary Aug. 29, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore said social justice concerns should be addressed by individual believers and churches. “The gospel is a gospel … of both justice and justification,” he said.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. told Baptist Press the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel “could be a helpful part” of an ongoing conversation among evangelicals about “the relative priority of social concerns.”
Mohler, who did not sign the statement, said he shares “many of the concerns” expressed in it but would use different language to express those concerns at some points. Still, “I know the men behind this statement. I know how they love Christ. I know how they love the gospel and the scripture and the church. I believe they are making some very important points that need to be made in 2018 in this statement.”
However, “it will require time,” Mohler said, “to see how this statement is understood.”
Mohler denied rumors he has discouraged Southern Seminary professors from signing the statement.
Affirmations & denials
The statement comprises a series of 14 affirmations and denials, including affirmations of scripture’s inerrancy and the biblical views of marriage, gender and sexuality. Among the statement’s other claims:
Humanity’s connection to Adam notwithstanding, no person “is morally culpable for another person’s sin. Although families, groups, and nations can sin collectively, and cultures can be predisposed to particular sins, subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins.”
“Implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.”
“We deny that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. 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.”
People of all “ethnicities and nationalities” are “ontological equals before God in both creation and redemption,” and “racism is a sin.” No racial groups should “view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression. While we are to weep with those who weep, we deny that a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression, or prejudice.”
“Some cultures operate on assumptions that are inherently better than those of other cultures because of the biblical truths that inform those worldviews that have produced these distinct assumptions.”
Tom Ascol, an initial signatory and pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., wrote in a postscript to the statement it was intended to “provoke the kind of brotherly dialogue that can promote unity in the gospel.”
Another signatory, Brad Jurkovich, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bossier City, La., called the statement “a tremendous resource that can help our Southern Baptist denomination stay strong and vibrant with all that scripture calls us to,” according to the Capstone Report blog.
Other signatories with Southern Baptist ties include author and speaker Voddie Baucham; Calvin Beisner, founder of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation; Rod Martin, founder and CEO of The Martin Organization; Craig Mitchell, president of the Ethics and Political Economy Center; and Philip Roberts, former president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Critics of the statement include Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, who tweeted, “We must not only critique this divisive, unnecessary, so-called ‘social justice statement,’ but, also pray for all the signatories. Painful watching this after praying and seeing racial reconciliation make so much progress over the past 30+ years.”
McKissic and some other African American evangelicals have said the statement is insensitive to some concerns of ethnic minorities.
Harris, in his critique of social justice emphases, stated, “We should show compassion for all people, but when social justice requires compromise on moral and spiritual issues it is desperately wrong.” The “social gospel,” he added, has “surreptitiously found its way back into our denomination,” embracing efforts to serve people without also offering them a gospel witness.
Harris quoted Kelley in support of his claims, and Kelley sounded some related notes in a New Orleans Seminary chapel sermon claiming some Southern Baptists have the “Baptist blues.” Following this summer’s SBC annual meeting in Dallas, Kelley said, some Baptists expressed concern “on the future of the traditional convention emphasis on evangelism and missions and the traditional theological focus on the Bible as the centerpiece of theological conversation.”
Moore, in his sermon at Southeastern, affirmed the authority of scripture and the need for missions and evangelism. Yet, he said, a follower of Jesus must seek to implement God’s will for both individuals and societies.
God “doesn’t make those neat little categorizations that we like to make between my personal morality and my public morality, between personal unrighteousness and public injustice,” Moore said. “These are all mixed in together.”
Moore rejected the social gospel, noting, “The answer to moralism is a gospel of Jesus Christ that informs you who you are and then directs you what it means to live out your life” in a manner “glorifying to Jesus Christ.” That includes loving the unborn, elderly, poor, trafficked and victims of racial discrimination, he said, and not using the Bible selectively to uphold any ungodly status quo in society.
Within the SBC milieu, Mohler said, many people on both sides of the social justice discussion “hold to the unquestioned priority of the gospel as the message of salvation.” Given that reality, there is room for “discussion about how gospel people are rightly to advocate for public policy and ethical concerns.”
“We should not expect that Christians sharing” a common faith in the gospel “will always share the same political perspectives or advocate the same public policies in every respect,” Mohler said. “On some issues, the truth is absolutely clear, such as abortion. On other issues related to economics and politics, there can be honest disagreements and very productive conversation.”
Articles XIV and XV of the Baptist Faith and Message, Mohler said, are excellent guides to Christian cultural engagement. He noted especially the final two sentences of Article XV: “Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love. In order to promote these ends Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause, always being careful to act in the spirit of love without compromising their loyalty to Christ and His truth.”
The full Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel is available at statementonsocialjustice.com/.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press. Reprinted from Baptist Press, baptistpress.com, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)