The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 8, The Church
[Editorial Note: This is the eighth post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]
Article 8: The Church
WE AFFIRM that the primary role of the church is to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord's Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost. We affirm that when the primacy of the gospel is maintained that this often has a positive effect on the culture in which various societal ills are mollified. We affirm that, under the lordship of Christ, we are to obey the governing authorities established by God and pray for civil leaders.
WE DENY that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church's mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head. We deny that laws or regulations possess any inherent power to change sinful hearts.
The church (ἐκκλησία) is the assembly of God's people who are saved by faith alone in Christ alone and gather together in local assemblies for both service and worship. In a literal rendering of the Greek - the term means a called out assembly. Christ founded his Church and made a definitive statement - "The gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). It has been God's plan from the beginning for his people to associate together, help one another, and assemble for worship and service in a community of a local church. In short, the church is God's will for your life. The high mark of the believer's life should be centered in and through the local church rather than politics or any other humanitarian outlet or organization.
In recent days, Russell Moore has suggested that the goal of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" was primarily about race. In fact, Russell Moore talked to Laruen Green of Fox News and in that interview he stated the following about the Statement:
What we're really talking about is race. And so, I think we have a long lasting issue within evangelicalism of people saying 'Let's not talk about issues of racial reconciliation, unity, and justice--that would be a distraction from the gospel. That's exactly what was happening in the 19th century as it related to human slavery. That's exactly what was happening in the 1920s and 1950s as it related to Jim Crow and it persists among us.
The main focus of the Statement is not centered on race. Out of the fourteen articles, the Statement contains two that focus on race and twelve others that focus on other matters including biblical manhood and womanhood and the mission of the Church which is Christocentric with the gospel at the center.
In fact, the main reason for the need for the Statement in the beginning was based upon three really important issues that need to be addressed--and it's not all about race. While race and the idea of systemic racism and systemic oppression is certainly one issue we want to address in the Statement--there are other issues such as the rise of egalitarian methods within evangelicalism and the category of LGBT Christianity. In may ways, biblical manhood and womanhood are the focus of the Statement.
Each of these subjects, within evangelicalism, are impacted by our culture with a shallow and often skewed understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ. For that reason we included an article in the Statement that helps unpack the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ.
The Mission of the Church
As "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" articulates, "the primary role of the church is to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord's Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost." This is a good summary of the work and mission of the local church.
As Ephesians 4:12 makes clear, the work of the pastor is centered on equipping the saints for the work of ministry. When the primacy of the gospel is maintained, this equipping ministry of the local church will impact the culture which is filled with the brokenness of sin. Charles Hodge writes:
The works of God manifest His glory by being what they are. It is because the universe is so vast, the heavens so glorious, the earth so beautiful and teeming, that they reveal the boundless affluence of their Maker. If then, it is through the church that God designs specially to manifest to the highest order of intelligence, His infinite power, grace and wisdom, the church in her consummation must be the most glorious of His works.1
As the Scriptures are expounded in the context of the local church, the followers of Jesus submit to his authority and desire to walk in obedience to his commands. Jesus said, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). One of the clear teachings of Jesus is found in his response to the scribe who sought to trap him just two days before his brutal crucifixion (Mark 12:28-34). Jesus responded to the scribe's question by saying:
The most important is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:29-31).
To love God supremely results in loving neighbor sacrificially. This is not something that flows out of a secular social justice movement, it's right out of the mouth of Jesus himself. When a culture is filled with strong churches, the mission of Christ will be alive and well throughout the society. When a culture is lacking the presence of God's people or filled with shallow churches, the mission of Christ will lacking in the society as a whole.
The Mission Drift of the Modern Church
The local church in many contexts has been swept away in the tsunami of politics and social justice interaction. In other cases, the local church has been turned into a humanitarian aid station for the poor in the community or the poor in other nations (digging wells and supplying clothes for impoverished tribes in South America). While getting involved in such efforts to care for the needy is a fine ministry, but it's not the overall mission of God's Church.
