On Race and The Gospel
We are in a cultural and national moment of reckoning.
While it is outside my experience or expertise to fairly or properly analyze the robust national dialogue that is happening in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic, unjust, and unnecessary death, I can, however, observe alongside everyone else that this national conversation is becoming a priority. For a large portion of the black community, I am confident it feels long overdue. Far too long, in fact. August of 2019 commemorated 400 years since the first slaves were brought from Africa to Jamestown against their will. 400 years. The significance of that number is not lost on Christians I hope. Israel was under the oppression of Egypt for 400 years. God was prophetically silent for 400 years in the time between the closing of the Old Testament and the coming of Jesus. And now we meet a milestone whereby God may be graciously working in providential ways to say to our nation that this is long enough. I pray that our nation responds on all fronts with empathy, wisdom, and an action-laden resolve toward a more just and equitable societal existence. My hopeful expectation is that every Christian would feel the same, even if there are fair disagreements on how to arrive there.
But as a Christian, and one whose life calling is tied up in providing servant-leadership to the church, I am writing to better understand and analyze the problems specific to the family of God. Inherent in those problems are issues around the idea of race, and how the Scripture generally, and the gospel specifically, helps to frame our understanding and action along those lines. The following thoughts will not be exhaustive – they will be a starting point to contribute to an ever-evolving conversation. Nor am I trying to posture my thoughts, or myself, as expert. Like so many others, I have been continually processing what I need to learn and the limits of my own experience and understanding in dealing with these issues. Thus, it my hope that these thoughts will be received in the same manner I am trying to deliver them – with humility and grace.
With an emphasis on the people of Jesus, I would like to begin by first identifying and commenting on some larger scale problems we are facing in dealing well with issues of race and justice in the Church. Following that commentary, I would like to unpack some pertinent Biblical and theological ideas that will matter in how we address these issues. And finally, I would like to offer some practical steps for consideration in the Body of Christ that may move us more toward reconciliation, healing, and peace.
Problems Facing the Church Related to Racial Issues
- The Problem of Historical Ignorance – To the surprise of no one, the largest grouping of evangelicals in the United States is Caucasian. I note this simply because for a large section of Caucasians generally, and evangelical Christian Caucasians particularly, there may be a significant gap in understanding the history of our nation and the net effect it has had on people of color – notably upon the black community.
In a pointed, and historically sensitive, editorial written for Christianity Today by its President and CEO Timothy Dalrymple, he accurately noted that slavery existed in our nation before we were even a nation. “The first slaves arrived upon these shores before the Pilgrims, before there was a Massachusetts or Connecticut. Slavery had been established for 113 years when George Washington was born and 157 years when the Declaration of Independence was written.” He goes on to note that only 42 percent of white Christians believe the history of slavery still impacts the black community today.
This is problematic for the Church. If the majority Caucasian congregations cannot attempt to understand and empathize with the generational pain and net effect that slavery had on our black brothers and sisters, then it will be more challenging for the Body of believers to move forward in understanding and unity. I encourage you to read Mr. Dalrymple’s article and grapple with the reality of our national history and the effect it has had on generations in the black community, even if you don’t agree with all of his conclusions. The impact over time related to wealth creation, home ownership, education, solidified family structures, incarceration, and other issues is substantial. It must also be conceded that policy decisions over the last 60 years have at times both exacerbated or helped relieve some of these issues. To be sensitive to these issues is not to excuse or demean personal responsibility in decision making, it is simply to increase our understanding and become better educated as to the host of factors that contribute to the pain and frustration of black brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. When injustice occurs aimed at the black community, it elicits a return to a tired traumatic memory that most other communities of people do not have to endure.
- The Problem of Political Polarization in the Church – This hurdle is one that many spiritual leaders are either trying to dismantle or are intentionally or unintentionally encouraging. All of us who are paying attention know full well that virtually anything can be, and is, politicized. Though it is not incumbent upon it, politics on the whole are divisive by choice. And the politics of our day has moved far beyond the debate over contrasting ideas in good faith, and has instead moved into the intimidation, demonization, and dehumanization of opponents – all thoroughly anti-Christian devices. The present national dialogue is no different. There is pressure from the extremes on all sides of the political spectrum to choose your camp and shame those who do not side with you. And, unfortunately in the Church, believers will far too often demonstrate our lack of spiritual maturity and sanctification as we ably parrot our favorite opinion news channel personality without giving thought to whether or not our discourse is drawn from the pure well of the Spirit or the dirty well of the flesh. We must be Kingdom of God thinkers first. Our allegiance is to Jesus and His people, and though we pray for and respect the authorities the Lord designates to a nation, our ultimate hope is not found in them.
