Owen Strachan. Christianity and Wokeness. Washington: Salem Books, 2021. 224 pp, $19.99.
The church was meant to be the hope of the world and a reflection of a diverse community reflecting the harmony of the Triune God Himself. Unfortunately, the recent political and cultural polarization fracturing American society is too often reflected in the church. In disagreements over race and justice, tensions have more frequently led to pejorative accusations than prayer and pursuit of common ground.
In 1 Corinthians 12:21, the Apostle Paul wrote, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’” Sadly, this is precisely what many Christians have said to those who assert that the church must continue to confront racism and injustice. Some go even further to remark, “Hand, you’re not part of the body at all!”
This results in what Paul described in 1 Corinthians when the church there followed the same pattern: division. Pastors and parishioners who affirm Nicene Christianity and core Protestant doctrines are slandered as heretics for stances on social ethics, not foundational theology. As effects of the Fall individually and corporately ravage society, some in the church have engaged in a divisive battle: “us vs. them” instead of “us vs. sin.”
An ecclesial disunity based on some demonizing others with divergent views of American history and social ethics has hurt the church’s witness. The result has been a minimized view of the gospel’s efficacy to save the progressive and the conservative, the advocate for small and big government, the liberal and the libertarian. Discipleship demands conformity to cardinal doctrine and moral imperatives. But demanding uniformity on disputable matters reduces the church’s ability to testify to the glory of Jesus–who called both the anti-Roman-establishment disciple, Simon the Zealot, and the supporter of Roman occupation, Matthew the Tax Collector. Believers must make room for each other or fail to bear witness to the gospel’s invitation for those who need Jesus to our right and our left.
But not all agree that there is room in the Kingdom of God for those who hold to a critical view of American history and advocate for a certain social ethic. Owen Strachan, professor and provost at Grace Bible Theological Seminary, perceives such views, what he calls “wokeness,” as an existential threat to the church, and a “once-in-a-lifetime crisis” (26). In response, he has written Christianity and Wokeness: How the Social Justice Movement is Hijacking the Gospel—and the Way to Stop It.
There are several constructive insights his work offers. Strachan articulates a zeal for fidelity to the Christian faith, and portions of his book are positive contributions to the hotly contested conversations on social ethics –for example, his recognition that “whiteness” and racial categories are unbiblical constructs (64) and the importance of recognizing imago dei in all people (134). Yet, taken in whole, Christianity and Wokeness, unfortunately, reinforces the divisive and unfaithful trends toward hyper-factionalism and polarization the apostles warned the church about in the Epistles.
What follows is a good-faith critique of Christianity and Wokeness meant to echo the words of Paul, who rebuked a Corinthian church prone to division with a simple response: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). Therefore, let no one separate the body God is building together.
The following critique is established in three parts. Part one will explore whether the content of Strachan’s exhortation against wokeness binds the consciences of Christians. Part two will critique inconsistencies in the theological application. Finally, part three will compare Strachan’s engagement a key figure and inspiration of Christianity and Wokeness, J. Gresham Machen.
I. What Is Wokeness? Strachan’s Ambiguous Terms
Wokeness has gone from a watchword for black activists to a pejorative catch-all by those who disagree with their protests, a loose term representing the contemporary social justice movement. In Christianity and Wokeness, Owen Strachan attempts to define his usage of “wokeness” in the book’s glossary:
Wokeness: The state of being consciously aware of and “awake” to the hidden, race-based injustices that pervade all of American society; this term has also been expanded to refer to the state of being “awake” to injustices that are gender-based, class-based, etc. (213).
And yet, while he offers a very specific definition in his glossary, Strachan argues in his book that “wokeness” does not constitute a single, precise definition. He argues it should instead be considered “a mood,” “a mindset and a posture” (8, 24). Still, Strachan outlines “seven key commitments of wokeness.” These commitments, he argues, include recognizing present-day systemic racism and white privilege; the belief that class- and identity-based oppression should be opposed; and the division of the world into oppressors and oppressed.
