23 July 2018

Convictions of the Christian “Social Justice” Movement and Responses Thereto

by Hohn Cho

Reader AK said: I and others are still unclear on the "woke dogmas" or the unifying convictions of this "Christian justice movement"

This is a somewhat challenging question, because as with many decentralized movements, different people are going to answer this question in diverse ways. But as someone who participated avidly in the secular version of this movement for many years and has observed it in the church for several years, here is my effort.

My goal is to fairly present a number of views common to the "social justice" movement within conservative evangelicalism in the US, even as I acknowledge that the list is neither comprehensive, nor necessarily universal to every individual "social justice" advocate.

  1. Certain groups have been marginalized and oppressed throughout American history. These groups include, but are not limited to, ethnic minorities and women.
  2. This oppression, especially when amplified over many years—and in certain cases, many generations—has resulted in negative effects that have real impacts to this very day.
  3. This problem is both a historical and a current one, in that vestiges of the historical problems persist systemically within existing structures today.
  4. Moreover, the current inequities are so vast that to apply a "clean slate" or "equality of opportunity" paradigm alone would be neither sufficient nor just.
  5. Accordingly, as a matter of fundamental justice, existing inequities ought to be addressed by eliminating systemic problems and tangibly assisting those who have been oppressed.
  6. Because these inequities resulted from societal structures benefiting those with power and privilege, any costs associated with #5 should be borne primarily by society and the privileged.
I believe the above six concepts could likely be true of either a secular or a Christian "social justice" advocate. The below six concepts will attempt to focus in on the Christian perspective.

  1. Christians ought to be deeply concerned about these inequities, because we are called to love our neighbors, to love even our enemies, and to help the "least of these" as the example of the Good Samaritan clearly lays out.
  2. Any failure or even lack of enthusiasm to put into action this call to love our neighbors and help the least of these is a sin, or at the very least a detriment to our Christian witness, and thus individual repentance in these areas is appropriate.
  3. The church has a role to play as well, initially in the casting off and corporate repentance of any overt past or present sins relating to oppressed groups (see, e.g., the Southern Baptist Convention and slavery).
  4. As part of the repentance in #9, or at least as part of the compassionate sensitivity associated with #7, the church should actively disciple its members to love our neighbors, and examine itself to see if it is placing even unintentional barriers to fellowship for oppressed groups.
  5. One way these barriers to fellowship for oppressed groups could be discerned is examining the ethnic makeup of one's local body and comparing it to the ethnic makeup of the surrounding community.
  6. Some would argue that corporate repentance by the church should include measures such as reparations and/or proactive hiring/ordination of pastors/elders from oppressed groups, in a type of affirmative action. Others (often amillennial and post-millennial believers) would argue that an overt role of the church should be to actively work toward social change and improvement.
Subject to my earlier qualifications, I think that's enough for a basic sketch. And now that I've laid out what I hope is a fair summary, I'm going to respond with a brief set of conceptual rebuttals.

