MacArthur and Friends published a so-called “Statement on Social Justice” recently. It’s the second major statement made within conservative evangelical circles in the last year or so; the first, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s “Nashville Statement.” Both statements sought to clarify certain evangelical theo-political positions, and both were lauded by those for whom they were written. The Nashville Statement has over twenty thousand signatories — the Statement on Social Justice, over nine thousand — to date. These public declarations have clearly struck a chord.
They are not without their faults, however. Matthew Lee Anderson excoriated the Nashville Statement and then, remembering Zombieland’s second rule, had the wherewithal to double tap. While I don’t agree with everything that Anderson writes (a tall order, considering his prolificacy), Anderson has demonstrated an obvious, sustained, and rigorous pattern of thought on the particular ethical concerns currently impinging the church’s freedom to worship and be in the public square. His thoughtfulness is not mirrored in these statements, which is part of the issue he takes with the Nashville Statement in particular. Rather than resorting to a kind of knee-jerk reaction, Anderson’s measured reflection on contemporary trends is praiseworthy, and it serves the church’s advancement in coming years in a way that the defensive postures of the Nashville Statement and the Statement on Social Justice do not.
That said, disregard the failure to conceptualize adequately theo-ethical concerns. Set aside the problems that Anderson outlines. Although I find his argument eminently compelling, I want to draw your attention to a more formal, or political, issue.
The church is a variegated body. I’m torn over whether distinctions are inherently vicious. (The argument that they are inherently virtuous is obviously wrong, as far as I’m concerned.) Nevertheless, the fact that the political body is split into various bodies is indisputable. We see a variety of denominations, and these each exist within or as distinct institutions. Most of these political bodies also exist within the spiritual body, although the precise nature of the relationship between the political bodies and spiritual body of Christ is a bit complicated. (For some, the political body of Christ is coextensive with the spiritual; for others, they are mutually exclusive; both positions are asinine.)
In any event, whether splits in Christ’s body are good or bad, they do exist, and at least part of what is entailed by their existence is a dispersion of the responsibilities of church discipline. That is to say, however local churches are structured, and to whomever they bind themselves (denominationally, associationally, etc.-ly speaking), the responsibility to discipline does not rest in the fragmented body of Christ as such but to this or that fragment, or to this or that collection of fragments. I gesture at some issues associated with discipline in this piece on satellite campuses, but I dwell on it in this piece on heresy. (If you have a few moments, read that article, and then continue in this one.)
The Nashville Statement and the Statement on Social Justice depart from traditional models of ecclesial discipline, which both statements are designed to enable the church to enact. The perlocutionary aim of these statements is obvious enough: clarify and provide social capital to particular theo-political perspectives so that the evangelical church has purchase to enforce these perspectives–that is, to enact discipline along these lines.
However, these movements are an attempt to circumvent the established mode of church discipline. These statements are not issued ex cathedra; of course, there is no formal institution that would allow for such a statement–because there is no attendant disciplinary structure to enforce adherence. And yet, framers of these statements certainly intend that their published words be heeded by the evangelical church. If that is the case, and if evangelicals lack the basic polity for such statements to be enforced de jure, what is the mechanism by which such statements are adopted by evangelicals at large?
Coercive power, effected through the use of social/political capital. The individuals responsible for the Nashville Statement (Moore, Mohler, etc.) and the Statement on Social Justice (MacArthur, White, etc.) are well-known figures in evangelical circles. They individually have significant cache, and grouped together these evangelical leaders exert an especially outsized influence on evangelicalism. Such influence isn’t necessarily improper. But when it is utilized in this context, as a means of working around established institutions and ecclesial polities, it violates the autonomy of local bodies and their institutional relations. While evangelical leaders are not appointed through an official channel, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that there are de facto figureheads within evangelicalism. John MacArthur’s nickname “The Evangelical Pope” is elucidative. Issuing these declarations “[without] any pretense of ecclesiastical authority” is a bold denial of the reality of the situation. Church leaders who do not sign statements are called into question, whether or not they have good reason not to sign. The shepherds are called into question by the sheep for their refusal to submit themselves to an exertion of social power, which has no formal authority over them. In terms of form, exercising power in this manner is totally backwards. (Unless we’re in the midst of a new reformation? We’re not, but it could be argued that would be a sufficient cause to subvert ecclesial institutions. I did so in an earlier paper.)
There are ways to issue these statements without violating the formal structures of the church, but it’s a much more difficult task within the evangelical movement because it is not a formal church polity. First, those who wish to issue statements could refuse to purportedly speak on behalf of or to evangelicals as such. Second, those who issue statements could incorporate key denominational and congregational leaders, but specifically those who exercise political authority–not seminary presidents, best-selling authors, and commission leaders. Evangelical statements should either be curtailed to specific denominations or associations, or they should be developed with input from institutional leaders. Failing to do either results in a statement from nowhere exerting authority everywhere.