My take on the Eventful 2019 Shepherds' Conference Q&A Panel on Social Justice with Phil Johnson, John MacArthur, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, and Lig Duncan

A number of Christians have heard about the eventful panel at Shepherds' Conference 2019 where Phil Johnson moderated a discussion with Mark Dever, Lig Duncan, Al Mohler, Sinclair Ferguson, and John MacArthur. It was livestreamed on Facebook but the Shepherds' Conference staff took it down (it seems) [update: video is posted by the church here]. The video of the conversation was all over YouTube but Grace Church seems to have exercised their copyright to have them all removed.

After the first question on humility, the conversation turned toward the social justice debates happening in our Calvinistic/Reformed/Monergistic circles. On the one side is John MacArthur and Phil Johnson of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA who helped draft and sign The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel (aka the Dallas Statement) and on the other side is (1) Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, (2) Lig Duncan of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS, and (3) Al Mohler of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.

Brother Phil asking direct questions to get at the difference between them.

Brother Phil asked many pointed questions. Here's a list of them in Brother Phil's words (a little abbreviated while maintaining the sense):

There are some things you brothers disagree on the social justice issue. (To Albert Mohler): Are you not at all concerned about the liberalizing drift of the social justice movement and all that goes along with that?

You didn't sign the Dallas statement. How far are we apart on this?

Would you agree though that over the past 3-4 years there has been a dramatic acceleration of rhetoric about social justice and that historically it has had a very strong liberalizing tendency. So why wouldn't T4G and TGC clarify the gospel? Why wouldn't the stress be to say, "Look, we're not trying to add to the gospel here? Or clarify the fact, because there are people on the social justice side saying, "Look, this is the gospel" (Bradley?) and one author said "he didn't understand the gospel until he was woke"? (I think this is a reference to Paul Tripp)

Wouldn't you agree though that the desire to get the culture to love and appreciate us is a pathological cancer on the evangelical movement (on Big EVA)? I would say that's perhaps the defining mark of Big EVA.

What is the future of this discussion? What is the end game? The Southern Baptists, for example, have I think at every major convention for the past decade asked for forgiveness for slavery and their stance on it originally. How long is this going to continue to be an issue at the center of our discussion?

What are the looming threats on evangelicalism today?

Going back to your statement that liberalism happens incrementally... Just last year at TGC and T4G I was hearing some rhetoric I first heard from Jim Wallis and Sojourners 20-30 years ago (which Mohler just denounced). What I'm asking is, Do you not see that our most conservative end of the evangelical movement is becoming a little more susceptible to that? (This is when Brother Al forcefully pushed back on Brother Phil).

Direct Questions

Brother Phil asked direct questions. They were leading questions that were carried by his desire and direction in the conversation. So I can see how it might unnecessarily aggravate someone on the panel.

But, to Brother Phil's defense, according to Lig they talked in the backroom about this topic coming up on the panel so they were not blindsided. And even more, Phil is addressing what is the elephant in the room for all those who are aware of this serious issue and divide in our circles. His questions were on the right points to clarify the issue and positions within our circle of Shepherds' Conference attendees and preachers. Some are upset thinking Brother Phil had a sinister agenda. I don't think so and encourage those who think so to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Overall Assessment

My overall assessment of the panel discussion in one sentence:

It was a missed opportunity to clarify the main difference in the midst of our massive theological, ecclessiological, missiological, and social agreements.

This face to face on the panel could have advanced the social justice conversation, transferred seeds of discernment to those listening, and modeled civil discourse that is mostly missing online between Christian brothers and sisters. Instead, it was unclear, awkward, and potentially misleading while some helpful points were stated. I realize that I'm calling it a missed opportunity as one who has largely kept up on the conversation in The Master's Seminary circles where Brothers Mark, Al, and Lig might not have been as aware of the conversation.

A Lack of Clarity

The answers to Brother Phil's pointed and leading questions were unclear. My guess is that they wanted to be careful to show the unity and agreement they did have. That is wise. So Brother Al said he's been talking about this for 35 years and has been consistent. That is true. And Phil's question about concern was answered. Then it got unclear.

When Brother Phil asked how far apart are the T4G hosts from Brother John Brother Mark stated that while he disagreed with the first draft, he said "I'm in broad sympathy with the [Dallas] statement. If there are particular sentences in there I don't agree with I don't remember what they are." He wisely asked Phil to name some disagreements.