  1. No question there have been past injustices. Indeed, as we move back in history, we see a wretched and at times horrifying catalogue of evils and wrongs, and no single people group has a monopoly on this, as either victim or perpetrator. And delving into this issue begs the question of how broadly do you go, how far back do you go? Happily, we have answers from Scripture, because Ezekiel 18:20, Jeremiah 31:30, Deuteronomy 24:16, Galatians 6:4-5, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Romans 2:6, and other verse are crystal clear that each man is responsible for his own sins, and not the sins of his ancestors or other people.
  2. Additionally, to say it plainly, there is a fact-based debate over how prevalent and dire the sin of partiality vis-à-vis oppressed groups is in the US right now. I neither need nor desire to dispute personal experiences of ill treatment—and indeed, I could share several of my own—in order to observe that accusations of systemic problems in a nation of over 325 million people require more than proof-by-anecdote. Hard data are far more persuasive, and in that regard, there are many competing studies out there. And having reviewed dozens of them, my own view is that the best data are multivariate analyses which demonstrate the reality that complex issues, such as reasons for inequality, defy simple univariate answers (e.g., "it's all the fault of discrimination"). Meanwhile, the worst data tend to be studies from highly liberal/leftist humanities professors which contain clear methodological limitations, or even engage in question-begging, to assume the ideologically desired conclusions.
  3. Moreover, I've also seen a tendency among "social justice" advocates to ignore or minimize positive news and data, such as the increase in approval of interracial marriages from 4% in 1958 to 87% in 2013, representing "one of the largest shifts of public opinion in Gallup history". Or the reality that the US did indeed elect—twice!—an ethnic minority to the highest and most powerful position in the land. This does not mean the sin of partiality has disappeared, of course, but it does indicate progress. The reality is, it is and always will be impossible to eliminate the sin of partiality this side of glory, because the Scriptures are clear that we are all sinners, as Romans 3:9-10 and many other verses declare. We don't need to be fatalistic about this, of course, but it is more than appropriate to consider concepts such as magnitude, urgency, and even diminishing returns as we examine the sweep of stewardship of all that is set before us.
  4. This begs a fundamental question . . . how do we opt to prioritize "social justice" within the grid of many hundreds of Christian commands? There are, after all, "things of first importance" described in Scripture, and there are commands we are to be doing at all times, such as rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. (And I will note that in contrast, we are never called in Scripture to always be mourning, protesting, or expressing grievances.) Given a spare hour, should you spend it reading the Word, praying, doing street evangelism, serving your spouse via housework, or playing with your children? The answer is one of Christian liberty and stewardship, and ultimately each one of us will give an account to God for that hour per Romans 14:12. For anyone else to insist that you need to spend your time, money, or resources in a specific way, or to prioritize their heartfelt cause over your own, amounts to a treacherous path toward legalistic conscience-binding.
  5. Even when it comes to loving our neighbor, caring for the least of these, or doing justice, that remains an issue of liberty and stewardship. It might surprise you to hear that even with all of the constant media uproar about police shootings, the left-of-center Washington Post and the liberal The Guardian reported that 68 unarmed people (of all ethnicities) in 2017 and 170 unarmed people (again, of all ethnicities) in 2016, respectively, were killed by police in the US. Each of those people carried the Imago Dei, and regardless of the nature or justifiability of the shooting, I don't doubt that they each had loved ones who mourned their deaths. I can think of a dear friend who lost a loved one to a police shooting, and I mourned and still mourn with her. But in terms of relative commonality, more people (189) died of constipation in the US in 2016 . . . which, to be fair, sounds like a pretty awful way to die as well. In contrast, the horror of abortion murdered an estimated 926,200 unborn babies in 2014, a disproportionately high number of which were ethnic minorities, by the way. In that light, are those of us who believe the issue of abortion is, say, at least 5,000 times more important than the issue of unarmed people killed by police being somehow unfair or unreasonable?
  6. When it comes to repenting of the failure to love my neighbor, I am personally far more convicted and motivated with respect to sharing the Gospel with those around me, than I am of the sin of partiality as it pertains to ethnicity. In complete candor, for a variety of reasons, I am not currently convicted of the sin of partiality as it pertains to ethnicity. This is not to say that I am perfect in this area, of course, nor to say that the Holy Spirit won't someday convict me in this area, perhaps even deeply. But Christians are capable of maintaining a clear conscience in certain areas or toward certain people, as the Scriptures plainly state in Acts 23:1, Acts 24:16, Romans 9:1, 1 Corinthians 4:4, 2 Corinthians 1:12, 1 Timothy 1:19, 2 Timothy 1:3, and 1 Peter 3:16. Self-examination in these areas can be helpful and profitable, but it crosses into presumption and trying to be the Holy Spirit in another's life when certain "social justice" advocates insist that people are or should feel guilty of this or that particular sin. At the end of the day, 1 Corinthians 4:5 tells us that hidden things and the purposes of the heart are for the Lord to reveal and disclose, not for others to assume or believe the worst.
  7. Regarding the issue of privilege, there is no question that certain people are born with greater privileges than others. I joked recently that I was outraged that I was born without white privilege, tall privilege, attractive privilege, born-to-wealthy-parents privilege, firstborn privilege, and especially in our Reformed-ish circles, able-to-grow-beards privilege. At the end of the day, it is the Lord alone who in His sovereignty ordains the privileges and challenges associated with our birth, so why should we have either pride or shame in those circumstances, with which we had absolutely nothing to do? Moreover, as Christians, to the extent we are granted privileges, we praise Him, and to the extent we are granted challenges, still we praise Him as James 1:2, Romans 5:3, 1 Peter 1:6, and other verses make very clear.
I will close for now by saying that the biggest concern that I and numerous others have about the "social justice" movement in the church is that turning our attention toward social concerns necessarily increases their relative priority, and thus necessarily decreases the relative priority of Gospel proclamation. Again, just to speak plainly, I am far more concerned about the furtherance of the Gospel to the uttermost ends of the earth, than I am about certain marginal improvements with respect to, say, living standards in our own abundantly blessed first-world country.

