A Man and His Inheritance (When Clarifications Fail)

There’s been a lot of equivocating from woke-truthers in the last few days, to the effect that: “Well, systemic injustice might be a real thing (at least historically). But CRT though.”

Rather than pick apart all their hedging, I’m just going to offer a detailed example of systemic injustice and consider it in light of Scripture.

In 1934, the U.S. Government created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to oversee a mortgage insurance program that facilitated homeownership for millions of Americans. But the FHA only insured mortgages in neighborhoods that systematically excluded people of color.

So white Americans were given an opportunity to accrue equity in real estate with the help of the FHA—a program that was subsidized by all taxpayers, including those of color, who were effectively barred from owning desirable real estate. In other words, the U.S. Government systematically transferred wealth from people of color (in the form of taxpayer subsidies for the FHA mortgage program), to white Americans (in the form of home equity, mortgage interest tax deductions and so on).

The primary consequence of this FHA policy was, of course, segregated neighborhoods. And given that school districting proceeds on the basis of residential location, a secondary consequence of the policy was racially segregated public schools across the country. (Which is why, in the era of school desegregation, black students had to ride buses to the other side of town in order to attend schools that had previously been restricted to students from exclusively white neighborhoods.)

A tertiary effect of the FHA policy was to ensure that public schools zoned for white students received better funding than those zoned for black students: By making it easier for banks to lend to potential buyers in white neighborhoods, the FHA policy increased demand for homes in those neighborhoods, driving up property values and thus the property taxes from which public schools derive much of their funding.

Meanwhile, property values of minority homeowners were diminished by a broader zoning regime that diverted everything from bars, night clubs and factories to toxic waste facilities and other environmental hazards away from white neighborhoods. And all these effects of residential segregation conspired to facilitate a system of racially disparate policing and incarceration that has been well documented.

Racially discriminatory zoning was outlawed in 1968; and racial discrimination in mortgage lending was outlawed in 1977. But by that time, the cost of real estate was prohibitive for all but high income-earners and those whose families already had access to home equity. From 1973–80, the value of the average American home increased by 43 percent. For those who didn’t already own homes, who relinquished more and more of their lifetime income with each month’s rent, spiking real estate prices moved homeownership further from reach.

And these decades of dispossession reverberate in the lives of our brothers and sisters of color, whose parents and grandparents were robbed of the opportunity to amass and transfer what would have been their inheritance: Even now, young African Americans are ten times more likely than young white Americans to live in poor neighborhoods (66 percent compared to 6 percent). Less than 10 percent of white families have lived in poor neighborhoods for 2 or more consecutive generations, compared to half of all African American families (48 percent). The median white household has about $134K in wealth, whereas the median black household has about $11K.

Woke-truthers eagerly observe that we must live with the natural and logical consequences of our sin. They are less eager to acknowledge that people of color have long been living with the natural and logical consequences of sins committed against their fathers and grandfathers.

Marxism and CRT are irrelevant here: the fear of God is sufficient for discerning the wickedness of a system that perpetuates disparities in wealth, income and opportunity that originate in explicitly racist laws—i.e., systemic injustice. Here the woke-truthers reply that this is all very regrettable and they are, *just to be absolutely clear, lest the reader misunderstand* categorically opposed to racial discrimination in all its forms. They just think that government intervention isn’t the remedy.

So woke-truthers aren’t anti-justice—they’re just anti-big government. But this attempt at clarification makes them appear more confused than ever. These woke-truthers have spent the last decade promoting a “traditional” ideal of nuclear family with a single breadwinner and his homemaking wife. Yet this ideal was “traditional” only for a narrow subset of Americans, and only for a couple of decades in the mid-twentieth century, and the whole scheme was subsidized by *the largest government redistribution of wealth in U.S. history*, the crown jewel of which was the FHA.

So either they don’t favor small government, or they don’t mean what they say about their ideal of family, or they’ve once again allowed their enthusiasm to outrun their expertise and they simply fail to grasp the contradiction. And personal hypocrisy aside, extolling the virtues of small government and free enterprise once you’ve benefitted from a massive, government-sponsored redistribution of wealth is a bit like cheating your way through the first half of a basketball game, and then—with your unfair lead firmly in hand—insisting that the second half be a healthy competition governed by strict principles of fair play. This is the epitome of injustice; and it is precisely that air of entitlement that has invited the left’s most strident criticisms.

