Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

History repeats itself

Social justice advocacy in the evangelical church recalls the un-Biblical ideology of the social gospel movement

A worship leader at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Urbana student missions conference in 2015 Twitter

History repeats itself

Today’s social justice debate in the evangelical church feels eerily similar to the debate that led to division in the Protestant church in the early 20th century. Then, the debate didn’t center on social justice but the social gospel.

The social gospel debate 100 years ago

Advocates of the social gospel believed the church should be engaged in the culture, fighting against injustice and working to uplift the impoverished and downtrodden—all admirable goals. The problem was they unwittingly allowed secular assumptions to inform their theology of cultural engagement. Their profoundly un-Biblical mindset is nicely captured in this quote from social gospel advocate, journalist Horace Greeley:

“The heart of man is not depraved … his passions do not prompt to wrong doing, and do not therefore by their actions, produce evil. Evil flows only from social [inequality]. Give [people] full scope, free play, a perfect and complete development, and universal happiness must be the result. … Create a new form of Society in which this shall be possible … then you will have the perfect Society; then you will have the Kingdom of Heaven.”

In response, the fundamentalist movement rose up to defend the gospel and orthodox Biblical teaching. The fundamentalists rightly called out social gospel advocates for their compromised, heretical teaching. But in doing so, they threw the baby out with the bathwater. Any talk of social and cultural transformation was now suspect. Fighting for justice was a distraction from preaching the gospel. The church should withdraw from secular culture and focus exclusively on personal holiness and evangelism.

Amy Carmichael with two children in India

Amy Carmichael with two children in India Wikimedia Commons/Heroes of Faith

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 social justice movement has no place for such essential Biblical virtues as grace, mercy, and forgiveness, replacing these with grievance, offense, incivility, and retribution.

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.

Amy Carmichael with two children in India

Amy Carmichael with two children in India Wikimedia Commons/Heroes of Faith

Many outspoken evangelical advocates of social justice see racism in the very DNA of America (to borrow former President Barack Obama’s famous phrase). In their eyes, it is pervasive and structural. While they would likely disclaim the theory of intersectionality, they tend to believe the ideas behind it, such as the primacy of group identity based on skin color (thus, their unapologetic use of the phrase “white privilege”), along with a sociology that sees the world as a zero-sum power struggle among identity groups. The line between good and evil, in their view, tends to run between oppressor and victim groups (you are either one or the other). They often promote the progressive understanding of racism that is grounded in intersectional theory—namely, that only white people (and particularly white men) can be racist because of their historical cultural hegemony. They readily affirm their indebtedness to far-left thought-leaders such Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander.

Some thoughtful evaluation is needed

Here’s what I appreciate about the evangelical social justice champions. They care about social issues, such as poverty, racism, and the plight of the refugee. They want to see communities flourish. Their theology isn’t marred by an un-Biblical sacred-secular dualism.

Here’s where I have concerns: They’ve uncritically absorbed many of the assumptions and much of the language of the social justice movement—assumptions that veer sharply from a Biblical worldview. As a result, they find themselves unwittingly syncretized to a false religion, one that works against the very thing they purport to champion—genuine justice.

Our confusion over justice needs to be replaced by a careful discernment of the fundamental differences between Biblical justice and this new social justice pseudo-religion.

I’m grateful that evangelical leaders like MacArthur, Wilson, and Baucham have penned their statement and spoken out. This is a dangerous moment for evangelicals in the West. Our confusion over justice needs to be replaced by a careful discernment of the fundamental differences between Biblical justice and this new social justice pseudo-religion. If we continue to allow the yeast of social justice to contaminate our theology, we’ll be greatly hindered at a time when the culture desperately needs to see true, Biblical justice advocated and lived out.

While I affirm the authors of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel for raising the alarm against a heretical teaching infiltrating the church, I have significant reservations.

