When I was a child, our church would gather late every summer with dozens of area churches for a large tent revival on the campus of the local Baptist college. In the sweltering August heat, we’d sing southern gospel hymns, listen to hellfire and brimstone preaching, and laugh at the corny puppet show put on for the kids. Musicians and others set up tables to peddle their kitsch, and, inevitably, someone would sell Christian t-shirts. I remember one deep-orange shirt with a parody logo that replaced Reese’s with Jesus.
We recognize it now as rather lame, but somebody somewhere thought this t-shirt was a strategic way to engage and evangelize the culture. Also, somebody made money on it. And that brings us, rather abruptly, to social justice in the church.
A few months ago, CrossPolitic published an insightful piece from Stephen Wolfe about the evangelical reconcilers. The reconcilers are distinct from both the warriors, who directly oppose the ruling class, and the capitulators, who conform to the norms of the ruling class. The reconcilers maintain their orthodox credentials on the core tenets of the faith, but apply them in such a way to render evangelicalism harmless to the prevailing regime, modern liberalism. They become de facto agents of the ruling class, often unwittingly, working to neutralize any threat from evangelicals. One current manifestation of this phenomenon is the adoption of popular social justice categories, language, and solutions.
But why do the reconcilers reconcile? What explains why otherwise doctrinally sound leaders have laced their public commentary with concepts and language steeped in critical theory and intersectionality? One possible explanation comes from subdividing the reconcilers into three more categories: the true believers, the marketers, and the evangelists.
The true believers have adopted, at a philosophical and worldview level, certain tenets of critical theory and intersectionality. Not that they are full-blown critical theorists, but they accept many of the assumptions of various critical theories and propagate many of their concepts, having incorporated popular social justice philosophy into how they interpret the world. Jemar Tisby and Thabiti Anyabwile are two examples of true believers. We may criticize pastor Anyabwile for many things, but being disingenuous is not one of them. He believes what he says. At least you can have a meaningful conversation with him about these matters.
One wonders if that’s the case with the marketers. When the marketers see social justice gaining traction in the larger culture, they see an opportunity to build their brand. Where the true believers have adopted social justice concepts, the marketers have just co-opted them for their own popularity. By using language from critical theory and intersectionality, the marketers can raise their social status.
This explains why a Southern Seminary provost can confess to being a racist who will always struggle with white supremacy until the day he dies and still keep his job. No one believes he is an actual racist, or else he would no longer be the provost. But, in the social justice milieu, confessing one’s racism exonerates one from being charged as a racist, and, thus, raises one’s status as an anti-racist ally. It’s brand-building for elite whites in the social justice age.
Marketing also explains why seminaries are at the forefront of pushing the nebulous category of key leadership position for women in the church. What is a key leadership position? We’re not sure, but it doesn’t mean pastor or elder—for now. But if seminaries can recruit and train women for such positions, that means they can double the pool of applicants from which to draw students. Can we not at least acknowledge the financial incentive for seminaries to embrace functional egalitarianism, even if they call it soft complementarianism?
The third category is the evangelists. They are pragmatists who will do whatever it takes to win people to Jesus. This means a certain amount of adaptation to the surrounding culture, which represents an effort to show that Christians aren’t that different. You, too, with a few adjustments to stated beliefs and weekend plans can become one! They want to make the jump from unbelief to belief as small as possible, thinking if this is the case, more people will believe. Whereas the evangelists once used knock-off secular music for these purposes—that being no longer fashionable—they now employ knock-off secular philosophy.
The evangelists also want to break down barriers to belief. For example, they recognize the very real injustices that have occurred, often within the evangelical ranks. They have seen real racism in the church and in society, and the evangelists will do whatever it takes to show that is not the case with them. No racism barriers here. Of course, in our current culture, social justice rhetoric is the only path to being acquitted of your original racism.
These efforts are to make the church palatable to modern sensibilities, so that the church itself will not be a barrier to people hearing the Gospel of Jesus. J.D. Greear is the prime example of the evangelists. In recent months he has said many unhelpful things. He has flattened the sin of homosexuality, said Christians should be among the fiercest advocates for the dignity and rights of LGBT people, said it was “great“ to vote for Democrats, and promoted a complementarianism that is softer than Charmin. But if you have followed Greear’s ministry for any length of time or are familiar with the foregrounding of evangelism in Southern Baptist ministry, you would recognize his evangelistic motivations. His intention seems to be to make becoming a Christian a conceivable possibility in the minds of secular people in Raleigh. I find this approach misguided and mistaken, but not malicious.
The problem with the reconcilers is they get the direction of the Great Commission backwards. They allow the world to set the agenda and teach the Church, rather than the Church teaching the world. For example, rather than teaching the world how to deal with envy, they cultivate envy and redeploy it for their own purposes. While this may be a boon to the marketers, I cannot imagine this bearing long-term evangelistic fruit.
But neither do I see the social justice trend lasting long anyway. It is a necessarily destructive way to engage the world, and can only go on so long. Also, Christians are usually late adopters to cultural waves. Once the evangelicals get on board, that wave tends to be puttering towards the shore. One can hope this stays true to form.
I do not mean to undersell the damage and divisiveness that could be caused in the meantime, but intend to point out the fact that popular social justice is just so much more marketing kitsch. It is the philosophical equivalent of the Jesus-Reese’s parody logo t-shirt. One day we’ll look back at how lame it was.
But today? Somebody somewhere thinks this is all a strategic way to engage and evangelize the culture. And somebody else is making money off it.