John MacArthur, president of The Master’s University, founder of Grace to You, and respected speaker and author of many books, has made some strong statement against social justice in the Christian world. You can listen to and read a transcript of his sermons here and here and here.
Bloggers and commenters are pejoratively called “Social Justice Warriors” when they write passionately about social justice but don’t actually do anything about it. That’s understandable. But what John MacArthur says here is something different.
I believe that much of his speech mischaracterizes, minimizes, even caricatures, what those who claim to work for social justice are really trying to do. But I want to focus primarily on two things. I believe he is saying first of all that the call for social justice is wrong because everyone is claiming to be a victim and secondly and most important, the call for social justice in Christian circles is not the gospel or even part of the gospel, and we need to keep the gospel the main thing.
I’d like to look at both of those claims.
When we call for social justice, what constitutes a victim?
During slavery days, the primary words used for victimization were “oppression,” “cruelty,” and “abuse.” One of the Bible words for it is “oppressed.” This includes physical harm, sexual harm (which is also physical, but arguably carries a far greater effect, and is very often not visually observable the way physical harm is), and what we might call spiritual/mental/emotional harm, in a situation such as a cult or an oppressive government like North Korea.
Minimizing or universalizing victimization
I get the impression that because some writers, like me, focus a good bit on victimization of the oppressed, other writers try to either minimize or universalize victimization. John MacArthur actually does both of these in his sermons. (Here’s another example, a blog post that says we are all victims in one way or another.)
But I’ve never claimed to be a victim of anyone at any time, and it remains clear in my mind who the victims are—the ones who are taken advantage of to be harmed by those in a more powerful position than they are. It seems straightforward to me.
What does the word “victim” mean?
John MacArthur didn’t define the word when he mocked it, but here’s a brief history of how the word victim has expanded, from the Oxford English dictionary:
- Earliest meaning: “a living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to a deity or supernatural power,” from the late 1400s.
- Then expanded to “a person who is killed or tortured by another; one who suffers severely through cruel or oppressive treatment” beginning in the mid 1600s.
- Then expanded to “a person who is reduced or destined to suffer under some oppressive or destructive agency” in the early 1700s. This expansion on the definition was made to encompass passive abuse. For example, if a woman is dying because her husband is denying her food or medical treatment, she is a victim of his passive cruelty.
- Then expanded to “a person who suffers injury, hardship, or loss, is badly treated, or taken advantage of” in the late 1700s.
If many people and groups of people begin to use the word “victim” for themselves in a way that doesn’t truly match the definition, does that illegitimatize the term altogether?
John MacArthur seems to think it does. In Part One he actually mocks people who have said they were sexually abused, saying what they suffered was a “microaggression.”
Are there no victims after all?
Also in Part One, which you can read here:
Let me make it clear. In God’s eyes – listen – no one is a victim. We are all perpetrators of open rebellion, scandalous, blasphemous sin against God.
He says that a preacher is to warn the person who was victimized that what happened to him happened within the purposes of God’s sovereignty, and the only thing the person should be concerned about is his or her sin. He also adamantly says that we should not affirm that people are victims of someone else’s sin, because if we do, they’ll blame God.
In spite of occasional half-hearted protestations to the contrary, it seems quite clear that he is admonishing his listeners to ignore or minimize real victimization that others have experienced.
I have reason to believe that at least in part, MacArthur’s motivation for coming out so strongly about this issue right now is related to the case of Jane Doe, who told her story last fall of rape at The Master’s University. You can read that here. MacArthur appears to be covering abuses at his own school, as I referenced in this post, which could have something to do with his opposition to people speaking out.
Does calling for social justice mean we aren’t focusing on the gospel?
That’s actually where I want to concentrate more of my attention. I think it’s an important question.
The old “social gospel” movement was not the gospel
In the “social gospel” movement of the 1800s and early 1900s, there was definitely a trend among those who claimed Christianity that improving the physical lives of the poor and suffering, the oppressed, would actually bring in the Kingdom of God. Many of them taught this “improvement” doctrine to the exclusion of the needs of the eternal souls of those around them.
This is wrong. Eternal souls need to be attended to, and the only way they can be attended to properly is through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the grand message of the one who lived the perfect life we couldn’t live, died to take the punishment for our sins, rose again in victory over sin and death, ascended to His rightful position in heaven for us, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. (I have a blog post about all that here.)