This can be observed in current issues surrounding our national conversation on race. As an example, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” has become a line of demarcation to determine what “side” one falls on. Believers must be able to think about this in better and richer ways. It should be no trouble for the believer to say black lives matter. They do matter. It has never been the intent of this movement to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It was to call attention to the lives that didn’t seem to matter to our national standards of justice and equality. As an example, if one were to say “Pre-born babies’ lives matter” that would not be to suggest that all other lives do not matter. It would simply be to point out that it is an injustice for their lives to be treated as if they do not matter. And with that understanding, it should be no problem for a believer in Jesus to affirm that black lives matter. But that doesn’t mean that a believer in Jesus must affirm the totality of the organization “Black Lives Matter.” Though this organization is decentralized and takes on a local flavor as it engages particular cities, there are pieces of their platform that are agenda-laden with ideas and values that would be at odds with many believers in Jesus. And, at the very least, promotes a political agenda that many black and white brothers and sisters in Christ would not be in unanimity defending. So, to the extent that “Black Lives Matter” upholds an ethic consistent with the gospel (such as the call for the just, ethical, and fair treatment of people of color legally, economically, and socially), it is my view that it should enthusiastically be supported. But to the extent it does not uphold an ethic consistent with the gospel, it should not be supported.
Another current example is how politicized the issue of police and protestor has become. Politicization wants us to paint with broad brush strokes and pick a side. You can only be for one or the other, or so we are led to believe. But we have brothers and sisters in Christ – black and white and brown - who are protesting injustices, and well they should. And we have brothers and sisters in Christ – black and white and brown - who are law enforcement officers that are bravely protecting and serving our communities, and well they should. The people of Jesus should be against injustice in all of its forms – violence, brutality, abuse of power, oppression, and lawlessness. As well, the people of Jesus should be people of compassion and truth and mercy. The second and third chapters of 1 Peter should be required reading for us all in these moments. And in accord with that understanding, we should have a degree of empathy with those protesting injustice (and while clearly not condoning riots, endeavor to understand where they are emerging from). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who often publicly condemned rioting and violence as a wrong way to effect change, also reminded us that “riots are the language of the unheard.” As well, Esau McCauley, an African-American scholar and Ph.D who is an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, clearly condemns riots but argues that it is imperative that Christians understand them:
“You can't come to a community that you hate and then rebuke them for behaving in a way that you don't find is appropriate. You didn't care about them anyway. The only people who have the social and moral standing to speak to a community of unrest is people who at least can begin to understand the cause of that unrest. As a Christian, I believe that the means and the ends must be one. You can't have a good end with an improper means. If the end is justice, for the Christian the means themselves have to be just. The Christians who are protesting against systemic oppression, at least those who are biblically faithful, are the ones who are saying, "Ultimately, even if I understand some of the frustration that is going on, these riots are not a Christian means of advocating for social change."
Lastly, I think we can observe this politicization that divides when we understand how narratives are formed around our ethnic identities. This creeps into the world of the Church. Far too many have believed the narrative that white evangelicals are a monolith, and that the black community is as well. Some would point to the voting records of those two groups to back their argument (and that does, indeed, have some credibility that must be considered), but every white evangelical is not a Republican and every black evangelical is not a Democrat. While this article is not aimed at principles related to Christian voting, we must acknowledge that making assumptions of people in the Church based on their skin color will not be the best path forward. The black Christian community has a rich tradition of debate within it – clearly seen from the debates of intellectual powerhouses like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois in the late 19th and 20th century. While they both advocated for social change and racial equality, they had very different philosophies of how to arrive there. And their pioneering examples and philosophies are still debated today within the black community. White evangelicals, as well, are beginning to think more deeply about how they may engage with social change for the common good, and there is plenty of good-faith debate as to how to press that forward in a gospel-centric manner. But in all cases, respect for individual personhood should come before ethnic identity, while not excluding it, and the people of Jesus should not be pressed into feeling they only have two “sides” from which to choose. We choose “The Way” over choosing a side.
- The Problem of a Lack of Intentional Relationships with the “Other” – In the majority Caucasian Church, it seems the people who are the most uneasy, the most volatile, and often the most politically tribal are those who understand the least about their brothers and sisters in Christ who are black. In many cases, their knowledge is theoretical instead of truly relational. Relationship is the only path forward for understanding and unity in the Body, in all of its glorious diversity.
