John MacArthur, noted pastor and author from Sun Valley, California, is raising the alarm over the latest movement in the church that he believes “has penetrated deep into the culture of the church, and the end effect is disaster.”
Ever since the book of Acts was recorded, church fathers have warned Christians about the greatest threat to Christianity: false doctrine rising in their ranks. And chief among those today who provide those warnings is John MacArthur who sees himself as the protector of the truth.
But is that truth the truth as MacArthur sees it? Could that truth be perceived through a generational lens that may, in fact, keep him and others from pursuing what God has called the church to do? Not everyone agrees with John MacArthur in his latest assertion that social justice is “the most subtle and dangerous threat so far.”
John MacArthur Targets “Evangelicals’ Obsession With Social Justice”
MacArthur’s latest concern is to call out the increasingly popular “social justice” gospel as a dangerous false doctrine. He writes, “It’s my conviction that much of the rhetoric about this latest issue poses a more imminent and dangerous threat to the clarity and centrality of the gospel than any other recent controversy evangelicals have engaged in.”
MacArthur writes on his Grace to You blog that “evangelicalism’s newfound obsession with the notion of ‘social justice’ is a significant shift—and I’m convinced it’s a shift that is moving many people (including some key evangelical leaders) off message, and onto a trajectory that many other movements and denominations have taken before, always with spiritually disastrous results.”
Is Social Justice a Dangerous Threat to the Gospel?
Other leading experts may agree with John MacArthur on some points, such as the danger of an exclusive “social justice” emphasis becoming THE ONLY mission of the church. However, theologians and church leaders like James Emery White, pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, write that “social ministry should not be paired against evangelism. We should extend the Bread of Life as well as bread for the stomach. But we must never begin, and end, with the stomach alone.”
Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, argues that “when the world sees the church doing justice then the world will get interested in justification. They’ll want to know what changed Christians. The answer will be justification.”
Keller sums up Mark 12:38-40, Luke 11 and James 2 this way, “How do you know you’re really saved by faith? You care about the poor. When you see people without resources, your heart goes out to them. If it doesn’t, maybe you’re saved, but you’re lacking the evidence of salvation. Justification leads to justice. Justice is the sign of justification. It’s all through the Bible.”
Francis Chan has echoed a similar view. Chan questions whether those who fail consider what they can do to help the poor or alleviate racial injustice have actually heard and heeded the words of Jesus.
This is not to say evangelicals aren’t careful to warn against allowing social justice works overshadow the message of the gospel. Greg Stier writes, “If you are totally into feeding the poor (a good thing), don’t forget to share the good news of the gospel in the process (the most important thing). And if you are totally into evangelism, don’t forget the very thing we should be eager to do, feeding the poor. We aren’t here just to preach the gospel, and we aren’t here just to feed the poor. We are here to do both. As a matter of fact, I think that one ‘feeds’ the other.”
What Does John MacArthur Mean by Social Justice?
By “social justice,” is MacArthur talking about—feeding the poor, visiting the widows and orphans in their distress? Scripture seems to be very clear that these are imperatives. Jesus said we must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:34-46). And when we do that, we have received him. And James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
John MacArthur’s definition of social justice seems to be something else. He writes, “‘Social justice’ (in the world’s usage of that term) entails political ideas that are deemed sophisticated—namely, identity politics, critical race theory, the redistribution of wealth, and other radical or socialist policies.”
MacArthur’s definition seems vastly different from what others understand as “social justice.” In her article “How the Social Gospel Saved my Soul,” Katelin Hansen writes:
There seems to be a belief in the Evangelical church that social justice is secondary to an individual’s relationship with God. As if ‘loving thy neighbor’ is something to do in the Church’s spare time, after it has addressed the state of a person’s soul in the afterlife…There are some churches that feel that involving themselves in issues of justice will distract from their ‘true mission,’ when really there is only one mission: bring glory to God. And justice is very much a part of that.
Let’s Not Give Up on the Term “Social Justice”
The term social justice may be hitched to several cultural agendas at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it is a phrase we should stop using or a movement we should work against in order to quell. In “The FAQs: What Christians Should Know About Social Justice”, Joe Carter of The Gospel Coalition writes “Whether we use the term or not, Christians are engaged in social justice when we advocate for issues such as abortion, racial reconciliation, religious liberty, and sex trafficking. We engage in social justice whenever we seek moral reform of our society in a way that ensures every person is treated with dignity and given their due.”
Social justice is a very Christian agenda. Although we may disagree on what kinds of social justice causes we should be involved in, we would be wise to look at the church’s history.
From Old Testament leaders like Boaz to the early church fathers to Wilberforce to Sojourner Truth to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Martin Luther King Jr., Christians have been concerned with social justice causes. Some in the church questioned their motives and even their interpretation of Scripture. Things are no different today.
On his blog, MacArthur asserts that he has taken on such potential heresies as the charismatic movement, the seeker sensitive movement, women’s role in the church, psychotherapy, and more. He believes he is definitely right about these issues and that he is doing his part to protect the Church from error.
What do you think? Is he right about “social justice”?