Injustice in the PCA?: A Rejoinder to Covenant College Students

A rejoinder to Covenant College students Aaron Anand, Sarah Lane Cochrane, Abby Gienapp, Will Payne, Ryan Rhodes, and Mark Roos to their letter “Freedom in Christ to Obey His Word.”

I appreciate the time and effort that you put into your letter.  It is clear that your thinking has been shaped by a theological vision that sees cultural transformation as a central aspect of the church’s mission.  This is not surprising given that such an outlook is so popular at Christian liberal arts colleges.  However, while some contend that a transformationalist perspective is the definitive Reformed position on the church’s relationship to culture, this assertion is contested by others. 

 

Dear Mr. Anand, et. al.:

Thank you for sending me your open letter, “Freedom in Christ to Obey His Word,” which has now been published in the December 5, 2018 edition of the Covenant College student newspaper (The Bagpipe), in response to my article, “Dear Covenant College Students: Jesus Can Set You Free from the Yoke of Being Woke,” published on The Aquila Report on November 7, 2018.  It seems to me that the key issue in this debate is whether or not it is true that an unwillingness to embrace a social justice mandate that calls for equality of outcome in church and society renders a church collectively guilty of injustice.  I offer the following thoughts for your consideration.

You are certainly correct in pointing out that Mr. Tisby’s overall argument is in harmony with the prevailing thinking in the PCA at present, at least at the General Assembly level.  However, as the Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us, synods and councils may err and have erred, and are therefore not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but only to be used as a help to both, and only insofar as they uphold the teaching of Scripture.  (see WCF 31.3)

The 2016 PCA General Assembly’s approval of the overture that called for the denomination to condemn, and express corporate repentance for, the racial sins that its members and churches committed during the Civil Rights era, along with the racial sins of its current members, was bewildering for several reasons.

For one thing, the PCA did not even exist during the Civil Rights era.  For another, as you point out, the PCA previously approved an overture (2002) and a pastoral letter (2004) confessing and condemning sins of racism.  For another, the denomination out of which the PCA was born (the PCUS) officially condemned racism and segregation in 1954[1] and endorsed a range of Civil Rights activities in 1965.[2]  Further, the specific sins listed in the 2016 overture (segregating worshipers based on race; denying church membership based on race; claiming that the Bible prohibits inter-racial marriage; participating in white supremacist organizations) are not sins that any present-day PCA member or officer in good standing is likely to be guilty of committing.  In light of all of this, it is difficult to see how racism can be considered a corporate, structural sin of the entire denomination.

Simply asserting that racism is a collective sin in the PCA does not establish it as a fact.  Such an accusation requires evidence.  While individuals and congregations in the past history of the PCA (and PCUS) may have committed racial sins, how can the sins committed by others be imputed to those who have not personally committed or enabled them?  It is true that the notion of imputation is central to the covenants of works and grace, but these are unique arrangements in which Adam and Christ are clearly set up as federal heads.

Furthermore, is there a statute of limitations when it comes to collective repentance for sins committed by the church in earlier eras?  After all, a large swath of the early church embraced the Arian heresy.  Why aren’t we issuing statements expressing corporate repentance for that sin?  And once corporate repentance has been expressed by one generation for sins of past generations, how many generations into the future need to follow suit?[3]

It is interesting that all of the Scripture passages that you cite in support of your contention for collective repentance have to do with theocratic Israel, which was a distinctive arrangement in redemptive history under the Sinai covenant.  When the Old Testament prophets confronted Israel for collective injustice, the issue was not that there was inequality of outcome in their society, but that the nation was violating the terms of the Sinai covenant by letting the powerful exploit and take advantage of the weak.  As for the corporate repentance expressed by Daniel and Ezra, this was in response to the covenantal curses that had befallen the entire nation for breaking the Sinai treaty.  There was something unique about that.

Of course there is a place for corporate confession and repentance among contemporary believers, but unless there is clear evidence that a specific sin was encouraged, perpetrated, and tolerated by a particular group of believers, our corporate confessions of sin need to be general enough that they can be sincere confessions of our own sins. Otherwise, it is not really a matter of repentance but a matter of renouncing the sins committed by others, akin to the prayer of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Lk. 18:11).

It should also be pointed out that the prophetic calls for the Israelites to repent of the sins of their ancestors were made precisely because those Israelites were still committing the same sins as their ancestors.  This seems to be what some people are saying about the PCA today.  It is certainly what Mr. Tisby is saying when he alters the text of Matthew 23 so that it presents Jesus as condemning contemporary Christians as “racists and racial moderates” and telling them to “Fill up then the measure of your slave holding and segregationist fathers and mothers.”

