When False Teachers Talk About False Teachers

It’s been suggested that those who promote “wokeness” or “woke theology” should be regarded as false teachers. This claim reflects a kind of theological illiteracy that needs to be exposed. I’ll start with a brief note about terminology, since it’s a source of much mischief.

Critics of “wokeness” often identify concerns about systemic injustice with Critical Race Theory (CRT). But you needn’t endorse CRT—or care anything about CRT, really—in order to be concerned about systemic justice. CRT is just one among many academic disciplines that deal with questions about systemic justice; and it is hardly the first or the most important. Roughly 2500 years before the inception of CRT, Plato discusses systemic justice in his ‘Republic’ and ‘Laws’.

A millennium before Plato, God inspired Moses to establish a legal system animated by God’s hatred of institutional oppression. And God commanded his people to cherish and keep these laws in remembrance of their liberation from Egyptian oppression.

Systemic injustice is second only to idolatry among the occasions for God’s wrath in the Old Testament. And more often than not, when idolatry is at issue, the idols in question are implicated in efforts to secure wealth or power within an oppressive system.

So it’s important to understand that a commitment to systemic justice isn’t the same as fondness for CRT. And the former is a foundational moral imperative for all who fear God, whatever one thinks of the latter. Yet the wokeness truthers in conservative evangelicalism insist on conflating the two. I’m willing to assume, charitably, that this confusion derives from ignorance—of which they display much, and with remarkable boldness. But the notion that we should regard those who demand systemic justice as false teachers is more than mere error: it presents a false image of who God is and what God requires of us. And this is not to be suffered gladly.

According to Scripture, false teachers dwell in the political or religious establishment, and they misrepresent God to the people of God in order to fortify their own position of power or influence. False teachers lie about God for their own personal gain. So, in the logic of Christian theology, it doesn’t even make sense to say that those who demand systemic justice *on behalf of others* are false teachers. It’s a category mistake. Simply put, demanding justice for others isn’t what false teachers do. In fact, every single time Scripture presents God’s prophets in direct conflict with false prophets, God’s prophets are the ones demanding justice for the oppressed. Every. Single. Time.

And how do the false prophets react? First, they accuse God’s prophet of being a false teacher. Then they try to protect their own power and influence by lying about God. “Everything’s good here. God says that the status quo is just fine, and judgment is not forthcoming.” For example, the biblical picture of false prophets bears a striking resemblance to the handful of theologians in the SBC whose dalliances with heresy have redounded to their own professional benefit.

Some proponents of ESS misrepresented the very nature of the Trinity in an effort to legitimate a niche research agenda that they were well-positioned to lead (largely because the most fertile theological minds of our era simply have no interest in advancing male headship). These men spend their days stirring up controversy, insisting that God’s people break fellowship over the secondary effects of tertiary issues that are a matter of grave importance only to men whose professional advancement depends on it. It’s clever in a strictly Machiavellian sense: find a subject that none of the really talented people in your field care about, create a journal for it, publish in your own journal, and then leverage politics and personal connections to demand that it be taken seriously. Now these men are attempting to persuade God’s people that demands for systemic justice are false teaching. “Everything’s good,” they say. “God has instructed me to assure you that the status quo is just fine, and judgment is not forthcoming.”

I don’t know whether judgment is upon us. But if it is, it’s not for the reasons that the culture warriors warned us about: it’s because of the political conditions that the culture warriors helped create.

Don’t let false teachers tell you who the false teachers are. Look for the folks demanding justice, and join them. That’s the side you want to be on, even if you don’t agree with everything they have to say.

This is theologically illiterate: it’s not merely wrong—it’s wrong in ways that I’d expect only someone who doesn’t understand the basic logic of Christianity to be wrong.

Regarding Matthew J. Franck’s Recent Op-Ed In Newsweek

On September 14, 2020, Newsweek published an op-ed by conservative pundit Matthew J. Franck, entitled Racism Is Real. But Is ‘Systemic Racism?’ Within hours, the piece had been removed from Newsweek’s website (the foregoing link provides an archive).

