By Malcolm Foley and Justin Hawkins
(originally published on Justin’s blog)
We dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them…Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces.
– John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.16.1
A History of Errors
Jesus began his ministry by standing up in a synagogue one Saturday morning, and saying that he came to bring justice to bear on the earth, and particularly so on behalf of the poor, oppressed, weak, and vulnerable:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
John MacArthur and the other signers of the recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, insist that none of these stated ambitions of Jesus ought to be understood literally as having anything to do with social justice. They say instead that the social justice concerns that Jesus articulates here are not the Gospel, but are the Law, and that any attempt to weave social justice concerns into the heart of the Gospel diminishes and undermines the Christian gospel.
We, a theological ethicist in training and church historian in training, as evangelicals who are both committed to historic Christian orthodoxy and also convinced of the legitimacy of the concerns of much of the social justice movement, disagree. We believe that in so doing, we, and not the authors of the Statement on Social Justice, are the heirs of the best parts of the evangelical tradition in America.
At the end of the Statement, the authors say:
“We have spoken on these issues with no disrespect or loss of love for our brothers and sisters who disagree with what we have written. Rather, our hope is that this statement might actually provoke the kind of brotherly dialogue that can promote unity in the gospel of our Lord Jesus whom we all love and trust.” It is in this spirit of brotherly dialogue that we write this response.
The confusions about the intent and meaning of the social justice movement in the Statement reflect longstanding debates in American religious history. In the history of lynching in America, one of the more common arguments in its wake was this: when black men stop assaulting white women, lynching will stop. That is to say, the personal responsibility of blacks—and not any structures of systemic racism—is fundamentally to blame for the fact that Southern whites could arise on Sunday, attend church in the morning, and summarily execute a black man by hanging him from a tree in the afternoon. Racism, they said, had little to do with it.
Ida B. Wells, a journalist and civil rights advocate, got most upset when she heard this argument coming from a Methodist minister because she wondered how someone purporting to be a Christian leader could say such a thing. She wrote in her autobiography: “American Christians are too busy saving the souls of White Christians from burning in hell-fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by White Christians.”
Her outrage was founded in two fundamental realities: first, that this minister clearly did not know the facts on the ground and second, that the comment placed the blame for the barbarity of the crowd on the back of the accused, under the guise of attributing personal agency and responsibility to the lynched man. The reality was that many of those Black people were deemed criminal by the Jim Crow legal system, and had themselves done nothing wrong.
Under this regime, bumping a white person on the street made you a criminal. Not doffing your hat to a white man made you a criminal. It was factually untrue that most people were lynched for rape. In fact, fewer than 40% of the victims were even accused of rape. But it was a much better narrative that hit people in the gut and justified brutality. By thus suggesting that the weight of lynching rested on the backs of Black people alone, this pastor obscured the fact that lynching was much more often the brutal enforcement of Jim Crow rather than “vigilante justice.” Such a response rang hollow at best and vicious at worst.
We do not even wish to hint at the idea that the authors of this Statement might support lynching. But we see these same analytical and theological mistakes that prolonged that injustice continuing in modern conversation about race and justice among evangelical Christians in America. The errors of the past ought to induce us to be exceedingly careful in the ways that we discuss matters of social justice in the present and future, and we do not see that care being manifest in the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel.
That statement instead assumes that “social justice” is some kind of abstraction, ignoring the fact that the idea is rooted in seeking concrete ways to love our neighbors (the abstraction can be seen in the fact that while it vilifies the Social Justice movement, the statement never mentions a single author or practice against which they are arguing). A response like the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel comes across to many as hollow at best and vicious at worst. Both of us grew up in American Evangelicalism and we still desire to hold to historic evangelicalism. Indeed, it is precisely because of our fidelity to historic evangelicalism that we are responding to this statement.
The difficulty with online statements and summaries of any kind is that they obscure the reasoning that leads to such statements. We see this in Christian history, where creeds and confessions are abstracted from their context and so their worth and content are misinterpreted as a result.
Nevertheless, we think this document worth responding to for two reasons. First, because it is put forward by figures with a high profile in evangelicalism, who have behind them lifetimes of faithful ministry work, but whose signature attached to a document like this will dismay many who desire faithfulness to that same gospel that they have learned from MacArthur and others. Second, because we think this statement is grievously erroneous.
