The New Standard
There is apparently a new standard for congregations all over America. Despite the context you live in, and because of the current climate in America with racism, if your congregation is predominantly “white” or “black,” then according to some modern evangelicals, you are not fulfilling the biblical mandate to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
Clearly we do see the mandate in scripture that we are to take to Gospel everywhere to all people, which includes all types of people. We also see in Revelation amongst other places in scripture that heaven will include people from all nations (Rev 5:9, Rev 7:9–10). Surprisingly, modern evangelicals who typically reject apply God’s law to every area of social affairs, nevertheless believe we should desire to see heaven reflected “here and now” (according to Matthew 6:10) when speaking of “race.” Unfortunately, due to “white guilt” imposed by many blacks as well as whites—who at many times are genuinely trying to help heal an obvious divide—many end up equating a congregation with a good mixture of black and white people as this desired resemblance of heaven. Therefore, the end goal of “racial reconciliation” becomes to make your congregation as mixed as possible. But does your congregation really have to look like heaven in this way?
There are many problems with this ideology. I will attempt to address a few here.
One problem with this line of thinking is the fact that heaven is not just made up of black and white people. Surely, no one is claiming that. However, it seems that by the statements of many Pastors, whether black or white, that their conscience is at rest because on Sunday morning they had five families from a different ethnicity than the majority at their church show up and a mixed couple. Therefore, racial reconciliation has been accomplished, and now there church “looks like heaven.” Unfortunately, reconciliation is not accomplished by going to the same building every Sunday for worship.
There can be two extremes when dealing with the issue of “race.” One extreme is a so-called “color blindness” because we “find our identity in Christ.” This extreme is an attempt to promote our union in Christ at the expense of unique characteristics God himself has given individuals. This seems to be a contradiction to the whole mission of creating a diverse church. This whole line of thinking seems schizophrenic, as in one sense you are intentionally building a congregation that is diverse in skin color and on the other hand you seek to dismiss skin color in the name of Christ. The Scriptures obviously do not call us to have our lives hidden in our skin color, but rather in Christ. However, the Scriptures also do not promote the idea that our skin color has nothing to do with our identity either.
Then there is the extreme that gets lost in the social fiction of “race.” Clearly, all nations came from one man: that is Adam. There is no such thing as “race.” There are, however, different people groups, whether categorized by nation or ethnicity. Even those amongst the same skin color can have vast differences in culture. So even within a congregation that consists of nothing but dark-skinned folk, people can be diverse. God created us as individuals in a unique way for his own glory, and we are not to shun one inch of it.
The Kingdom and our neighborhood
Many people recognize heaven obviously does not consist only black and white people, and so expand their view to think their congregation looking like heaven means black, white, Asian, and Hispanic. Unfortunately, although this may be a glimpse, it still falls very short of the standard of diversity. You would need about 5,000 different ethnic groups to meet that requirement.
I think it is strange that in one aspect, when dealing with the so called “racial reconciliation,” many Pastors say “just preach the Gospel,” yet they are seeking pragmatic programs to make their churches artificially “look like heaven.” If churches were “just preaching the Gospel” (which many are), then their churches would look . . . well . . . like they look today. That is because people are generally preaching the Gospel in the context in which they live. In one respect, this is a good thing, because I believe our congregations should look like the neighborhoods in which we live and minister. The “look like heaven” mantra is so strong today, some may think this sentiment is borderline blasphemy, but let me explain.
The call of the Gospel is not that his kingdom comes to the building in which we meet only on Sundays, Saturdays, or whatever day we corporately gather. Rather, the call of the Gospel is that his Kingdom come “on earth as it is in heaven.” Therefore, the issue we have in America is not how our “churches” look, but how our community look. There is no standard that you must worship in the community you live in; however, doing so is a vital part of building real relationships.
We must remember first why our congregations are segregated in the first place. Most of what I read and hear from pastors on racial reconciliation is not truly “Gospel Centered.” It is self-centered and self-serving. It is all about how this white and this black pastor came together to bring two segregated congregations together that live on totally opposite sides of town. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that bringing blacks and whites together can be a start if there are real intentions to get uncomfortable—not just to come together and sing Kumbaya like everything is alright. Many think if our congregations look diverse on the outside it is going to unify the world. We see this is not the case, as many denominations have sought to diversify themselves and we are still talking about the same issues that we were 100 years ago. Many times, all we are doing is creating whitewashed tombs. Different types of people are fellowshipping together, yet are not still unified on issues dealing with “race” in our country. Many black pastors and writers fail to address real problems and end up going on an emotional trail of how our feelings are hurt, which does not help the situation. Many white pastors feel like black Christians who are complaining are just tripping and imagining injustices where none exist.
What is “racial reconciliation”?
