One of the most divisive issues in our churches is “race,” right?
The year was 1998. It was a typical summer day at the bank where I worked. I think it was a Friday, when the workload tends to be somewhat lighter, so things were slow.
As a couple of my coworkers and I went about our duties, our conversation veered toward religion. At one point, one of my coworkers, a black female and professing Christian, asked me what church I attended. Thinking nothing of it, I replied without hesitation, “I go to First Baptist Church of Atlanta, where Dr. Charles Stanley is senior pastor.” Immediately, what had been a pleasant and innocuous look on my friend’s face changed to utter bewilderment and confusion as she inquired, “Oh, you go to that white church?”
In a moment when, admittedly, I chose to walk in the flesh rather than the Spirit, I retorted rather sarcastically, “No, actually, it’s a large, red-brick building with white columns in the front.”
Needless to say, my coworker did not find my remark very funny. Then again, it wasn’t meant to be. Though not the most gracious of word choices, my rejoinder was an attempt to alert my friend and fellow Christian to the absurdity of a believer adopting such a prejudicial attitude toward a church where the majority of congregants had a different ethnicity from hers.
Fast forward to August of 2009. Having purchased a new home several miles east of Atlanta in the town of Covington, I transferred my membership to a much smaller, though no-less-ethnically white Southern Baptist church near my home. I sang in their choir, taught a multi-generational expository Sunday school class, and had the distinct honor and privilege of becoming the first black deacon in the church’s nearly 200-year history.
When I attended the new members class, I learned of an interesting event in the church’s history. At the conclusion of the class, all the attendees received a full-color, magazine-like brochure that included a brief history of the church. Founded in 1823, Bethlehem Baptist Church (as it was then called) voted in 1827 to allow black people to be received as members.
What? Perhaps you’re pausing to contemplate the same thing that ran through my mind. Why would any so-called “church” deem it necessary to vote on whether to allow other image bearers of God (Genesis 1:27, 5:1)—individuals with whom the congregants would spend eternity in heaven—to become members of their local fellowship? Had the beloved brethren of BBC failed to contemplate what the gospel clearly teaches, that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26)? Since the Greek word for nation is ethnos, from which we get our English word ethnicity, Christians should have always known that we belong to the same family of descendants of Adam and Eve.
Against the backdrop of these commonplace experiences, the question must be asked: what would possess supposed Bible-believing individuals and congregations to adopt such an obviously unbiblical mindset?
Divisions and abuses among people are serious problems in our world, and Christians need to confront these sins head-on. But we need to do it in a biblical manner and define terms carefully.
By now, you may have noticed that I’ve not once used the term race. That is because, biblically speaking, there is no such thing as race; there is only ethnicity. Race is a foreign idea that arose in the culture and somehow infected the church.
It is satisfying to see that science is catching up to what the Bible has taught for thousands of years. Ample scientific evidence shows that the idea that “race” is a unique characteristic of a human being’s identity is fundamentally flawed. A case in point is a recent National Geographic article titled “There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It’s a Made-Up Label” (April 2018).
The author, Elizabeth Kolbert, explores how this concept took root in American culture in the early 1800s (and then infiltrated the church) under the guise of science. She states, “When people speak about race, usually they seem to be referring to skin color and, at the same time, to something more than skin color. This is the legacy of people such as [Samuel] Morton, who developed the ‘science’ of race to suit his own prejudices and got the actual science totally wrong.”
Even back then, the great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass warned about the dangers of building our thinking on uninformed prejudice in the guise of science. In his famous address at Western Reserve College in July 1854, defending the full humanity of black people, he stated, “Thoughts, theories, ideas, and systems, so various, and so opposite, and leading to such diverse results, suggest the wisdom of the utmost precaution, and the most careful survey, at the start. A false light, a defective chart, an imperfect compass, may cause one to drift in endless bewilderment, or to be landed at last amid sharp, destructive rocks” (The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered, p. 5).
Nevertheless, many within the evangelical church continue to buy into these fallacious notions about race, and they even consider it a legitimate biblical construct. I’m not just referring to extreme churches that believe we belong to different races and should be kept separate. Increasing numbers of mainstream evangelical churches today are embracing “racial reconciliation as a gospel issue” without realizing its false and antibiblical premises.
Let me explain. On the surface, “racial reconciliation” sounds good, but it falls under what is commonly referred to as the “social gospel,” a term first used by a Christian minister, Charles Oliver Brown, in reference to the 1879 book Progress and Poverty by Henry George. Brown argued that Christians need to take the lead in social issues such as fighting poverty and redistributing land as a “gospel issue.” But using government programs to solve mankind’s problems is far from the gospel. It’s a change of laws, not hearts.