Self-appointed spokesmen of the white evangelical church have no one to thank but themselves for the fragmentation of our political community. Instead of calling God’s people to do justice, they have been among the most reliable patrons of injustice.

Good people, this is what the Bible is about. Absent God’s grace made manifest among us, injustice will destroy our civilization from the inside. America doesn’t need law and order. America needs citizens who will put the interest of justice above their own selfish preferences.

“But Scott,” you may say, “aren’t you just being ‘woke’?” I guess that depends on how “woke” you think God is. Here’s God, speaking through the prophet Micah (2:1–2):

 “Woe to those who devise iniquity… Because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and take them by violence, also houses, and seize them. So they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.”

That’s a divine invocation of exquisite suffering on those who maintain a social order that deprives families of the intergenerational wealth afforded by real property.

And here’s what God says to the woke-truthers of Micah’s day, who think their religion will save them from the reckoning (3:5–12):

“Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who make my people stray; who chant ‘Peace’ while they chew with their teeth, but who prepare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths… Yet they lean on the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord among us? No harm can come upon us’. Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the mountain of the temple like the bare hills of a forest.”

It’s as if God is telling us that if we don’t do justice, some vandalism might happen—not because God condones that sort of thing, but because it’s a natural and logical consequence of an unjust social order. So don’t wink at injustice and then pray for peace.


I don’t know why these woke-truthers have suddenly decided to talk about justice. If I had to guess, I’d say they finally realized that there’s no future for them in nipping at Beth Moore’s heels and shaming the working wives and mothers who pay their seminary salaries. So they looked around for a new controversy to exploit, and “social justice” is where they landed. That’s my guess. But what I know is that these men follow a troubling pattern: bombast, followed by manipulation, followed by bullying. They begin with bold assertions that are predicated, as best I can tell, on nothing more than their own uncultivated intuitions. (Invariably, these pronouncements are attended by lurid adverbial phrases, but never any suggestion of an actual argument.) When others disagree, these men attempt to manipulate Scripture or doctrine to suit their rhetorical goals. And finally, they declare that anyone who refuses to accept their account of Scripture or doctrine is a false teacher and must therefore be excluded from the group.

I can’t imagine this is the sort of conduct that should be held up to seminarians as a model for pastoral care: take a firm position on something you haven’t really studied; when people disagree, tell them the Bible says so; and if they still disagree, show them the door.

No good is served when ambitious theologians speak with unearned confidence about technical matters that they haven’t studied in any disciplined way; and it is harmful when they then attempt to shoehorn their views into Scripture and present their convictions as the Word of God. If these men want to give lectures on political philosophy, I suggest they host a dinner party for likeminded friends. Or perhaps they might start a book club. These are fora in which it is appropriate for amateurs to discuss their passions. It is unbecoming of an academic to hold himself out as an expert on subjects that are far afield from his training. Beyond that, it is toxic for theologians in particular to hide extra-Biblical agendas in their presentation of Scripture.

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.

“Black Lives Matter” v. “All Lives Matter”

Imagine you’re in a movie theater somewhere in Nebraska.

In the middle of the movie, your phone rings. You answer your phone and proceed to have a conversation at full volume. After about a minute, the guy behind you taps you on the shoulder and says, “Dude, we’re in a movie theater.”

You could respond in any number of ways. You might say, “No, we’re in Nebraska.” But this response isn’t appropriate. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would offer this as a serious retort. For one thing, it’s possible to be both in a movie theater and in Nebraska (as you in fact are). So it’s not much of a rebuttal. For another, your fellow movie-goer has stated something obvious to you-namely that you are in a movie theater-because your conduct is that of a person who doesn’t recognize this fact or simply doesn’t care.

We state the obvious when someone’s actions are inconsistent with their having recognized the truth in question. “Dude, we’re in a movie theater” means “Dude, we’re in a movie theater: you should act like it.” Philosophers of language call this ‘conversational implicature’, which is just a fancy term for basic subtexts that competent language users naturally infer under normal circumstances. Under normal circumstances, when someone points out the obvious to us, we infer that we are doing something that suggests we are unaware of the obvious fact that has just been brought to our attention.

When we say, “Black lives matter,” there’s some conversational implicature at work. We live in a society that routinely functions in ways inconsistent with our having recognized that, among all lives, the lives of Black people matter. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we mean, “Black lives matter,” and you should act like it. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we are saying that institutions in our society do not function in a way that is consistent with the recognition that Black lives, specifically, matter:

When Eric Garner is suffocated to death in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it. When Freddie Gray dies of injuries sustained in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Trayvon Martin is gunned down while walking through a neighborhood and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Elijah McClain dies after being choked by police officers and injected with ketamine, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Ahmaud Arbery is gunned down in broad daylight, on video, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When Breonna Taylor is shot 5 times in her own apartment by the police and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

When George Floyd suffocates to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.

