The Church, Society and Race: Part 8a (Moving Forward)
This is a multi-part series. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, and part 8b.
Over the past seven posts, I have been exploring the way the church should engage with broader society. I began by presenting a four-pillar model for cultural engagement. In light of these four pillars, I also suggested that our membership in the kingdom of God demands that we live out the ethic of the kingdom transparently and boldly. If the ethic of the kingdom is righteousness, and righteous living brings about peace, unity, love, wholeness, etc., as it is aligned under God, then it follows that this ethic can only be good for the rest of the world around us. Therefore, we are salt and light in our world, always seeking to do good to the world around us. We honor God when we live faithfully, and when we bring the fragrance of God’s righteousness into the dark world around us.
Of course, we recognize that we cannot change the hearts of sinners by our moral behavior alone – all people need the regeneration and transformation that comes through faith in Christ – but neither do we preach the gospel from megaphones mounted on guarded towers, isolated from the world around us. We want the world to taste and see that the Lord is good!
Now, all of this was preliminary. The specific focus for our time together has been to take this paradigm and apply it to the darkness of racism in our nation. We could, of course, apply this paradigm to any injustice or form of cultural wickedness – and we should. But this is a particular issue that needs specific address in light of our particular past and the perpetuation of racist ideas in our country.
I’ve spent the past three posts unpacking an all-too-brief introduction of American racism. Here, I attempted to at expose the historical sin deeply embedded within our society, and to demonstrate that we have built cultural structures on those foundations. Some structures have been torn down; others remain. Though we may not have enslaved peoples, and though we may not have Jim Crow era laws on the books, we still live in a nation shaped and marked by hundreds of years of explicitly racist ideas and institutions.
We now find ourselves at a unique moment. I believe the evidence is clear enough to reveal that the sinful racist impulse did not disappear with formal institutions or laws, neither in the 1860s or 1960s.
But we’re not done. If anything, all I have done up to this point is seek to expose the problem, to bring what has been hidden to much of the white evangelical community into the light. Now we need to ask the question, how then shall we live? If everything I have tried to unpack concerning our need to do good to the city for the glory of God applies to this, then how do we apply it? It’s to that we now turn.
Reconciliation in the Church
I’ve spent a lot of time working on a model for the way church engages with society. And so one approach we could take in this next step is by thinking about ways for the church as an institution to prophetically speak into and seek to shape culture. If we had more time, we would focus on this aspect. And Lord-willing, in future conversations we will continue to develop these threads.
However, in this last post (parts A/B), I want to focus on what we have more direct control over: ourselves and our relationships. If we this issue will be addressed at all, it must be addressed in the place with the moral equipment and power to do so: within the local church, in the power of the Holy Spirit, in obedience to our Creator and Father. And frankly, the church can’t really go on influencing society without integrity. That is, we need to be influencing from a place consistent with what we believe.
It won’t do to speak out concerning sexual ethics in our schools or public square if we aren’t aggressively pursuing sexual holiness in our local church. It won’t do to speak about the evils of abortion if we aren’t equally concerned about the mothers we are so eager to see carry their children through to birth. And likewise, it won’t do to consider macro-level approaches to racial reconciliation and justice if we are not modeling this reconciliation within the our local churches.
So the church must deal with racial reconciliation first and foremost here, in this body. We must aggressively pursue unity, wholeness and love here, in our own local churches. So let’s break down the why and the how.
The Biblical Vision for Christian Community
It is my firm conviction that, if we are doing our work in intentional local gospel-spreading, then the relationships we develop, the people being saved by the gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore the membership of the local church should all reflect the diversity of community in which the local church is planted. Of course, numbers are only part of the story. We’re not simply trying to get a cold, calculated percentage of peoples in our church. We’re eager to follow God in His work in our community. And we know that salvation and church growth comes by God’s power and strength.
And yet – and here’s what we need to be careful to see – we can inadvertently restrict that growth when we focus, even subconsciously, on “people like me.” This has always been true, and more and more so in our increasingly partisan and tribalistic culture: we tend to form our relationships around common interest; common culture; shared values; shared language; etc. It is comfortable for us.
And if we’re honest, we do the very same thing with our local churches. We aim to find churches filled with people similar to us in life stage, culture, who enjoy the same kind of worship music, preaching style, etc. And this is understandable. But it is not necessarily biblical.
When we look at visions of the church in all its heavenly glory, we discover a gloriously diverse image. A glimpse of this reality, such as in Revelation 5 shows that God’s people are comprised of people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” – made into a single kingdom of priests to our God, and this diversely unified people will reign together on the earth. (Rev. 5:9-10) Don’t miss the end goal. The end goal is for a redeemed humanity, with all its variegated color, its multiplicity of languages and accents, its glorious variety of physical features – for this redeemed humanity to stand before God in worship and glory.