Strachan’s conceptualization of “wokeness” morphs from a defined belief system to a “mood,” evolving in different sections of the book. Not only is Strachan inconsistent in the use of the key term in his book, he also uses categories imposed on “woke” Christians that they would not articulate themselves. Strachan pulls quotes and statements far and wide from Christians and non-Christians he considers “woke”, then frames the corpus of these ideas as attributable to all he considers “woke” in spite of how such a use undermines his own description of “wokeness.” These inconsistencies create contradictions that fundamentally weaken his arguments given the role that the term “wokeness” plays in Strachan’s analysis.
Ultimately, the crux of the difference between Strachan’s beliefs and the “wokeness” he presents is a disagreement over social ethics, social analysis, and certain views of American history. By social analysis, we mean Strachan and those he labels “woke” differ in their understanding of the relationship between historical and present causes of social problems, issues, and trends. By social ethics, we mean they differ in their proposed principles and solutions of how societal institutions and individuals should contribute to human flourishing by solving those problems.
In his usage, “wokeness” contends that systemic racism still exists in the United States. Strachan does not. “Wokeness” claims American societal structures disadvantage certain social groups. Strachan does not.
Excommunication of the “Woke” and the Binding of Consciences
Strachan taking issue with “wokeness” is unremarkable. The ideas he considers fundamental to “wokeness” are a source of debate throughout today’s public discourse on social ethics and history. What is remarkable is Strachan’s call for churches to excommunicate Christians who ascribe to this loosely defined “mood” and “mindset”:
Though it will pain us greatly, excommunication must be enacted for those who, after going through the Matthew 18 steps, do not repent of teaching CRT, wokeness, and intersectionality. At the institutional level, the same principle applies. Houses divided cannot stand. Trustees, voting members, organizational leaders, educational boards, and so on must not tolerate the spread of wokeness any longer (54).
What does a “woke,” so-called Christian look like? Who qualifies as being worthy of a biblical action reserved for individuals the church can no longer affirm as within the bounds of Christian living and belief?
Strachan clarifies by profiling five influential books by “woke” Christians. Notably, when Strachan presents his exemplary sources of “woke” Christianity, he offers five orthodox Protestant authors who affirm the first-rank doctrines of historic Protestant theology. Several exemplary Christian authors he pejoratively considers “woke”, share secondary and tertiary doctrinal beliefs with Strachan’s affiliate institutions. Where, according to Strachan, do these “woke” Christians differ so greatly that they must be driven from churches and institutions? On the Deity of Christ? The sufficiency of grace alone in Christ alone by faith alone? The view of Scripture’s inerrancy? No! In his analysis of each book, Strachan takes issue with their social critique, their representation of social problems, and their prescribed responses to those social issues (34-43). The common denominator of their divergence is a matter of social ethics and analysis, not of doctrinal conviction.
Notably, anti-CRT apologist Neil Shenvi has reviewed four of the five books Strachan analyzes. In each of his reviews, while critical of their positions on social ethics, Shenvi co-signs the orthodoxy of the authors and does not present their books as encouraging a departure from Christian orthodoxy.
Again, Strachan’s disagreements with these “woke” authors are standard for debates on social ethics in 2021. What is unique is the implication that these Christians who affirm core Protestant doctrines should be considered outside the bounds of orthodoxy because of their positions on race and justice. Strachan departs from millennia of church history when he accuses “woke Christians” of being apostate without once challenging their positions on doctrines widely considered core to orthodox Christianity. Strachan introduces a dangerously divisive innovation to the church: the idea Christians who don’t disagree doctrinally or who haven’t unrepentantly engaged in grievous sin, should be excommunicated because they disagree on social analysis. This is true radicalism.
What theological frameworks exist to describe Strachan’s mandate that Christians must agree with his views about American history and sociology to be Christian? By calling churches to discipline otherwise sound Christians for their disagreement on social ethics and analysis, Strachan is guilty of binding consciences.
In the book of Galatians, the Apostle Paul rebuked church leaders who told the Galatians they must adopt customs, cultural norms, and laws that were not required for entry into the New Covenant. Instead, these leaders bound the consciences of the Galatians by, as Brad Littlejohn puts it, “requiring what Scripture doesn’t require [and] forbidding what Scripture doesn’t forbid.”
