50 Shades of Christ: The Other Side of a Much Needed Dialogue

On last Thursday’s episode of The Briefing and in this article Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, made a much needed call for empathy regarding the Ferguson debacle. This call for empathy has been forefront in much of what I have read from bloggers, though it has been more implicit than explicit. In the wake of protests and riots following the tragic death of Michael Brown, African-Americans of all stripes have taken to their keypads. They have offered their unique perspectives on the issue and encourage empathy for a large group within the black community that sees Ferguson as indicative of a greater problem with law enforcement in many communities. Here and here are just a few from the Reformed blogosphere. I would recommend that our readers take the time to read them, as they are truly eye-opening.

Taking Dr. Mohler seriously that we ought to empathize with others and assuming that he’s talking to all Christians, not just majority-culture Christians, I am compelled to give my unique perspective for what it’s worth. It is my desire to be empathetic, as Dr. Mohler has urged. At the same time, I would like to aid my African-American friends in their efforts to be empathetic as well. I want this to be a dialogue, not just a monologue. I also recognize this is not a very popular subject for a Caucasian male to address. That is why this article was peer reviewed by friends of other races before I published it. Please, bear with me.

Background

When I was in seventh grade, I remember having a life-changing conversation with a friend of mine. I had made a very insensitive comment, as I am wont to do from time to time. This time it had to do with race relations. My friend quickly pulled me to the side and with tears explained to me the negative effects that racism had had on his life.

James was the product of an interracial marriage. His dad was Irish / Native-America and his mother had immigrated from Mexico. Consequently, some people thought he was either Arabic or Indian. He told me how people had teased him, calling him a camel jockey and a towel head. From that night forward, I have fought sinful urges to tolerate racism in myself or others. A moment of honesty: I have not always been completely successful. I don’t deny that I have made some rather absent-minded, insensitive statements from time to time.

As I got older the light of nature began to reveal to me things that were only further confirmed when I came to Christ. When I would hear white people speak negatively of other races, I would become extremely uncomfortable. Over time, I also came to be increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that one ought to find a special identity with one’s own race. Notions such as “my people” and “our people” came to be just as repulsive as any other type of racism.

The Bible and Partiality

Perhaps the book in Scripture that had the most effect on me as a young man, and especially after I came to Christ, was the book of James. Some have referred to James as the Proverbs of the New Testament. It is full of pithy precepts and imperatives, one of which is the prohibition of partiality:

“My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. . . If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:1, 8-9; NASB).

In the immediate context James uses the example of partiality toward the rich as an example of how one might show favoritism within the body. The precepts he outlines are much farther reaching than just how we deal with the rich, though. Partiality of any kind ought to be condemned. When men and women leave all to follow Christ, we need to recognize the fact that we are their earthly inheritance (Mark 10:21, 28-31). Thus, to shun them for any reason, be it wealth, race, disability, etc., is to cease to function as the church ought to function.

As a Christian man seeking to apply these principles, I find it highly inappropriate to identify myself in church life as “a white man.” I am an image bearer, and I am to love all image bearers alike. To gravitate toward people who share with me in skin color to the exclusion of others would be contrary to everything I am as a new man in Christ (Ephesians 2:13-16). If the words “my people” were ever to flow from my lips, you could be quite positive that I would be referring to the whole body of Christ, not merely some people who share my skin pigmentation. Were I to use a term such as “white church,” you can bet that it would have an extremely negative connotation.

For all of the above reasons, I am at a loss for how godly pastors and bloggers who I respect would resort to using such terms so freely, African-American pastors and bloggers who claim they are for tearing down racial dividing walls. I don’t understand why, when I see many predominantly white churches bending over backwards to become more “multicultural,” it seems to be just a given that we accept the existence of “black” churches, Korean churches, Hispanic churches, etc. (the language consideration aside), without expecting them to strive for the same diversity. I hate the idea that there would be any church that would have any predominating identity other than Christ. To be honest it sickens me. At best it’s sub-Christian.

