At the age of 11, Olaudah Equiano — the son of an Igbo elder in what is now Nigeria — found himself in a slave ship’s cramped quarters. His autobiography describes the horror: “The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate… almost suffocated us… the air soon became unfit for respiration… and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died.”
This was life for captured Africans in the infamous Middle Passage — the second leg of a three-part voyage that began with the trading of European goods for human cargo in Africa, which was then transported across the Atlantic and sold for raw materials that were carried back to Europe. Africans who survived the transatlantic crossing became slaves in the Americas.
Relatively speaking, Equiano fared better than most. His time in slavery was spent largely in the service of British navy captains and on cargo ships. In 1763, he was purchased by an American Quaker who allowed him to conduct his own minor trading operation. Equiano excelled at the venture and within three years had enough money to purchase his freedom.
In 1767, free and converted to Christ, he moved to England and became an active abolitionist. He spoke widely against the brutality of slavery and called for an end to the transatlantic slave trade. In 1798, Equiano’s cause gained an important ally: William Wilberforce.The Gospel enables believers to see social issues from a spiritual perspective — but does it remove social issues altogether?
Following his conversion, Wilberforce became Parliament’s anti-slavery voice. His 20-year battle to end the slave trade came with great personal costs. Historian Ramsey Muir writes that “in 1807 some 17 million pounds changed hands in the slave trade in Liverpool in just one year.” Some of the trade’s “stakeholders” were among Wilberforce’s own influential circle. Thus, to expose the evils of the system was to invite “vitriolic attacks in the newspapers; [Wilberforce] was physically assaulted, he faced death threats and he had to travel with an armed bodyguard.” Yet he persevered.
Wilberforce perceived enslaved Africans as fellow men and brothers and was moved to take their cause as his own. He rejoiced with tears in Parliament in 1807 as the transatlantic slave trade was ruled illegal. Wilberforce didn’t leave a legacy of numerous theological treatises yet his commitment to other image bearers revealed a solidly scriptural understanding of God.
The men we Christians lionize are usually known more for their doctrine than for their application of truth to the issues of their day. In our own time, we often honor (and rightly so) contemporary theologians who shepherd us in our orthodoxy. Many are fiery preachers with solid Biblical expositions that leave us in awe of a big God. Dr. John MacArthur is certainly among these men.
MacArthur is valiant for the truth. As a younger preacher, he was among the 334 evangelical leaders who gathered in Chicago in 1978 to formulate the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Just a decade into his pastorate, MacArthur joined luminaries including J. I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer, and R. C. Sproul to defend Biblical inerrancy against liberalism’s assaults. Since then, he has remained steadfastly orthodox in his passion for the Scriptures. I’m thankful to say that my own theological formation has benefitted greatly from his confident preaching.
So when The Master’s Seminary — of which MacArthur is president — released a YouTube video titled “Racism and Black Lives Matter” on July 8, 2016, I expected a strong application of the Gospel to today’s polarizing racial issues. What I heard instead was disappointing.
The clip begins with this question to MacArthur:
Obviously our county has had an issue with race since the beginning. And we’ve seen a continued increase in racial issues from Ferguson to the Black Lives Matter movement… [H]ow does a pastor address this if their church isn’t predominately African American or doesn’t want to become a “social justice” church?
Here’s a portion of MacArthur’s answer:
[Christ] has already predetermined before the foundation of the world the racial mix of His church… so all I want to do is preach… the Gospel, with the same love that God has already determined to shed on every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation on the planet. So there’s a sense in which this is a non-issue… I can’t fix racial injustices… my responsibility is to realize that in Christ there’s neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, we’re all one in Christ… The object of life is no longer to fix past injustices. The object of life now is to proclaim Christ to whomever. And I just will not give that up for another agenda… once [you] come to Christ, all other issues… disappear and the Gospel takes prominence.
I expected a larger view of the Gospel from a man like MacArthur. While he explains the Gospel as preeminent, his overall position says otherwise. My husband explains it best:
To suggest that social issues become spiritual issues for believers or that social issues “disappear” once saved actually has the reverse effect: rather than making it clear that believers can hope amidst the reality of sin and suffering because our gaze is fixed on a coming King, MacArthur’s answer amplifies the voice of every… heckler who ever claimed Christianity as merely mythical panacea or elusive escapism.
I’m surrounded by black Christians for whom racial issues have not disappeared with salvation. Dr. MacArthur’s position is disrespectful to those battered by the blows of discrimination. If nothing else, his response is very insulated. Not many pastors in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas, Ferguson, Baltimore, or Chicago could sit today and claim that salvation erases racial issues.