The mission of the church is bigger than proclamation only

First, the statement veers into the old sacred-secular dualism that the Disciple Nations Alliance has been pushing back against since we began our teaching more than 20 years ago. For example, it says:

“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.”

Amy Carmichael with two children in India

Amy Carmichael with two children in India Wikimedia Commons/Heroes of Faith

This gets very close to saying that care for the poor, or fighting against abortion, or sex-trafficking, is a second-tier activity and a “distraction” from the gospel. Phil Johnson, a close associate of MacArthur’s, in a feisty exchange with Anyabwile, reaffirmed this notion, reminding Anyabwile of remarks he made in 2010 and agreeing with them:

“‘[W]inning the culture, engaging the culture, changing the culture,’ as ambiguous as it is, the language itself signifies that mission drift is already under way.”

He’s speaking of the mission of the church. For Johnson, to work for social and cultural transformation reflects “mission drift.” That’s another way of saying “a distraction” from the central mission of the church—gospel proclamation.

Rather than calling the church back to an orthodox Biblical approach to justice and cultural engagement, Johnson and others like him appear to be making the same mistakes as the earlier fundamentalists. They are calling into question the importance of cultural engagement and justice ministry as a distraction and a second-tier activity. The problem with social justice is not its passion to engage the culture and fight for justice. The problem is all the un-Biblical ideology that comes packed in the social justice Trojan horse.

Let’s not fall back into the sacred-secular divide

We should not repeat this tragic mistake again. The crying need today, as it was in the early 20th century, is to recover a Biblical, orthodox approach to justice and cultural engagement championed by Wilberforce, Carey, and Carmichael. Un-Biblical ideas have to be exposed and rejected, replaced by a uniquely Christian and Biblical approach to social and cultural transformation that is gospel-centered, and known for its grace, forgiveness, and civility. One that treats all people as unique individuals, not mouthpieces of identity groups. One that understands that evil is rooted in fallen human hearts, and not in capitalism, white supremacy, or the patriarchy. One that sees people as free, responsible, accountable moral agents and not as victims or oppressors.

In 2015, Darrow Miller, Gary Brumbelow, and I published Rethinking Social Justice: Restoring Compassion. It lays out our case for what true Biblical justice looks like, and why it is essential to Christian witness and ministry. It’s a message I hope many will heed.

Scott Allen Scott is president of the Disciple Nations Alliance.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...


Please register, subscribe, or login to comment on this article.


I wish Mr. Allen had included Jeremiah 17:9 "the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?" and Jeremiah 17:5 “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord."  We need to ( and writers definitely should ) show the world more scripture in these situations so they can see and maybe understand why they are wrong.  The secular world hasn't read the Bible.  It is our responsibility to bring it to them...not in a "bashing" way, but like Ravi Zacharias says, "with gentleness and respect." 



Alan Versaw

While I am proud that Christianity has, on the whole, stood against slavery (a social ill somewhat greater than most we deal with in our culture today) and has a tarnished history of mostly working to undo slavery where the faith and slavery have coexisted, when I read the letters of the New Testament, it is clear that Paul had more urgent priorities than undoing slavery. How else are we to read passages like Ephesians 6:5-9, Philemon 8-16, I Corinthians 7:17-24? If those are the priorities of Paul who wrote inspired Scripture, how can we elevate matters of social justice to the level of gospel proclamation? An agenda that tells us our primary mission is to fix injustices makes a lot of assumptions that aren't present in the New Testament, a few of which are inimical to the New Testament. We have the sure word of God on the Great Commission of the church. We don't have a sure word of God on stamping out slavery, abortion, prejudice, exploitation of the poor, and so on. As we make disciples of all men, these sort of things should follow, but our primary calling is not to pass laws or to fight wars of liberation. Perhaps this is because human government, necessary as it is for the time in which we live, doesn't fix human nature. The only means we have of starting a fix on human nature is sharing the Gospel with those in need. We do have a sure word of God on treating others as we would be treated, but that is addressed to individuals. 