This also holds true for pastors and leaders in the Body of Christ. The least equipped Caucasian pastors and leaders in this cultural season will be those who have a void of intentional relationships with other pastors and leaders of color. To listen, be led by, and to know these pastors and leaders of color will influence the way white pastors and leaders will actually lead and respond during this national moment.
- The Problem of the Underestimation of Sin – This poses a danger within the context of our general culture, but specifically so in this moment. To suppose that a change to systems can solve our cultural and racial problems is to underestimate sin. Can systemic change help? Absolutely. Should it be pursued? Of course it should. But systems are led and populated by people who have been touched with the effects of humanity’s downfall into sin. If we have an over-realized eschatology that assumes we can just usher in the consummation of the Kingdom of God ourselves, I believe it sets the Christian Church on wrong footing and will ultimately erode hope. Unjust systems need to change, and Christians should be advocating for God’s heart for justice along these lines. But systems cannot save. Corrupt politicians must be voted out of office, and Christians should lead the way in voting with a mind filled with the convictions of the Word of God. But politicians cannot save. Only Jesus can save us, both in our present cultural situation and for eternity. The human heart must change in order for our world to do so, and Christians believe that only Jesus has the power to bring the spiritually dead to life. Every life experiences the bondage of sin, and only through the power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus can that bondage be broken in the heart of humanity. This is why the Church must never abandon the demonstration and declaration of the gospel of Jesus, even while working toward reforming systems and institutions and bending them in the direction of Christ-centered justice for all.
Biblical and Theological Considerations
The Bible is not silent on the idea of “race.” In my research, I found 10 usages of the word translated “race” in the Scripture (and the results were yielded in a combined search of both the English Standard Version and the New International Version). Ezra 9:2 uses the word “race” to describe the seed or progeny of someone else (the Septuagint version would translate the word sperma in Greek). Genesis 6:5-7, Job 28:28, Psalm 121:1-8, and Ecclesiastes 3:10 all use the word “race” to describe the Hebrew word adam, which refers to humankind. Acts 7:19 and 1 Peter 2:9 both use the Greek term genos to describe descent or nationality (though the usage in 1 Peter denotes a “spiritual” rather than physical race of chosen people). And finally, Romans 9:3 uses the Greek term adelphoi to describe a brotherhood in nationality.
Other Biblical data also concerns itself with ethnicity/race and culture. In the book of Acts, for instance, we see the inauguration of a multi-ethnic Church in chapter two. In the sixth chapter there is a system built to deal more equitably with an overlooked ethnic group in the Church. In the tenth chapter, the Apostle Peter is confronted with a vision from the Lord about how other ethnicities are not “unclean.” In the fifteenth chapter, the leaders of the Church gather to discuss how ethnic inclusion in the Church should be carried forward. And in the seventeenth chapter, the Apostle Paul speaks to the Greeks in Athens and proclaims “And he made from one man every nation of mankind” (v.26a).
Of course, there is a significant amount of other Biblical material that could be brought to the fore regarding ethnicity and culture: Matthew 28:18-20 is the commission of Jesus to his followers to make disciples of all nations (ethnos in Greek); Ephesians 2 is Paul’s teaching about the new type of humanity called the Church that is made up of both Jew and Gentile (of a variety of colors and cultures); Colossians 3:12 where Paul states “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all”; the confrontation of Paul and Peter in Galatians 2 that exposed Peter’s hypocrisy related to the gospel and how that fleshed out in ethnic favoritism motivated by fear; or the majestic vision of Revelation chapters 5 and 7 where the Church is represented as “every nation, tribe, people and language.” And these are just a sampling. Many more examples from both Testaments could be added.
Though each of the following passages of Scripture and their corresponding theological implications deserve far more weight and attention than I will be providing for the purpose of this article, it is still significant to call them to our attention.
For the initial framing of a discussion on “race”, it would be incumbent upon the Christian to begin with the Divine design illuminated for us in the opening book of the canon: Genesis. In Genesis 1:26-27, we read:
“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
While for the purposes of this article we will refrain from a discussion around the theology of the imago Dei or of gendered creation, we can affirm that this passage announces that humanity is, itself, the “race” that God describes. This is the same idea that the Apostle Paul alludes to in Acts 17:26. Ethnicities, nationalities, and cultures are many, but the tenor of Scripture’s writers accords with one race of people – the human one. This is at odds with the contemporary use of the term “race,” which is far more of a social construct. Adding strength to the concept of “race” as being consistent with humanity as a whole, the entire world of humanity had been separated out by God between Jew and Gentile (or non-Jews). This separation, which was birthed through God’s covenant with Abraham, was one of an external nature. As Dr. Voddie Baucham, Dean of Theology at African Christian University in Lusaka, Zambia, said, “The distinction between Jew and Gentile is a real distinction, and God made the distinction; but it’s a covenantal distinction, not a racial one. How do I know that? Because the first Jew had to become one. He made an external adjustment: circumcision. (It) did not change him genetically. So the Jew-Gentile divide is not a genetic one, it can’t be.”