We think that the statement is theologically deficient in two important ways: First, it misunderstands the relationship between Law and Gospel, and second, it proceeds from an incorrect doctrine of sin. Both of these are, in the confusing but common phrase, “gospel issues,” because the first articulates how we are to embody the fruits by which our faith is known (Matt. 7:20), and the latter articulates what it is of which we must repent in order to be saved.
Theological Error #1: The Relation of Law and Gospel
What those who interact with the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel must realize is that the concerns articulated in much of the Social Justice movement do not need liberal theology to undergird them; almost all of those concerns can be articulated as flowing naturally out of the historic Christian orthodoxy which is articulated in American Evangelicalism.
The first theological error of the statement is too strong a division between Law and Gospel. One of the articles in the Resources section of the website is an article entitled A Gospel Issue?, and it recounts Phil Johnson’s conversation with a well-intentioned parishioner who insisted that social justice was a gospel issue. The pastor responds:
“Gospel and law aren’t the same thing. The law is a prelude to the gospel, not really part of the gospel. The law tells us what God requires of us. But then it condemns us, because it requires perfect obedience and curses anyone who doesn’t obey its every jot and tittle. But none of us obeys so thoroughly. And ‘whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.’ That’s James 2:10. Jesus said in Matthew 5:48 that the standard the law sets for us is God’s own absolute perfection. We can’t live up to that. The law therefore brings wrath (Romans 4:15), not salvation. The law can only condemn us, because we are guilty. All of us.”
This is not the position of historic Calvinism, to which John MacArthur is himself a subscriber. One of the dividing lines between Calvinists and Lutherans at the Reformation was about the proper use of the Law. Lutherans typically argued that there were two uses: (1) to act as a mirror to reflect our own sin back to us, and thereby show us our need for grace; and (2) to act as a restraint upon evildoers, which is why the Lutherans were not anarchists.
In addition to these two uses of the Law, the Calvinists added another one: the Law exists to guide the believer in holiness. This became known as the Third Use of the Law, which Calvin himself called “the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end” (Institutes 2.7.12). It is this Third Use of the Law that moves the Christian toward holiness, and in this way, the justification which is effected by grace alone is inextricable from the sanctification into which the Christian is guided by God’s moral precepts.
The reason justification and sanctification are so tied together for Calvin is that they both flow out of union with Christ. Union with Christ is that effect of grace and that real relationship by which, through the Spirit, believers receive not only justification, but also sanctification, breathing life into our love of neighbor. Thus, fighting for justice cannot be relegated to an “extra”, an implication, or an appendix to the Gospel.
It is, rather, integral to the salvation of the individual, otherwise when justification and sanctification are detached from each other, Christ is “divided into pieces” (Institutes 3.16.1). Calvin, therefore, would disagree vehemently with the Statement’s claim that “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” (Denial #4)
With this theological framework in mind, we can return to our consideration of Phil Johnson’s interaction with his parishioner. Seeing that this parishioner herself actually stands on the side of Calvin, Paul, and even MacArthur himself (on those days when he is fighting against the antinomians rather than against social justice, on which more in a moment), it is simply a caricature to describe her, as the author of this article does, as “a self-styled full-time evangelical social justice advocate who is incorrigibly convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ alone doesn’t sufficiently address the problem of injustice.”
At best, such a description describes a simple failure to listen to this woman and a forgetfulness of the tradition in which the author, Phil Johnson, stands. At worst it is a failure of charity, perhaps birthed from the recognition that one’s own position is too weak to describe in straightforward terms, and therefore must be discussed in innuendo.
Given that MacArthur is so indebted to Calvin in his theology, it is no surprise that elsewhere, MacArthur himself rejects this strong dichotomy between Law and Gospel. In an interview on the website of Grace to You, John MacArthur’s ministry home, he and Phil Johnson, another of the original signers of the statement, are discussing their rejection of antinomianism — that is, those who deny that the Law has any governing effect on behavior in the life of the Christian, which is a misunderstanding which MacArthur has rightly spent much of his time attempting to refute:
PHIL: Yeah. In fact, the sort of knee-jerk response you’ll get to that sort of thing these days is, “Well, that’s legalistic. You’re moving away from the gospel back into law. And it’s inherently legalistic then to preach the imperatives you find in Scripture; rather, you should just preach the indicatives.” And that’s the idea behind always going back to the cross; it’s about what Christ did for us rather than what we are to do. And there’s a germ of truth in that. The gospel is about what Christ did for us rather than what we are to do, but that’s not the road to sanctification is it?