My initial reaction is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to assume that folks like Franck are arguing in good faith. There’s some funny business going on with the way that he uses definitions—which is, frankly, beneath the dignity of someone in his station. For example, he appeals at one point to dictionary definitions in explaining technical terminology—which is something I wouldn’t accept from a student in First Year Seminar.

Elsewhere, the distinction that he makes between ‘systemic’ and ‘systematic’ is, I suspect, helpful to no one. (Perhaps some people use the word ‘systematic’ when they mean ‘systemic’; but I doubt that anyone has the former in mind when speaking of the latter. There’s no substantive confusion there.)

In any case, my main concern about his argument is this. The term ‘systemic racism’—purportedly the subject of his article—is used across a number of disciplines to describe a variety of phenomena. Two general fields of application stand out. One has to do with features of individual or group psychology. The other has to do with institutions. The author defines ‘systemic racism’ entirely in terms of the former category. He then acknowledges, almost with a shrug, that phenomena in the latter category are a feature of our society—but not technically a form of systemic racism, per his definition.

Thus, by artificially restricting the scope of ‘systemic racism’ to the psychological phenomena discussed in some of the literature, Franck simply defines the other kind of systemic racism (to do with institutions) out of existence. The kind of systemic racism to do with institutions is, incidentally, the kind of systemic racism that most people who think seriously about this subject actually care about—at least in my field.

Overall, my sense is that arguments of this kind are simply a distraction. Instead of talking about how to rectify the kinds of injustice that well-informed people generally understand to exist, we are engaging in sophomoric, sterile conversations about terminology that do absolutely nothing to heal our political community: precisely the opposite, in fact.

Honestly, I don’t know quite what to make of someone in a position of influence who acknowledges the existence of institutional injustice in our society and chooses to spend his leisure patting white folks on the back, offering assurances that none of the “bad stuff” we see around us *technically* counts as systemic racism (provided we define ‘systemic racism’ just so). And insofar as Christ followers participate in this charade, it is to our eternal shame.

justice has nothing to do with charity

Within the evangelical community, discussions of “social justice” often emphasize charity and devote little attention to the moral significance of institutions. This paradigm allows evangelicals to advocate for political institutions that deprive the poor of their due, and then dispense charity as though it were a substitute for justice.

We need a new paradigm. Christ followers are required to advocate for public institutions that reflect the truth about what people deserve—not for the sake of charity, but because we are called to seek justice on behalf of those whose basic human needs are likely to be ignored by free enterprise in search of profit.

The distinction between charity and justice revolves around who owes what to whom—in a word, entitlement. For example, my giving you $20 constitutes an act of charity only if you’re not entitled to receive $20 from me (because I don’t owe you $20). By contrast, if you are entitled to receive $20 from me (because I owe you $20), my giving you $20 is precisely what justice demands. So justice depends on entitlement, while charity depends on the absence of entitlement.

In its narrowest sense, justice is a feature of individual conduct: I behave justly when I pay all of the taxes that I owe, or when I return my shopping cart to a designated shopping-cart-return area in the grocery store parking lot. And I behave unjustly when I deceive my golfing companions about the number of putts that I took on the 8th green, or when I decide not to inform my waiter that he omitted the extra side of French fries from my dinner bill. So, at the level of my own conduct, justice is achieved when I give all that I owe and take nothing beyond what I am owed.

In its broadest sense, justice is a feature of institutions. Specific examples of institutions include: the United States; families; contracts; the State of Missouri; Major League Baseball; the game of baseball; the U.S. Senate; the Constitution, and so forth. More generally, an institution is a system of rules or traditions that determine who deserves what: who deserves what honor; who deserves what paycheck; who deserves this authority; who is entitled to that opportunity; who is allowed to do this or to say that, and so on. In this way, institutions guide our understanding of what constitutes justice within a given sphere.

