A significant division over how the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) should address racism became public again during a panel discussion at this year’s Shepherds’ Conference (ShepCon) last week. Sparks flew between Albert Mohler, a prominent SBC leader and president of Southern Seminary, and Phil Johnson, a close pastoral associate of John MacArthur. MacArthur, who was also on the panel, is pastor of the prominent Grace Community Church, which hosts the annual ShepCon, and a longtime friend and ally of Mohler. Both are hugely influential in conservative evangelicalism.
Pressing Mohler for a clear answer, Johnson asked, “Why didn’t you sign the Statement [on Social Justice and the Gospel]? …Do you not see that the evangelical movement, even our constituency, the most conservative bend of the evangelical movement, is becoming a little susceptible to [the radical social justice agenda]?”
The statement responded to attempts to push the nation’s largest Protestant denomination into identity politics on race. For example, part of the statement says: “We deny that God-given roles, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, sex or physical condition or any other property of a person either negates or contributes to that individual’s worth as an image-bearer of God.” MacArthur and Johnson are initial signers of the statement, but Mohler has not publicly supported it.
Visibly angry at Johnson’s panel question, Mohler answered, “I’m not going to be forced into a situation before thousands of people in which I have to say I have to do it your way… Sorry! And if this is a test of fellowship among us, this would be a good time to find out.”
From here, the panel dropped the subject and, as of this writing, all of ShepCon 2019’s videos have been taken offline. Video of this discussion has also been scrubbed from third-party sources. With the SBC also embroiled in a sex abuse scandal, it seems America’s largest Protestant denomination is facing multiple controversies.
How Did It Come to This?
Everyone recognizes that America has racial disparities in income, education, and incarceration rates. The real question is, what can and should be done about it?
On the one hand, proponents of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel (SSJG), such as Johnson and MacArthur, fear the approach some are taking will obfuscate the church’s central message and mission. They believe racism is a problem that can only be solved by doing the hard and slow work of individual transformation.
Others place the blame for racism and racial disparities squarely on the United States’ institutions and policies, and have charged the church with complicity in this system. SSJG opponents are convinced swift and systemic change needs to occur in the church in order to set things right. Put simply, one group sees the solution as primarily one of individual change and the other understands it as a problem in the system.
Enter Mohler. He appears to be caught in the middle of these warring factions by simply refusing to come down clearly. To this point, he and MacArthur have for decades been in sync with each others’ views, both on theology and politics.
What’s Wrong with This Picture?
As we see constantly on social media, debating divisive issues from afar yields very ugly results. These “long-distance hate relationships” quickly devolve into adolescent bickering. Lobbing rhetorical bombs solely over Twitter, YouTube, blog posts, and podcasts without making sincere efforts to sit down with your opponents privately is a recipe for disaster, as demonstrated here in the ShepCon panel.
SSJG opponents have something to own up to as well. They must come to grips with the fact that labeling those who disagree that racism in America is systemic as “racist,” “blind,” and “asleep” and in need of “getting woke” does very little to win hearts and minds. Leveling contempt like this demonizes and distances even potential allies in the cause.
Those who find solutions in winning individuals to the Christian faith and then to take personal responsibility for their actions often have the same problem. When the opening salvo to an opponent on this issue is “You’re a Marxist,” the debate is over before it began. Division is all but assured if one assumes the other side is proceeding from bad faith.
In a lecture to the Founders Ministries, Pastor Voddie Baucham asserts, “Some topic comes up, one person says it’s a social justice issue, the other person calls them a cultural Marxist, and then they turn around and call the person a racist, and that’s about all the debate that you get. It’s name-calling…..the process gets short circuited…..and often neither side is being completely honest. Both sides know that this is a way to shut the other down.”
Crying “wolf” at every disagreement involving race inoculates us to the times we genuinely have a wolf among us. It shuts down debate. It is dishonest.
Finally, and most importantly, while all this pointless name-calling and squabbling is going on, not one black single mom is being helped. Not one young black man is being trained in the trades or going to college instead of joining a gang. Not a single imprisoned black man is being moved into a life of freedom through personal responsibility.
This is true whether it’s someone pontificating about racial quotas in church leadership at the MLK50 Conference or whether it’s Johnson firing questions at Mohler at ShepCon. To be sure, creating awareness is important. However, again, everyone is aware of the problem. Someone needs to go do something about it.
If a prominent leader wants to approach the matter on an individual level, great! If another wants to band together with others to correct a problem in the system, that’s perfectly acceptable as well. Afterward, maybe the two could get together and compare notes on what is most effective. That said, demonizing those who don’t do it your way doesn’t count as honestly addressing the problem. Mohler is precisely right on this point.
This Real Issue Is Often Weaponized for Other Ends
To their credit, the SBC, led by organizations such as Together for the Gospel (T4G) and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), have raised this issue in a dramatic and bold manner. No matter a person’s reaction to the medium or the proposed solutions, it is a mistake to fault these groups for raising this important and necessary discussion.
MacArthur and Johnson’s concerns are equally valid and may prove to be key in averting disaster. While Mohler is right to say that leading the debate with a formal statement was wrong-headed, the simple fact is the secular “social justice” movement often employs subversive tactics.
Key to the overall strategy is the tactic of deception. So-called social justice groups often use compassion for the marginalized as a disguise so operatives can destabilize the target behind the scenes. They move the target organization and its members off mission and off message. Eventually, the institution surrenders, collapses, and allies with its attackers.
An example of this writ large is the “Liberation Theology” put forth by Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez. Gutierrez theorized in the early 1970s that if a sufficient number of Latin Americans entered the United States illegally as an act of “liberation,” this would strain the American system, which Gutierrez held responsible for oppressing Latin American nations. Under the strain, the system would eventually collapse. Certainly, some impoverished individuals benefited, but the ultimate goal was large-scale subversion, using those individuals as a means to that end.
As Johnson pointed out in this panel discussion, similar tactics have proved successful in subverting several American church bodies. Indeed, we may be seeing something like it right before our eyes at ShepCon 2019. While it is highly unlikely some grand conspiracy is afoot to bring down the SBC, it’s easy to see that the issue of race is frequently weaponized.
All of the men on this panel have been lifelong friends and allies, practically never openly disagreeing. That ended abruptly over a controversy that began less than 12 months ago. If such methods can foster genuine division in this situation, imagine how much damage they could do if used covertly and purposefully long-term.
What Needs to Happen Next
Given what has transpired in the past few days, one thing is certain: these men are definitely getting woke to a very sobering fact. Serious divisions exist in the SBC and evangelicalism at large. The church has been hampered by this controversy. The evangelical church often reflects sharp divisions in secular culture, all the way down to relegating her most important conversations to trolling Twitter and reacting.
As shocking as it may be, Christians are flawed human beings, just like everyone else. Wherever you go in this world, you’re going to find human beings, even in the church.
The only difference is, in a world where forgiveness is a completely foreign concept, the church should be a place where even an egregious sin like racism can be forgiven. The real tragedy in all of this would be if these men cannot find forgiveness and reconciliation through this controversy. Only then would the church be indistinguishable from the world.