The best we can say about more laws is that where there is law, sin abounds. I think Paul said that, too. Law doesn't save us, nor does it save culture, it only serves to remind us of how miserably we fail. And when we realize how miserably we fail, grace abounds even more.

The quotation of Horace Greeley near the beginning of this article is an apt one. That is exactly where the thinking of enacting more and more laws leads. Though today's social justice warriors would blanch at the thought of being bound to religion, they are very much trying to usher in a millennium of their own design. Drop the religious references from Greeley's quote and you have a creed they would wholeheartedly embrace.

Ann Marshall

Good thoughts. The gnat straining/camel swallowing problem has a new look...

Susan Houg

Re: racism as part of the "DNA of America," this characterization would have hurt my feelings a few years ago, before I got a job working in the Native American community. To negotiate the sharp learning curve of a white person with only anecdotal connections to a remote indigenous ancestor, I started reading, researching, listening...and listening.  Alas, I have had to ditch my learned assumptions about the how and why America was settled by Europeans (that the settlements were God's perfect plan), all the apochryphal stories about the godly nature of Columbus, the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and the west coast missions.  At the very least, I have to accept that one group's search for "freedom of religion" is another group's disastrous invasion,indeed, holocaust.. The Canadian Covenant church has issued a very moving apology to First Nation people (Indians) of Canada because the manner of its ancestors' involvement in land take-overs, massacres, and enslavements obscured and perverted THE GOSPEL, rendering it anathema from the get-go. That there are ANY Christians among tribal peoples is a powerful testament to God's overarching ability to turn even this sorry history into a salvation story. But His sovereignty is no excuse for continuing to live in denial by glorifying our past and teaching believers to shy away from social justice issues. How sad if the MacArthur group succeeds in giving the saints justification for postponing repentance and the dogged pursuit of Christ's will for our wounded culture.

Just Me 999

Whatever your beliefs are about "white supremacy" or "white privilege" in ten years time it will all be a moot point - the top three economies in the world will be from Asia (China, India and Malaysia) as the last throes of the former British Empire start on their natural path toward decline (UK already, US soon).

Capitalism is all about exploitation of resource - simply look at the historical human exploitation of resource in this country with many (not just one) ethnic groups exploited to build the wealth of a few.

These Asian economies will flourish because they have many people to exploit who are starving and have little time to argue about philsophical causes while we sit in comparative luxury bemoaning the fact that we have to work almost as much as our entertainment time allows.


I appreciate Mr. Allen's attempt to find the path between extremes on both sides of this debate. Too often "the gospel" is used as shorthand for the biblical doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ and him alone.  It is true but not all the truth; the Bible just as clearly teaches that the gospel--the good news--also includes the doctrine of sanctification, which means the transformation of Christ-followers into people who increasingly reflect God's character and God's mission for the world, i.e. the ultimate renewal of all things.  Jesus himself told us, as quoted in Matthew 28.19, to "go and make disciples." He did not merely say "Go and tell all nations that I am the way, the truth and life" [John 14.6] even though that is of course true of him.  By saying "make disciples" he invoked the whole gospel--both salvation and sanctification. And sanctification so clearly brings into view God's concern for the poor, the broken, the powerless, the disenfranchised, the abused...everyone hurt by the ravages of sin...he wants to them to know his love by ours.  

Bob R

The Left's undeniable takeover of the educational system has resulted in wholescale indoctrination of the next generation.  As we “older Americans” pass off the scene, the freshly-minted “citizens of the world” will, I believe, establish this new religion as the only doctrine by which society must be governed. 

It’s tragic that Martin Luther’s dream can never be realized now; clearly we will never agree to judge one another solely on the content of one’s character; skin color is a far more effective means for dividing us.  Make no mistake, power is the real endgame of the Left, and a divided society is far easier to both hijack and control.