Shepherding Your Church Biblically: A Critique of SEBTS on Racial Injustice
Originally published on June 19, 2020
Recently Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) released a video on “How to Shepherd Your Church through Issues of Racial Injustice” from their Center for Preaching and Pastoral Leadership. Four professors (Ronjour Locke, William Branch, Walter Strickland, and Clint Darst) engage this question in order to instruct churches and help pastors think rightly and helpfully about racial injustice in our world today. They spend the majority of their time talking about the rioting and looting that have ravaged cities across our nation since the death of George Floyd.
When I originally watched the video I was disappointed in the lack of biblical, moral reasoning the professors’ displayed. I expressed my concern by commenting on a clip of the presentation that was posted on social media. I wrote, “This is an alarming display of seriously flawed moral reasoning. It is even more so considering that these are seminary professors.”
My comment provoked disapproving responses including one from a fellow pastor who agreed to talk with me about our disagreements over the SEBTS presentation. That conversation was brotherly and helpful. It led me to rewatch the video specifically to see if I had misunderstood or was too critical.
The second viewing left me even more concerned. These four professors—all of whom I have no reason to doubt are godly, faithful men who love the Lord and want to honor Him—gave very bad counsel to pastors and churches. What they said was therapeutic and in step with the Critical Theory infected zeitgeist of our day, but it was mostly void of any biblical counsel.
I do not say that lightly nor do I take any pleasure in doing so. My evaluation is not of the men, but of their words. Anyone can go listen and watch to determine if I am being dishonest or unfair in my critique.
Here are some of my main concerns:
Around the 19-minute mark Dr. Walter Strickland admonishes pastors not to get lost on what the rioters are doing, but rather to focus on “the why.” Because that will show “the wound that the church can engage with a balm that can heal.” He continues, “Throwing a brick through a window can never heal their hurt, but we know someone who can.”
This is the closest the professors came to bringing the gospel into the counsel they gave to pastors and churches. Note: I am not saying that these men don’t believe the gospel. I am saying that they did not use or even explicitly state the gospel in their counsel to churches regarding the ethical issue of racial injustice.
Compare this to the way that the Apostles address ethical issues.
When Paul instructs the church at Ephesus how to deal with issues of sexual immorality he doesn’t attempt to do so apart from the gospel. Rather, he writes, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:1-3). He does not assume the gospel, rather he anchors his counsel and admonitions in it.
What about marriage? Beyond the familiar Ephesians 5:22-33 (which teaches that marriage exists because of the gospel), consider also 1 Peter 3:1-7, where instructions to both wives and husbands are prefaced by “likewise,” pointing back the example of Christ as he provided atonement for our sins as stated in 2:21-25.
I could go on and talk about raising children (Ephesians 6:1-4), dishonesty, anger, stealing, immoral speech, bitterness, slander, or malice (Ephesians 4:17-32), all of which are addressed on the basis of the gospel. The Apostles knew nothing of trying to shepherd churches through ethical issues without grounding the counsel in what God has done for sinners in Christ. Anything less is sub-Christian counsel and in danger of becoming mere moralism or therapeutic Deism.
Not only do the four professors fail to connect God’s gospel to the need for churches to think biblically about racial injustice, they also fail to show how God’s law applies. When referring to the rioting, looting, and mayhem that have marked the month of June, the professors do acknowledge that such activity is bad, wrong, not wise, and even sinful. But the emphasis of their instruction is to show how the actions of the anarchists are “understandable.”
At around the 23-minute mark we are told to take this approach to the rioters: “We are not judging you on whether it [that is, the rioting, looting, etc.] is right or wise, we are saying that it is symptomatic of something. We are affirming that this is wrong and it doesn’t achieve. [sic]” We should not want to “demonize and vilify them like, they’re just doing this for nothing. Again people don’t respond like this all the time.”
Sin is transgression of God’s law. What the rioters are doing is lawless. They are stealing, breaking the eighth commandment; beating and even murdering, breaking the sixth commandment; rejecting God-ordained authority, violating the fifth commandment. I could go on but let me simply summarize by stating plainly that they are shattering the first commandment by rebelling against their Creator with impunity. They are sinning, which means they need to repent or they will go to hell. If you really want to help someone, if you really love them, won’t you tell them the truth about their need of the Savior, which necessitates helping them understand the reality and nature of their sin?
