Recently, John MacArthur and a small group of colleagues issued The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. At the time of this writing some 7,000 individuals have signed it. It lists concerns about secular avenues seen as “currently undermining Scripture in the areas of race and ethnicity, manhood and womanhood, and human sexuality” that will compromise the gospel and the church. Some of my thoughts related to the statement overlap with some questions I've gotten from a few colleagues in the past who have read my blog posts and emails. They wonder, "What's with this approach of yours? Are you trying to be nice so you can more effectively share the gospel?" In this post I'll share responses to both of these issues, illustrated by a few quotes that I've come across that fit together nicely and clearly articulate my views.
First, let me share my perspective about the MacArthur statement. When I first heard about it and later read it I was struck by two things. The first was that this is resurrecting an old debate, seemingly put to rest in decades past, within conservative evangelicalism. The second thought I had was that certain aspects of MacArthur's statements can be understood as at odds with my work in multifaith engagement. It straddles this evangelical dichotomy of evangelism and social responsibility. To develop the first thought I had, conservative evangelicals have debated the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility for quite some time, with conservatives emphasizing evangelism, and liberals emphasizing social action. But surely this is a false dichotomy, and the issue has been addressed by leading evangelicals in the past, such as the Lausanne Movement. The issue was addressed by Lausanne in their Covenant document of 1974 in section #5 under "Christian Social Responsibility." In 1982 another Lausanne consultation met and specifically addressed the relationship between "Evangelism and Social Responsibility." Granted, MacArthur's group may be reacting to some of the twists put on the issues through the current social justice movement and their causes, but many of the basic issues are the same, and they have been addressed by evangelicals in the past.
My comments now still apply to my views on the MacArthur statement, but they also start to veer toward answering the question as to why I approach multifaith engagement the way I do, and whether my diplomatic methods are a form of or opening the door for evangelism. An important part of the calling for evangelicals, and an important part of our identity as well, is wrapped up in the Great Commission. We are called to make disciples and present the gospel. But simply because we have this calling, this doesn't guarantee an audience. We can take steps, however, to improve the opportunities for willing listeners. The noted missiologist David Hesselgrave has spoken to this. In his book Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally (Zondervan, 1991), he says, “Although missionaries have been commended by Christ to preach the Gospel, they cannot command a hearing. They must win a hearing by demonstrating that they are people of integrity, credibility, and goodwill." One of the ways we can demonstrate that we are these kinds of people, and those were listening to, is to engage in actions of social responsibility. But cautions are in order here.
One of the original leaders in Lausanne helps identify some concerns in the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility, particularly as it relates to enhancing our credibility as a speaker. John Stott, in his book Christian Mission in the Modern World (InterVarsity Presss, 1975), discussed the relationship between evangelism and social justice. He said that they “belong to each other and yet are independent of each other. Each stands on its own feet in its own right alongside the other. Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself.” But what about the the way social action by evangelicals functions in relation to the evangelistic task. Do we engage in social action so as to make the gospel more appealing? For Stott this is a possibility, but if not done carefully it raises ethical concerns. He says, “In its most blatant form this makes social work the sugar on the pill, the bait on the hook, while in its best forms it gives the gospel credibility it would otherwise lack. In either case the smell of hypocrisy hangs round our philanthropy.” If I understand him correctly, for Stott social action was not the primer for evangelism, “but rather simple, uncomplicated compassion. Love has no need to justify itself.”
Then there's a quote I recently came across in reading Matthew Kaemingk's book Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (Eerdmans, 2018) in preparation for a forthcoming book review for Cultural Encounters journal. After discussing the Christological contributions of theologians Herman Bavinck, Klaas Schilder, and Hans Boersma, Kaemingk applies this to Christian discipleship in relation to Muslims. At one point he notes that his book is about Christian ethics, not evangelism, but uses the opportunity to connect the dots between Bavinck, Schilder, and Boersma's Christology and evangelical concerns for evangelism. Kaemingk writes:
"A Christian's witness lives and dies with a Christian's ethics. When Christians fail to ethically embody Christ's healing, justice, nakedness, and hospitality with their Muslim neighbors, their attempts to proclaim Christ's good news to them will fall on deaf ears."
For me, that's the money quote by Kaemingk's volume. It also connects nicely with my perspective on the MacArthur statement. While I appreciate their concerns for the purity of the gospel and the church, MacArthur's group has put an unnecessary wedge between evangelism and social responsibility. And if we conservative evangelicals want to emphasize evangelism, ethical considerations must be recognized. We have to embody Christ's example of humility and service, or our message will not be heard. It's about compassion, love, and doing the right thing as Christians toward others, even those we have serious religious disagreements with. That's my perspective on the MacArthur statement, and that's why I engage other religions the way I do.