History, Justice, and Gospel: A Couple Reflections on John MacArthur’s Post #5

white priv 2

[To be 100% clear, I do not believe that John MacArthur would agree with the image above, nor have anything but condemnation for its message. I have only used this image to reflect the attitude of many American Christians throughout our history. The image is about the content below, not John MacArthur.]

Though John MacArthur’s most recent article on Racial Reconciliation (RR) continues to rely mostly on innuendo with no attempt to connect the dots, “this sounds like that so it must be that” type reasoning, and reads more like baptized conservative politics, there are nevertheless two points I would like to briefly respond to here.

Biblical Justice and Marxist Justice

Everything said about “justice” in MacArthur’s piece seems to completely lack historical context and appears premised on historical neutrality. To conclude that the justice of RR advocates is not God’s justice or Biblical justice, but is really Marxist justice, is simply unfounded. Those seeking racial and ethnic reconciliation are not arguing from the general principle that justice requires perfectly equal distribution throughout all areas of society to the narrower claim that distribution among races must likewise be perfectly equal; that is, RR advocates are not working from the Marxist ideal of distributive justice and then applying it to race as simply a specie of this general commitment. Rather, Christian advocates of racial justice are applying the very same concept of Biblical justice, but are applying it to the actual and specific historical circumstances of American society.

For 350 years, those of African descent were stolen, purchased, traded, and exploited to create wealth for white Americans, North and South, barred from access to educational institutions, barred from access to “white” jobs, segregated and forced into “ghettos,” and haunted by violence with little basic social protections. Coming out of the Civil Rights era, little was done to ameliorate the grave poverty, lack of property ownership, and poor education that plagued these centuries-long marginalized people. At this very moment, the median net worth of white families remains about 10 times that of black families, with the poverty rate among black Americans at 21.8% compared to 8.8% of whites. Only 22.8% of black Americans between 25 and 29 years old are college graduates, compared to 44.5% of whites. More black men are in prison than are enrolled in college. 1 in 9 African American males between the ages of 20 and 34 are in prison; blacks are imprisoned at 600% the rate whites and constitute double the prison population for drug crimes, though whites and blacks use and sell drugs at a similar rate. The infant mortality rate of blacks is more than double that of whites. And on and on. Pick a category and take a moment to Google the divide.

This is the context of the call for justice. It is not part of a larger program to eliminate all possible individual or group disparities in American society. It is a call for righting the wrongs that have been done, wrongs which continue to persist through current and inherited systemic racialization, wrongs which continue to hurt people of color to this day. As Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains[,] and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair” (commencement address to Howard, 1965). This is what we have done as Americans. And the American church has proven little better, given its continued segregation and stubborn unwillingness to even address the many barriers to integration. Not to mention the continuing destructive language of men like John MacArthur, calling his RR opponents Marxists, “pragmatic, style-conscious evangelicals … shamelessly” borrowing “fads and talking points from the unbelieving world,” and the greatest threat to the Gospel he’s ever battled.

No, this is good old-fashioned Biblical Justice; as Ambrose said almost 1700 years ago, “It is justice that renders to each one what is his, and claims not another’s property; it disregards its own profit in order to preserve the common equity.” Biblical justice is about giving each his due as God’s image bearer. It is now, as it has always been, about fairness and equity in economic transactions, unprejudiced legal judgments, righting persistent generational wrongs, and eliminating barriers to social and religious equity. It is about making every valley lifted up, every mountain and hill low, the uneven ground level, and the rough places plain (Isa. 40:4). No one is advocating that everyone get to drive the same car; just that it might be wrong to drive grandpa’s stolen car while the family he stole it from continues to have no car.

Widening the Gospel?

Next, pastor MacArthur writes,

Even more troubling are statements that have been made by certain evangelical thought leaders who claim that anyone who doesn’t advocate for social justice is preaching a truncated gospel. Some say that those who reject their social justice ideology don’t have any gospel at all.