Church history is filled with the wreckage of denominations and organizations which became distracted by social issues, and then over the course of time, abandoned their Gospel priorities and even their doctrinal fidelity. We Christians in America are already so apt to being distracted by the shiny things of the world, some of which might even be good or neutral things, in and of themselves. My prayer is that we will refuse to be diverted from the beauty and simplicity of the perfect Word of God and His Gospel by an unnecessary focus on anything peripheral to that, whether it is "social justice" or worldly politics—often two sides of the very same distracting coin.

Hohn's signature


Chris Nelson said...

It does seem this is just another version of Galatianistic false teaching, whether it is by Piper, Chandler, Platt, Keller, Thabitti, Moore and their cabal or Fosdick from 100 years ago. May Christ open their eyes.

thinking-biblically said...

Sin of partiality? Really? What about the real biblical distinction between the regenerate and unregenerate, the righteous and the wicked? Not only that, but I just did a quick survey of the uses of the word "neighbor" in the Epistles and find many verses where "neighbor" clearly means fellow Christians but no unambiguous use referring to unbelievers. This destroys the supposed scriptural basis for the Christian Social Justice movement. Also, the biblical concept of loving my neighbor is to act lawfully toward him: Not murder him, steal his possessions or commit adultery with his wife. Biblical reparations are for theft of his possessions. If some thugs demand I pay them reparations for crimes I did not commit for crimes they are not victims of, that is extortion and theft, and the Church should call it so.
As a biblical Christian I must also call into question the entire concept of equality as a human right. Clearly it is not God's intent that all humanity be born into the same culture, prosperity, or with the same physical or mental capacities, nor even have the same opportunity to hear the Gospel. Isn't the so-called "Social Justice" movement rebellion against the 10th commandment at the very least?

Hohn C said...

Sam, barring concrete evidence that I've missed, I wouldn't go so far as to say that the people you mention are engaging in "Galatianistic false teaching"... but that has been one of the eventual dangers of this pathway, historically speaking. I'm confident the people you mention would reply that cautions of this nature are an inappropriate use of a "slippery slope" argument, but speaking only for myself, I think the concerns are apt.

His Place, I'm not sure if you're addressing this to me or not. I believe we're on the same side of this argument, and I think you're raised some valid points (although to be clear, we are indeed called by Scripture to love both our believing neighbors, and even our unbelieving enemies). By presenting the "social justice" position, that does not mean to say I agree with it, of course, and I raise some of my own concerns immediately after presenting the position. Thanks for reading.

Keith said...


Thank-you for this cogent post. I was especially encouraged and equipped by point A that you make regarding the scriptural support for each person being accountable only for his own sin.
My church is approximately one mile from another where several of my friends are members. It is starting to tilt slightly toward social justice, and my some of my friends are wary that this will lead to a wholesale turn to this. Others are supporting this early turn. Your post will help biblically refute what is happening. Thanks!

Titus said...

This is a very good summary of the positions of those we disagree with and of an informed rebuttal to them. I have one point to add that I think is also important and a term's usage I disagree with.

Going along with the univariate/multivariate analysis point, I think it is helpful too to explain the oppressor/oppressed dynamic of critical theory, and how it shows some affinity with Marxist reasoning. This is different from calling social justice Christians Marxists which I see erroneously claimed from time to time.

As for the one disagreement, I think it is a conceptual error to use race and ethnicity interchangeably. I'll re-use some of what I said on another post. The Greek word ethnos is what we translate as “nation” in the New Testament. Ethnicity is the not the same thing as race. Ethnicity is much more synonymous with a culture or a nation or a people than it is with ancestry or race.

