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How Can American Christians "Maintain Unity" while Disagreeing on Race?
Why John MacArthur's Article "No Division in the Body" must be challenged
Note: I wrote this blog post on September 7, 2018 and never published it. John MacArthur is currently doing a sermon series on Ephesians 2:11-22 and I was present for their service on 8/29/21. I hope the series exposits and applies the text faithfully. Here is my blog post 3 years later, but just as relevant as it was then.
Below is the full text of John MacArthur's article on the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel website. I inserted my comments in bold italics in an effort to transfer what I think is biblical discernment and a faithful biblical application to the issues, IF ethnocentric oppression of African Americans actually exists and is as important of a problem for Christian discipleship as abortion and LGBT confusion is in our American context. If ethnocentric oppression of African Americans does not exist or if is not as important as abortion or LGBT issues, then MacArthur's stance is faithful and I need to repent and join his teaching position on this issue.
No Division in the Body
John MacArthur • September 04 , 2018
(picture of MacArthur’s blog article)
“We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5).
Christian unity is a vital theme in the New Testament. Every hint of tribalism, sectarianism, partiality, and group rivalry in the church is emphatically condemned. Anyone who maliciously promotes schism in the church is to be rejected—excommunicated—if the divisive person persists after two warnings (Titus 3:10). Amen to this paragraph.
The New Testament never speaks of our unity in Christ as a far-off goal to be pursued or a provisional experiment to be trifled with. Our union with Christ (and therefore with one another) is an eternal spiritual reality that must be embraced, carefully maintained, and guarded against any possible threat. If it is an eternal and spiritual reality then can it be threatened? If so, how? By being undone? I don't think it can be threatened (undone) any more than a true believer's eternal security can ever be threatened. If John means the application of that eternal spiritual union displayed in our earthly relational union, then I can see how the earthly relational union can be threatened (undone). I can see how the eternal spiritual reality can be under the threat of being neglected or misrepresented. But it's reality (existence) is never really threatened but secure.
That’s why I’m deeply troubled by the recent torrent of rhetoric about “social justice” in evangelical circles. The jargon is borrowed from secular culture, and it is being employed purposely, irresponsibly in order to segment the church into competing groups—the oppressed and disenfranchised vs. the powerful and privileged. He seems to be accusing evangelicals using the rhetoric of "social justice" as "purposely segmenting the church into competing groups." If accurate, that's quite an accusation. If the shoe fits they should wear it, repent, and turn. But is that their goal? Is that their penultimate goal? It seems my Brother John misunderstands the message from TGC type evangelicals.
As evangelical thought leaders experiment with intersectional theory,* the number and nature of competing categories and class divisions we hear about will no doubt increase. But for now, the focus in the evangelical realm is mainly on ethnicity. “Race”—a thoroughly unbiblical notion to begin with (cf. Acts 17:26)—became the central talking point of the evangelical conference circuit earlier this year.
People supposedly belong to the oppressed group or the sinfully privileged group not because of their real-life experiences; not necessarily because of anything they have said or done; not because of the content of their character—but solely because of the color of their skin. Are they saying it is "solely" because of the color of their skin? Is he making a counter-assertion, namely that there is no oppression of African Americans today? He's not asserting it here, but it seems to be his functional assumption (this is the main issue, in my view). And we are responsible for the actions and teachings and writings that flow from our functional assumptions (James 3.1). Furthermore, the dividing lines are frequently drawn in a way that makes the harshest possible black-and-white contrast—literally. If your ancestors were neither white Europeans nor sub-Saharan Africans, you might be wondering where you fit in the discussion. (For example, the advantages Asian-American evangelicals enjoy and the disadvantages they face are hardly ever mentioned in the discussion, because frankly those subjects don’t fit neatly into the popular narrative.) Is that why they aren't discussed? Is that why they have left them out? Perhaps. Alternatively, if ethnocentric oppression of African Americans is a huge problem, then their focus makes sense. One might get the impression that American evangelicals are all either the descendants of white plantation owners or the offspring of African slaves. There seems to be no middle ground—just a middle wall of partition. It is hard to establish the middle ground when John is not working hard to understand and articulate accurately the views of those he was "together for the gospel" with.
White evangelicals are told they need to repent for sins committed by their ancestors. Did he not read Thabiti's He said, She said article? Or is he only listening to our brother Phil Johnson? John's comment here is irresponsible at best. Black evangelicals are made to feel like hapless victims who have every right to resent any privilege enjoyed by others. No responsible evangelical has argued they "have every right to resent any privilege." That is false. Members of both groups are scolded if they don’t affirm and adopt the narrative. We’re all told that “racial reconciliation” cannot even really begin until everyone in the church affirms and embraces this particular notion of “social justice” as a matter of first importance—perhaps even a “gospel issue.” What particular notion are they requesting that the other side affirm? John has not presented the best of the other side in any thoughtful and winsome way. So we continue to talk past each other because he has not, to this day, fairly presented the views of brothers like Thabiti, or even Lig Duncan and David Platt from T4G18.
What does this mean? That even though we are spiritually united in Christ, having confessed our personal guilt, there is still some lingering corporate guilt that keeps me from being truly reconciled with my black brother? Or is the real issue even more sinister—namely, that I’m an unconscious racist, subliminally guilty of a sin that I consciously and categorically deplore? And even though I would never hold any animus toward my black brother in my own heart, anyone who is truly “woke” knows full well that I’m guilty of it anyway? John is not guilty of white supremacy. John is not guilty of thinking of other ethnicities as less than human. I would never accuse John of that. There is an unintentional corporate oppression going on that individuals are unwittingly participating in, evidenced even in this very article. John is guilty of oppression through his functional assumption that ethnocentric oppression no longer exists today. That shapes the way he engages this discussion and teaches others and it reinforces the same functional assumption, shaping their oppressive (and therefore sinful) engagement, even if it is unintentional.