Strachan presents the litmus test for Christian “soundness” as neither doctrinal affirmation nor faithfulness to Scripture’s commands. Instead, orthodoxy becomes dependent on accepting particular historical assumptions and social analysis—a stark prioritization of sociology over theology. Strachan’s exhortation requires uniformity to a specific view of American history and social ethics to participate in the life of the Church.
Yet Strachan insists that he engages with “woke” Christianity at a theological level. Moreover, he argues that even if “woke” Christians affirm the doctrinal statements, and merely adopt a few precepts of “wokeness,” they have gripped onto false teaching that corrupts the whole, “We cannot assume that because woke leaders and activists use biblical language, and even cite biblical teachings, that the case they make is a sound one” (48).
The burden of proof, however, is on Strachan to demonstrate this. And Strachan’s argumentation is reliant upon fallacies that drift into the territory of slander. Strachan often blurs the line between earnest and straightforward beliefs regarding social ethics with the denial of foundational Christian doctrine. He conflates, for example, recognizing systemic and generational impact of injustice with denying justification-by-faith (58, 79).
Strachan also employs a hermeneutic of suspicion, attributing beliefs to the “woke” Christians he challenges that they did not personally articulate. As soon as Strachan declares “wokeness” to be a first-order heresy, he codifies the loose web of beliefs as an entirely “different religion altogether” (56), emphasizing that “to embrace an ungodly ideology is to lose Christianity, however long the switchover takes” (7). Getting labeled “woke” by Strachan is as easy as affirming the existence of systemic racism (24). But once someone is labeled as “woke”, the wokeness-as-religion framework attributes to them a codified belief system that includes a laundry list of other ideas, labels, and beliefs they may not affirm at all.
Throughout the rest of the book, Strachan goes on to associate the “woke” with the rejection of a Creator God and absolute truth (126), a belief that racially assigned white people are still condemned before God even if they trust in the gospel (80), a foundational subscription to “standpoint epistemology” as the ultimate source of truth (105), a belief that social justice will guarantee an eschatological utopia (126), a neo-pagan sexual ethic (126), a denial of authority beyond one’s own heart (126), a therapeutic, works-based salvation (126), the affirmation of an anti-gospel (85) and many other propositions and beliefs.
All of these beliefs are pinned on someone for merely believing, for instance, that redlining and racial discrimination still have impact on the modern-day racial wealth gap. Strachan presents these connections in a way that suggests giving credence to any idea he has umbrellaed under “wokeness” will eventually and necessarily result in the adoption of these beliefs. He presents this as if he is uncovering hidden theological implications, but in reality, he is employing logical fallacies unfortunately common to the racial justice debate, which Esau McCaulley has outlined well.
Strachan develops these associations in part by wielding labels like Marxism and postmodernism to explain, for instance, why Christians believe systemic racism exists (86, 90, 126, 128, 163). This line of argumentation functions as a trump card. It avoids engaging with historical or social arguments that may explain why “woke” Christians hold positions on social ethics that diverge from Strachan’s (as Andrea L. Turpin highlights in her recommended review of the book, “nowhere in this 200-page book does Strachan lay out his opponents’ arguments for the reality of structural racism”). It packs stigma into the “woke” label that replaces the hard work of conversing with so-called “woke” Christians’ actual beliefs in light of Scripture. It is also a rhetorical move that mirrors segregationist arguments within the American Church in the 20th-century.
Strachan forces us to ask an important question: do we really want to argue that fellow Christians believe things they do not believe? Do we really want to go down the road where we attribute beliefs to others not based on what they have stated but based on what we assume about them because of their commitments to social ethics and analysis?
Most importantly, for the sake of our evaluation, these rhetorical moves give cover for justifying the binding of Christians’ consciences to a particular view of American history, social ethics, and social analysis. To diverge is to be “woke”, to be “woke” is to be Marxist, to be Marxist is to adopt atheistic presuppositions; to diverge is to be “woke”, to be “woke” is to deny justification-by-faith, to deny justification-by-faith is to affirm an anti-gospel; and so forth. These justifications have been increasingly present in the church before Strachan’s book was released, as seen at McLean Bible Church this summer. Christianity and Wokeness merely presents a synthesized and accessible on-ramp to adopting them.