Answers like MacArthur’s tend to scoot too close to Luke 11:42: “For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” As someone whose understanding of the Gospel has been shaped by teachers like MacArthur, I would’ve been encouraged to see his bold passion for the Gospel extend to touch current issues rather than avoid them. I would’ve rejoiced in his acknowledgement of ugly racial injustices while heralding the power of the Gospel to reconcile enemies (Ephesians 2:14-19). His ability to preach and leave us in awe of a big God would’ve been a gracious gift to the Church in these divided times. Instead, he condenses the Gospel to a message that denies current racial issues.
John MacArthur’s words were disappointing, as was his timing. The Master’s Seminary chose to release this video on the topic of race just three days after the shooting death of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, by white officers of the Baton Rouge Police Department. The shock of Sterling’s death was barely absorbed when a second black man, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by an officer in St. Paul, Minnesota on July 6.
The days following 2016’s Independence Day were difficult ones for America. We watched families grieve the unexpected end of loved ones in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas and were reminded, not of our unity, but of our land’s abiding fragmentation. Our Fourth of July celebrations this year ended with cries.
And as we mourned, many, particularly African Americans, were reminded of other reasons to weep. We remembered men and women killed hastily and seemingly without due process of law. Our tears over those killed in July were also for Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. We cried for Amadou Diallo and Emmett Till. We cried for Laura and L. D. Nelson, a mother and son lynched together in 1911 over a railroad bridge in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma. We cried over the terrors of chattel slavery and the dehumanization of Jim Crow segregation. And yes, we even cried for Olaudah Equiano and 12.5 million Africans captured, packed, and shipped through the transatlantic slave trade.
In Genesis 1:27, the Bible declares that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” And in Luke 12:6-7, Jesus adds: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
If God remembers the sparrows, then human beings made in His image are worthy of our concern. So when blood is spilt, it’s right to grieve. Much more, when death and repression come as the result of prejudiced systems, then we lament and call for repentance (Jeremiah 7:1-7). If persons (and even nations, see Matthew 11:10-24) await the ultimate examination of a holy Judge, then Christians do well to sound the alarm when we see the sin of racism and injustice.
But instead of bold words of caution, some corners of evangelicalism saw the contention of early July and said nothing. Others, like John MacArthur, offered evasive remarks. We tend to lose our voice when it comes to the issue of race. And when we do speak, our inclination is to reduce our message to Galatians 3:28 and little else: “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.” Russell Moore writes that some white Christians “assume that if they don’t harbor personal animus against those of other ethnicities, then there is no ‘race problem.’”
Perhaps this is Dr. MacArthur’s perspective. In the video, he implies friendship with certain black leaders and recalls holding memorial services for Martin Luther King in black high schools. Like the man who justifies himself from the suspicion of racial bias by naming the minorities he knows, this section of John MacArthur’s video sounds a bit conciliatory. He says this: “Look, I’ve been on that side of it [the racial justice side?]… But I also see the power of the Gospel and when the Gospel changes your life, you go from social issues to spiritual issues.” While he may not nurture prejudiced feelings toward minorities, Dr. MacArthur’s statement reveals a major disconnect from the experience of his said black friends.
Yes, the Gospel enables believers to see social issues from a spiritual perspective — but does it remove social issues altogether? Indeed, do we actually diminish (or perhaps even doubt) the power of the Gospel to conquer racism if we ignore the reality of that sin?
Addressing The Gospel Coalition Council in May 2016, Mika Edmondson said this:
We have a natural tendency to actively resist dealing with racial sin… How else can you explain a theology that comfortably co-existed with chattel slavery, the lynching tree, Jim Crow, segregation, and myriad ways black folks suffer today? How else could Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield have had such great theology but think that it had nothing to say to the black suffering they saw all around them? (Edwards wrote copious notes on the duty of Christian charity to the poor on the one hand, while callously purchasing trembling little African girls off the auction block on the other.) […] Evangelicals have a social ethic, but it’s a strangely selective social ethic. We show our feelings about the Lord by how we treat our neighbors made in his image.
Furthermore, we show the beauty of our Savior’s work in making us truly one when we mingle our voices together and insist that, in the fullness of time, even racism will bow at Christ’s feet. Rather than using Scripture as a reason to dismiss social issues, we should emulate the model of Olaudah Equiano and William Wilberforce, who offered an accurate application of Galatians 3:28 through their joint address of the racial injustices of their time.
Image via The Master’s Seminary.
Note: Access to the John MacArthur video “Racism and Black Lives Matter” linked in this article is at the discretion of the original publisher’s YouTube privacy settings. Unfortunately, at present (6/26/16), it is not publicly available.