He goes on to quote a tweet from Dr. Anthony Bradley to justify his specious claim, arguing it is identical to the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch:

Here’s the problem (and this will be hard): from a black church perspective, evangelicals have never had the gospel. Ever. Read the book Doctrine A[nd] Race. Here then is the actual Q: When will evangelicals embrace the gospel for the first time ever? (@drantbradley, 12/22/17)

MacArthur’s (intentional or unintentional?) misreading of Dr. Bradley’s tweet is astonishing to me. To begin with, Dr. Bradley explicitly says that he is speaking of the “black church perspective,” while Dr. Bradley is himself a conservative Presbyterian—not a member of the traditional “black church.” Further, in his thread on the “truncated gospel,” he cites books from white theologians to make his point. How is it at all hard to see that Dr. Bradley is trying to teach us how white evangelicalism is viewed by the historic black church? And more importantly, how can we not see that his assessment is absolutely true and that the black church has been given ample reason to question whether white evangelicals have ever even had the gospel?

Let us step out of our own skin and think about this. It was the white man’s “gospel” that first justified the importation of slaves from Africa, supposedly to save them from paganism. It was a “gospel” that would later be kept from the African slaves for fear that baptism would free them under British law. Later, civil and church laws were changed to ensure that baptism would not free; it was argued that this “gospel” would foster greater submission, obedience, docility, and hard work in the slaves, teaching them further that they ought not seek temporal change of status, that the Bible warrants their lot, and that they should follow the Apostle Paul’s command to be obedient.

It was a “gospel” that was seen somehow consistent with trapping the African alone in the bonds of lifelong servitude—they and their children. The white man’s “gospel” also came to include every possible justification for the mistreatment of the “negro,” including the so-called curse of Ham—the entire “black race” was cursed by God to perpetual servitude. In fact, a society supposedly framed by the gospel, a symbol of true Christian civilization, became part of the justification for secession from the Union to maintain the practice of slavery in the South. Frederick Douglas would write in this period that, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference,” and, “the church and the slave prison stand next to each other. … [T]he church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighborhood.” This was a “gospel” that barred slaves from full participation in church membership, allowed them no pastors, no meeting places, and at best kept them in the galleries of the white churches. It was a “gospel” that allowed men to beat Andrew Bryan nearly to death for building the first black church in Savannah, and drag Richard Allen and fellow black worshippers out of a Pennsylvania church while on their knees in prayer for daring to worship in the main sanctuary in day light, thus leading to the creation of the historic black church.

After emancipation, the South responded in uproar. Whites now enforced detailed systems of segregation and new methods of race-based exploitation. When thousands of blacks fled to the North, they met much the same. The Christianity of the whites still allowed for oppression, misuse, exploitation, and separation of church and society from blacks and constant assaults and lynchings. When the Civil Rights movement began, white Christians en mass somehow believed their “gospel” allowed them to either put the movement down by violence, or at least show complete indifference. To this day, many gospel believing white evangelicals are still unsure whether the movement was even justified, or state plainly that it was not. And let’s be clear, this was only 50 years ago! And in 2018, our churches are still by and large segregated while the disparities listed above continue to be vast and painful to consider; yet the majority of white “gospel” adherents still feel there is little need for work, except to attack those who speak out, calling them Marxists, SJW’s, and gospel compromisers. In fact, the gospel fidelity of historic black churches is constantly called into question, especially in Presbyterian and Reformed circles.

Remember it is John MacArthur that is calling this movement the greatest threat to the gospel. What gospel is this that the so-called “SJW’s” are threatening? Is it that “gospel” that allowed Presbyterian minister Henry James Thornwell to preach that they “recognize in his [the “Negro”] form and lineaments—in his moral, religious and intellectual nature—the same humanity in which we glory as the image of God,” yet preach this very sermon at the dedication of a separate church building for their slaves? (See “The Rights and Duties of Masters.”)

Is it that “gospel” which somehow allowed the great R. L. Dabney, Presbyterian theologian and “gospel” minister, to write the following (and much more)?

I, for one, say plainly, that I belong to the white race, and that if I must choose be­tween the two results, my philanthropy leads me to desire the prosperity of my own people, in preference to that of an alien race. I do not see any humanity in taking the negro out of the place for which nature has fitted him, at the cost of thrusting my own kindred down into it. (The Negro and the Common School)

Thus, if the low grade of intelligence, virtue and civilization of the African in America, disqualified him for being his own guardian, and if his own true welfare (taking the “general run” of cases) and that of the community, would be plainly marred by this freedom; then the law decided correctly, that the African here has no natural right to his self-control, as to his own labour and locomotion. (Systematic Theology, Kindle Locations 21873-21874)

