Social gospel, social justice, and followers of Jesus

In an interview from a couple of years ago, well-known pastor and author John MacArthur held forth on social justice. In summary, MacArthur does not believe the pursuit of social justice is the responsibility of Christians.

As evidence, he asserts that Jesus did nothing to address societal issues, change Jewish social structure, Roman social structure, and that “Jesus did nothing–absolutely nothing–to overthrow slavery.” In MacArthur’s reading of the New Testament Jesus did nothing to end poverty, apparently because “the poor you have with you always.” Finally, he says restructuring culture is popular “among non-believers, but it’s off-track for believers.”

The two minute twelve-second clip is not a hit piece; indeed, the host seems in agreement with his commentary.

That’s too bad.

Because this is really unsound exegesis.

Everything MacArthur warns about is 1) commanded in the Old Testament, and 2) seeded in the New Testament. The things Jesus, according to MacArthur, did not do, were almost immediately put into practice in the early church because they accepted helping the poor, loving the outcast, healing the sick, caring for widows and orphans, other socially related issues as the fruit of being Jesus’ people.

Far from seeing these things as unrelated to Jesus, they saw them as integral to following Him.

Were the early Christians “off track” for founding orphanages?

Were the early Christians “off track” for taking care of the sick?

Were the early Christians “off track” for seeing slaves as brothers and sisters in Christ?

Were the early Christians “off track” for rescuing infants consigned to the dung heap?

Was Paul “off-track” in reminding Timothy that kidnapping, ie, stealing people for slavery wrong?

Were William Wilberforce (and a slew of pastors and other Christians) “off track” for using the law to abolish the British slave trade?

Were Christians in the Underground Railroad “off track”?

Was Martin Luther King, Jr. “off track”?

Are Christians who seek legal redress for injustice “off track”?

Are Christians working with cops and courts to stop human trafficking “off track”?

Are missionaries who start schools to educate the ignorant “off track”?

It is biblical to remember those in prison. It is also biblical to seek justice if they should not be in prison in the first place.

Had MacArthur said, “People do not enter the kingdom of God via government structures. They only enter the kingdom of God by repentance and faith in Christ,” he would deserve a hearty “AMEN.” Had he said, “Christians will sometimes be effective in changing laws for the betterment of society, but that by itself is not the gospel,” he would deserve a hearty “AMEN.”  But, that is not what he said.

The problem is not MacArthur denying the gospel so much as he doesn’t seem to recognize the breadth of its impact. The gospel changes people; then changed people change cultures.

Jesus Himself turned social conventions on their head. His actions–His very life–demonstrated the reality of the Kingdom: He honored women, even women with questionable morals. He intentionally paired a political zealot and a known collaborator on His ministry team, not allowing earthly goals to rule kingdom realities. He ministered to the unclean. Jesus did not need to start a social movement, but the Jesus movement had social implications from the outset.

Tim Keller writes of the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor:

The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to “do justice.”

Different contexts may find more groups needing justice. Other contexts may find fewer. But, only a New Heaven and a New Earth will find no groups needing justice.

Jesus said “The poor will always be with you” immediately preceding his betrayal. It was a rebuke to His disciples who sought to chastise a worshiping woman by suggesting a “more spiritual” use for her perfume, i.e., a donation for the poor. The time was right for Jesus to be honored by her, so he said, “I will not be with you always.” In other words, “You will be able to give money to the poor any time you wish. She can only honor me in this way right now.” Far from denigrating the poor Jesus reminded the disciples of their ongoing responsibility to them (see Matthew 26, New Testament).

Saint Ambrose of Milan taught the church must care not only for babies, but also for the poor, because poverty often destroys their ability to care for children. (There’s a lesson for Jesus followers today.)

Even the idea of caring for children, and elevating their importance, has roots in Jesus’ teachings. From “Who is this Man?” by John Ortberg:

G. K. Chesterton wrote that the elevation of the dignity of childhood would have made no sense to the ancients…“The pagan world, as such, would not have understood any such thing as a serious suggestion that a child is higher or holier than a man. It would have seemed like the suggestion that a tadpole is higher or holier than a frog…. Peter Pan does not belong to the world of Pan but the world of Peter.”

 

[…]

 

By the late fourth century, a Christian emperor outlawed the practice of exposure for the entire [Roman] empire. Over time, instead of leaving unwanted babies on a dung hill, people began to leave them outside a monastic community or a church. The beginnings of what would be known as orphanages began to rise, usually associated with monasteries or cathedrals.

It is bad theology to suggest a chasm between Christians and biblical justice. Biblical justice is social by its nature. Justice without social implications is a fairy tale. Our Old Testament foundation of justice speaks of civil authorities, widows, orphans, the powerless and the powerful, personal and corporate responsibility. When Boaz sought justice for Ruth, he went to the gates–the place of civic authority. These are real people, with real issues.

The New Testament is no different. The early Christians, being predominantly Jewish, would have understood these issues of justice implicitly. Indeed, when Paul met with the other Apostles at Jerusalem, one of the specific directives they gave was “remember the poor,” which Paul says, “I made every effort to do.” James (2:15-16) and John (1 John 3:17) both equate physical assistance of the poor with true faith and God’s love.

Justice is where orthodoxy meets orthopraxy in a display of how broken systems should work.

I’ve long read John MacArthur and found helpful insight in many of his commentaries. He’s been a faithful pastor for many years. On this issue, though, if this interview be any indication, he’s taken a biblically indefensible position on justice.

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Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.