So when, as a competent language user, you respond by saying “all lives matter,” one of two things must be the case. Either you’re not fully aware of how our public institutions treat Black citizens; or you are aware, and you’re okay with it–in which case, you are a racist.

the SBC’s new culture warriors

A plucky band of Culture Warriors is calling for another Conservative Resurgence in the SBC.

For several months leading up to the 2019 SBC convention, FoundersMin has been raising awareness about a spiritual predator—a wolf in sheep’s clothing, lurking behind SBC pulpits. Scores of men in the SBC have attended church gatherings in which they consented to sit under the teaching of woman Beth Moore. The response from several SBC leaders has been swift, decisive and proportional to the gravity of the threat. On May 31st, for example, the President of Southern Seminary tweeted that:

We have reached a critical moment in the Southern Baptist Convention when there are now open calls to retreat from our biblical convictions on complementarianism and embrace the very error that the SBC repudiated over 30 years ago. Honestly, I never thought I would see this day.

The gravamen of their complaint is this: the SBC has retreated from its commitment to complementarianism, and this retreat has been hastened by an erosion of our collective faith in the inerrancy of Scripture—a faith that was hard won in the heady days of the Conservative Resurgence over 30 years ago.

As it happens, I have a personal connection to the Conservative Resurgence. And I think these folks may be misremembering. 

The Conservative Resurgence 

(For those unfamiliar with the term, the “Conservative Resurgence” refers to a concerted effort by conservative Southern Baptists to take control of the SBC’s six major seminaries, beginning in the 1970s.)

My grandfather, Bob Crowley, was on the Board of Trustees at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1985-95. The Baptist Press summarizes my grandfather’s service at Southeastern here.

Long regarded as the most liberal SBC seminary, Southeastern was basically untouched by the Resurgence until the mid-1980s. The Resurgence gained traction at SEBTS beginning in 1986, when a small contingent of conservative students met with an SBC committee to discuss incidents involving seventeen faculty members.[1] The committee found that roughly 50% of the faculty at Southeastern supported the ordination of women, rejected the doctrine of inerrancy or objected to the SBC’s position on homosexuality.

In 1987, when Southeastern’s Board of Trustees reached a tipping point in favor of conservatism, rapid changes ensued. In October of 1987, my grandfather was elected chairman of the Board. The following spring, the President and Provost resigned in protest over policy changes designed by the Board to block hiring and promotion of faculty who denied the inerrancy of Scripture. Most of the administration followed that summer. By the fall of 1988, enrollment had dropped from 1,246 to a record low of 803; and five of Southeastern’s thirty-five faculty members had resigned.[2]

Here’s the headline. At one time, a lot of SBC seminary professors openly denied the inerrancy of Scripture and supported the ordination of women to serve as pastors in the local church. In 2019, not a single SBC seminary professor does this and keeps his job.

Tom Ascol commending the work of Owen Strachan via Twitter
Owen Strachan invoking the Conservative Resurgence on Facebook (note that one of the issues confronted during the Resurgence was the ordination of women as pastors)

The Culture Warriors  

With sights fixed on Beth Moore, in podcast interviews, blog posts, Twitter feeds, live-streamed conferences and genre-bending short films, at least a dozen individuals associated with FoundersMin have rehearsed the following complementarian line. “In the book of I Timothy et al., Scripture explicitly forbids women from teaching before an audience that includes men. Therefore, women who teach men and all who allow women to teach men are not only in error, they deny the inerrancy of Scripture.”

Let that line of reasoning sink in: Whatever you think you believe about inerrancy, if you don’t agree with the FoundersMin apostolate in every interpretive detail, then you reject the inerrancy of Scripture. Astonishing, is it not?

For whatever it’s worth, I will here invoke the memory of my late grandfather. I don’t think I ever heard him use the word ‘complementarianism’. I’m certain that whenever he and Grandmother were forced to make a joint decision on which they couldn’t reach an agreement, my grandmother deferred to the judgment of her husband. I’m equally certain that on those occasions, my grandfather viewed the need for such deference as a failure of his own leadership. I suppose that arrangement counts as a version of complementarianism. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a point of pride. 

