We saw some of the most prominent displays of overt racism in recent years last month when a “Unite the Right” rally, organized to protest the removal of Confederate monuments, brought hundreds of white supremacists to Charlottesville, Virginia. What began on the night of Friday, August 11 as a tiki torch-lit march by a throng of angry White men ended the following day in bloodshed and a near-lynching when members of the racist alt-right and the KKK, neo-Nazis and other far-right extremist groups in the rally clashed with counter-protesters, as captured in photos and on video.
WATCH: Man fired at another person in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. We handed ???? to LE agencies. The man has been arrested & charged w a crime. pic.twitter.com/0vrXq4zNC0
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) August 26, 2017
A lot of us were rightly horrified when we then heard the 45th President of the United States fail to specifically condemn the white supremacist-fueled violence that had been displayed. Finally, after two days—due to him “wanting to know all of the facts”—Trump gave a brief comment on the “Unite the Right” organizers and participants.
However, it only took one more day for him to then once again equivocate the “Unite the Right” hate groups with counter-protesters who had demonstrated against the rally’s racism. Trump used the classic “whataboutism” that is not foreign to anyone with a child who routinely gets into some type of trouble and has a sibling to help take the blame.
Trump asked “what about the alt-left” (which is not an official group). He equivocated both groups protesting, and finally said that not all who were protesting in Charlottesville that weekend were neo-Nazis and some were indeed “fine people.”
What Trump displayed was a classic deflection move meant to avoid an actual question. Instead of condemning the hate groups, Trump asked “what about the alt-left?”
However, the baptized version of this often happens in the church and especially among a lot of us who participate in the Reformed tradition to some degree. When discussing subjects ranging from lament and political involvement to the arts and social justice, there is often a pushback at some point in which someone will ask: “Well this sounds OK but what about the gospel?”
For those in lament the question is used as a weapon against one’s true grief and frustration. For those called into artistic giftings the “what about the gospel” question suggests one’s work does not adequately discuss the Christian message. When someone asks this particular question it is usually wielded as a dangerous weapon to shut people up who are pushing for social change and justice for the oppressed.
Here, I share four major reasons as to why “what about the gospel-isms” are not only distractions but can also be dangerous.
I. An Individual’s Salvation Is Not the Entire Point of the Bible
Often when someone objects by giving a “what-about-the-gospel-ism” it is because they carry a framework of belief that says all Christian activity on this side of earth should be centered on getting people saved.
People tend to fall into a Genesis 1 or Genesis 3 framework of the Bible, according to Dr. Anthony Bradley. Depending on one’s starting point of the Bible, it will frame the way they see how a Christian’s life should look.
The Genesis 1 worldview says that all of life should boil down to certain religious activities like sharing our faith, prayer and reading the Bible. Meanwhile the Genesis 3 view argues that all of life falls under the redemptive activity of Christ. This would include politics, poverty, work, art, law and other arenas not typically thought of as consisting of “spiritual” work. I have written on this a bit more thoroughly here if you want it explained a bit more.
This type of simplistic understanding of the people of God’s ethics is not only incorrect, but in many cases dangerous. For example, In 1667 the Meeting of the Virginia Assembly established that “the conferring of baptism does not free slaves.” Enslaved Blacks who wanted to be baptized had to affirm that they were doing so “merely for the good of (their) soul.” Also consider, many have read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. but often have not read the letter from a group of clergymen that caused this response from Dr. King. Most Christians who say they view the world from this Genesis 1 framework do not treat social issues like abortion or homosexual marriage with the same method as they do issues related to racial justice.
II. Lament Is Not to Be Policed
In our culture there is a lack of lament as compared to many non-Western cultures. We often tend to avoid dealing with death and aging in a vain pursuit to “just get over it.” There is little difference in attitude in many of our evangelical churches. Soong-Chan Rah highlights this in his timely work, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times. Rah observes that although 40 percent of the Psalms speak of deep lament, only 13 percent of our modern contemporary songs have that same emphasis.
One of the reasons lament is not common in our churches is because when someone opens up about their situation they are given several objections. They are told they are “just complaining,” being angry or sounding hopeless and that such behavior is not godly. This ignores many of the cries from biblical figures in Lamentation, the Psalms and ultimately Jesus himself who claimed that he was forsaken by God while on the cross. Do these cries signify a lack of faith in God, or are they simply an honest reflection of reality in that moment while still clinging to hope in God?