JOHN: Yeah, well, the New Testament, I agree, is full of indicatives: that is, statements of fact. But it’s also full of imperatives.
JOHN: So, you always ask the question to these people, “Well, what are all the commands there for? What is he trying to tell us in the 3rd chapter of Colossians or the book of Ephesians with all the commands? What is all this about? I mean these are commands.” And Paul says to Timothy, “The things that you’ve heard you’re to teach others.” And then later in that same book he says “These things command and teach.” Command and teach. We live under mandates; we live under commands. The difference between legalism and freedom is (sic) Christ is that in Christ we love to obey, we long to obey, and our hearts are broken when we disobey. That’s not legalism. That’s love working in obedience.
This interview as a whole is definitely worth reading, given that it seems designed almost step for step to refute the way that the current statement draws a sharp distinction between Law/Gospel, and that it was published online only a year and a half ago.
Almost as if to respond to their own insistence that Law and Gospel be kept hermetically apart, Johnson and MacArthur argue:
JOHN: The grace of God teaches us to deny certain things and behave in certain ways.
PHIL: Right. And that’s grace, not law, teaching us. So, that goes back to my earlier comment, grace and law are different, but they’re not in disagreement. They’re not hostile to one another; they agree.
JOHN: Well, of course they agree. The same God who has given the law, has authored the law, is the source of grace. And God isn’t contradicting himself. You know, the law of grace – the faithful preachers, the Reformers, the Puritans, and even to this day faithful preachers understand how they go together. You would agree that in today’s sort of – I don’t know – public evangelical movement, there’s far too little preaching of the law. So, people who don’t understand the law and what the law demands and how far they fall short and the deadly and everlasting consequences of the law on the life of an impenitent, unbelieving person, people who don’t understand that don’t understand the gospel. They don’t understand the magnanimous grace of God: They don’t understand the love the God, the compassion, the mercy, the kindness of God if they don’t understand the law. The Reformers understood that; they were fierce preachers of the law to bring sinners under condemnation, and that’s exactly the work of the Holy Spirit who convicts the world of sin and righteousness and judgment. Where’s that preaching today? There’s none of that.”
Of course, this earlier interview is likely correct: Bonhoeffer’s diagnosis that our Christianity without repentance is “the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner” is undoubtedly an apt description of much of conservative evangelicalism today, which is itself in great need of repenting and reforming.
It is worth noting that even within historic Conservative Evangelicalism in America, there is a plurality of opinions about the need to preach the condemnation of the Law before the recourse of the Gospel; Jonathan Edwards, one of the grandfathers of American Evangelicalism, recounts some self-consciousness over the fact that his own conversation did not follow the order set down by the Puritan Divines—that is, it did not involve first a terror at the demands of the Law before a sense of the sweetness of the Gospel.
But the paragraphs that MacArthur and Johnson spoke in the quotations above simply do not accord with the theology of Law/Gospel laid down in their own Statement. If they believe their statement, they must retract their earlier assertions, and thereby take one step closer to Antinomianism. But if they are unwilling to do that, then they have at least to entertain the possibility that one way in which the repentance of modern evangelicalism must play out is in its complicity in the racism expressed in social structures and institutions today.
Theological Error #2 in The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel: A Non-Evangelical Doctrine of Sin
The second theological error of the Statement is a non-evangelical doctrine of Sin. Here the Statement seems to us inconsistent. It claims
“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. Before God each person must repent and confess his or her own sins in order to receive forgiveness. We further deny that one’s ethnicity establishes any necessary connection to any particular sin” (Denial #5).
It is worth noting first here that the logic of this claim is that the collective cultural sin which plagued America is a past issue, and that we who are alive today are in the category of “subsequent generations” who stand ready either to condemn or approve the errors of our fathers, which are, nevertheless, a matter of history and not ongoing. If this is the case, we might ask, when did it become the case that structural and social racism was abolished?
Here as before, this error can be articulated entirely using the resources of historic Christian orthodoxy. Protestants—especially Calvinists—famously believe in Total Depravity. This doctrine means not that human beings are incapable of doing anything other than evil, but rather that the effects of sin on us are total. Ostensibly the authors of the Statement believe the same thing when they assert that “All are depraved in all their faculties” (Affirmation #5) Sin affects every aspect of our humanity.