However . . .
Those who spread the gospel will have a heart for wanting to help set things right
I have heard of people, even missionaries, who refuse to acknowledge the oppression of those they minister to because they want to “focus only on the gospel.” But this is a travesty. (Even works of mercy, such as providing food and water, have sometimes been eschewed, but that is an extreme.)
John MacArthur compared social justice to “equity,” or equal treatment. But justice is quite different. Justice, which God talks about in the Bible, is about doing the right thing. “Social justice does severe harm to genuine gospel efforts,” he says. In caricaturing efforts at social justice, MacArthur dismisses the genuine needs within the church.
In my own work, almost 100% of the people who speak with me are those who have been harmed, often very seriously, within the context of the church. Do I seek to help them silently while never speaking out against the wrongdoings of the religious communities? What did Jesus do? When Jesus cried out to the world against the Pharisees who devoured widows’ houses, was He not, in actuality, showing the lack of social justice in the lives of the Pharisees and warning His listeners against them?
When I and others work with people who have come out of concentration-camp lives in the Christian world, those who have been sex trafficked as children by their “Christian” parents, for example, or imprisoned and starved by their “Christian” husbands, when we tell those abuse survivors the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ and His salvation, should we not also let other Christians know what is going on under their noses, urge them to look and see, and beseech them to take action to cast out the wolves that are among them and provide for the oppressed within their midst?
This would be “social justice” at the highest level. It is an honorable thing to do. And many notable Christians throughout history would agree.
In Untwisting Scriptures I spoke of several who worked for social justice as the result of their love for Jesus Christ and His gospel. Among others, I mentioned William Wilberforce, who took up the cause of social justice for the slaves of the British empire, Amy Carmichael, who took up the cause of social justice for children who were being prostituted in India, and E.C. Bridgeman who took up the cause of social justice for Chinese peasants, who were being purposely addicted to opium by English merchants.
Does social justice eliminate personal responsibility?
In his concern for every individual taking responsibility for his own sin, MacArthur says,
If we justify that people are victims and then doubly justify their bitterness and anger over being victims, we are allowing them to push their sin away onto someone else.
On the contrary, I would agree that every individual, even those who have been victimized, needs to deal with his or her own sin. But I would disagree that their bitterness and anger are necessarily sins (I’ve blogged about both of those many times, for example here and here and here and here, and addressed them in Untwisting Scriptures), and I would say that it’s important, when someone who was victimized comes to Jesus Christ, that it’s important to understand which parts were his own sins, and which parts were the sins of others. It can take a significant amount of time for one who was victimized to sort that out.
Will social justice blame others and ultimately blame God?
“Conceding to sinners that they are victims is a very dangerous thing to do. . . . the conversion of sinners depends on their recognition that they are not victims of someone else and they are not victims of an indifferent or hostile God. When you concede to sinners that they are victims of someone else’s wrongs, you put up a barrier to the full responsibility for sin that drives the broken sinner to God for deliverance from sin and death and hell. The gospel doesn’t open up until the sinner takes full responsibility for his sin. That is where the gospel begins.”
“As long as sinners are allowed to blame someone else for their life condition, they are cut off from the gospel starting point. . . . The gospel defines them as perpetrators, criminals, culprits. The church has to preach the bad news, ‘You are not a victim. You are a willful sinner. The church cannot create this victim status and move from that to the gospel. It will cause them to have to preach a superficial gospel to reach those people.”
MacArthur seems to think that if you claim to have been victimized, then you will blame God for it. And since that’s not good, then that means you’re not allowed to use the word “victim” about yourself or think about what happened to you.
This is puzzling to me. In my mind it would make a lot more sense to say that a wicked person has victimized you, but God is still good and loves you and wants to rescue you.
A statement from “Mary”
I’ve asked a friend who used to be an atheist, “Mary,” to comment on that statement from MacArthur.
As someone who grew up being repeatedly abused and sex-trafficked by people who claimed the name of Jesus, by people who “served” in the church, I struggled with the concept of God my whole life. I searched for him everywhere, but I kept getting tripped up by the version of God that was being presented to me.