Brother Al said, "Not signing should not be interpreted as a rejection of common concern. I don't think that's fair." The reason Brother Phil would have been puzzled by that because of Al's public statements at the SBTS chapel and on Ask Anything Live were different. When Brother Al brought up the term social justice he only spoke of it pejoratively tying it to cultural marxism (which I agree is done by many if not most in our nation), but it made it seem like he was in complete agreement with MacArthur's theological take on the issue. It was also unclear why Brother Al pushed so forcefully against Brother Phil. We can speculate, but it's difficult for any observer without inside knowledge to know the reason.

Brother Lig did a great job stating that he (and presumably the T4G brothers) are not trying to curry the world's favor because they would have to throw God overboard first. He then agreed with Phil that he sees some people desiring to get the culture to love and approve them.

I think Lig is right on that. But he went on to explain that he sees several distinct motivations and when you say, "they only want the world's favor" I think that will not be persuasive. Lig said, "There are some people that are genuinely though mistakenly motivated that need to be gotten at in a slightly different way. So I do look out and see (that some) so want the affirmation of the world." I think that gives the impression that those advocating social justice, like a Russ Moore, for example, need to be gotten at in a different way then accusing him of wanting the world's favor. I don't believe Lig thinks that but that's how it could be taken. I heard another brother say that the differences between the two camps are merely methodological.

The agreements were never followed by a "but." There was no, "Yes, but..." which it seems to me is their stance on this issue in contrast to John and Phil's. I wish they would have said, "Yes, but..." a few times. The only time I recall hearing it is when Brother Al said to Brother Phil, "Yes (those in our constituency of the evangelical movement are becoming more susceptible to the liberalizing tendency of rhetoric), but I'm not going to do it your way." So the nub of the issue was not clarified. Actually, it was obfuscated. A missed opportunity. In a significant sense, it was a step backward.

What was helpful

There were some helpful statements made: Lig is not trying to curry the favor of the culture. He's saying, don't seek it. Say no to the culture where it is wrong but say yes to where the world is right not because the world says it but because the Bible says it. Lig confronts JMac and Phil's assertion that the motive of these otherwise gospel movements is that they are trying to please the world.

Al's clarification and criticism of marxism making structures the central problem and not morality was helpful and true.

Mark's statement that talking about racism doesn't necessarily create racism was also a helpful statement.

Brother Al brought up the justice issues he faces in his ministry at the seminary. Lig spoke of his own sins in the context of Christians in the south. Mark spoke of the African American families who have candid and heartbreaking conversations with their sons warning them about the possibility of dying when driving because of the cultural context they are in.

In my view, the downside in the midst of these helpful anecdotes of Mark's pastoral context, Mohler's seminary, and Lig's experience in the American South is that those on the other side too easily hear that as African American oppression in particular pockets but not as a national problem.

It seems to me that Brothers Mark, Al, and Lig had to navigate through the Christian tension between relational respect (desire to preserve a certain degree fellowship) with Brother John who was hosting them on the one hand and straightforward answers of disagreement and correction on the other hand. They were in a tough position and it's far easier for me to critique their discussion than to be in the hot seat myself. Maybe they should have previewed their answers to John and Phil before going on stage. I don't know. I hope my critiques are godly critiques for the edification of the brothers I reference and all who read these words.

My Five Takeaways

(1) God is good to us in Christ. We are speaking about Christian brothers who disagree. We are brothers before we are pastors, doctors, and evangelical influencers. We are saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. When I call them "Brother _______" it is not a term of disrespect but of endearment and gratitude that God adopted us as his children making us family.

(2) Relationships require wisdom. I don't know the complexity of these relationships which may have been decisive in controlling the direction the T4G brothers went.

(3) The issues are complex and require time, but clear convictions and clear statements of disagreement in the midst of agreement would have been extremely helpful.

(4) I agree with Brother Mark in being appreciative that Brother Phil brought up these issues (as said during the panel).

(5) Perhaps God will use this missed opportunity and step backward to make way for clearer conversations. This one step back may lead to three steps forward, advancing the conversation with a more robust unity where the precise points of disagreement are clarified to both sides.

To that end, let me try to clarify the precise point of the divide between the two sides.

My Straightforward Answer to the Key Question of How Far these Two Sides Are

I want to close this blog post with my answer to the key question of the panel discussion.

The key question is, "What is the main point disagreement between the T4G/TGC and SJG signers?"

My answer from the cheap seats will piggy back off of Brother John's statement. He said,

No question about our biblical commitment and anchor in theology and care for the people who suffer. That's part of being Christian. The confusion comes when people keep identifying other groups of people as those who suffer. We have all these new people to deal with who don't really suffer but there's a category created for them who makes them a suffering group. And we're trying to figure out, how do we deal with that. I don't have a problem with helping poor people or people who suffer, people who . . . I mean I have a lot of experience in the south. I don't have any problem with the church reaching out in love and lifting up these people. But they keep creating new groups who are identified as disenfranchised suffering people. They put the evangelical church in a really odd place because now you got all the MeToo people, the LGBTQ people, the transgender people, they keep identifying groups of suffering people and at some point we have to make a biblical stand. . . . I could hardly keep up with all the new ones. For us to find our way to real suffering people dealing with real issues and love them in Christ and care for them and lift them up and maybe provide things for them that they haven't had in the past in the name of Jesus Christ is fine. But I can't become a victim of every new group that this culture invents for reasons that have very little to do with helping people and have to do with political power.