There’s no escape from that verdict. Denying that you are a racist is commonly treated as one of the worst possible expressions of racism. There is an escape. Prove that ethnocentric oppression does not exist today and you are vindicated and we who are operating on the assumption that ethnocentric oppression exists and is a huge problem are the ones who are unintentionally sinning and in need of repentance. To assume the burden of proof is exclusively on the other side is unfair (let's both have the burden of proof) and it ignores history, theology, and credible personal testimony that would put the greater burden on those who assume ethnocentric oppression towards African Americans does not exist or is not a huge problem.
Instead of promoting any true and meaningful reconciliation, the bitter fruit of this movement has been anger, resentment, and vengeful separation. What happened? I thought we were together for the gospel. All the years of fellowship and brotherhood I have shared and enjoyed with brothers whose melanin count happens to be higher than mine have suddenly given way to estrangement, accusations, and demands for either repentance or separation. This did not arise out any personal strife that occurred between us. It seems very clear that the beliefs and attitudes that are fueling this movement are drawn from harmful identity politics and Critical Race Theory—not from the Word of God. Things are not what they seem. John's clarity may be due to seeing reality. But it may also evidence his glasses, namely his assumptions and presuppositions, that distort (or clarify) what he sees. To promote true reconciliation sin must be clearly identified and efforts at restoring people through repentance must be attempted. But when those oppressing deny the oppression and defend their view, they perpetuate their functional assumption which shapes their engagement and strengthens the separation because the unintentional sin continues and the movement towards repentance weakens.
Indeed, this is all quite contrary to everything Scripture has to say about the unity of the body, the fruit of the Spirit, and the Christlike attitudes that should characterize every believer’s walk of faith. Actually, what is contrary to Scripture is a slowness to hear/understand, unteachableness, mischaracterizing those he disagrees with, broad brushing faithful evangelicals with unfaithful evangelicals, and not loving his neighbor with discernment and knowledge of their actual oppression (Phil 1.9). I’ll have more to say about the fruit of the Spirit vs. the works of the flesh in an upcoming blogpost at gty.org, but let me draw this post to a close with a reminder of what Scripture says about true unity and how it is to be maintained among Christians. These texts are just a sampling, but they teach principles of biblical unity that are impossible to reconcile with the contemporary social justice narrative:
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:3-11)
Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:1-21). Does he feel his need for the brothers whom he is denouncing?
In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:26-29). Amen. This is unbreakable regardless of our debate. So let's try to come to a meeting of minds biblically to represent this gospel identity more faithfully.
Remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:11-19)
Amen! So let us walk worthy of our calling by defending our assumptions on both sides. If you think ethnocentric oppression exists then defend why and to what degree. If you think ethnocentric oppression does not exist then defend why.
If we agreed with this, or at least understood that this key difference causes otherwise faithful Christians to act in one of two ways depending on their assumptions, then we would be able to move the conversation forward without the mischaracterizations and the increased confusion and frustration on both sides with every article and social media post.
* Intersectionality is the idea that victimhood and oppression occur on a variety of levels, and these may overlap or intersect. So a single individual may have multiple claims to victim status. Since victimhood is what is supposed to validate a personal opinion in these postmodern times, the more layers of oppression someone can claim, the more entitled that person is to speak about issues such as justice and racial discrimination, power and oppression, privilege and inequality. In other words, victimhood is now seen as empowerment, and the more privilege a person is thought to enjoy, the less authority that person has to render an opinion.
One brother wrote me suggesting that perhaps MacArthur is downplaying the issue of ethnocentric oppression and merely warning us all about the danger of extreme polarization on ethnic issues and its potential to deeply divide the church. My response: You're right, brother. He is warning us of the danger of extreme polarization of these issues that can cause deep division in the church. We can agree on the symptoms of division and tension and disagreement and talking past each other. My problem is that he has not properly diagnosed the problem and therefore prescribes the wrong solution. It's like the doctor saying, "I'm warning you that this is weakening the body, causing fatigue, and will do greater harm if it's not taken care of. The problem is you aren't sleeping and the solution is you need to sleep more." Both sides can agree that symptoms of fatigue, weakness, and increasing detriment is coming. But one thinks the problem is lack of sleep and the need for scheduling when the problem is a cancer that is treatable. It just needs to be recognized first. Does my take make sense or does it still sound like I'm an extremist on one side?
Bottom line: If ethnocentric oppression of African Americans does not exist today or is not a serious problem, then John MacArthur's teaching and application is correct and faithful. But if it actually exists and is a serious problem today then John MacArthur's teaching and application on this point is incorrect, unfaithful, and sinful. The converse is also true for me: my pastoral teaching/discipling is sinful and unfaithful if such ethnocentric oppression does not exist today. Let us tremble as we write and teach about this, for we will be held to a stricter judgment (James 3.1).
My prayer is that if ethnocentric oppression does not exist toward African Americans in our society today or if it is not as big of a deal as say, LGBT issues or abortion issues, that the Lord would show me and lead me to repent for my actions and teaching that flow from this assumption. I also pray that, if it does exist and is a major problem, that my brother John would see that what seems to be his assumption that it either does not exist or is not a major problem produces (unintentional yet devastating) misapplications of Scripture that prove and reinforce the ethnocentric oppression. If ethnocentric oppression does exist and is a major problem, I pray my brother John would see it, repent for his erroneous applications of Scripture on this issue today, and begin to apply Scripture properly on this issue to those he shepherds at Grace Community Church and the many he influences around the world.
I thank God for John's influence on me and millions of others on the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, expository preaching, the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone apart from works, and being courageous, even publicly, for the truth. I attempt here to follow his example on that last point in this post.