In Calvin’s original context, he meant this to entail that sin touches human rationality and thereby blinds us to the truths of God and to the fact of our own sin. On this account, the great secret weapon of sin is that it blinds us to itself; it encourages us to act as if we have the ‘God’s eye view’ of the world, as if we do not bring an interpretive lens to scripture or the world. But the category of Total Depravity can be expanded out to include the fallenness not only of human reason, but also of gender and sexuality.
We therefore need eyes to see the particular ways in which our sin plays itself out in all of our faculties. Often those eyes are the eyes of our brothers and sisters, and often those brothers and sisters have used the tools of critical theory in order to help us see. The Statement proceeds as if its authors are not themselves culturally-conditioned, as if they have no need of others to point out their sins—in short, as if Total Depravity is untrue. This is, as we have said, an un-evangelical and unbiblical doctrine of sin.
The second orthodox Christian resource for understanding sin is Luther’s famous claim from his Lectures on Romans that sin is “man turned in upon himself.” Luther means by this that the individual becomes self-obsessed. This again helps us to specify how sin operates in particular, rather than in general, categories. If I am a man, and my gender is ‘curved in upon itself,’ the result of this will be misogyny. If I am white, and my whiteness is ‘curved in upon itself,’ the result will be racism. And the doctrine of Total Depravity will blind us to every operation of sin like this.
To the humble and teachable, this body of literature represented by critical theory—which, it must be said, is certainly not a monolithic entity—need be no more an ‘attack on the sufficiency of scripture’ than are the rebukes of a friend or counselor who can see not just that we have sinned, but also the particular ways in which we have sinned. This literature might help us to see the way that Total Depravity plays itself out through hundreds of years of policies and their attendant ideologies that have caused these false ideas about neutrality to permeate our society from housing to schools to incarceration to hiring practices. (For those evangelicals who are suspicious of the idea that racism can show up in institutions and structures that disproportionately target one demographic over another, we commend the research discussed in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long article The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.)
Here the usefulness of critical theory can be understood as an articulation of the principle embedded in Isaiah’s doctrine of sin. Isaiah claims: “all we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord has laid on Him, the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6). The passage here demonstrates two things: (1) the universality of sinfulness (“all we like sheep have gone astray”), and (2) the way in which particular expressions of sin diverge from each other (“we have turned every one to his own way”).
The authors of the Statement see the universality of sin: “Because of original sin everyone is born under the curse of God’s law and all break his commandments through sin. There is no difference in the condition of sinners due to age, ethnicity, or sex” (Denial #5).
What the statement lacks is the account of the particular divergent expressions of sin—it can be the case that all are equally sinners, and that this sin finds different expression among different groups, but on this, the Statement is silent. It is precisely this task with which Critical Theory is most helpful. For example, Scripture informs us that the rich will be tempted to oppress the poor (James 2:6). Yet how in particular this will happen varies from society to society. If it is the job of the Christian thinker to take the principles of scripture and interpret the world through them, then the natural question to ask after reading a text like this from James is: “how does this play out not only in society generally, but in my society in particular?” Here critical theory is eye-opening, and it need not be a resource against the scriptures, but as a specification of the Scriptures. C.S. Lewis anticipated this use of scripture in Mere Christianity:
Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political programme for applying “Do as you would be done by” to a particular society at a particular moment. It could not have. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular programme which suited one place or time would not suit another. And, anyhow, that is not how Christianity works. When it tells you to feed the hungry it does not give you lessons in cookery. When it tells you to read the Scriptures it does not give you lessons in Hebrew and Greek, or even in English grammar. It was never intended to replace or supersede the ordinary human arts and sciences; it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life, if only they will put themselves at its disposal.
At other times, the authors and signers seem to argue as if yes, these structural issues are, in fact, sinful, but eradicating them should not be an emphasis of Christians because we can never be fully healed of sin. So one supporter of the statement argues in the Resources page:
“The fact that many Christians continue to exclaim that “Racism still exists!” – as if racism, a term I dogmatically disapprove of but will use for the sake of this article, should be treated as if it were the attitudinal equivalent of a carton of milk that has reached its expiration date – is testament to the level of naivety that exists in failing to realize that politics and, by association, politicians, is wholly inadequate in meliorating not only the effects of such a mindset, whether individually or systemically, but also the cause of it.”