Multi-Culturalism

Then again, I have not been the most outspoken proponent of the modern multi-cultural movement in the American church. The call has gone out that predominantly white churches ought to be particularly intentional about seeking to look less “white” and more like the community. Here’s the problem: in order for churches to strive toward such ends, they must compete with churches in their communities that have a long history of gearing their ministry methods toward serving one race.

For instance, say you have a large Vietnamese culture in your community. You could take extra pains to teach your people conversational Vietnamese, hire Vietnamese staff members, seek to raise up or extend a call to potential Vietnamese elders, print out Sunday bulletins in Vietnamese, etc. At the end of the day, you are still at a disadvantage in competing with the Vietnamese church down the road and, in taking so many strides toward catering toward one people group, you have excluded all others. You have not become all things to all people; rather, you have become one thing to one group of people. Even worse, you have made your agenda the deciding factor, rather than the Holy Spirit, on who you hire, raise up in ministry, and even target with the gospel. Who are we to usurp the role of the Spirit in these matters?

See, the question for me is not whether you take added pains to accommodate for a select group of potential membership candidates in your area based on race and ethnicity. Rather, the question is, When you have new members who are not like you, how do you respond? How do you respond when the poor come into your meetings? How do you respond when the disabled come into your meetings? How do you respond when the white man, the black woman, the Vietnamese family, or the Hispanic couple walk through your doors? Do you give first place to any particular group, or do you wait and see who the Spirit will exalt?

Don’t get me wrong. I agree that the precepts of the gospel should result in a more pan-cultural face in local churches. I believe it has in the church where I serve. We are a very diverse group of people, and it can all be attributed to the primacy of the gospel in our body life. However, I worry that some who have made it their aim to see a more intentional approach to multi-culturalism in the church might be taking their own particular applications of these principles and equating them with the gospel itself. As such, they add to the gospel an added burden that simply is not there, making it no gospel at all. They have made multi-culturalism primary over the gospel while claiming it is subservient to the same gospel.

It seems clear to me both from the Bible and from experience that, if we simply conduct ourselves according to the principles outlined for us in Scripture, these things should iron themselves out in body life. R.C. Sproul put it best in a recent Twitter Q&A. When asked, “How important is racial diversity in the LOCAL church? What is the best approach to developing diversity?” Sproul responded, “Let the church be the church in all that she does.” Let’s be slow to judge the bride of Christ when the sin of partiality could very well exist primarily in the surrounding community and other more race-centric churches in the area.

Conclusion

The biggest hindrance to accomplishing the goals outlined by the multi-cultural church movement is multi-culturalism itself. As long as we have pastors who monolithically refer to their ethnic groups as “my people,” as long as it is socially acceptable to have such things as “black churches,” “Hispanic churches,” “Romanian churches,” etc., as long as we seek to be multi-cultural, letting racial dividing walls persist even within one local church, we will never see true peace among God’s people. Such rhetoric only serves to deepen the very real racial divide in the Western church. For those of you who have yet to hear this position on this issue in the church, I hope I have been of assistance. I hope this monologue can now become more of a dialogue, and I hope that we can all take strides toward the ends Dr. Mohler outlined and lead with empathy.

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13 thoughts on “50 Shades of Christ: The Other Side of a Much Needed Dialogue

  1. I don’t understand this. So you SHOULDN’T seek to be multi-cultural, but it also SHOULDN’T be accepted to have a an all white, all black all whatever church. Seems a bit naive to me. To say that you shouldn’t do the things that might make other cultures feel welcomed in your congregation, while at the same time stating that churches shouldn’t be monolithic (in terms of race and/or culture) seems contradictory…. or at least naive.

    • “To say that you shouldn’t do the things that might make other cultures feel welcomed in your congregation…”

      I didn’t say this.