American cultures accept people of all races into their cultural identities. It shouldn’t be surprising that this developed in what used to be pretty thorough-going Christian country influenced by earlier English political thought that itself partly looked to the Torah's civil laws and later post-OT Jewish writings for political wisdom. The Torah allows for conversion/assimilation into Israel by choice instead of birth exclusively.

Now that America is becoming less culturally Christian, it’s not surprising that there is the confusion of a false choice on American identity: that it’s merely the assent to the American "idea" or that it must be based on race/ancestry. Culture/ethnos/nation is the middle way and biblical way.

Social justice conservative evangelicals have now become fixated on viewing identity issues and others through a racialist lens, when they should be focusing on being in Christ and a biblical definition of nations for unifying Americans of different races. Instead, like the world, they lead people to tie race with culture too tightly and are bringing the confusion of false ideological constructs into the Church instead of leading the Church to be a shelter from it all.

Graham Veale said...

Dear Hohn,
First of all, I got your name wrong when replying to you on a different thread last night. I'm embarrassed and very sorry.
Second, I typed a reply which was so long I just turned it into an article. That way, I won't bore anyone here.

Third, I think there is room for agreement between these Christians and yourselves. So long as liberty of conscience and (above all) the priority of the Gospel are acknowledged, Christians can disagree on these matters. In fact, we probably should. I think that's healthy, a sign of a robust unity.

Finally, I agree that baptising one political strategy, no matter how noble it seems, can lead to stagnation and all sorts of other problems. And we need to keep what unites us front and centre.

Thanks for writing so clearly and honestly. I really hope that others reply to your articles constructively.

Yours in Christ,
Graham Veale

Eric said...

Thank you for your precision and grace. You handle yourself very well in interaction with others, striking a wonderful balance of grace and steadfastness. You are to be commended, brother.

You offer an encouraging and wise word in your six quick thoughts. I particularly appreciated your point about not binding the conscience of fellow believers in disputable matters. Thank you.

Hohn C said...

Keith, thanks for reading, and for your encouragement. I just prayed for unity in your congregation.

Titus, I agree with your concerns about critical race theory/CRT in the church, and the concept of the oppressor/oppressed dynamic. I don't personally focus on that too often, however, as I've perceived that most people supporting the "social justice" framework are doing so for earnest reasons of their own, and would therefore deny any support (or even knowledge, at times) of CRT concepts and goals. So my own personal preference is to use terms such as "collectivist" where appropriate, rather than CRT or the increasingly common charge of cultural Marxism. With all that said, I do think that some otherwise well-meaning folks are (perhaps unwittingly) "carrying water" for secular causes that are ultimately anti-church and anti-Christian. On the race/ethnicity issue you mention, I'll have to process that a bit more, thanks for the thought-provoking point.

Graham, zero worries on my name, people get it wrong all the time. :) I appreciate and agree with most of your article. When I have more time, I'd like to try to explain why I believe some people took exception to Thabiti Anyabwile's WaPo article, in the meantime I'd urge you to read Robert Gagnon's actual response, rather than the "Christian Post's" coverage of it, as my read of CP is that it tends toward sensationalism (as well as horrible Internet advertising practices).

On the rest of your article, you say "evangelicals must all reaffirm our commitment to religious liberty". I support religious liberty and feel it's typically the best way to go for a society, but unless you can point to chapter and verse, I believe the "must" part is overstated for the very reasons of liberty of conscience you yourself stated.

Finally, I'd like to point out that because the "social justice" folks are the ones making a call for specific actions, they're also the ones most apt and prone to engage in going beyond the liberty of conscience, and moving to legalistic conscience-binding. You see it all over that MLK50 conference that I linked to you before, as well as numerous writings of prominent supporters of this movement. This is why you see so many of them attempting to call "social justice" a "Gospel issue" or the like... the goal is clearly to raise this issue in priority from one of liberty of conscience, to one of mandatory action. And this I must resist for the reasons I laid out in this article, among others. We also saw this type of attitude in the last US election, with some people saying that people were morally bound to vote for one candidate or the other... a concept I rejected for the same reasons.