Conflicts arise when an institution’s rules are violated—when a spouse engages in an extramarital affair; when a Major League Baseball player uses a banned substance; or when a building contractor fails to complete a project by a given date. In extreme cases of institutional violations, an aggrieved party might appeal to a higher institution that has sovereign rules for deciding what justice requires. We call this higher institution a court. The rules that guide the decisions of our courts are laws; and our laws are sovereign insofar as there are no rules or institutions above our laws within our political community. Our courts also decide what justice demands in response to criminal conduct, such as fraud, burglary or murder—conduct so unjust that it is prohibited in all contexts, without regard to an individual’s status or institutional affiliation.

So our laws, as administered by our courts, are sovereign over all disputes about what is just, who is guilty of injustice, and what justice demands by way of compensation or punishment.[1] Our laws are authored by elected officials in Congress; and enforcement of the law is supervised by elected officials in the executive branch of government. So justice in our society is defined and administered by public institutions that are subject, ultimately, to the will of the electorate.

Here we confront an ancient question at the heart of Christian citizenship: what does it mean for our political institutions to administer justice?[2] Put another way: what does it mean to say that a law passed by Congress is a just law? Here’s one answer. “Since laws establish the rules about what is just, and Congress determines the law, it follows that Congress determines what is just. So a law passed by Congress is just by virtue of the fact that what is just is determined by the laws that Congress passes.” On this view, justice is whatever our political institutions say it is. Apart from the law, in other words, there is no objective truth about what justice is.

I disagree with that answer. In my view, there is objective truth about what people deserve and what we owe to each other. I have two sets of reasons for holding this view. One set of reasons derives from my faith: Scripture expresses pointed views about what justice is, and offers us a paradigm for political institutions that conform to the truth about justice. Since I affirm the truth of Scripture, I believe that there are objective truths about what is just; and I believe that those truths should be reflected in our own political institutions.

I also have philosophical reasons for believing that there is objective truth about justice. Here’s a concrete example. In 1919, our political institutions didn’t allow women to vote in federal elections. That was the law. So if justice were defined by our laws, then it wouldn’t have made any sense to claim, in 1919, that it is unjust to deny voting rights to women. But it did make sense. People said, “Look, contrary to what the law says, women deserve to have an official voice in how our political community is governed—justice demands that women be allowed to vote. Our laws are denying women that right. So the law should be changed, in order to give women this thing that they are due.”

Moreover, I don’t think that the truth about justice changed between 1919 and 1920, when our political institutions finally recognized women’s right to vote. Rather, I think that justice was the same in 1920 as it was in 1919; and by recognizing women’s right to vote in 1920, our political institutions became more just than they were in 1919. Similarly, I don’t believe that the truth about justice changed in 1954 when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in our public schools. Rather, it is objectively true that segregation is unjust; and in 1954, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education altered our political institutions to reflect that truth.

Because our political institutions answer to an electorate, advances like desegregation and women’s suffrage are the result of political negotiations about what is just. We all enter the public arena with concerns about what we are owed, and we defend our interests according to our vision of what justice demands. These negotiations are the point of contact between political institutions and every Christ follower’s sacred calling to seek justice.

When we, as Christians, enter into the political arena where rights are negotiated, we are called to use our influence to advocate for the rights of those who have no other advocate. We are not called to seek wealthy and powerful political allies who will help us defend our rights. God is our defender. And God calls us to defend the rights of orphans, widows, immigrants and all who are poor and oppressed.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being wealthy or having powerful friends. But we dishonor our calling and misrepresent Christ to the world when we advocate for political institutions that serve the interests of wealth and power at the expense of the poor, and then dispense charity as though it were a substitute for justice.

Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .

[1]Even when an arbitration agreement is in place, courts have the authority to rule on whether that agreement is legally binding.

[2]For an ancient, non-Christian treatment of this question, see Plato’s Republic, especially Books I-II.