III. It Is Often Not the Entire Gospel That Is Presented
When someone interjects with the “well what about the gospel” conversation-stopper he usually means one specific thing in regards to the gospel. What is meant is that some version of us all being sinners for whom Christ died and resurrected is the entire Christian message summed up.
While this is an incredibly important message that is indeed central to our entire faith, it is not the sum of all things. This version of the gospel ignores the future re-creation or restoration of all things upon Christ’s return. This limited version of the gospel often ignores the ethics that a person practices once they become a believer, ethics that are summed up by one’s love of God and neighbor.
This presentation of the gospel is not usually given as a solution, but used rather as a way to halt discussions of social issues. It is used to persuade people that all of our problems are reduced to sin and if Christ is the solution then we should just present him to solve it. However, this position is proven neither in the Bible nor in Church history.
For example, the apostle Peter was incredibly influential in the early rise of the Church and is one of the most important figures in the entire Bible. This very Peter in Acts 10 required a vision from God to correct his belief in the exclusion of non-Jewish people from God’s redemptive plan. Even then, Peter still had to be confronted by the apostle Paul, as recorded in Galatians 2, because he had chosen to separate himself from non-Jewish believers. Peter knew the gospel clearer than most of us would ever hope to know it, yet Paul still had to show him that his “conduct was not in line with the gospel.” Although Peter was a believer there still remained elements of sin and prejudice in him that needed addressing.
Historically, the approach that separates individual piety from social action is one that was used by churches in the 1700s to keep slavery intact. It was said that God would address the social issues and even if a slave was baptized they were to still be owned. This approach was used by the same churches in the 1800s that relegated social change to be a distraction. The same attitude was present during Jim Crow, lynching, and segregation in the 1900s as pastors gathered to tell Martin Luther King Jr. to simply wait for the courts to do its work. This approach is being used now to discredit the aims of church members with a vision for justice who are accused of following a “social gospel” or being divisive. This dualistic approach to spirituality is not only dangerous but historically close to heretical.
IV. It Is Borderline Gnosticism
This division of flesh-and-bone issues mattering less to a believer than the “soul” issues is something that has gone on many times within the church. Gnosticism was the most powerful heresy to come against the early church. Historian and theologian Justo Gonzalez writes in The Story of Christianity Vol.1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation of their belief:
“Salvation was the main concern of the Gnostics. They concluded that all matter is evil, or at best unreal. A human being is in reality an eternal spirit that somehow has been imprisoned in a body. Since the body is a prison to the spirit, and since it misguides us as to our true nature, it is evil. Therefore the Gnostics’ final goal was to escape from the body and this material world in which we are exiled. The world is not our true home but rather an obstacle to the salvation of the Spirit.”
Now read that slowly and imagine it being preached at your typical evangelical church right after “I’ll Fly Away” comes out of the speakers. Does this description not sound eerily familiar? This de-emphasis on creation which God calls good is something that has both temporal and eternal consequences. In this worldview the only way to be freed from this imprisonment is that a messenger would come with secret knowledge, or gnosis, to liberate them from lower levels of truth to higher levels. Replace a few words with “gospel” and “flesh” and we have ourselves the modern versions of an old heretical point of view.
This idea of trickle-down sanctification, whether personally in our lives or publically in pursuing justice, is harmful. There are many clear indicators in Scripture from which we are told to not merely believe better but to believe correctly. It is similar to these gnostic beliefs in that adherents believed certain “secret” forms of knowledge they obtained would free them from the bondage of the body. Often now, (well-meaning Christians) many insist that if certain ideas from the gospel were just believed then all would be made right. The effect of this teaching leads to a de-emphasis on creation which leads to a “just preach the gospel” mindset that avoids all things affecting this world, including politics, art, media, work and much more.
It is a privilege afforded to those who are well-off to silence those who are not by telling them that pursuing justice in the public square is a distraction from the “real work” of the gospel. The true work of the gospel affects every sphere of our lives from salvation to vocation, from prayer to the public square and from salvation to serving our communities’ needs. When we limit the gospel to our personal lives divorced from public activity it is a partial gospel that does not display the grand work of God in all areas of human existence that, according to Colossians, reconciles “all things, whether on earth or in heaven.”
Kevin Garcia leads Spiritual Formation and helps teach at Lifepoint Church in Dallas, Texas. Kevin holds a B.A. in Church Leadership and is pursuing his M.A. in Ethics, Theology and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His passions are in theology, writing, justice, apologetics and how discipleship intersects all areas of life, particularly the public square. He also writes for Gospel Centered Discipleship and co-hosts The SupaTeam sports podcast.