Racial reconciliation, like race, is a misnomer. It may be popular in the “social gospel” movement, but it has no part in the gospel.
Interestingly, it was after reading Progress and Poverty that noted agnostic attorney Clarence Darrow, of the Scopes Monkey Trial fame, declared that he had found a cause—outside of Christ—worth living for: “a new political gospel . . . to bring about the social equality and opportunity that has always been the dream of the idealist” (Andrew Kersten, Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast).
Racial reconciliation, like race, is a misnomer. It may be popular in the “social gospel” movement, but it has no part in the gospel. The gospel offers something so much better.
The invalid use of terms such as race, racism, or racial reconciliation is not the root cause of the disunity among brothers and sisters within the church. When it comes to the sin of ethnic prejudice, the issue is primarily theology, not ideology. Without the Bible’s insights about God and human nature, how can we understand how something as innocuous as skin tone produces sinful attitudes in our heart? Only the Word of God, not science, can answer this question.
In 1 Corinthians 12:18 the Apostle Paul declares that “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” Consider, if you will, the specificity of Paul’s language (a point he reiterates in 1 Corinthians 12:27). Not only has God placed every believer into one body (body being a metaphor for the church), but specifically God has placed “each one” of us, as believers, in his body. Nonetheless, this supernatural work of becoming united under “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:5) is not automatic. As the “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Haddon Spurgeon, noted, “The day we find the perfect church, it becomes imperfect the moment we join it.”
One would hope that being made members of the same body, despite our God-endowed differences, would suffice to produce a state of harmony that is both God-glorifying and a witness to an unbelieving world. After all, the Apostle Paul describes the gospel as the “message of reconciliation” to bring people not only into a right relationship with God but with one another (2 Corinthians 5:19). But the weight of sin, which we each harbor in our hearts even after we become Christians, dashes these hopes.
Jesus makes abundantly clear in Mark 7:21–23 the breadth of the evil forces still at work in our heart: “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
That is our real problem. The Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), whom many would argue was the greatest theologian America ever produced, eloquently preached on the divisive and separating effect of sin on our unity. “Sin, like some powerful astringent [medicine that shrinks the skin to fight things like poison ivy and acne], contracted man’s soul to the very small dimensions of selfishness, and God was forsaken, and man retired within himself, and became totally governed by narrow and selfish principles and feelings.” Those “narrow and selfish principles and feelings” manifest in the ethnic, social, and cultural lines that divide the body of Christ.
In addressing this divide, it is critical to realize that the same sin separates us from God and one another. As the prophet Isaiah writes, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Isaiah 59:2). In other words, the root cause of ethnic prejudice, both in the church and in the world, is enmity not ethnicity. Iniquity, not identity, causes even members of the body of Christ to view skin tone—an attribute that none of us had any control over—with deep-seated animosity. Needless to say, such attitudes are wholly incompatible with the apostolic command to “love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).
I remain dogmatic that we need to oppose hateful divisions, but I decry personally the term racism. Believers in Christ must hold to biblical terms when engaging others—and each other—on this topic. The world invents a new “-ism” on an almost daily basis to describe the kinds of behavior it approves and disapproves. Contrast that with how the Scriptures speak concretely and explicitly about human behavior. It speaks in terms of love and hate.
As the Apostle John writes unambiguously, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20). Jesus commands that we love one another without qualification (John 13:34–35). Either we love the person who is of a different ethnicity than we are or we hate them. It’s really that simple.
Yes, biblical love is the answer. But the world doesn’t understand the real meaning of love and hate, let alone how to resolve our conflicts in a biblical manner. So the church needs us to provide clear biblical definitions and then offer concrete examples of the biblical steps to resolve conflicts.
It is important for believers to remember that the gospel of Christ addresses not only non-Christians so they can become followers of Jesus, but also Christians after they have become followers of Jesus. The gospel is effective for both evangelism and discipleship. As I reflect on my coworker at the bank, and Bethlehem Baptist Church two centuries ago, I’m inclined to believe they never truly understood how much the gospel of Jesus Christ radically changes how we see the world—and those who live in it.
Hebrews 13:1 exhorts believers to “let brotherly love continue.” This exhortation assumes brotherly love already exists. How wonderful it would be if that were true about all the relationships we, as members of Christ’s body, have with one another. Although that kind of oneness is not always a reality because of our fallen nature, we can glorify God in our pursuit of it as we trust in the power of the gospel to renew our hearts and minds (Romans 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 2:13) and conform us into the image of the one whose kingdom will be composed of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).