This idea of humanity as one “race” is affirmed as well by Dr. Thabiti Anyabwile, Pastor of Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C. He asserts:
“We may safely conclude that insofar as genealogy is concerned, the Bible plainly records that there is only one race. With regard to bodily properties like skin color, we may also conclude that, though differences exist, all people are made in the image of God—male and female; black, brown, and white; red-haired and black-haired. There is nothing about bodily distinctions that either disrupt the organic or genetic unity of humanity (Acts 17:26) or obscures the image of God in some groups with certain biological properties.
Strictly speaking, the Scripture knows nothing of our contemporary notion of “races.” People may have different skin color (or hair color), but they do not therefore belong to different “races.” The idea of “races” is, therefore, a fiction. There is but one human race descended from one parentage, all of whom are created in the image of God spiritually, rationally, morally, and bodily.”
The Scripture forwards this idea elsewhere by treating humanity as one race of people who have been effected by sin through Adam, and who are brought out of sin by the man Christ Jesus. The Apostle Paul stated in Romans 5:17-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, respectively:
“For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”
“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”
Elsewhere in his second letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul expresses his view of the world as it is crystallized through the lens of new creation in Christ: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view…Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor.5:16-17). In other words, the argument could be made that for Paul, and the other apostles, there were really “two” races within the one human one – the new creation “race” of the Church that exemplifies new life by the Spirit and the old creation “race” of humanity living in concert with the sin-stained flesh. This new creation is certainly made up of a broad array of skin colors, nationalities, and cultures of origin, but they are all now pulled into the redemptive work of God that has an eternal culture: the Kingdom of God. While our distinctions in appearance and background and culture do not disappear – nor should they – they are, however, now yielded in unified obedience to the King and His Kingdom and modeled in peace, reconciliation, and justice.
This is the peace that Paul describes in Ephesians 2:15b-16 as he speaks of Jew and Gentile forming a new way of being human:
“His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (emphasis mine).
The purpose of God was to remake a people. Humans who were Jews and humans who were Gentiles could put their faith in Jesus and become a new kind of humanity. It is no wonder that some early church fathers referred to believers in Jesus as a “third race.” This does not imply that our ethnic identity or culture are unimportant – they are and should be valued – but just that they are not primary anymore. It is Jesus that we now identify with more than our whiteness or blackness or brownness. Our whiteness and blackness and brownness remains – and beautifully so! – but it is transfigured in the primary identity of the new humanity we find in Jesus.
This Biblical and theological vision of humanity as one race, and the work of redemption in Christ as yielding either new creations of humanity or the continued existence of old creations in humanity, is imperative to shape our minds and hearts toward a gospel-saturated view of humanity. But though the Biblical writers represent only one race of humanity, they are equally clear that many ethnicities and cultures are represented in the world at large, and in the global Church. These are the places where believers must put the “one-another” exhortations of Scripture into practice – by listening, endeavoring to understand and appreciate each other in the beauty of our different experiences and backgrounds and ethnicities, and each bearing the burden of the other while encouraging each other toward maturity and sanctification in Christ.
Ultimately, Paul’s teaching on ethnic reconciliation in Christ in Ephesians chapter two must be understood in terms of the outgrowth of that reality that he records in chapter three. This new humanity, this new unity in Christ from different ethnicities, is for the sake of demonstrating His manifold wisdom to everyone everywhere for the sake of His glory. Unity in the Body of Christ is fundamental to the mission of the Church in the world, and would prove especially powerful in this national era.
For the majority Caucasian congregation, it would do well to remember that Jesus was not white. In our current parlance, Jesus would be called “brown” were He living in the United States. Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t save based on His skin color, nor on ours. Jesus loves black people. Jesus loves brown people. Jesus loves white people. This simple truth should remind us that we will do the same to the degree we allow His life in us to live out through us. And I think it would be fair to say that if the Church of Jesus Christ is harboring animosity or hate for people based on skin color or culture, then God help us all.