This is a difficult argument for which to find evidence. For example, most in America consider human slavery, just to pick one example, to have been a grave evil—and it is quite obvious that it is a grave evil that has been ameliorated by some strange combination of the Holy Spirit brooding over history and outlawing a particular expression of a particular sin. Those evangelicals who signed this letter who also consider themselves to be compelled to abolish abortion in America operate under the same logic: it is, in fact, possible for human laws to restrain the sinfulness of evildoers.
This is, of course, the Second Use of the Law on which Protestants of almost every stripe have historically agreed: “by fear of punishment to restrain certain men who are untouched by any care for what is just and right unless compelled by hearing the dire threats in the law” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.7.10). Martin Luther King, Jr. was himself echoing this principle in a famous statement in support of legislating morality. He said, in a statement that Gospel Coalition blogger Justin Taylor quoted as an apt response to the claim that the law cannot legislate morality: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.”
At other points the authors argue as if to say that critical theory is not diagnosing disunity among people, but causing it. Again on the Resources page, in an article entitled No Division in the Body, John MacArthur argues:
“The New Testament never speaks of our unity in Christ as a far-off goal to be pursued or a provisional experiment to be trifled with. Our union with Christ (and therefore with one another) is an eternal spiritual reality that must be embraced, carefully maintained, and guarded against any possible threat. That’s why I’m deeply troubled by the recent torrent of rhetoric about “social justice” in evangelical circles. The jargon is borrowed from secular culture, and it is being employed purposely, irresponsibly in order to segment the church into competing groups—the oppressed and disenfranchised vs. the powerful and privileged.”
But notice the logic of this claim: the Bible says that Christians are truly, now, at every moment since the writing of the Bible, united in Christ. Therefore, anyone who claims otherwise is sowing division. But if this argument holds for 2018, then it holds for 1918 as well—two years before women were allowed to vote in America, and it holds for 1818 just as equally—when white Americans bought, sold, and owned their Black brothers and sisters in Christ. Was there ever a moment when there were real failings to live up to the unity of the body?
The long history of slavery, colonialism, racism, misogyny in all there forms, demand that we answer yes. But if there was some historical moment where the real divisions within the body of Christ failed to approximate the unity demanded in scripture, then the arguments of the statement writers must be false.
The subsequent question becomes: have conditions changed so dramatically as to change that answer? To this we have ample reason to say no. It must also be added as a point of history that Black churches did not come to exist because Black people sought to separate themselves out of some conception of anti-Gospel ethnic solidarity.
Many Black Christians in the nineteenth century, of whom Richard Allen is an excellent representative, found their worship to be actively restricted and their well-being actively threatened in white churches and so they sought to build their own communities. White church leaders, instead of repenting of the ways that they restricted the worship of their members, took the easy way out, supporting the exodus of their Black brothers and sisters.
If the logic of MacArthur’s argument holds for one of those periods of time, then it holds for all of them. But if we see the argument in this light, then it is clearly mistaken. The unity of the body in Christ is a real spiritual reality, but it is only occasionally recognized socially and politically. It is, then, in the words of Paul to the Ephesians, incumbent upon Christians to “walk worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1), which is an imperative that suggests the opposite is possible: we might fail to walk worthy of our calling in various ways, and one of them is failing to recognize socially the unity that we have in Christ spiritually.
Again in the body of the Statement itself, the authors write:
“We reject any teaching that encourages racial groups to 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” (Denial #12).
Presumably they make this argument because the categories of ‘privileged oppressors’ and ‘entitled victims’ impose yet more disunity on the body of Christ. But here again the historical argument from above applies: if it is true that there are no true victims or oppressors, it is either true necessarily—which is to say, it is true of all moments in history equally, or it is true by virtue of some historical development. If it is the former, then this statement has nothing to say to those people who were ever slaves or who are even now slaves, and it must beg to differ with the repeated Biblical claims that “the Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed” (Ps. 9:9); “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Ps. 103:6); The Lord is the one “who executes justice for the oppressed” (Ps. 146:7), and on and on.
To be oppressed is to have justice denied to one. Justice is being given one’s due. Therefore, to be oppressed is not to be given one’s due—in other words, not to be given that to which you are legitimately entitled. How this argument and these scripture passages above give us anything other than the endorsement that some are, in fact, “entitled victims of oppression” is difficult to see.