Be that as it may, in word and in deed, my grandfather categorically rejected the views now being promulgated by Owen Strachan, Tom Buck, Phil Johnson, Tom Ascol, Jared Longshore, Josh Buice and the rest of the FoundersMin apostolate. And yet my grandfather regarded his fight for biblical inerrancy at Southeastern as one of the most important undertakings of his 45 year career as a Southern Baptist minister.

Make of that anecdote what you will. Now let’s reason together.

Inerrancy and Impertinence 

The belief that Scripture is inerrant doesn’t arise in a vacuum.[3] We believe that Scripture is inerrant because we believe that Scripture is inspired by God. So when the apostles of FoundersMin say that anyone who rejects their interpretation of Scripture thereby rejects the inerrancy of Scripture, they’re presenting a dilemma: either you agree with their interpretation of Scripture, or you reject God’s authorship of Scripture.

But this is a false dilemma. There’s a third option, which their presentation of the issue obscures: it’s possible to agree that Scripture is God’s Word, while disagreeing about how to interpret that Word.

You and I can agree that Herman Melville is the author of Moby-Dick, even if we disagree about how to interpret Ahab’s obsession. We can agree that John Milton wrote Paradise Lost even if we don’t agree on whether the narrative depicts creation ex nihilo or ex prima materia. And fellow believers who are committed to the inerrancy of Scripture can disagree about the role that Scripture assigns to women. In short, interpretive disagreement doesn’t imply a denial of God’s authorship—i.e., inerrancy.

The FoundersMin apostolate refuses to countenance this third option; and many Southern Baptists refuse to accept their refusal. So we find ourselves at an impasse.

As a denomination, we have rules for settling disagreements of this kind. These rules are found in The Baptist Faith & Message, which is a detailed statement on matters of broad doctrinal agreement within our Convention—including matters of agreement around what is and is not clearly mandated by God’s Word. The most recent iteration of this document is The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.

Article I of The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message states that Scripture is inerrant. With that assumption in place, Article VI provides that:

Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, Article VI

Article XVII adds that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it” (my emphasis).

So, according to the Southern Baptists who ratified The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, God’s inerrant Word reserves the office of pastor for men.[4] And beyond that, eligible interpretations of God’s inerrant Word are broad enough to allow local churches, comprised of individuals whose consciences are governed by God alone, the autonomy to discern God’s will concerning whether and under what circumstances women will be permitted to teach in their midst.

In other words, according to The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, the apostles of FoundersMin are mistaken. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be Southern Baptists; it just means that their overweening confidence in the rightness of their own views on complementarianism is inconsistent with Southern Baptist doctrine.

Perhaps the FoundersMin folks would feel more at home in a denomination with a robust hierarchy. But joining another denomination would require them to submit to someone else’s authority; and they don’t seem to appreciate supervision when it’s directed their way. And they’d prefer not to start their own denomination from scratch. (Too much work.) The SBC already has infrastructure and a mass of loyal congregants—and it just happens to have a power vacuum at the top, waiting to be exploited. So the FoundersMin apostolate has decided to hijack the SBC.

Tom Buck celebrating his gift of prophecy, albeit of the self-fulfilling variety.

And that, I strongly suspect, is why they’ve decided to pick a public fight with Beth Moore. I’m sure that they really don’t like what she’s doing, and they really do believe the complementarian line that they’ve been peddling all over the internet. But this is just part of their much broader attack on what they call “the threat of Social Justice.” These guys aren’t just committed to a very particular brand of conservative Reformed theology. They are cultural conservatives, and they think the rest of the SBC should be, too.

Conservatism and conservatism

This fight isn’t really about a new resurgence. It’s about the Conservative Resurgence that happened 30 years ago and what the enduring legacy of that Resurgence is going to be.

At some point, we need to reckon with the fact that the Conservatism of the Conservative Resurgence was part theological and part cultural. There’s an important difference. The question that Southern Baptists need to confront—especially Southern Baptists born before 1970 or so—is whether the SBC is going to go along with the FoundersMin effort to conflate theological and cultural Conservatism.

Don’t misunderstand. We should keep whatever elements of cultural Conservatism are strictly implied by theological Conservatism—e.g., the defense of life in all of its forms. But a lot of cultural Conservatism is either unrelated or antithetic to theological Conservatism. (I address specific examples in my open letter, here, and elsewhere on my blog.)