II. Strachan’s Fatal Theological Inconsistencies
Though Strachan lacks charity and inclusion for those who disagree with him on the complex issues associated with “wokeness”, he does offer grace and acceptance and recognizes complexity for others. Strachan warns against “monocausal terms” for the “complex” issues of police brutality (14), redlining (116), crime rates (34), poverty (34), shootings (34), educational disparities (34), among other general racial disparities (114) as lacking nuance; but simplistically concludes the only cause of Christians calling out systemic racism is their embrace of heresy. Such inconsistency is most glaring in his treatment of Christian slave-owners, which we will examine here in part two.
Strachan makes clear he believes “that ‘racism’ is a Satanic ideology” (187) and that “‘white supremacy’…is hideous—a manifestation of Satanic influence” (39). American chattel slavery, according to Strachan, was “a wicked institution based in an unbiblical ideology” of racism and white supremacy (178). “No slaveowner working in this system,” according to Strachan, “could open his Bible, read passages on slavery, and think that he had gotten his slaves in a righteous and fair way. He had not.” (176)
While describing “wokeness”, Strachan notes “to embrace an ungodly ideology is to lose Christianity, however long the switchover takes” (p. 7). If someone unrepentantly embraces “satanic ideology” according to Strachan, they are compromised at a foundational level. The church should no longer recognize them as faithfully Christian. If that’s true, how should we view those who embraced the “satanic ideology” of racism and benefitted from American slavery, enjoying its spoils of forced labor, rape and torture?
Based on his view of those he considers “woke” one would think his answer is that these slaveholding, racist self-identified Christians should’ve certainly been excommunicated and rejected as exemplars. However, for pro-slavery Christians, Strachan holds room for faithful Christians who simply got slavery and racism wrong. Indeed, Strachan notes that “too many otherwise sound pastors and theologians stood for the wrong side of this matter” (182). He even appeals for nuance and understanding, “It is necessary to recognize that slaveholders were not monolithic in their practice, and that there was a clear spectrum of action among professing evangelicals that ranged from more humane to decidedly less humane.”
Strachan’s approach to Christianity and slavery presents significant contradictions given his handling of “wokeness.” How could slaveholders be “otherwise faithful“ if they embraced a satanic ideology, thus losing Christianity? Does this mean Jonathan Edwards, someone Strachan has defended and upheld as a hero and influential Christian, should have been excommunicated?
Plainly stated, if Strachan treated those he considers “woke” Christians the way he treats slaveholders, the thesis of his book would foundationally crumble. And if Strachan treated Christian slaveholders the way he treated the “woke”, his theological heroes would be rendered heretics. If “too many otherwise sound pastors and theologians stood for the wrong side of” slavery and racism, why can’t Strachan hold a category for “otherwise sound pastors and theologians” he disagrees with regarding “wokeness”?
III. Is Wokeness The Same As Machen’s Liberalism? OR Is Strachan Woke?
Strachan named Christianity and Wokeness after J. Gresham Machen’s response to early 20th-century liberal Protestantism, Christianity and Liberalism. The comparison is central to his thesis and motivation for writing the book:
Today, the Church faces a new challenge. Like liberal Protestantism, which denied the historic truthfulness of the faith, supernatural miracles, and a sin-cleansing atonement for individual sinners, “woke”ness is not merely a different form of Christianity, a remixed version that fits fluidly with conservative evangelical faith. Built on Critical Race Theory (CRT), wokeness uses theological language and even the very system of Christian theology, albeit without any need for grace and God. Wokeness per Machen is thus in a “distinct category” from sound biblical doctrine. Wokeness, in the clearest terms, is not Christianity at all (3).
Strachan believes that, like Machen, he is fighting a battle for the theological heart of Christianity. In part three, we’ll compare Strachan’s approach to J. Gresham Machen’s engagement with liberal Protestantism, comparing their theological precision and representation of opposing views.
It is worthwhile to hash out Strachan’s self-comparison to Machen. We should note that we do not hold Machen as an exemplar of theologically faithful social engagement. As far as his writings and letters present, Machen promoted racist and segregationist views. For example, he was heavily critical of his colleague B.B. Warfield for his advocacy of integration, referring to his views as “Black Republicanism.” Yet Strachan holds Machen up as a model for theological engagement and, as such, there is much to learn by comparing their approaches to the issues they engaged with.