Conclusion: A Generational Moment in Evangelicalism
A generation of young evangelicals is arising who hold to historic Christian orthodoxy orthodoxy and do not see that orthodoxy as at all incompatible with the recognition that structural, systemic injustices exist. We, the authors, count ourselves as among their number. We have argued that many of the resources of critical theory are, in fact, powerful diagnostic tools for understanding how sin functions in social ways.
Many of us came of age in a generation that was rediscovering the historic theological roots of American Evangelicalism — the “young, restless, and reformed” generation. It is our love for that theology which inclines us away from the liberal Protestant Union Seminary’s response to the Statement. And we are likewise encouraged that many of the leading figures in American evangelicalism—particularly in the “young, restless, and reformed” movement did not place their signatures on this statement. We consider this a hopeful sign.
But we are have titled this ‘an evangelical response’ because we still intend to fight for the legacy of American evangelicalism, rather than surrendering it to those who would insist that the Christian gospel has nothing to say about improving the lives of those who are oppressed even in this temporal life. The authors of the Statement say: “We submit these affirmations and denials for public consideration, not with any pretense of ecclesiastical authority, but with an urgency that is mixed with deep joy and sincere sorrow.”
It is in this spirit of public consideration that we have written this response. Our own plea is that the authors of this statement might consider that those with whom they disagree are also attempting to discern the guiding of the Holy Spirit in these matters, and likely do not deserve such snarky epithets as ‘woker than thou evangelicals,’ and ‘our bright thinkboys,’
If the signers of this statement are truly fearful that their opponents—especially among the millennial generation of evangelicals—will slide down the slippery slope of theological liberalism, then it is our hope that they may have the grace to realize also that sometimes people fall down slopes not because they are slippery, but because they are pushed.
Would they be willing to entertain for a moment the possibility that they might be complicit in doing precisely this: At the moment when American evangelicalism is realizing the fact that we have failed to think through the social implications of our gospel, they are content to push millennial evangelicals down this slope by asserting that any recognition of the fact that Christ came to save bodies as well as souls (which the church has always believed) demands that we abandon our evangelicalism and embrace theological liberalism?
We refuse to acknowledge this false dichotomy. Evangelicalism has always, at its best, been both a movement of personal holiness (in the style of Jonathan Edwards) and of social transformation (in the style of William Wilberforce). We see no need now to demand that these two strands of our movement diverge. They are united in the gospel, and they can be united in the movement of American evangelicalism.
Malcolm Foley has the last word here:
It must be noted, also, that for many Black evangelicals like myself, who still take the name, to reach out and attempt this cross-conversation is difficult. It has been attempted for centuries. Black Christians spoke out against the evils of African slavery, including Lemuel Haynes, David Walker and others. Black evangelicals spoke out against lynching and Jim Crow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as outlined in part in Mary Beth Mathews’s Doctrine and Race.
But the most frustrating aspect of studying African American religious history is the deafness of the White pastors that are constantly cried out to. It is that deafness that inspires and encourages the continuation of nationalistic options and the shutting down of “conversation”.
If I ever choose to disengage from reaching out, it is not because I have acquiesced to some heresy of racial supremacy. It is because I, like many of my Black brothers and sisters, am tired of constantly trying to plead with deaf ears. I am tired of reading about my brothers and sisters during the Civil Rights Movement who were constantly told to wait because there were issues more pressing than their livelihoods. I am tired of reading about my brothers and sisters under the invisible terror regime of lynching who cried out to white pulpits to join them in denunciation of evil and who were met with accusation and diminution. I am tired of hearing my brothers and sisters now crying out about mass incarceration and police brutality and receiving the same responses. This is our national history. And it is tiring.
To demand that I engage with you is to demand something that I and many others have already done…and in many cases, you have not listened. We ask that you do. But even if you do not, we will continue to battle the growth of sin and sorrow, both individually and corporately, personally and systemically. Because we affirm with the songwriter that Christ has come to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found. And as those united to Him by the Holy Spirit, we will be messengers of His grace, ministers of His blessings, and servants of His people…as far as the curse is found.
Malcolm Foley is a fourth-year PhD student in Baylor’s Department of Religion studying the history of Christianity. His dissertation investigates African American Christian responses to lynching from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.
Justin Hawkins is a fourth-year PhD student at Yale pursuing a combined PhD between the department of Religious Studies and the department of Political Science.