A Different Kind of Social Justice (or African Theology)

In today’s class on religion in the U.S., students and I discussed Mary Beth Swetnam Matthews’ book Doctrine and Race. Aside from lots of evidence of how pervasive racism was among the leaders of the fundamentalist movement (William Bell Riley, John Roach Straton, and J. Frank Norris — no mention of Machen), Matthews’ book is very illuminating about how conservative and conventional African-American Baptists and Methodists were. Consider the following:

Those loose morals had many causes, including dances, movies, and gambling, all of which shared a common denominator — they were usually performed outside of churches and thus away from the moral guidance of pastors, elders, and other God-fearing people…. “What is the danger of these [non-church activities]?” Baptist J. C. Austin asked the assembled National Sunday School and Baptist Young Peoples Union Congress in Dayton, Ohio, in 1935. His response was simple: “It is cheating, lying, gambling, a loss of temper, a waste of time, being eaten up with a seal for [worldly pastimes], and the disposition to fight and murder about them. (100)

[W. J. Walls} carefully noted that “we do not hold that dancing itself sends anybody’s soul to hell, but we do know from all observation (for we have never danced), that it is one of the contributing causes to the weakness of the race, the dissipation of religious influence, and therefore the downfall of character. . . We must preach a whole gospel for the salvation of the individual: — body, mind, and soul. There is no perfect character that is not built upon this basis.” (104)

[According to Cameron C. Alleyne] divorces “rob so many children of complete parent bond. Something must be balanced in this parenthood. The mother is given to pampering. It is hers to comfort the child with tender words. The father is given to the sterner qualities of discipline now”. . . Divorce mean “substituting calories for character and vitamins for virtue,” with women supplying the calories and vitamins and men the character and virtue. (108)

[William H. Davenport wrote] “nowhere in Holy Writ is there a hint or suggestion about birth control, or regulating the size of families.” For him, the doctrine of sola scriptura had primacy. argued that to “put the imprimatur of the Church upon the immoral practice of arresting the orderly process of nature is hostile to Christian doctrine, and subversive of the welfare of society”(110)

The lesson: some social gospels are more social than others.

4 thoughts on “A Different Kind of Social Justice (or African Theology)

  1. It seems that, for some, sola scriptura has a more specific meaning. That only that which is literally mentioned or could be imitated in the Scriptures can be preached on. Well, social justice was preached on quite a bit in the OT and a bit in the NT. So why has preaching Social Justice been constantly attacked and not included as being a part of preaching the ‘whole gospel’ for the individual? For just as we should preach against sexual immorality as part of the whole Gospel, shouldn’t we preach against violating any of the implications of loving one’s neighbor whether those violations are performed by an individual or any group the individual belongs to be preached against too?

    Also, how many times have pastors, elders, and other God-fearing people been involved in group sins like racism? Recent resolutions from the SBC and PCA along with the racism of Machen indicate that the answer is far too many times. In addition, that racism is just an example that shows how vulnerable we all are to participating in the sins of the groups we belong to.

    Finally, if one wants to possess the perfect character, one should not expect to obtain that character while living on earth regardless of what they depend on. For if the perfect character causes one to become like the Pharisee from the parable of the two men praying, then seeking the perfect character self-sabotages one’s own relationship with God. The perfect character can only be achieved by God’s preservation of those with imperfect characters who are saved by faith alone.


  2. “For just as we should preach against sexual immorality as part of the whole Gospel, shouldn’t we preach against violating any of the implications of loving one’s neighbor whether those violations are performed by an individual or any group the individual belongs to be preached against too?”

    Curt, the whole gospel doesn’t include any law, be it personal or social. That’s the irony of the very term social gospel–it usually means something about law and doing better.

    PS funny how Catholic Davenport sounds. Also funny how moralism gets confused with conservatism.


  3. Bishop Rudolph McKissick, Jr.—“Social justice is a biblical issue…it’s not a black issue, it’s a humanity issue. It’s not a hood issue, it’s a global issue. And until we understand that Jesus himself said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach liberty to the captive, to set free those who are oppressed.” If that ain’t social justice, I don’t know what is.”

    Reformation 21—-“The glad tidings of God (gospel) involve the glorious mystery of God’s mercy and saving grace that is granted to fallen sinners through the blood sacrifice of Jesus….Jesus proved his sovereign power by the resurrection and WE cling to his work alone by faith for the remission of sin. His unconditional grace is granted to all who believe–

    if you were to add to this fundamentalist gospel some confessional stuff about God’s justification of the ungodly or God’s election having already decided that only the sins of the elect are impuited to Christ, that would be adding to the gospel?

    “Living right according to God’s law to gain assurance of justification and to enter into possession of the future aspect of justification” is not heresy but saying what God’s law commands is “adding to the gospel”?

    “Obedience boys” should not be ashamed about being still ignorant or dirsegarding the righteousness revealed in the gospel, but if these black folks today disagree with us about what God’s law says about “socialism” , then just maybe those others have inserted law into the gospel.

    Since when are “obedience boys” Lutherans?

    What church denomination added this statement to the gospel?



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