      What I said is that I disagree with much of what I’ve read from the multi-cultural church movement on how we should go about doing this. I think the proper place for teaching on these things is from the pulpit as it comes up in the text. It shouldn’t be forced, and it shouldn’t be treated like an agenda. It should be part of the mundane body life of the church, fleshed out through the ordinary means of grace (reading Scripture, preaching Scripture, prayer, singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, etc.). Racism should be condemned wherever it truly exists, but it should not be assumed to exist where it cannot be proven by actions and attitudes. Thanks for the response.

  2. My husband sent me your blog, and I definitely thought it was an interesting perspective. I think what you mentioned about seeing race as another instance of exhibiting partiality was very insightful and true to a large extent. I think that this is always a difficult topic to discuss when you know you are a Christian and fully accepted by God and the church, but you can look at the color of your skin and reflect on the disapproval and discrimination that you have encountered based on it.

    I can say that having my Christian identity at a higher priority than my identity as a Black woman has been rewarding over the past few years, but it has also been pretty difficult. I’ve gotten to know wonderful Christians who look nothing like me from Colorado to Louisiana and now in South Carolina. However, I have missed having fellowship with Christians who share a similar background with me, and that will fall largely on racial lines. It’s comforting and easy (to be perfectly honest) to be in a company of Christians who already “get” the background and circumstances you are working with and receive encouragement, exhortation, and rebuke. And it’s much harder to be around other Christians who don’t get the background or who are ignorant of the circumstances and challenges and you have to try to explain all of that before you get to the actual problem. But I can say, that often times by having to explain things, you can realize the error in your own thinking, and that is good for “building a bridge and getting over yourself”…. 🙂 So I do see a benefit in just being a part of the Church as a whole, and then also being part of a church that has a lot of people who look like you.

    I think that your essay missing a historical aspect here though. The history of the church in the U.S., and how and why the Black church developed. To be honest, the churches here in the U.S. from the beginning where not welcoming of people from different backgrounds, and if churches did permit outsiders to come, they often had to sit in the back, outside the church building, in the balcony, etc…..basically removed from the majority of the people. When the Bible was also used to justify slavery, that also prevented another problem of Black people not wanting “the white man’s religion”. Now, I know we are several generations removed from slavery, but the effects are still here. My husband remembers guys talking about that “white man’s religion” even in college. Even my maiden name, my family name, came from the White slave owner who owned by grandfather’s grandmother.

    So, I wonder, when you consider the history and a good portion of the foundation of this country and how the church operated during those times, I wonder if this separation of the church along racial lines an instance of “reaping what you’ve sown”….I hope that makes sense. If we are having to reap at this point, then I think that a conversation on what was sown in the first place is necessary, but then a conversation on what we shouldn’t sow any more will also be of the utmost benefit as we move into the future to prayerfully have one Church that truly does have love, peace, and joy between all its members, regardless of race or ethnicity.

    So that’s just my thought, and I apologize if it seems a bit choppy (2 year old running around). But I really do think this is an excellent piece. Thanks for your time in writing it.

    • Thank you so much for your response. This is precisely the type of dialogue I was hoping to invite when I wrote the article. You’re right. I didn’t include the historical justification of the development of segregated churches. That was neither intentional nor unintentional. I simply did not have the space to be quite so exhaustive. My appeal is for these types of conversations to be brought up within body life, but they don’t come up when we attend separate churches or when we attempt to make the situation seem more comfortable than it is. It wasn’t easy for my friend James to sit me down and rebuke me for my cultural insensitivity, but it was so necessary. We don’t have government intervention to force integration in churches like they did in public schools in the 1960s. We need to follow the lead of the Spirit to force ourselves to tread these admittedly uncomfortable paths. Should predominantly white churches and predominantly black churches take steps to make the paths a little easier to tread? Certainly, but that will look different for each church. There’s no cookie-cutter answer for every church. That one-size-fits all approach and the seeming lack of dependence upon the ordinary means of grace seem to be where I find the most friction between the approach of the multi-cultural church movement and myself. We are suffering with consequences of many past ills in our culture, and that will take a lot of time to remedy. I think it can be dangerous to try to rush that remedy. Healing is a process, often a slow one.