No doubt many of the rioters are angry and hurt and feel disenfranchised, mistreated, and even abused. But trying to understand the reason that people sin should never be emphasized to the point that recognizing and clearly stating the reality and nature of their sin is muted. Still, if we want to address the “why” question, we turn to the Word of the God who sees every human heart. Only God has the ability to tell us the “why” that motivates the “what.”
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel (James 4:1-2).
Mark 7:20-22 is another place where God explains what’s behind the lawless actions of people.
I find the moral reasoning of these four professors to be flawed for two primary reasons. First, there is nothing distinctively Christian about it. A Mormon, Muslim, or Jehovah’s Witness could have made the same points with equal sensitivity and expressed compassion. Secondly, this moral reasoning would never pass muster with these four men if applied to other, less politically correct cases. A simple thought experiment makes this plain.
Imagine Southeastern Seminary released a video of professors speaking on “How to Shepherd Your Church through Police Brutality.” Then imagine if the same moral reasoning we are being asked to use with the rioters was employed with statements like this, “We shouldn’t get lost on what the abusive police officers are doing, but rather to focus on ‘the why.’ Because that will show the wound that the church can engage with a balm that can heal.”
Try the same experiment by plugging in “sexual abusers” for “rioters,” or “drug pushers,” or “sex traffickers,” or…. You get my point? It is flawed moral reasoning.
Perhaps the reason these brothers went astray is due to their uncritical adoption of unbiblical premise. At around the 19-minute mark Dr. Strickland invokes the Martin Luther King, Jr. observation that rioting is the voice of the unheard (the exact same premise is problematically used in this NAMB video on the same subject). That is a provocative thought. But is it biblical? It is at best a tenuous explanation. Even if it is granted, it does not warrant ignoring what the Bible says about riotous activity. Even the town clerk in Ephesus understood the lawlessness of rioting and condemned it (Acts 19:40).
Proverbs 6:30 acknowledges that the motivation behind a crime can sometimes mitigate our attitude toward the criminal. “People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry.” The person who steals food because he is starving rightly evokes more sympathy than the person who steals a fifty-inch flat-screen television because Target has been turned into a looter’s paradise. However, verse 31 goes on to say, “but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold; he will give all the goods of his house.” Why? Because he is still guilty. He has broken God’s law.
The foundation on which you build your ethical thinking matters. Christians should be wary of pious sounding aphorisms that do not square with Scripture. So, if some respected person begins to say that brutality is the voice of fearful law enforcement officers, we must not take that as a truism as the sole or even primary reason that explains why lawless officers abuse their authority to harm and kill people. Such reasoning will lead to moral anarchy and keep people from the only source of hope and help that is available.
Christians must constantly remind themselves that we have a Book. The God who created this world has spoken to those of us who live in it. He has revealed his law and calls everyone to obey it, invoking the penalty of eternal death for those who refuse or fail. Our failure—which includes every human being—is the very occasion of God sending His Son, the Lord Jesus, into the world. He came to save lawbreakers. We are all guilty before Him and our only hope is to be rescued from our just condemnation by the obedient life and sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus.
Christ indeed is the “balm that can heal.” We do not help others when we set aside the “what,” by unjustly ignoring specific transgressions against God’s law in an attempt to sympathize with sinners, as if knowing why they sin mitigates their guilt before God. Christ came to heal us from our sin and rebellion against God by taking our place under the righteous wrath of God poured out on sin. All who turn from sin and trust in Him will find Him to be full of grace and mercy. Through faith in Him God justifies ungodly people.
I have no doubt that these four professors believe this. But they failed rather obviously in articulating it in their counsel to churches on how to deal with issues of racial injustice. They said some good things and I am sure they meant well. But their effort was a swing and a miss.
We cannot afford to forget God’s law nor to assume His gospel. In the insanity that is ramping up all around us today this is increasingly important. If pastors are going to shepherd churches well through dealing with the cultural and moral challenges of the day, we must be governed in our thinking by the written Word of God. Anything less is a dereliction of duty.