So eventually I decided that there couldn’t possibly be a god.
These statements by John MacArthur, this twisting and distortion of the gospel, were the kinds of lies I had been taught all my life. This concept that I was 100% responsible for my life condition was pounded into my head over and over by my abusers as they victimized me. If I just did better, if I wasn’t so dumb, if. . . I could go on with all the reasons they gave for why my life was the way it was, why they were abusing me.
My life was and still is difficult. Sometimes it is because of choices I have made, but sometimes it is because of what others did to me. I’ve spent most of my life unable to sleep well, having vivid and horrific nightmares when I did finally fall asleep. I was diagnosed with PTSD and struggle with frequent flashbacks and dissociation. I struggled with my performance at one of my jobs, because having to interact with some of our clientele triggered me and I was afraid of that happening again, and I lost my job. Those things were because of someone else’s wrongs towards me, not because of some sin of mine.
My trauma consumed my life; it was there with me every moment I was awake and every moment I was asleep. It needed to be dealt with on a certain level before I could even begin to process my own sins.
Yes, I knew I did wrong things, most people know that, but what I needed to hear was that Jesus came to earth to die, not because he had to, but because he wanted to.
I needed to hear that Jesus loved me just the way I am, that I was precious and beautiful to him regardless of what anyone did to me.
I needed to hear that what others did to me wasn’t my fault. I needed to hear that I was valuable to Jesus, not that I was some rotten sinner.
I needed to see Jesus’ unconditional love through the hands and mouths of his followers.
When that finally happened and I was able to understand those truths, I was able to have a relationship with Jesus. It wasn’t a full responsibility of my sin that drove me to God, but his unconditional love that drew me to him.
It’s as I learn more of God, of who he is and his love, and grow in my relationship with him that I grow in my understanding of my full responsibility of my sin.
Statements like this one by MacArthur only ever served to drive me away from a God who loved me and longed to have a relationship with me.
A call for believers to become involved in setting things right in the church of Jesus Christ
If I, as a follower of Jesus Christ, know that something like sex trafficking is happening in the context of the church, am I to stay silent about it and tell the abused to simply focus on her own sin?
When I wrote Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind, I devoted a chapter to the false teaching that we should “not take up offenses” for others. I believe this is the essence of seeking social justice in the highest sense. From the book:
Repeatedly and consistently, the Bible calls us to stand with the weak and oppressed, to speak out for those who for one reason or another can’t speak for themselves. God is a God of justice and mercy, and He calls us to walk in justice and mercy with Him, to have His heart, His compassion and empathy.
Scriptural admonitions for social justice in the context of living as the people of God can be found in Proverbs 31:9 ; Proverbs 29:7 ; Psalm 82:2-4; Leviticus 19:15 ; Isaiah 58:6-7 ; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 5:26-28 ; Jeremiah 22:3 ; Ezekiel 22:29; and James 5:1-6, among others. Besides the prophet Ezekiel and the apostle James, Queen Esther sought to right the wrongs being done, or threatening to be done, to her people. And of course we must remember our Lord Jesus Christ, who rebuked the Pharisees for, among other things, their lack of justice.
Is passion to help set things right in a given culture mutually exclusive to the gospel? I and many others can heartily affirm that it is not. At the same time we preach that wrongs should be righted, we can also preach who Jesus really is and what our greatest needs really are.
At the same time, we can cry out that He would be see in all His holy and glorious love, in the hearts of those who have been greatly harmed by those who claim His Name.
At the same time, we can personally introduce those individuals to the great Savior who wants to rescue them and redeem them.
And I and others can attest that in the context of setting things right, there will be those who will want personally to know our Savior who would otherwise have turned from Him.
For the many who will be following the highly influential John MacArthur’s admonition to eschew “social justice” because he claims that it abandons the true gospel, I grieve. I grieve at the broken souls that will be in their churches unable to find the help they need because they will be told that they should only look at their own sin.
But for those who are learning to understand what it really happening in our churches and Christian schools, including Christian universities, for those who truly want to help and set things right, I rejoice.
I pray that as listeners analyze the words of John MacArthur, they’ll not only honor the true gospel in all its glory, but live out the life the Jesus has called us to live, in being His hands and feet for those around us, including bringing justice to our corners of this broken world.