If racial reconciliation consisted only of black people and white people congregating with one another, then there was nothing wrong when white slave masters brought their black slaves to church with them on Sunday, beat them, worked them restlessly, and fed them like dogs Monday through Saturday. You may say “who is beating and enslaving their brother with whom they congregate?” Those who did not own slaves, yet ignored the injustices and congregated with them, were just as guilty as slave masters. Likewise, those who work in the so-called justice system here in America, and partake in the injustices of African Americans, are just as guilty as the old slave masters. Simply put, those who ignore the inequalities that their darker skinned brothers and sisters suffer remain guilty. “Multi-ethnic church” and “racial reconciliation” have become clichés, idols of celebrity ministries, and no one gives a clear answer to the issues at hand. This is because “reconciliation” is not something that necessarily needs to happen exclusively in what is today called “church,” or inside of the four walls of “churches.”
Emanuel D. Williams, a friend and pastor from Chicago, once posted the following:
Race is the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the bread we eat. Until we, as Christians can wrap our minds around the depth that this social construction of race has diseased EVERYTHING (our identity, theology, imagination, etc.) we will not be able to live as Christ has called us. It seems modernity’s construction of identity was entirely built upon the “sovereignty” or “dominance” of the white Christian male.
For example, to be white is to above, better than, sovereign over, black people. To be black is to be less than, submissive to, less “civilized” than white people. To be male is to be better than, sovereign over, the head of women. To be female is to be submissive to, less than, subordinate to men. This form of identification is a diseased and not how Christ meant for identity to be. Christ meant for us to find identity in Him and delight in one another; through our differences knowing more deeply ourselves and God. Christ did not mean for our identity to be formed around our perceived “sovereignty” over others bodies.
Even if you may think some of these expression are a bit extreme, the issues expressed are very real and would make a good starting point for the types of discussion that could start to bring real racial reconciliation. We live in the same nation, but two different worlds, and recognizing and acknowledging that will be key.
Sadly, however, when discussing “race” issues, it goes straight over many white and even black brothers’ heads. They want to give you a theology lesson on how we are all one race. This is important, but it does not address the issues head on. It’s stating the obvious. It’s like a wife complaining her husband is beating her and the pastor is trying to explain to her how they are both made in God’s image and they are co-heirs with Christ. She obviously is the one who recognizes this, and it is the husband who is failing to grasp this concept in practice. So, it is the job of the elders to address the criminal (the husband) not the victim (the wife) of his injustices. The wife can be prayed for and encouraged in Christ but not at the expense of ignoring her complaint. Also, other wives are not to suppress or ignore what is happening to her because it is not happening to them directly. In our culture, women have been degraded generally even in churches. The bible has been and is abused to justify mistreatments and manipulation from men. Unfortunately, many women even in the church will tell women who complain that they are not being submissive and they are being influenced by feminism. They may acknowledge their suffering, and tell them to just keep their eyes on Christ and the Gospel. This is exactly how many black Christians sound when they deny systemic injustice or fail to deal with it biblically.
General lessons won’t cut it at this point. If many of the denominations of the pastors stressing “one race” today would have taught that in the past to slave owners and Jim Crow advocates, we would not be having this conversation. But we not only have that history, but its legacy now to deal with.
In D. A. Horton’s article on “Ethnic Conciliation,” he states “racial reconciliation” assumes two things: “It assumes there’s more than one race on earth—I personally disagree and side with anthropologists & scientist who classify humans as being of one race with many ethnicities.” Likewise, “It assumes at some point in American history conciliation has taken place—I personally know of no time or event and see the opposite reality reflected today.” I agree with D. A. Horton on this. Although many attempts of conciliation have been tried, we still are having the same conversations.
I will say that many of my white brothers and sisters have sacrificed their lives, careers, reputations for the sake of their black brothers all throughout history and even today. However, the body of Christ has never been unified in its response to systemic injustice. Some pastors still justify the chattel slavery that occurred in this country. According to many of them, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and others were all rebels and should have just submitted under their circumstances. Yet the same people think the revolt for American Independence was divine. The puritans refused to submit to tyranny, yet their rebellion was holy. This line of thinking is consistent with statements which show insensitivity towards issues of injustice that still occur today. No wonder many African Americans do not want anything to do with the church anymore. Racial reconciliation involves at least recognizing and acknowledging these insensitivities, and then working to overcome them.
Is saying sorry enough?
Some pastors and even whole denominations do recognize the injustices that occurred during slavery and segregation, and they do praise people such as Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King. They will even go to the extent of apologizing for what happened and for their denomination’s involvement or apathy during those times. This is a good starting point. Saying we are sorry about the past, however, does not bring complete healing. Forgiveness is a sign of a Christian, obviously, but if denominations are repenting of what was condoned and ignored in the past, yet do not feel obligated to stand against the injustices of our present time, it actually seems self-righteous. It’s like saying we apologize for “what they did,” but now we need to just move forward. This is ignoring the fact that they are apologizing for what someone else did in the past and assuming themselves guiltless while ignoring similar things presently. Continued behavior like this is like a repeated slap in the face. It is discouraging. It is hard to ignore, and harder to forgive.
Further, how can one acknowledge injustices of the past inflicted on African-Americans, but then deny that oppression had any lasting, ill effects, and criticize the current state of the black community as all their own fault? I agree with individual responsibility, but am at the same time aware of the social construct which plagued individuals of a certain ethic group. The residue of oppression remains today, and although there has been progress in different areas, the fight is not over. Even with the progress we have seen, we also see that there have been more crafty ways created to oppress African Americans.
