What was lost in this tragic episode was the historic Biblical theology of justice and cultural engagement—the kind championed by Amy Carmichael, William Wilberforce, and William Carey, an approach to ministry that seamlessly links gospel proclamation and discipleship to social and cultural impact.
Carmichael (1867-1951) was one of the most respected missionaries of the first half of the 20th century, yet she had no problem “engaging the culture.” Among her other works, Carmichael established a ministry to protect, shelter, and educate temple prostitutes in India. Many of Carmichael’s fellow missionaries believed that her efforts to fight the injustice of temple prostitution in India were “worldly activities” that distracted her from the “saving of souls.” To this, she simply replied, “Souls are more or less firmly attached to bodies.”
The social justice debate today
Today, evangelical advocates of social justice similarly want to fight against injustice and engage in the culture. But like the earlier social gospel advocates, they too have unwittingly allowed their theology of justice to be contaminated, this time by un-Biblical postmodern and neo-Marxist ideas, leading a group of evangelicals to come together in opposition to this view.
The conflict has been simmering for some time but is now out in the open with the release of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel supported by John MacArthur, Douglas Wilson, Voddie Baucham, and others.
The statement’s authors are concerned that the social justice movement in the broader culture has crept into the church. Social justice is the preferred descriptor of a movement on the far left that even left-leaning culture watchers such as Jonathan Haidt, Camille Paglia, and Jordan Peterson now identify as a pseudo-religion. This false religion now dominates the humanities departments of universities in the United States, as well as the entertainment and media industries, and increasingly the board rooms of major corporations like Google and Nike. It works hand in glove with the sexual revolution, as it shares the same ideological roots in Romanticism, postmodernism, and Marxism. It has no place for such essential Biblical virtues as grace, mercy, and forgiveness, replacing these with grievance, offense, incivility, and retribution. Its branches are political correctness, identity politics, multiculturalism, and intersectionality. It is incompatible with the United States’ constitutional, republican form of government, and such fundamental goods as due process. Its bitter fruit is the breakdown of civil society.
Evangelical social justice champions include, among others, Ken Wytsma, founder of the Justice Conference, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which gave platform to an advocate of #BlackLivesMatter at its flagship Urbana student missions conference in 2015. The movement also receives support from key leaders of The Gospel Coalition, such as Thabiti Anyabwile, and well-known pastors such as Matt Chandler and David Platt.