When we examine the number of organizations that a person can join in a specific city, it can be a bit overwhelming. There are numerous groups that a person can identify with such as:
- American Red Cross
- Salvation Army
- Kidney Foundation
- Boy Scouts
- Girl Scouts
- Ronald McDonald Foundation
- Republican Party
- Democratic Party
- US Military
- Homes for our Troops
- National Military Family Association
- Special Olympics
- Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
- Boy's and Girl's Clubs of America
- Local or National Chess Club
- Local Bowling Club
- Local Gardening Club
- Local Dancing Club
- Local Running Club
- Local Bird Watching Club
- Local Yacht Club
- Local Horse Riding Club
- Local Dog Training Club
Add to this list a quickly growing number of parachurch ministries designed to engage in the work of ministry. However, the mission of the church is far different than any of these popular organizations and clubs and far more essential than any parachurch ministry. Even those organizations that focus on humanitarian care and social involvement, the local church has a far higher mission that centers upon glorifying God and exalting Christ throughout the world.
The church was once focused on the worship of God through the Scriptures, but today many pulpits have been replaced by political stumps and the gospel has likewise been replaced by political talks filled with social justice jargon. The very moment that a church trades the mission of Christ for the mission of political social justice--that group ceases to be a true church. Furthermore, their message cannot lead people to freedom and true liberation. Instead, they lead people into the darkness of oppression and injustice. Only through the gospel can a person's heart be changed resulting in true submission to God.
Furthermore, as the local church is driven by the spirit of the age rather than the Spirit of God through holy Scripture--the more likely the local church will trade in their prayer for civil leaders for the slander of partisan politics. The church has been called to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2) rather than slandering them under the banner of the gospel. Far too many "Social Justice Warriors" find it cool to slander leaders rather than lead their congregations to pray for them.
We must reject the idea that political involvement and social justice engagement is the mission of the church of Jesus Christ. While we can work through proper channels and use voting privileges lawfully, the mission of Christ has never changed or shifted from the day Christ founded it. Alistair Begg has stated the following in a sermon:
We are not in the world today to reform the world. Our mandate in the world is not political, it's not social, and it's not economic. The fact that many of us have lived through a period of time in the United States where by the social, political, and economic concerns have increasingly encroached upon the minds of those who should know better and have begun to take on virtually a life of their own whereby we have begun to be seduced by the idea that these really are the issues. That if we could fix this, and fix this, and fix this--then we would be fine. But we were never invited to fix this and this and this. The calling of the church is to proclaim the gospel. And whenever that which is central, namely the gospel, becomes peripheral--then that which is peripheral inevitably becomes central.
However, that is precisely the opposite of the social justice agenda of our present culture. Eric Mason, in his book, Woke Church, makes the following bold assertion:
To apply this we must be awakened to the reality of implicit and explicit racism and injustice in our society. Until then, our prophetic voice on these matters will be anemic and silent. Being woke is to be aware. Being woke is to acknowledge the truth. Being woke is to be accountable. Being woke is to be active. This is the call of God on the church and on every believer.2
To make the claim that the mission of the church is to be "woke" is to be guilty of false advertising at best and egregious mission drift at worst. Furthermore, Jesus doesn't need to ride the wave of pragmatic cultural trends in order to complete his mission through the Church. I would further argue that Jesus was not "woke" in his earthly ministry and doesn't need that label for his Church today.
The term "woke" has been defined by Eric Mason in a sermon at Dallas Theological Seminary as an "urban colloquialism used by black nationalists and those who are in the black consciousness movement." The term did not emerge from gospel of Jesus Christ and the Scriptures. It's safe to say that it doesn't have the best past. Therefore, it's unwise to hitch the Church of Jesus to such a culturally perverse term. Such a move on the part of Mason leads to confusion rather than clarity. It may lead to book sales, but it doesn't help in clarifying the mission of the local church.
To make the bold assertion that it's the mission of the church is to lead the people of God off track. Any step toward the "woke" movement is to follow the footsteps of culture rather than Christ. This is true not only in terms of the witch hunt for systemic racism, but it's likewise true regarding any movement that distracts God's people from their mission which will always be centered on the good news of salvation through Christ Jesus our Lord.
The real question that needs to be answered is--how does the "woke" church movement and the hyper emphasis upon social justice differ from cultural Marxism? I've yet to hear a good clear differentiation between the two.
What you believe about the church matters. How the local church engages in the mission of Christ matters. When we follow the plan of Jesus - it will lead to more just and equitable societies throughout the world. Only the gospel can cause people to bow in submission to King Jesus and as a result, those same people will submit to the laws of society. Those same people will labor in the gospel ministry in a local community through their local church resulting in lasting change that brings glory to God.
1. Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Accordance electronic ed. New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1856), 174.
2. Eric Mason, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice, (Chicago: Moody, 2018), 32.