My generation is done with those aspects of the Southern Baptist tradition. So you all can try to salvage pieces of the Conservative Resurgence that never should have been there in the first place, just so FoundersMin-types can play Culture Warrior and pontificate about keeping women in their place and the dangers of social justice. In that case, you will continue to preside over a dying denomination. Or you can shepherd my generation in our efforts to confront the social infirmities that God has called us to address.

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


[1] Webb, Robert K., and Leslie H. Peek. “Academic Freedom and Tenure at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (North Carolina).” Academe (May-June 1989): 35.

[2] Ibid., 36-37.

[3] As presuppositionalists, those associated with Founders are well aware of this fact.

[4] Relevant passages from I Timothy et al. are cited in support of Article VI.

open letter to the authors of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel

To the authors of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel:

I am a Christian, an academic and a millennial. I hold a Ph.D. in philosophy and a master’s degree in theology; and I teach ethics, political philosophy and history of philosophy at a liberal arts college on the East Coast. I mention my training and my occupation simply to say, in the spirit of I Timothy 4:12, that I have done my homework.

The purpose of my letter is this. Your Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel purports to clarify the relationship between “social justice” and the Gospel; and I feel compelled to tell you, publicly, that it does nothing of the sort.

I should begin by expressing my sincere hope that your Statement was not crafted for the benefit of my generation. In the main, we have rejected your easy gospel. That’s why we are leaving your church—not the Church, just your church. I hasten to add that no attempts at clarification or explanation will stop the hemorrhaging. We know what you’re selling and we’re just not interested.

Despite its aspirations, your Statement is nothing new. The collective evangelical imagination has long suffered under the yoke of self-appointed spokesmen whose enthusiasm for politics goes unchecked by the limits of their own expertise. Nowhere is the vacuum of discernment more acute than in the field of institutional moral analysis: systemic injustice is invisible to those—like you—whose moral horizons are tethered to individual piety.

Believers of my generation are eager to embrace a vision of political life that comprehends the social infirmities we stand to inherit. We are not nostalgic for the culture wars of the 1970s and ‘80s. And we are weary of effortless civil religion that serves politicians rather than the poor. Defending orphans and widows is a sacred expression of corporate worship. We want to go to church.

With this in view, your Statement is problematic for several reasons. First, your Statement presents “social justice” as a grab-bag of diverse agendas—some of which are inconsistent with a straightforward reading of Scripture, and others that are not only consistent with but indeed mandated by Scripture. For example, in the addendum to Article 3, social justice is described as an aggregation of concerns over things like economic justice, climate change, abortion and LGBTQ rights. By forcing those who care about economic justice into the same political tent as those who support same-sex marriage, you force earnest believers to pit their understanding of God’s design for marriage against God’s command to make laws that give the poor their due. While this false dilemma is useful to politicians, it is unhelpful to the Church.

Second, Article 3 of your Statement affirms that God requires us to give to every person “…what he or she is due,” and that we “…must establish laws to correct injustices that have been imposed through cultural prejudice.” This insight is to be commended. But it is incommensurate with your opposition to public policies that would soften the echoes of past injustice. So either you misrepresent your beliefs about the importance of correcting historical injustice, or you are ignorant of the economic disadvantages that reverberate in the lives of those whose grandparents were unjustly denied access to the instruments of financial capital. And we don’t need Marx or critical theory to discern the wickedness of laws that permit predatory lending to those whose parents and grandparents were effectively barred from amassing and transferring what would have been their inheritance. The fear of God is sufficient.

Third, the addendum to Article 3 claims that justice as described in the Bible has nothing to do with economic justice. This is patently false. (See the Old Testament. Also see the New Testament, especially where Christ quotes the Old Testament. Marty Duren offers a detailed treatment here.)

Fourth, throughout your Statement, the pursuit of economic justice is carelessly equated with Marxism, communism and the view that all wealth should be evenly distributed. This carelessness is indefensible. And insofar as it engenders baseless anxieties about communism that encourage God’s people to abandon the cause of the poor, it is wicked.

Finally, the overall tone of your Statement is a source of concern. The Gospel is not furthered when ambitious ministers, by virtue of nothing other than their status as ministers, speak with unearned confidence about technical matters that they have not studied in any disciplined way.

My generation stands to inherit problems of unprecedented complexity and scale. In practical matters of grave importance, the believers of my generation need guidance that is thoughtful and well-informed. If you are unprepared to offer such guidance, you would do well to take your own advice and restrict your remarks to the Gospel.

Best regards,

Scott M. Coley, Ph.D.

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

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.