Navigating the “Social Justice” Debate

If you’ve peaked your head into the news realm in the past few years—specifically as it pertains to evangelicalism—you will undoubtedly see the discussions centered around one concept: social justice. (Even though it’s not the greatest term to use.)

This term has greatly divided the body of Christ. Faithful Christians aren’t agreeing, metaphorical walls have been built, slanderous attacks are spewed, and uncharitable name-calling is running amuck.

While “social justice” can mean a million different things–hence, why we shouldn’t use that specific term–I think it’s fair to say we are talking about racial justice. That is at least, in my view, 99% of the discussion. It centers on racial justice and things pertaining to it (critical race theory, white privilege, systematic racism, police shootings, etc.).

With that said, I want to focus in on two things. One, answering the question Is racial justice a gospel issue? And two, how we should treat each other amidst disagreement.

What Do We Mean By Gospel Issue?

Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor of Christ Covenant Church (PCA) and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), penned a wonderful article on this very issue.

He writes:

If ‘gospel issue’ means we are smuggling good works into the sola fide of the equation, then clearly social justice is not a gospel issue. We don’t save the least of these in order to save ourselves.

As with all debates, this is where we draw the line. Put simply, racial justice is not a gospel issue. Period. End of story. One does not need to confess subconscious, so-called “racism” in order to be saved, as others may suggest. One must simply trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ.

There are some folks on the social justice side that keep saying it is a gospel issue. Of course, that sparks a multitude of questions. Like DeYoung said, if they mean it’s intrinsically a facet of the gospel—if we are adding this to repentance and faith—then no, it’s not a gospel issue and at that point we must refer them to Galatians 1:6-9.

This is where the water gets muddied, because many brothers and sisters may say it’s a gospel issue but merely mean racial reconciliation is an implication of the gospel. Yes, by all means, it’s a gospel issue in that sense. Except, at that rate, all issues are gospel issues and there’s no clear distinction between essential and non-essential doctrines. The gospel impacts how we view all people. It impacts how we treat others and show no partiality (James 2:1-13). But racial justice–and all it entails–is not to be proclaimed alongside the need to repent and believe (Mark 1:15).

Social Justice Warriors, Marxism, and Everything in Between

One of the pitfalls to this debate is the unnecessary division. Christians on one side call others “Social Justice Warriors” and “Cultural Marxists” and, in my opinion, it is unhelpful and unwise. While it is certainly possible to espouse Marxist ideas–that’s been a given so far–I think it’s uncharitable to label somebody a Marxist simply for emphasizing racial justice.

At the same time, people on the “social justice” side declare others as racist or complicit in racism if they don’t share the same view in racial justice. That is equally unhelpful and unwise as calling them social justice warriors. To be sure, this isn’t the attitude of everybody, but I’ve seen it enough to say that it’s an issue.

Even more, let’s do away with the term woke. It is not helpful. Both sides are at fault for this. The social justice side uses it as a type of virtue signal, that they are “woke”–aware of the racial injustice that is happening in the world where others don’t. On the flip side, many people are labeled “woke” as a pejorative simply for raising concerns about seeking racial justice. Both of these play a big role in this division.

A Middle Way?

Friends, excuse me as I force myself into the conversation and advocate, so to speak, for common ground.

I would venture to say, for the most part, this is an in-house debate. Certainly, there are people on both sides that are extreme and, you can make the case, that they may have departed from the gospel. That is happening. But it’s not happening the majority of the time.

The majority of the time, we need to remember we are discussing things with faithful brothers and sisters in the Lord with whom we disagree on different things. For example, there are some who believe white privilege is pervasive or that we must give reparations to Black people. Or some advocate for critical race theory. My opinion on white privilege and reparations couldn’t be further from that. Even more, without reservation, I’d say that critical race theory has no place in the church. None. But that doesn’t make either of us less justified in the eyes of God — as long as we don’t distort the central message of the gospel. I’m not going to condemn someone for thinking CRT is okay as long as they haven’t abandoned the gospel. I’m just going to warn them of the potential danger and disagree.

It’s possible that the “social justice” side emphasizes racial justice too much in some circumstances at the expense of gospel fidelity. It’s equally possible that the “anti-social justice” crowd de-emphasizes racial justice too much in some situations at the expense of ostracizing Black brothers and sisters in Christ.

We must remember two important things: (1) racial harmony–or whatever you desire to call it–is not a gospel issue in the truest sense of the word; but (2) it is still a very important implication of the gospel. We shouldn’t emphasize racial justice so much that we add to the gospel, yet we shouldn’t de-emphasize it so much that we are forgetting its implications.

Strive for Unity, not Division

This is no tiny issue, in my opinion. There are certainly ideas being vocalized that need to be confronted in a Christlike manner. Both sides need to stop, examine their motives, and proceed with caution. Like James 1:19 tells us that we must “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…”

There are endless (though it seems) facets to this discussion, but what I am pleading for is for both sides to debate charitably and seek to understand the other position before jumping to assumptions.

We must not seek to divide. Stop the name-calling. Don’t get into the discussion just because you love to argue. Seek to understand. Once you understand and still disagree, then agree to disagree. If it comes to the point where it’s not a “agree to disagree issue” then we can have another conversation.

Strive for unity, not division.

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