Rejection is Not a Rebuttal: A Final Reply to Thabiti Anyabwile

Rejection is Not a Rebuttal: A Final Reply to Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile wrote an article (his fourth in a series on “social justice”) that engaged a brief talk I gave on ideological challenges facing evangelicals. He titled his critique, “Is There an Evangelical ‘Social Justice Movement’?” He answers this question with a resounding, “No.” I responded to his critique by both deepening and expanding the evidence that I quickly cited in my brief talk. Thabiti has offered a pointed “Final Reply” to my response, which brings us to my own final response. As a fellow pastor I appreciate and concur with his determination not to extend this exchange further.

It might be helpful to start with some things on which Thabiti and I agree. There are far more of these than I will list but I want to stay focused on the issues at hand, so allow me to forgo mentioning everything that goes with being inerrantist, Calvinistic, evangelistic Christians and to offer the following.

  1. We agree on the wickedness of racism and all sinful partiality.
  2. We agree that the United States has a history of systemically and violently promoting racism.
  3. We agree that faithful Christian pastors are obligated to stand against any threat to the church from worldly ideologies that are inimical to the Christian faith.

I also agree with what he said seven years ago when he wrote,

A lot of evangelical “social justice” looks & sounds like “liberal/progressive” social justice—w/o the reflection & experience.”

Our main point of disagreement, as he stated in his last post, is whether such a threat currently exists. Thabiti believes that there is no legitimate basis for my concerns—that the evidence I cite is at best unconvincing and at worst nothing more than “libel and slander.” He asks and answers three questions of the claims I have offered in order to justify his dismissal of the concerns I have raised.

So let me respond to Thabiti’s evaluation of my examples and arguments.

Is it true?

Thabiti starts his evaluation with my citation of Ekemini Uwan’s comments at the 2019 Sparrow Conference. He reiterates his support of her comments (and links them with the statements of Anthony Bradley that I quoted) and gives two reasons that her comments do not support my concern that godless ideologies are influencing evangelicals.

First, after conceding that her comments “have much in common with the fields of whiteness studies and CRT,” he links her view to Frederick Douglass and asserts that it “is rooted much more firmly in the Black Sojourn in the United States than errant academic disciplines.” If that is true then why didn’t she point people to such sources when asked for recommendations of what they should read? Instead of Douglass, she cites four books, including Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which is steeped in CRT.

For more evidence of the embrace of CRT by Uwan, simply listen to the Truth’s Table podcast where she discusses “Gender Apartheid” with Tyler Burns, Jemar Tisby, Michelle Higgins, & Christina Edmondson. Among other colorful comments, Uwan claims early in the conversation that “gender is a social construct” and agrees that the relationship between men and women in the church is one of “power dynamics.” I haven’t read much Frederick Douglass, but I don’t recall him ever using such language. But I have seen these designations repeatedly in post-modern, Critical Theory readings.

Thus, I find Thabiti’s first reason to reject my use of Uwan’s comments without merit.

The second reason is similarly unconvincing: “Her statement was and is true.” The statement to which he refers is the one which I quoted from her 2019 Sparrow Women interview:

[T]he reality is that whiteness is rooted in plunder, in theft, in slavery, in enslavement of Africans, genocide of Native Americans, …. It’s a power structure, that is what whiteness is, and so that the thing for white women to do is you have to divest from whiteness.

This may be an “unpleasant,” “hard,” and “difficult-to-hear” truth, “But,” Thabiti asserts, “it is true nonetheless and we know it to be true simply by reading the laws of this land from the Constitution itself down through to the end of Jim Crow and the passage of suffrage laws for women and people of color. That whiteness is an ideology rooted in greed and power is a matter of historical and legal fact.”

A gratuitous assertion does not an argument make, so no, we don’t “know it to be true.” For a completely different take on “whiteness” as an ideology take time to listen to this careful explanation given by Darrell B. Harrison and Virgil Walker. They actually consider the literature and make arguments that debunk Uwan’s understanding of the term.

So, to borrow from Scottish jurisprudence, Thabiti’s second reason is at best, “not proven.”

Is it evidence?

Thabiti calls this “a critical point.” He is looking for rules of evidence by which we determine if information given supports arguments being made. If his question really is asking, “by what standard?”—then let me admit that I find it of utmost importance in the larger social justice debate. In evaluating evidence in this debate I think the normal rules of logic are appropriate.

So when Thabiti says that “The entire discussion is built on an inadequate evidentiary approach” and “We have a low bar that actually breaks the rules of evidence in most every field, and it proves too much,” I am left wondering where the evidence is for his assertion.

Is it impartial?