Engaging Theologically With Precision
The first area where Machen and Strachan diverge is their precision in developing theological categories of error. Machen’s representation of liberal Protestantism hung on his belief that Christianity was a religion based on specific facts, namely those facts articulated in the Nicene Creed, “Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God” (Christianity and Liberalism, 38-39). Liberal Protestants denied those facts, asserting they were not essential to Christian identity or Christian living.
“In maintaining the doctrinal basis of Christianity,” Machen stated, “we are particularly anxious not to be misunderstood…It is perfectly possible for Christian fellowship to be maintained despite differences of opinion” (Christianity and Liberalism, 39-40). Because Machen believed those first-rank doctrines were so essential to the faith, he emphasized the importance of precision and nuance in distinguishing the denial of core doctrines from beliefs he considered “grave errors,” but not at the level of being in a “distinct category” to Christianity altogether (Christianity and Liberalism, 37-43).
For example, Machen sharply decried proponents of Premillennial eschatology as promoters of a “false method of interpreting Scripture which in the long run will be productive of harm.” Quite a daunting charge! Yet, Machen continued, “their error, serious though it may be, is not a deadly error; and Christian fellowship, with loyalty not only to the Bible but to the great creeds of the Church, can still unite us with them” (Christianity and Liberalism, 41). Likewise, Machen stated of Catholics, “The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion,” (perversion!), “but, naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all” (Christianity and Liberalism, 43).
For Machen, Christianity’s core “facts” were essential to what he considered authentic Christian belief. Thus, he demonstrated deep restraint in accusing others of denying or contradicting the gospel. To muddy or stretch that boundary would diminish the importance of the gospel.
Strachan does not afford “woke” Christians the same careful precision. Instead, he targets Christians as heterodox who explicitly affirm Machen’s essentials to orthodox Christianity (34-44). When Strachan attempts to articulate “key commitments of wokeness,” he does not highlight beliefs that conflict with or deny Machen’s core “facts” of the historic Christian faith (24).
Strachan’s argument makes recognizing systemic racism equivalently heretical to denying the divinity of Christ. While Machen worked diligently in Christianity and Liberalism to avoid such fallacies, Strachan’s thesis depends on them. According to Machen’s logic, by blurring what is essential to orthodoxy, Strachan bears the fruit of a low view of the gospel.
It is curious that Strachan targets the Christians he does because, as Michael Graham and Alisa Childers have outlined, other significant faith movements within American Christianity precisely mirror Fosdick’s liberal Protestantism. Strachan could have analyzed these theological movements that deny historic Protestant commitments. Instead, he places Christians in the crosshairs who share his faith tradition’s institutions, denominations, and organizations while differing in ideological and sociological commitments towards social action and racial issues.
In diverging from the posture and precision of Machen, Strachan’s reckless promotion of disfellowship for those who believe systemic racism is a problem, and his accusations that Christians who advocate for justice are guilty of first-rank heresy betrays a lack of seriousness concerning the supremacy and centrality of the gospel.
Taking Opponents At Their Word
The second area where Machen and Strachan diverge is their faithful representation and engagement of their opponents. In Harry Emerson Fosdick’s influential 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?,” Fosdick asserted that Christianity must abandon doctrines like the inspiration of Scripture, the efficacy of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins, and the second coming of Christ to accommodate modern sensibilities.
One year after Fosdick’s message, J. Gresham Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism. Machen was zealous in confronting perceived errors at all doctrinal levels, but his disagreement with liberal Protestants was distinct. To Machen, their denial of what he defined as essential Christian doctrines made them an entirely different religious expression than historic Christianity.
Fosdick notably replied to Machen’s critiques, “They call me a heretic. Well, I am a heretic if conventional orthodoxy is the standard. I should be ashamed to live in this generation and not be a heretic.“ Fosdick agreed with Machen: his liberal Protestantism self-consciously and explicitly sought to jettison the first-rank doctrines of historic Protestant orthodoxy.
Regardless of what one believed about those doctrinal convictions, it made sense to categorize Machen and Fosdick’s core theological views as foundationally distinct religious beliefs. For Machen, theological engagement required taking Fosdick at his word and representing his beliefs in a way that Fosdick could recognize.