The problem with this is that while the prophets could point to altars on the high places, there is no evidence to support an indictment of today’s PCA for collective racial injustice.  Perhaps there are some who would cite as evidence the fact that the PCA does not have what they would deem to be an acceptable level of racial diversity in its membership, leadership, style of worship, etc.  But this is simply to assume, rather than prove, that this lack of diversity is caused by racial discrimination and injustice.  While this kind of assumption has become rather commonplace in discussions about race in our culture, it is not warranted.  There are a whole host of factors that come into play when it comes to these things.  Racial or ethnic discrimination certainly can be one of those factors, but this is not something that is invariably true in every situation.

Your desire to ground your argument for a justice-oriented church in Scripture is to be commended.  However, none of the Bible passages that you reference in your letter support your assertion that the church is an institution with a social justice mandate.  Colossians 1:19-20 and Psalm 72 relate to Christ in his mediatorial office, not to the church’s mission.  While it is true that the church is the instrument that Christ uses to advance his kingdom, this does not mean that we are free to conflate the church with Christ.  The church’s missionary mandate is clearly spelled out in Scripture as one of Spirit-empowered witness to Christ.  As Michael Horton explains,

There is no mandate for the church to develop a political, social, economic, or cultural plan.  Although it teaches the whole Word of God, both the law and the gospel, the church’s mission is not even to reform the morals of society.  Whatever effects the gospel has in the lives of its hearers and in the wider society in which it is heard, the Great Commission itself is a very specific mandate to get the Good News out to everyone who lies in the darkness, to baptize them, and to teach them everything in God’s Word.[4]

Furthermore, while Matthew 25:35-39 is often cited in support of social justice imperatives for the church, this ignores the meaning of these verses in their original context.  Jesus’ use of the phrase “the least of these my brothers” in verse 40 makes it clear that he is not talking about social justice efforts but about extending help to other Christians in need, particularly to the itinerant preachers in the first century who depended on the church’s hospitality to carry out their work (cf., Mt. 10:40-42; 11:11; 28:10; 3 Jn. 5-8).  As for the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mt. 22:39), it is simply begging the question to assume that this is a call to social justice activism.

When it comes to matters of public policy that are not specifically addressed by Scripture, different Christians will have differing notions about the most effective and responsible ways to love our neighbors.  This is why it is important to remember that there is a distinction between what the church is called to do as an institution through its official ministry and what believers are called to do as individuals through their vocations in a shared culture.

Meredith Kline points out the danger of failing to maintain this distinction when he writes, “Substitution of the temporal causes of common grace social-political concerns for the absolutely distinctive purpose and program of eternal salvation is theological confusion at a most fundamental level.”[5]

While the church certainly should be faithful in presenting the biblical teaching that condemns racism, it should not declare that Christians are duty-bound to embrace one particular perspective on how to deal with various socio-economic disparities between racial and ethnic groups.  It is a violation of Christian liberty to impose something like this on all believers by hitching it up to the church’s mission.  In other words, it really is a matter of placing believers under a man-made yoke.

If the church has a social justice mandate, why do we not see social justice activism in the New Testament church?  There were certainly plenty of social injustices to address in the first century.  The reason why the first century church was not “woke” is because a conception of justice that calls for sweeping interventions in order to produce equality of outcome is not based on the Bible, but on the contemporary categories of thought known as critical race theory and intersectionality.

These sociological concepts assert that social inequality exists because those in the majority culture enjoy privilege, which makes them inherently guilty of marginalizing and oppressing those who belong to groups that have substantially lower social outcomes.  There have been many compelling critiques of this line of thinking.  Some that especially come to mind for me are the writings of Thomas Sowell, Jason L. Riley, and John McWhorter.  Here is a quote from Sowell that relates to something that was mentioned in your letter:

Statistics comparing American blacks and whites in many respects — jobs, incomes, and mortgage approval rates, for example — are often drawn from data that include similar information about Asian Americans.  Yet seldom are the Asian American data included in news stories, or even in academic studies, which conclude that racial discrimination explains much or most of the disparities between blacks and whites.  In many, if not most cases, reporting the data for Asian Americans would undermine, if not devastate, the conclusions reached from black-white comparisons. 