  3. I think that when we talk about diversity and multi-culturalism we desperately need to take both of these cultural initiatives in the context of what they currently are rather than what they propose to be. Unfortunately both of these terms often maintain themselves beneath the umbrella of social (i.e. “political”) correctness. Therein lies the problem. Within the confines of political correctness we have the modern definition of “tolerance” running rampantly over the traditional ideas of tolerance. As such, all marginal and fringe ideals and realities are staunchly defended as “the new normal.” “Anything goes,” as the saying goes.
    As a Traditional American conservative and Reformed Christian I find many of these fringe groups not only patently objectionable but also by their very nature, contrary to traditional Christian ideals. Christ was referring to people of different ethnicities . . . not world views! No, color should not be an issue, nor should a person’s place of origin. But if they do not adhere to biblical Christian concepts then perhaps we would be better off being a little less, “We Are the World,’ and a little more “Not In My House.”
    What possible excuse can be made for the inclusion of groups who steadfastly oppose Christian values? But that is a discussion for another time. For the moment I’ll stand by my original position that figuratively leaving the doors to our churches “open” may not necessarily be the most virtuous way to achieve Christ’s “Grand Commission.” We must be extremely careful not to be inclusive for appearances sake. I refer back to 2 Corinthians 6:14 – “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?”

    • Jack,

      I agree that we should not have an open-doors policy when it comes to fellowshipping with darkness. That is not the open-doors policy I would call for. The open-door policy many of us are calling for is one that does not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, age, income, disability, etc. I would call for an approach to pan-cultural ministry that would put primary emphasis on the preaching of the word (verse-by-verse) that is mindful of these cultural considerations when they arise in the text, and encourages further discussion about them in small groups and fellowship.

  4. No problem! I’m glad that I was able to communicate my point clearly this morning. And your response makes me think about the conversation I had with my husband about why we don’t have those conversations in the church (about the history and all). He mentioned the “two kingdoms” approach that a lot of church leaders have, and he said that tends to lead to church leaders being optimistic that their members are having those conversations without any evidence or encouragement to have those conversations. So….I guess I wasn’t sure what to do with that if people have expectations that aren’t actually being met, yet in trying to keep the church “the church”, exhortations for those conversations aren’t made.

    But your point on “the seeming lack of dependence upon the ordinary means of grace” is (in my opinion) spot on. And over the past two years, I’ve grown a lot in my understanding of the ordinary means of grace (literally, the first time I heard about it was in 2012, and I’ve been in church all of my life…lol), and it’s truly been a blessing to me. But that understanding came from being in Southern Presbyterian churches, not the predominantly Black churches that I grew up in. Also, my mom is an ordained minister, and though I disagree with her being in church leadership, a lot of my understanding before came from her. But I realize now that a lot of the churches are so “experiential” and subjective. And if a person has an “experience” or hears a “word from the Lord” or has a “vision”, most times, those experiences are placed at a higher authority than Scripture. And I truly believe that has led to a lot of foolishness and waywardness in these churches.

    So I guess my thoughts and prayers recently have been for the Lord to raise up laborers who would be willing to do the work of reforming the Black church, with the hope that they can build bridges past historic prejudice, discrimination, and oppression (recognizing God’s sovereignty and goodness in all of these things, as well as His grace and mercy), and come to the place where we can have one church that is solidly built upon the Word of God, sound preaching, sincere loving fellowship, heartfelt prayer, and proper administration of the sacraments (along with proper church discipline). I believe if people could strip away their experiences, the “folk religion” that they were taught and grew up with, and all of the other distractions that come with race and cling to Christ alone, I know that peace can exist. I know that people can put their identity as a Christian far above their skin color. I know all of these things are possible, because all things are possible with God. Clearly, this is a 3-step remedy, but I know that some faithful laborers will be needed and prayer will always be essential.

    P.S…..I think I’ll write a response to your blog soon on my own blog.

  5. Pingback: One Last Reflection on Race and the Church | Wife with Purpose

  6. Pingback: Will the Monologue NOW Become a Dialogue? | CredoCovenant

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