With this question Thabiti suggests that I would not be happy to be subjected to the same standards that I have applied to others. To prove his point he uses the example of Founders Ministries, an organization which I lead, and which takes its name from the fact that the same doctrines of grace which we espouse also comprised the theological consensus of the founders of the SBC—a point that we have made repeatedly since our inception in 1982. Of course, many of those same founders were slave owners, as were the founding faculty of the first SBC seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Such men, Thabiti notes, “are cited in books and sermons as heroes of the convention and evangelicalism.” After this set up, he makes his case:

Now, here’s the question: Are we to attribute all the beliefs and commitments of the founding leaders of the SBC and Southern Seminary to Tom as a leader of “Founders Ministries”? If a person expresses indebtedness to Boyce, Broadus, Manley, or Williams for their writing on some subject, are we to attribute to that person anything or everything we find repugnant in Boyce and company or their writings on that subject? I would answer an emphatic “No” to both questions.

And I would appreciate that answer and would expect any honest person, especially any Christian, to respond the same way. To do otherwise would be guilty of the “guilt by association fallacy” as recognized by anyone familiar with the laws of logic. It is after this point that Thabiti’s argument goes awry.

But Tom argues in his response that “it stands to reason that anyone who has been shaped by that book [referring to Critical Race Theory: An Introduction] and enthusiastically recommends it as a “necessary” book is doing so for reasons other than merely ‘illustrating the other side’s viewpoint.’” I suspect that applying that standard to Tom using the slaveholding founders he enthusiastically recommends and think necessary for an entire denomination would result in Tom crying, “Foul!” I think he would be right to do so without some compelling evidence beyond book recommendations and even beyond an admission that those founders had shaped his view in some way on some things [bold is added].

I trust that the charitable reader would not attribute one author’s beliefs and commitments in toto to someone who appreciates that author. I trust the charitable reader would not conclude that quoting these writers favorably in one area means the person doing the quoting would agree with these writers in every area or even agree with them on all they wrote on the topic quoted [bold is added].

Thabiti is comparing apples to oranges and trying to convince us that we are looking at the same fruit. Let me explain.

  1. Tom believes the soteriology that the founders of the SBC held (though I do not believe that the people themselves are currently “necessary” for the SBC).
  2. Many of those founders were brutal slaveholders.
  3. Therefore, Tom approves of chattel slavery.

That is a logical fallacy. It has nothing to do with my quoting of Jarvis Williams’ enthusiastic recommendation of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. Nor does Thabiti’s framing of that recommendation fit the facts. I do not see how any reasonable person can interpret Dr. Williams’ following recommendation as merely “illustrating the other side’s viewpoint” (Thabiti’s explanation in his original post). Let me cite Williams’ words again in full.

For Thabiti’s comparison to be fair he should make the scenarios equivalent. For example, suppose I were asked what books have most shaped my understanding of soteriology and I answered, “James P. Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology.” Then suppose I was asked what book I wish every evangelical Christian would read and why, and I answered, “Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology. A necessary book because evangelicals still tend to be theologically superficial.”

If you read my words and concluded that I was shaped by and wanted every Christian to agree with the theology of James Boyce as explained in his Abstract of Systematic Theology, I would not think you misjudged me at all. I would think that you read well, reason well, have taken me seriously, and judged me fairly. I certainly would not think you uncharitable. If you argued that I was only citing Boyce to “illustrate the other side’s viewpoint” because that’s what scholars [or in this case, pastors] do,” I would wonder how you could misconstrue such plain statements.

To put an even finer point on it, suppose I recommended a book in the very words used by Dr. Williams of Delgado’s book and suppose that book was an argument for the appropriateness of chattel slavery. You would be fully justified to charge me with advocating the appropriateness of slavery and would be disingenuous to reconstruct my meaning into a mere recommendation of a book that presents “the other side’s viewpoint.”

Conventional wisdom says put your money on a good lawyer with a poor case. But in this scenario, not even Thabiti’s skill can rehabilitate the plain sense of Dr. Williams’ words.

Of Trojan Horses and Blind Spots

I have on multiple occasions spoken of the social justice movement as a trojan horse that is being ushered into evangelical churches and institutions. Thabiti reminded me of that when I took exception to his characterization of my words as accusing Dr. Williams of “smuggling in CRT.” To be clear, I do believe CRT (along with Critical Theory and Intersectionality) are being smuggled into evangelical circles, but as I survey the battlefield, I am still not completely sure who’s doing the smuggling and who’s getting played. My charitable judgment has led me to hope that most evangelicals who seem to be caught up in this are more like the well-intentioned but deceived Trojan King Priam than the beguiling Greek strategist, Odysseus.

That may be cold comfort to the people whose writings and words I have evaluated but it is a significant distinction in my mind. Motives are God’s purview. I try diligently to guard against judging them. That is why I used Peter in Matthew 16:23 as an example of how I view much of what is happening.