In the job market, for example, it has often been said over the years that blacks are ‘the last hired and the first fired,’ since black employees are often terminated during an economic downturn sooner or to a greater extent than white employees.  Data thus seem to substantiate this social vision of the world common among the intelligentsia and others.  But if data on Asian Americans were included — which seldom happens — it would turn out that white employees are usually let go before Asian American employees.  Can this be attributed to racial discrimination against whites by employers who are usually white themselves?  More fundamentally, can we accept statistical data as showing discrimination in cases where that reinforces existing preconceptions, and then reject the same kind of data when it goes counter to those preconceptions?…

In the case of mortgage loans, there is other evidence against the conclusions reached almost universally in the media and in academia.  Average credit scores are higher among whites than among blacks — and higher among Asian Americans than among whites.  Taking into account the data for Asian Americans threatens to reduce a moral melodrama to a mundane matter of elementary economics in which lenders are more likely to lend to people who are more likely to pay them back.[6]

Another point that stands out in the critiques written by the authors mentioned above is that statistical studies suggest that the cause of socio-economic inequality for blacks today is not systemic racism but the vast expansion of the welfare state in the 1960s and a persisting sense of victimhood and outrage in black communities.[7]  If this is correct, then it would seem that the zealous calls for social justice activism by influential voices in the PCA could very well bring more harm than good.  But even if this is wrong, even if there really is an ongoing problem with systemic racism in our society today, it is still incumbent on anyone who accuses today’s PCA of collective racial injustice to substantiate such an accusation with solid evidence.  To fail to do so is to be guilty of —  wait for it — injustice.

I appreciate the time and effort that you put into your letter.  It is clear that your thinking has been shaped by a theological vision that sees cultural transformation as a central aspect of the church’s mission.  This is not surprising given that such an outlook is so popular at Christian liberal arts colleges.  However, while some contend that a transformationalist perspective is the definitive Reformed position on the church’s relationship to culture, this assertion is contested by others.  I would encourage you to give some consideration to an alternate perspective.[8]  My prayer is that you will continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, for the sake of his glory and for the good of his church.

Sincerely in Christ,

Andy Wilson

Andy Wilson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Laconia, New Hampshire

[1] See http://www.pcahistory.org/topicalresources/race/PCUS_1954_Segregation_Report.pdf.

[2] See Sean Michael Lucas, For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, (Phillipsburg, NJ:  Presbyterian and Reformed, 2015), 194.

[3] It is also worth considering whether this sort of thing does more to perpetuate animosity rather than overcome it.  As Thomas Sowell warns, promoting a sense of grievance over inequalities can produce a society “in which a newborn baby enters the world supplied with prepackaged grievances against other babies born the same day.  It is hard to imagine anything more conducive to unending internal strife and a weakening of the bonds that hold a society together.  When history shows how hard it can be to maintain peace and cooperation among contemporaries, why would we take on the complex, divisive, and ultimately futile task of redressing issues between our long dead ancestors or pass on to generations yet unborn the seeds of strife to blight their lives” (Intellectuals and Race, 138).

[4] Michael Horton, The Gospel Commission:  Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker, 2011), 88.

[5] Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue:  Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, (Eugene, OR:  Wipf and Stock, 2006), 286.

[6] Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Race, (New York:  Basic Books, 2013), 4, 5.

[7] See John McWhorter, Winning the Race:  Beyond the Crisis in Black America, (New York:  Penguin, 2007), 5-14, 63-72, 114-134, 153-196.

[8] Michael Horton’s The Gospel Commission, which I cite on page 2 above, is a good place to start.  The writings of David VanDrunen are another helpful resource.  For a historical-theological study, see Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought.  For a biblical-theological study, see Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law.  For a more popular treatment, see Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture.  The following quote from Meredith Kline also offers a good summary:  “Positively, it must be recognized that the whole life of God’s people is covered by the liturgical model of their priestly identity.  All that they do is done as a service rendered unto God.  All their cultural activity in the sphere of the city of man they are to dedicate to the glory of God.  This sanctification of culture is subjective; it transpires within the sphere of the saints.  Negatively, it must be insisted that this subjective sanctification of culture does not result in a change from common to holy status in culture objectively considered.  The common city of man does not in any fashion or to any degree become the holy kingdom of God through the participation of the culture-sanctifying saints in its development.  Viewed in terms of its products, effects, institutional context, etc., the cultural activity of God’s people is common grace activity.  Their city of man activity is not ‘kingdom (of God)’ activity.  Though it is an expression of the reign of God in their lives, it is not a building of the kingdom of God as institution or realm.  For the common city of man is not the holy kingdom realm, nor does it ever become the holy city of God, whether gradually or suddenly.  Rather, it must be removed in judgment to make way for the heavenly city as a new creation” (Kingdom Prologue, 201).