Eric, thank you for your kind encouragement, brother! And thanks for reading.

Titus said...


I agree that the leaders and followers who accept the framework are earnest. But with regard to the leaders, I have noticed that many are familiar with CRT concepts and terms, and I suppose they reason that CRT can be sufficiently Christianized. I specifically chose the phrase "Marxist reasoning" because I too find the topic of cultural Marxism to be somewhat besides the point in getting to the root errors. That's why I connected it to simplistic reasoning similar to when they are only open to univariate answers when talking about disparities.

As for the topic of ethnicity, you're welcome. I was first introduced to the concept academically, through cultural anthropology. So I was confused years later when I noticed much American sociopolitical discussion often conflated it with race thoughtlessly. Then I looked into how Scripture used the word, and it synced up pretty well with my previous learning. If you're interested in resources from any of those three fields, just let me know.

Hohn C said...

Titus, thanks. I’m actually familiar with the secular and sociological origins of the word “race” and the biblical concepts around ethnicity (and I’m not consciously conflating the two, by the way, I simply don’t prefer using the word “race” when I can avoid it), the particular parts that I found especially thought provoking were your comments about the Torah’s civil laws and post-OT Jewish writings, vis-à-vis assimilation and integration into a culture. So sure, if you have any other resources on that, I’d be interested. Thanks!

Graham Veale said...

Thank you Hohn, I have really benefitted from these interactions.

I think the biblical case for religious liberty does not require a chapter and verse; after all, we can quickly infer from scripture that abortion, the misuse of opiates, passive euthanasia, are all wrong.

The biblical case for religious freedom would from Christian liberty.
If Christians cannot compel one another to follow specific policies which Christians can reasonably disagree on, the church should not be allowed to compel unbelievers to follow policies which Christians can reasonably disagree on. Christians disagree on Church/State relations - so we can hardly impose one view on unbelievers.

I believe it also follows directly from the Gospel. Faith is the gift of God; so no magistrate or bishop can command faith. True worship is the work of the spirit, and cannot result from human compulsion. We deny the gospel by using the law to impose the church on others.

I also think it follows from the New Testament's description of spiritual warfare (it is spiritual and not physical!) and texts like:
1 Corinthians 5:12-13 12For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you”

John 18 36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But My kingdom is not from the world.”

Speaking personally, I have found it liberating to realise that the reformers and their heirs could be found wanting on an important issue before the bar of scripture. I think a lot of people in the church use the old confessions to bludgeon others into submission. Of course the confessions are valuable - priceless even. But they are not inerrant.


Titus said...

Hohn, with regard to the Torah's laws about assimilating into the nation of Israel and that principle's relation to ethnos/culture/nation more generally, I came to that conclusion separately and before finding out about certain classical English thinkers. I drew the connection after reading American Nations by Colin Woodward and thinking about it. Specifically, I recommend the "Introduction" chapter which is readable for free on the Kindle version's Amazon page.

As for the Torah and post-OT Jewish connections to classical English thought, I have in mind the writings of John Fortescue and John Selden. I haven't gotten to read the primary sources, but Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony sketch their overall thought and Jewish connections and their contribution to later Anglo-American political thought in the article below. The article's main topics are focused elsewhere (I think they are highly illuminating for what's going on in our day in America and Europe). Fortescue and Selden do use the Torah and other Jewish writings for wisdom on tangential, foundational sociopolitical topics, but not assimilation/acculturation like we do today. Haivry and Hazony do draw the point out though, and I think we today can see how that centuries old biblical foundation was a seed which has germinated in recent times and up to our present day.


Hohn C said...

Graham, you appear to be making an argument from Scripture based on Scriptural principles that religious liberty is a good and supportable structure for society. I don't disagree with any of the concepts you've put forth on that point, but other Christians (for example, theonomists, of which I am not one) would disagree with you vehemently, on the bases that they normally argue. Still other Christians would argue that an overtly Christian society would result in common grace to even the unbelievers in that society, and thus would be a beneficial thing overall. So to me, respectfully, even as a libertarian-leaning religious liberty proponent, this remains the very essence of a disputable matter.

Titus, thank you for the information! I'm very interested in this topic and appreciate the additional perspectives on it.