(from Panel discussion)

Two things from this quote clarify the broad agreement and the precise point of disagreement.

(1) We are biblically and theologically committed to God the Father, Christ the Son, the Spirit, the Bible, justification by faith alone, monergistic regeneration, expository preaching, and discipling against the normalizing of homosexuality, transgenderism, and abortion in our society.

(2) MacArthur pointed to the confusion as "identifying the groups of people who suffer."

My take, from the cheap seats, is that John and Phil functionally assume African Americans, as a group across the nation and in our churches, are not a people group who are really suffering today in contrast to Al, Mark, and Ligon who functionally assume that African Americans really are suffering in our nation and churches today.

So here is the nub of the issue: Are African Americans, as a group of people in America, really suffering unjustly from oppression in our nation today?

Everyone functionally assumes a yes or no to that question. Everyone. Every pastor-theologian on that stage assumes an answer. The question is binary. Whether we're still thinking through the question or not, we all currently assume a yes or no to that question. I'm happy for people to investigate that question and open themselves up to finding an answer. I just want people to be aware that even as they ask the question they are not coming to the question assumption-less. There is no moment, let alone season, when you don't assume a yes or no to this question.

I believe Albert Mohler's answer to this question would be yes based on his comments at the SBTS chapel (see also this observer's take on Mohler). Mark Dever's answers seem to be yes based on his two podcast episodes on race (part 1 | part 2) and his review of Divided by Faith. Lig Duncan's answer seems to be yes based on his T4G 2016 breakout session, his T4G 2018 plenary sermon and his foreword to Woke Church.

Though more developed in the controversy, this stance is not new. T4G actually confessed this since its beginning in 2006: "We acknowledge that the staggering magnitude of injustice against African-Americans in the name of the Gospel presents a special opportunity for displaying the repentance, forgiveness, and restoration promised in the Gospel. We further affirm that evangelical Christianity in America bears a unique responsibility to demonstrate this reconciliation with our African-American brothers and sisters" (Article XVII of T4G's affirmations and denials).

My Slotting of Key Pastor-Theologians and other Public-Theologians

Here's a table of my personal take on the public teachings of various men who are theologically driven and would agree with monergistic Christianity.

Does a "cumulative ethnocentric effect" (what Piper carefully defines and calls "structural racism") exist as a massive and urgent problem in America and our churches today?

Those who would say yes are:

  • Al Mohler

  • Thabiti Anyabwile

  • Jonathan Leeman

  • Mark Dever

  • Lig Duncan

  • David Platt

  • Tim Keller

  • John Piper

  • John Perkins

  • Russell Moore

  • Paul Tripp

  • Matt Chandler

Those who would say no are:

  • John MacArthur

  • Phil Johnson

  • James White

  • Voddie Baucham

  • Tom Ascol

  • Todd Friel

Not sure:

Should we disciple people against social structures normalizing abortion and homosexuality and transgenderism (the LGBT agenda) as morally acceptable?

Yes

  • Al Mohler

  • Thabiti Anyabwile

  • Jonathan Leeman

  • Mark Dever

  • Lig Duncan

  • David Platt

  • D. A. Carson

  • Tim Keller

  • John Piper

  • Paul Tripp

  • Matt Chandler

  • John MacArthur

  • Phil Johnson

  • James White

  • Voddie Baucham

  • Tom Ascol

  • Todd Friel

  • Kevin DeYoung

  • TGC

  • T4G

Conclusion

Brother Al closed his ask anything segment on the Dallas Statement with these words: "I love [those] who are currently on different sides of this debate who are not on different sides of the gospel. So, I'm hoping for a healthy, holy conversation here. And I'm hoping that it brings strength and good repute to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ in a time when good repute is not just a good branding effort. It is a divine mandate."

This was a missed opportunity for a healthy and holy conversation that could have brought strength through clarity. Thankfully, the Lord will work this, like all things, for the good of all of his people in the big picture (Romans 8:28). He may even give us other opportunities for theologically-driven brothers and sisters like us to "have a healthy, holy," and discernment-transferring conversation about where we agree and specifically where we disagree. When that opportunity comes, may we be found "faithful."

Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!