29 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 14: Racism

Here is what the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel has to say about racism:

We affirm that racism is a sin rooted in pride and malice which must be condemned and renounced by all who would honor the image of God in all people. Such racial sin can subtly or overtly manifest itself as racial animosity or racial vainglory. Such sinful prejudice or partiality falls short of God’s revealed will and violates the royal law of love. We affirm that virtually all cultures, including our own, at times contain laws and systems that foster racist attitudes and policies.

We deny that treating people with sinful partiality or prejudice is consistent with biblical Christianity. We deny that only those in positions of power are capable of racism, or that individuals of any particular ethnic groups are incapable of racism. We deny that systemic racism is in any way compatible with the core principles of historic evangelical convictions. We deny that the Bible can be legitimately used to foster or justify partiality, prejudice, or contempt toward other ethnicities. We deny that the contemporary evangelical movement has any deliberate agenda to elevate one ethnic group and subjugate another. And we emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.

Because I wholeheartedly agree with most of the affirmations and denials, I will focus on those near the end that I believe are wanting, beginning with this statement: "We deny that the contemporary evangelical movement has any deliberate agenda to elevate one ethnic group and subjugate another." Because movements are generally rather nebulous phenomena, it is difficult to ascribe a "deliberate agenda" to them. Are there racists among professed evangelicals? Undoubtedly, yes. Do some subordinate their evangelical allegiances to their racism? It is certainly possible. Many Greek Orthodox Christians maintain their ecclesiastical affiliations because they are Greek rather than serious followers of Jesus Christ.


The early Reformers of the 16th century called themselves evangelicals. Today's evangelicalism, especially in North America, is a rather inchoate collection of congregations, denominations, parts of denominations and parachurch organizations adhering to historic Christian orthodoxy, along with an emphasis on personal commitment and conversion. But because it includes Calvinists, Wesleyans, Holiness Churches, Baptists and Anabaptists, revivalists, Anglicans and (perhaps) Pentecostals and Charismatics, it would be difficult to discern any sort of "deliberate agenda" beyond witnessing to the saving power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These final two sentences are especially problematic: "And we emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel." Here it depends on how extensive we view the message of the gospel. Jesus proclaimed the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God during his earthly ministry. This kingdom is not merely a matter of repenting of sin and accepting the free offer of salvation, although it certainly begins that way. The kingdom covers the whole of life in God's world lived by those who are in Christ. Isolating "lectures on social issues" as a problem is too narrow. Why not lectures on cooking? Or art history? Or auto mechanics? Moreover, it insufficiently recognizes that virtually anything can become a distraction from living out the kingdom of God.

The late Gordon Spykman once wrote: "Nothing matters but the kingdom, but because of the kingdom everything matters." In short, the kingdom of God is not something we cordon off from the rest of life with its ordinary joys, trials, blessings and responsibilities. The Reformers of the 16th century had a high view of ordinary life and refused to admit that monasticism represented a "higher" way of life, closer to the kingdom. Nor is the kingdom something belonging only to the indefinite future, to be experienced when Christ returns. True, Jesus will bring the kingdom to its final consummation, but in the meantime it continues to grow and bear fruit through the work of the Holy Spirit. This fruit goes beyond the numerical growth of the church, although it certainly encompasses it. Rather we experience this fruitfulness in changed lives and societies as an outgrowth of sanctification. Redemption includes our relationships with each other, with our traditions, with our physical environment and, of course, with God himself. To be sure, we ourselves do not build the kingdom, as the old Social Gospellers thought. But God is pleased to use us as agents of his kingdom, working to renew his creation right up to the second advent of his Son.

Can our work in the world become a distraction from our focus on God? Of course. But that does not mean we try to escape the world and its ordinary responsibilities. It means that we order our lives—both as individuals and communities—so that Christ is at the centre and everything we do is to the glory of God. This includes "lectures on social issues" and other forms of activism. But even these are a small part of our life together, where agriculture, industry, music, art, writing, technology, citizenship and the institutional church form the fabric of living coram Deo—in the presence of God.

Next: a final assessment

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