The glory and scandal of the gospel is that culture no longer serves as a legitimate dividing line between Christian and Christian. Hear me on this: culture does divide us. But it is not legitimate. This is what Paul means when he boldly declares, “Here [in the new self; in Christ] there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3:11, ESV) Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would write 1900 years later, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this.”1 True Christian community is anchored, not in common interests, common culture or even common language – true Christian community exists only because of our common Savior and the salvation He gives each and every one of us.
So here’s the implication: this community, and the unity which comes along with it is not an ideal we seek to attain; it is a reality we are saved into. And yet, it is a reality we can diminish, dismantle or even destroy. This is why Paul will charge us to walk worthy of the calling we have in Jesus… “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:3, ESV)
Let us hear the import of this again. My white brothers and sisters have more in common, from an eternal and lasting perspective, with their black brothers and sisters than they do with white non-Christians. My African American brothers and sisters have more in common, from an eternal and lasting perspective, with their Asian-American brothers and sisters than with the unbelieving African American community. My Asian American brothers and sisters have more in common, from an eternal and lasting perspective, with their Latino/a brothers and sisters than with unbelieving peoples of Asian descent. Christ has made it so.
But if this is the case, then why is it that our churches remain segregated institutions, clustered around single cultures?
Now, I understand that many of us will argue “preference” at this point. After all, aren’t we all free to choose a church that is comfortable for us, in alignment with our culture? Aren’t we free to find a church that “fits” our family and its particular needs? It depends.
If we are not transparent in our acknowledgment of the role that our cultural comfort zones play, and understand the reality that cultural distinctions have played in our country, and the deep need for unity and reconciliation across racialized lines, do we not inadvertently play into this reality?
Reconciliation and Glory
Now, here’s why this is important (to bring it all back to the subject at hand). We are people who have been redeemed out of this world. But we all bring our particular histories, stories, wounds, scars and lessons learned into the church. So imagine now: we live in a dysfunctional culture, scarred by sin – including racial sin. Some of us have benefited from the sinful racism of our nation’s past; others of us have suffered from it. Some of us have participated in it; others of us still experience it. Some of us are oblivious to it; others are painfully aware.
Does it not follow that we would bring those various histories into the church with us? And this is not a detriment or an evil. In fact, I see this reality as a glorious opportunity. For after all, we know that true human reconciliation cannot take place without the fundamental divine reconciliation taking place first. In other words, the only way we can find true unity, harmony and love with other people is when we are first united to, experience harmony with and are overwhelmed by the love of God. And when we experience that with another person, we have an immeasurably deep well to draw from in seeking reconciliation in our human relationships.
So what better central place to bring our histories, our pasts, our stories, than in the local church? For it is here alone that we have the equipment for reconciliation to take place!
But – and I imagine you can see where I am going with this – if we do not bring those diverse histories, stories and pasts into the local church, what hope do we have of achieving reconciliation of historical and present wounds? If we remain clustered together in monoethnic communities, how can we ever listen to the hurt, pursue repentance, develop empathy, grant forgiveness, seek justice, and embrace in faithful love of “the other”?
But let’s go further, because there is so much at stake here. In Ephesians 2:1-10, Paul first describes the vertical reconciliation between God and man. Then, in 2:11-22, he describes the horizontal reconciliation which takes place in Christ, looking at the profound reconciliation between Gentile and Jew. Paul makes it clear how this happens:
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Eph. 2:14-16, ESV)
When ethnic belonging serves as the basis for our sense of righteousness; when law-keeping serves as the basis for our sense of righteousness, when anything particular to one group becomes the centerpoint of our righteousness, we necessarily exclude all others. But when Jesus and Jesus alone is our righteousness, for me, and for you, then whatever hostility was generated is eliminated, because I see in you a sinner saved by grace, just like I see in me. If this was true for Jew and Gentile, how much more is it true for the diversely constituted American church?
But here’s why this is especially important. In Eph. 3, Paul goes on to talk about this glory as the “mystery of Christ,” which was hidden in ages past, but has now been made known. In other words, the unity of Jew and Gentile together in Christ is God’s glorious plan in Christ. After declaring that God gave him this immeasurably great privilege to bring to light what was hidden previously, he shows us the purpose: “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 3:10, ESV)
Did you hear it? In the diverse unity of the church, the manifold, complex and glorious wisdom of God is exposed and demonstrated to the heavenly rulers. The church unified proclaims God’s glory to the heavens. The church unified shouts forth God’s great wisdom to all who are watching. The church unified humbles the powers of darkness by showing that God is the great and glorious miracle worker and destroyer of the power of sin, and the giver of life and love. How then can we live apart, in separated spaces?
In the next post, I will provide three pastoral considerations for moving forward as individuals in our local church contexts.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W Doberstein (New York: HarperOne, 1954), 21. ↩