Compare Machen’s engagement with Fosdick to Strachan’s engagement with Eric Mason. Strachan included Mason’s book Woke Church in his “Five Influential Woke Books” section. As someone who is categorized as “woke”, Eric Mason is considered an apostate.
Strachan dedicates an entire section to Mason’s book Woke Church. In his analysis, Strachan does not engage with Mason’s straightforward definition of “woke”:
My desire in this book is to encourage the church to utilize the mind of Christ and to be fully awake to the issues of race and injustice in this country. Pan-Africanists and Black Nationalists use the term “woke” to refer to no longer being naïve nor in mental slavery. We have borrowed the term and redeemed it to be used in the context of being awakened from deadened, sinful thinking. In fact, every believer has been awakened from sin’s effects and Satan’s deception (Eph. 5:14). Thus, the believer is able to be aware of sin and challenge it wherever it is. Woke is a word commonly used by those in the black community as a term for being socially aware of issues that have systemic impact. This social awareness doesn’t come from just watching the news or reading history through a traditional lens. Being woke has to do with seeing all of the issues and being able to connect cultural, socio-economic, philosophical, historical, and ethical dots (Woke Church, 25).
Nor does Strachan include a single theological response or articulation of where he believes Mason has strayed from orthodoxy. Rather, he summarizes a limited selection of his book and points out where he disagrees with Mason’s social analysis.
In Woke Church, Mason affirms “that lives need to be transformed through a ‘born-again’ experience and a life-long process of following Jesus.” He emphasizes the importance of “a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority” and the centrality of “the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity” (Woke Church, 29). Regarding the necessity for gospel proclamation, Mason says that “we do not substitute proclaiming for action” (Woke Church, 31).
A fair engagement with Woke Church from Strachan would articulate why, although Mason affirms such doctrines, he holds to an “anti-Gospel” and should be excommunicated. At the very least, it would demonstrate an exegetical analysis of Mason’s errors. As Andrew Walker recently stated, “If a theological position is wrong, demonstrate the error exegetically, and not why it *must* be wrong because of the critic’s precommitment to their own sociological constraints.”
But fair engagement from Strachan would also represent Mason’s views clearly. For example, Strachan clips a small phrase from Woke Church to question Mason’s views on justification, “The author states that justification, the heart of the biblical Gospel, ‘isn’t merely a position, but a practice,’ maintaining that it is ‘an attribute and an action.’” Strachan goes on to interpret Mason’s phrasing, “In the author’s words, activism on issues of racial justice in society seems to be part and parcel with the attribute of being justified” (40).
Strachan’s cutting and parsing of this quote are deceptive. He treats a statement that was meant as an exhortation as a treatise on a doctrinal position. This is the same error as taking out of context “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” and suggesting Paul is teaching that we must work for our salvation. For one, in an endnote, Strachan recognizes that later in the book, Mason is clear that he does not believe social justice is the “content” of the gospel, responsible for justification (244). But moreover, Strachan interprets and extrapolates implications from Mason’s quote in a way that contradicts the way Mason explains himself. Here is the full quote which clearly shows that the context of Mason’s use of “justified” here is focused on application of the doctrine of justification- not an emendation to it:
Justified isn’t merely a position, but a practice! Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us by faith leads to our being made right with God as well as our making things right on earth—knowing that Jesus will return and bring to completion the work that He has been doing through His people (44).
Strachan could have synthesized Woke Church’s comprehensive articulation of justification, for instance, and engaged with it. Likewise, he could have engaged with the issues he had with Mason’s wording in light of his complete sentence. Given that Strachan is ready to categorize Mason as an apostate, these are reasonable standards of engagement to hope for. But if Strachan were to do that, it would complicate his characterizations of Mason and require the type of nuance that might shed doubt on whether Mason’s “wokeness” actually conflicts with core Christian orthodoxy.
Machen was able to clearly, plainly, and comprehensively present and deal with liberal Protestants like Fosdick’s beliefs. He did not need to cherry-pick, proof-text or insinuate because Fosdick self-consciously and explicitly denied core historic Protestant doctrines. Strachan is not afforded this approach, because Eric Mason is ultimately a sound Christian leader who cannot reasonably be presented as outside the bounds of historic orthodoxy.