“[W]ho that knows the negro does not know that his is a subservient race; that he is made to follow, and not to lead; that his temperament, idiosyncrasy and social relation make him untrustworthy as a depository of power” 203-204. (Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions, Vol. 2 “Ecclesiastical Equality of Negroes” 199-217. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967 [1891], pp. 203-204)

Is it a “gospel” which allowed J. G. Machen to both rightly defend the rudiments of the Christian faith against liberal theology, yet also write,

It is true some of them are ‘sticklers’ for the civil rights of negroes – it always makes me intensely angry to hear people talking glibly about equal civil rights of negroes when in many parts of the South those equal rights would mean that every legislator and every judge would be a savage of a [] type and the white men would be more unsafe in parts of this country than in the most [] parts of the world where at least the protection of his home government is to some extent with him. (“Machen to Mother.” Received by Timothy Isaiah Cho from the Archives of Montgomery Library at Westminster Theological Seminary, 5 October 1913.)

Or, is it that which somehow allowed PCA founding member and minister of the gospel, Morton Smith, to declare that “the principle of separation of peoples or of segregation is not necessarily wrong per se. In fact, it seems clearly to be God’s order of things” (Quoted by Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church, p. 115)?

For centuries in this nation, the “gospel” of the white man looked like an effort to usher souls into heaven while leaving bodies in earthly hell. This “gospel” message was either (1) a false gospel altogether, (2) a gospel that was indeed “truncated” by something akin to Gnosticism, or otherworldly eschatology, not quite lending itself to “religion that is pure” (Jas. 1:27), or (3) it was the true Gospel, yet few understood it enough to recognize that their actions were “not in step” with its truth (Gal. 2:14). If the answer is (1), we must simply reject it outright; if the answer is (2), we must carefully reflect on what about it was, and may still be, defective and sinfully narrow; if (3), we must quit claiming that “just preach the gospel” is the lone remedy. Dr. Bradley has argued for option (2), and I tend to agree, but am open to option (3). But at the very least, I think it should be clear that bringing attention to this distortion of God’s truth throughout our history is not some worldly-accommodation attempt to illegitimately “widen the gospel” beyond its Biblical scope.

To Conclude

Honestly, I do not believe we have proven ourselves, as white evangelicals, to be in a good position to berate the perspective that Dr. Bradley calls us to consider. Rather than responding with anger and slanders, we ought rather to ask ourselves, what “gospel” is it that we feel is so threatened by those calling for justice? The “gospel” that was used to justify all that has gone before? The “gospel” that is either false, “truncated,” or is indeed true, but somehow has not informed our views on history and Racial Reconciliation? To be sure, this is not a about white skin color; the true gospel cannot be distorted by the color of one’s skin; nor do I question the salvation of many of our racist forebears. This is not about that. This is about honest reflection on a “gospel” message that has not meant the same for white Americans as the gospel message has meant to Black Americans through their 400 year long struggle—viz., a gospel of individual salvation in Jesus Christ, most importantly; but also a gospel of freedom for the oppressed, of action, of reforming injustices, of social work, and of caring for the body in this life, consistent with the hope of the life to come.

John Calvin helpfully defines the Gospel in the following:

The Gospel, therefore, is a public exhibition of the Son of God manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16) to deliver a ruined world, and to restore men from death to life. It is justly called a good and joyful message, for it contains perfect happiness. Its object is to commence the reign of God, and by means of our deliverance from the corruption of the flesh, and of our renewal by the Spirit, to conduct us to the heavenly glory. For this reason it is often called the kingdom of heaven, and the restoration to a blessed life, which is brought to us by Christ, is sometimes called the kingdom of God… . (John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke)

I believe that Pastor John MacArthur would agree with this; I pray that he will begin to more thoroughly see the implications of this Gospel for Racial Reconciliation and Biblical Justice in this nation.

3 thoughts on “History, Justice, and Gospel: A Couple Reflections on John MacArthur’s Post #5

  1. Roberto September 17, 2018 / 8:22 pm

    Brother, I have been following your series on the topic of race. I have to say that you have truly treated the topic with care, love, justice, and an eye to n Scripture and King Jesus. I look forward to your future posts.


  2. stan schmunk January 5, 2019 / 9:55 pm

    Bradly, I’ve become pretty expert on the topic and Scripture over the decades including a large bibliography. But this is the single best article I’ve ever read. Blessings on you! Maybe we need to collaborate…


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