Intent is Not Meaning

I will resist commenting on Thabiti’s defense of Resolution 9 at the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention. My views on that have been expressed elsewhere.

My reference to Eric Mason’s words in his book, Woke Church, is cited as an example that “saying something repeatedly and loudly does not thereby prove the existence of something or the truth of a claim.” I agree with the point but do not think the example cited illustrates it.

Tom gives a fuller quote of something Eric wrote in his book, emphasizing the phrase—“without which persons will not be receptive to the gospel message.” Tom then concludes, “Mason’s statement makes the pursuit of social justice a sine qua non to people coming to Christ.” Again, that’s Tom’s assessment of Mason’s writing, not what Mason actually argued. He’s insisting that his view is what Eric must mean.

Let me try once again to explain my meaning. Mason writes that the “Woke Church…should have a three-level approach to justice: 1) Intervening Justice: the effort to tend to and meet pressing needs without which persons will not be receptive to the gospel message” (emphasis added). I understand sine qua non simply to mean “without which.” I also understand that no one will come to Christ who is not “receptive to the gospel message.” Therefore, I do not see how my conclusion about what he wrote misconstrues the meaning of his words.

I am grateful that Thabiti texted Dr. Mason to ask him, “‘Would you say or have you ever said ‘the pursuit of social justice is a sine qua non to people coming to Christ’?” I am even more delighted to read Mason’s response: “ABSOLUTELY NOT.” However, that does not change the words he actually wrote in his book. Granted, he may not have intended to say what he actually did say. And, since Thabiti brings up equal weights and measures, it is appropriate to apply his words equally to Mason at this point: “There is a difference between intent and impact, and sometimes we must attend to the impact even if we intended something different.” The same holds true for what one intends to say and what one actually says.

Matthew Hall’s Self-professed Racism

In my previous post I wrote, “A commitment to CRT is the only reason that Dr. Matthew Hall, provost at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, can openly confess, ‘I am a racist,’ and not immediately resign his post.” Thabiti takes issue with my judgment here and lists other reasons that, to his mind, are equally plausible. While I find all of the suggestions he offers problematic, he is right to correct my statement.

In a phone conversation with Dr. Hall after my previous article he told me that he “categorically rejects” Critical Race Theory (he gave me permission to make that known) and that the gospel is our only hope for these problems we are facing. I was surprised by his rejection of CRT but grateful to hear it. While I will not try to speak for him, I have encouraged him to write something publicly on CRT including his reasons for rejecting it and his confidence that confessional Protestantism (and Reformed theology in particular) has all of the categories to guide us in dealing with these issues. It would be clarifying, helpful, and would further the important conversations that need to be held, especially within the SBC. I am sorry for the unqualified statement that I made about the “only” reason that he could say what he said and remain in his position as Provost at SBTS. He has graciously forgiven me. I should have allowed for other reasons, even those that escape me or that I might judge to be less than rigorously biblical.

Thabiti speaks glowingly of Dr. Hall as a “godly, humble, thoughtful man with the courage of his convictions.” Nothing I experienced in my conversation with him today would cause me to think otherwise. Thabiti also notes,

My point is not that the names of Boyce, Manley, Williams and Broadus be removed [from Southern’s campus]; my point is that the likes of Hall be included without the disparagement of unfounded allegations as a necessary correction to the founders’ lives and doctrine.

Thabiti should be happy to learn that when I checked today, each of those founding faculty members only has one building named after him but there are no less than eleven buildings on Southern Seminary’s campus that bear the name of Hall. (😉 come on, a little jocularity should be welcomed in an article this heavy).

Rejection is Not Rebuttal

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this limited exchange with Thabiti. We obviously disagree on important issues. But as I said at the beginning of this article, we agree on much more. He does not think that I have offered sufficient evidence for my warnings and expressions of concern. I have considered his rejection of my views but find it, for the most part, lacking in substance.

We need to have these kinds of discussions and we should be as charitable as we can. But we should also speak plainly. Racism is not a problem rooted in some sociological construct called “whiteness.” It is a heart problem growing out of sinful pride, vainglory and partiality. If we insist on identifying it exclusively or even primarily in sociological terms, then we will neglect the only provision that God has made to destroy it. Only when we confront the real sin that resides in real people will we be able to call them to come to the real Savior whose life, death and resurrection grant new life to all who come to Him as Lord.

May we never allow anything to cloud that message or eclipse our confidence in it because it is the gospel and the gospel alone that is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.

The Founders Cinedoc, By What Standard, will address some of the issues written about in this article. For more information and to learn how you can support this effort, visit the By What Standard page.

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Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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