The Harmful Potentials of Imprecision
By failing to engage with careful theological categories and represent his opponents faithfully, Strachan misses an opportunity for thoughtful and edifying dialogue. But he also sets a dangerous precedent. Wide and imprecise categories for apostasy + a loose and distorted hermeneutic for representing opponents’ deeply held beliefs = a proverbial loaded gun for those who might disingenuously slander other Christians.
Consider how simple it would be to indict Strachan’s 2014 article about racism as grounds for church discipline. Strachan opens the article stating,
We feel great pressure today to speak instantaneously and with maximal depth about current events. I needed to listen, learn, and hear my brothers and sisters speak—particularly my African-American brothers and sisters, whose reflections have been moving, instructive and invaluable to me.
The posture Strachan articulates in his article is one which Soong-Chan Rah encouraged in Prophetic Lament and which Strachan, in his book, decried as “wokeness” for being “on a mission to silence some in the Church…because of their skin color” (38).
Yet this reflection led Strachan to recognize in his 2014 article, “the African-American experience has been shaped by slavery. You cannot unsee it. You cannot undo it.” He appears to affirm the existence of systemic racism, “we target racism wherever we see it. Any problem that is systemic must by definition be local.” He goes on to state that “Reckoning with this history and its ongoing ramifications is not ‘white guilt’…It is cruciform honesty.”
In words strikingly similar to Mason’s Woke Church, Strachan states, “we must grasp in our day the transformative nature of our justification,” pursuing unity by “seeking to understand what life is like for minorities in majority cultures.” How do we apply our justification to this issue? “Our justification means that we plunge into our world as those who now have a foretaste of heaven,” he continues, “we cannot content ourselves with the status quo. In our local churches, we actively pursue justification-inspired racial reconciliation.” Strachan cites Billy Graham’s reference to MLK’s statement, “there is no more segregated hour in America than Sunday at 11 am,” lamenting, “to a large degree, he is still right.”
For one, it is fascinating to read Strachan’s articulation of social ethics in 2014 compared to Christianity and Wokeness. The variable responsible for the difference between his book and article cannot be purely theological—Strachan’s theological convictions have publicly remained the same. He has not articulated a shift of “repentance” for espousing “woke” theological beliefs. However, one thing that has changed is the growing mood and posture of anti-social justice fervor that has deeply impacted the Church in recent years, with which Strachan has aligned.
Now, imagine if Strachan’s article was, instead, a Sunday sermon given today. And imagine you are a disgruntled congregant who wants to prove to your congregation that your pastor is “woke” and, thus, unsound and unfit for ministry. All it would take is a quote of Christianity and Wokeness and a sermon manuscript to make a coherent case that Strachan has gone “woke” and it is time to organize his dismissal for “Houses divided cannot stand. Trustees, voting members, organizational leaders, educational boards, and so on must not tolerate the spread of wokeness any longer” (54).
Such a looming threat hangs over leaders who wade into conversations about racial justice. Strachan’s imprecise definitions, categories, and representations of “woke” Christians further open the door for undue suspicion, accusation, and division.
Christianity and Wokeness broadly misses the mark as a resource to guide the church through complex and urgent racial issues. Instead of offering careful theological engagement, the book places a proverbial moat around the contemporary racial justice conversation that one can cross at their own risk of accusations of apostasy. Those stakes are compounded by ambiguity in presenting the “mood” of wokeness which will only foster more division and rancor.
The church faces an increasingly complex ecclesial, missional, and social landscape. Unity, wise engagement, and faithfulness to the Christian social imperative will require a tight grip to the gospel. While this task is daunting and exhausting for many in the church, Strachan’s closing paragraph of his 2014 article offers an encouraging exhortation:
The dividing walls of race and class and party seem sky-high, reinforced by granite, unyielding and foreboding. But you know what? You venture toward those immense walls by faith, a faith that came down to you like a blanket from the sky. Others are looking at you funny, but you keep walking toward them. You have a fire in your bones, even as you feel a fear that you can’t describe. Tentatively, you touch those walls of hostility, light as a feather’s kiss. By the power of Christ, they do not hold fast. They crumble.
We hope that Strachan, and the American church, will embrace and engage with those who carry this burden and hope, not cast them out.
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”