Recent injustices in the past few years, with the help of social media, have brought this conversation about “race” to the front in the Church. For many, everything seemed fine as long as we were agreeing on the Doctrines of Grace, but these incidents exposed ignorance, and it exposed what people really believe about the black community. Many blacks did not mind assimilating to white culture until they found out the assimilation came with a denial of the reality they live, or their family members and friends live, on a daily basis. Hearing their white brothers tell them “just preach the gospel” were the same sentiments in which the Apostle James rejects, “Go in peace, be warm and filled” (James 2:16). James rejects this so-called faith, because if their brother is hungry and they did not feed them, then it is not true religion. How is it true religion when one says he has faith, and sees oppression, but refuses to seek justice? It’s hard enough when you already have to explain to some that African Americans are not imagining injustice.
What do you want us to do?
Once you have people who are willing to listen, and agree there is injustice, the question then becomes “well what do you want us to do?” But that is never a question when we talk about abortion. The answer all African Americans should give, is “be as creative and energetic as you are when fighting against the murder of those in the womb.” Awareness is not enough. Preaching through Ephesians about how the wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles was broken down through Christ will not suffice either. We don’t need to have a thousand conferences about “racial reconciliation” that do little more than fatten a few people’s pockets. Money needs to be spent mobilizing people in their communities to fight against the endless injustices, whether they be environmental or judicial.
Although we do not have legal segregation any longer, we have had redlining, and still have gentrification and “white flight.” Even though segregation is no longer legal, there are ways in which people including Christians perpetuate segregation in their neighborhoods and work places. These are the root issues of why many churches are still segregated. Typically, in areas where the community is diverse, you may have a church that is diverse as well. The church can still be divided when diverse as I stated before, but with leadership that is willing to get dirty, there is hope. You also have many diverse communities which are still segregated on Sunday. It is interesting that it is considered a noble thing to seek outward diversity in the pews to resemble what we wait for in eternity, yet it is a “social gospel” when we desire to work for oppression actually to cease. This mental and theological divide must end. I do believe one step in the direction of restoring relationships between these two ethnic groups is when we see the church as whole unified in this fight against injustice. When churches stop neglecting communities by withholding the Gospel and justice from them, we will truly start to see a church that looks more like heaven.
What does heaven look like?
So, must your congregation look like heaven? Yes, your congregation must look like people who are advancing the kingdom of righteousness. Your congregations must look like people who are doing the will of the Father. Whether that congregation consists of a diverse group of people of different skin colors or languages, or if it is all white; if you are doing God’s will, the influence of your ministry will extend to all peoples and nations. In this way, the Church already looks like heaven in the aspect of diversity. The church is universal, and your local congregation is just a part of all the nations of the earth that worship God, as the Gospel is being advanced. To be more kingdom minded, we must begin to act like we are part of the body of Christ which is universal rather than just our local congregation or denomination.
In the beginning of the book of Isaiah, we see Isaiah rebuking the nation of Israel as they had begun to prosper materially but had forgotten that the cause of their abundance was not of their own doing but of God. Not only had they begin to serve other idols while still offering sacrifice to him, they had neglected to do justice to others. They were still coming into his presence to worship while neglecting to do justice towards others. Interestingly, in the KJV it says to relieve the oppressed (Isa. 1:17). When you read that on the surface, you may feel that by doing good to the oppressed, or doing kind things directly to them, you are obeying. You may think that doing things such as feeding them or clothing them that you would be fulfilling your duty. Those things are good, but in this verse the action is not directly towards the oppressed but the oppressor. God is calling people of privilege to defend those without. He calls people who can be heard to speak for those who have no voice so that your hands may not be full of blood.
Barnes’s commentary on this verse says, “Relieve – – אשׁרוּ ‘asherû – literally, make straight, Or right (margin, righten). The root – אשׁר ‘âshar – means to proceed, to walk forward in a direct line; and bears a relation to ישׁר yâshar to be straight. Hence, it often means to be successful or prosperous – to go straight forward to success. In Piel, which is the form used here, it means to cause to go straight; and hence, applied to leaders, judges, and guides, to conduct those under their care in a straight path, and not in the devices and crooked Ways of sin; Proverbs 23:19” (emphasis added).
That is why some translations say “defend the oppressed” or better yet “correct the oppressor.” We see God is not interested in cowards offering sacrifices to him. He is interested in those who will stand up against oppressors for the sake of the oppressed.
“What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?”
Says the Lord.
“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
And the fat of fed cattle;
And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.
“When you come to appear before Me,
Who requires of you this trampling of My courts?
“Bring your worthless offerings no longer,
Incense is an abomination to Me.
New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.
“I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts,
They have become a burden to Me;
I am weary of bearing them.
“So when you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide My eyes from you;
Yes, even though you multiply prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are covered with blood.
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight.
Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good;
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow (Isa. 1:11–17).