Jonathan David Faulkner
Editors Note: Due to length a section on examples from the Statement of Social Justice was removed from this article and will be published at a later date.
There is a new statement going around, a follow up to the controversial “Nashville Statement” that made its rounds on the internet last year, from the same group that wrote the Nashville Statement. This one, the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel may actually be worse then the Nashville Statement in what it does to the church as it seeks to “defend” orthodoxy.
It comes on the heals of John MacArthur, one of the composers, sermon series on Social Justice where he called it Heresy. Then a video where MacArthur, in our view, twisted Matthew 5:13-19 to say that we are not the ones who are a light to the world but Jesus and we are not working to preserve the world, but that it is the Gospel that preserves the gospel. It still baffles me that someone so studied in the Word can come up with these conclusions and with this statement, but it has happened, and no one should stand for what these things do to the fullness of the Gospel.
I also wish I could say this was a new phenomenon, unfortunately, MacArthur has advocated this kind of sectarianism his entire career, holding true to the fundamentalist spirit. This has long caused me and many others to have sharp disagreements with him as I have grown and studied in the conservative evangelical and reformed traditions. I find my dispute with him to be one of conscious and essential doctrine than over peripheral issues, though I certainly disagree with him on many peripheral issues as well.
The debate is nothing new in America though, in fact, when in 1845 when Charles Hodge read John Williamson Nevin’s translation of Philip Schaff’s “The Principle of Protestantism” his response was one of the confusion because Schaff “failed” in Hodge’s mind, to distinguish between the two forms of the church. To Hodge, there were two forms, the visible and the invisible Church. The Visible Church was the church where man dwelt, one in the world with a imperfect interpretation of scripture. Meanwhile, the invisible Church was where Christ dwelt and it was where the church existed in its most perfect and unblemished form.
Schaff, on the other hand, knows nothing of a divided church, hence he refers to the church as “the Church” without making a distinction between the two. He does this because he sees the Church as the continuation of the Incarnation of Christ through the divine union between Christ and man (the doctrine of Thesis in the Eastern Church). Christ dwelt within man, the incarnation by the Spirit, therefore the Church is an active and fully unified visible body of the believers that lives in the tension of the now but not yet and has to engage in the world and at certain points does intersect with the world. “Christianity,” Schaff writes” awakened in a particular historical context, amidst a number of cultures and ethnicities and it did not seek to destroy them, but to infuse them with its own unique transformational power to make them the best versions of themselves.” This is what confused Hodge, the visible church was fallen and divided, so there must have been a perfect version, an ideal version of the church that was untainted by man and that must have been where Christ lived.
The more widely read among must might say: “Well, how purely Platonian of Hodge” and they would be correct. The idea of separating the church into the idea and the real, the invisible and the visible is a purely gnostic idea. To the gnostic, the divine cannot interact with sinful flesh and thus there cannot be an organic unity with Christ. Though Hodge would never go here, it also poses problems for Christology if you believe the divine does not interact with the human than you have to deny the two natures of Christ, fully God and fully Man. One substance, two natures.
In Schaff’s view, that articulation carried over to the Church because of the incarnation and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Church could not be separated into two forms, and to do so would be to diminish the work and life of the Church.
This debate is several hundred years old, but here again we find it. If you read the statement, essentially, MacArthur is attempting to recall the visible church to the standard of perfection in the invisible church by calling the church away from engagement with world. He ignores that Jesus said “You are the light of the world” and “You are the salt of the Earth” working through and in union with Christ with access to the righteousness and discernment of God to work towards social righteousness and through that, social justice. That means we have to talk about things like Racism, which MacArthur denies to be a corporate sin and where the church intersects with culture and how we have failed to actually engage the world in a manner that brings about righteousness, and by default, Justice. He does not want the church to engage these issues because to him they are not biblical. The problem is, you can teach an entire course of the bible and ethnicity, taking one semester, and still have barely scratched the surface. Ironically, if there was an invisible church then that would be a church with invisible justice.
My argument is this, because the Gospel, through the incarnate word, comes to dwell inside and transform us, engraining scripture within us and enduing us with the gifts of the spirit and spiritual gifts. Then we are not to be a diminished church but a incredible body that is engaged in a hurting world for the sake of seeing that hurting world come to Christ because they have seen Christ in the way we live and walk and teach. The gospel does not mean mere inward change, but incredible inward change marked by incredible outward change and fighting against the injustices for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ is just one of those outward marks.
MacArthur, on the other hand, truncates the gospel, he makes it something ethereal and unknowable and “other.” It is not something that engages this world or makes us live justly, love mercy or walk in humility with God. It does not have the power to speak into every situation, especially those that seem too worldly. The problem is, if we are to be a light to the nations, we must engage the issues that the world is fighting with and seek to bring in a sound, biblically informed response to a situation. The gospel then should cause us to engage socially because of what God has done for us so that others might know and experience that same saving grace.
Instead, MacArthur and the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel leaves us with a diminished church and a truncated Gospel. Where both have no power and have to sit on the sideline and watch as people kill each other instead of being what Jesus calls us, the light of the world and the salt of the earth. If the Church is the continuation of the incarnation through divine union, then we must engage as Jesus did to fight against injustice and work towards reconciliation of people to God and to one another. In that way, MacArthur is right, Jesus is the light of the World, he just uses us now, the Word of God is the Gospel, but it preserves the world through Christians who are spurred on by the indwelling of the Spirit of God. The Church is Christ in the world and should live as such, which in my opinion means reclaiming social justice as what it used to be….
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary working on Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel in the North Shore of Boston and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church.