Practical Steps Toward Reconciliation and Peace
Where does a congregation begin? I suppose the answer to that question will, in large part, be understood by where a congregation is beginning from. If a congregation is not as diverse as their geography, maybe it is time to ask better questions of how that congregation can be serious about the commission of Jesus to disciple the nations (ethnicities) not only around the world but in their own local circles of influence. But this must go beyond simply asking questions, it will have to become intentional and actionable.
Actions for Consideration:
In his book, The Color of Compromise, Dr. Jemar Tisby suggests an “ARC” to reconciliation and healing:
- Awareness - At some level, the Body of Christ must educate one another on how the Scripture speaks to these issues, and the teaching of the Scripture must captivate the hearts of the hearers. But alongside understanding some of the Biblical and theological issues related to reconciliation and healing among brothers and sisters who are different than one another, the majority Caucasian congregation must understand helpful relational paths forward. This requires us to read outside of the places and experiences we have been conditioned in, and to read some brothers and sisters of color to understand how they see the world through the lens of the gospel from the place they are standing. As well, education on the history of our nation – both the good and the bad – must be understood in order to better engage, understand, and share the burdens of our brothers and sisters of color.
Questions to consider:
- What steps have we taken individually or collectively as a congregation to increase our understanding of those unlike us in the Body?
- What voices from people of color in the Church are we listening to that can help us to see blind spots in our thinking or understanding?
- Relationship – If there is going to be meaningful change, then it will require meaningful relationships with people who are different than us. There are a number of resources toward this end that could be utilized in congregations (or cross-congregationally). As one example, Latasha Morrison’s “Be the Bridge” might be a helpful, Christ-centered approach to build bridges of relationship that are strong enough to carry truth and love. We can either build a bridge or build a wall, and since the Apostle Paul already told us that Jesus has “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” through his death and resurrection, we would be wise not to try and rebuild what Jesus died to destroy.
Questions to consider:
- Do you have any intentional relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ of color? If not, why not? Do you understand this to be an outgrowth of the gospel?
- Can we accept that although following Jesus may call us to very difficult assignments, the act of befriending people unlike us in the Body should not be considered as either difficult or heroic?
- Commitment – For the Body of Christ to see lasting change, it will require long-term commitment. White Christians must understand that they have the advantage of walking into conversations about justice and equality, and then walking out of those conversations. Our brothers and sisters of color do not have the same privilege. To bear one another’s burdens well, we must be committed to walking with our brothers and sisters of color for the long haul – even when it’s uncomfortable or challenging or we misunderstand one another. This includes commitment to one another when there is a national conversation about racial tension. This includes commitment to one another when any act of injustice is perpetrated for the nation to see. This includes commitment to one another during seasons of heated political rhetoric. Our commitment to one another must be based on our unified citizenship in the Kingdom of God that came about only through the redemption of the Lord Jesus. And that commitment can help us, together, to work toward gospel-centered solutions to injustice and animus, whether those solutions are policies, reforms, structures or individuals.
Questions to consider:
- Do we recognize the greater mission related to reconciliation among the different parts of the Body; namely, that our unity is for the purpose of unified mission?
- Are there systems or structures that need to be considered in the local church that help prevent some ethnicities from being marginalized (like in Acts 6)?
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, these thoughts are offered in humility and grace. The ideas above are not even remotely exhaustive. They are a beginning. And they are a challenge: to myself and others like me who want to honor Jesus and His gospel among all the peoples of the world.
I echo Paul’s prayer to the Ephesians for us all:
“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for those of us who believe.” Ephesians 1:17-19a
 Dalrymple, Timothy, “Justice Too Long Delayed”, Christianity Today, June 10, 2020.
 King, Jr., Martin Luther, interview with Mike Wallace on CBS, September 27, 1966.
 McCauley, Esau, Ph.D, Race, Gospel, and Justice, interview with Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today, June 3, 2020.
 This was a phrase I heard used by one of our Board members at The Chapel, Reggie Burt.
 Jesus’ own ministry saw him cast a positive light on an ethnic group hated by the Jews called Samaritans: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), the healing of the ten lepers with only a Samaritan returning in gratitude (Luke 17:16), and a personal interaction outside of societal norms with a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-26).
 “And he made from one man every nation of mankind.”
 Onwuachi-Willig, Angela, article appearing in the New York Times titled Race and Racial Identity are Social Constructs, September 6, 2016.
 Baucham, Voddie, Sermon titled Irreconcilable Views of Reconciliation, accessed online on June 15, 2020, https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/TM19-9/irreconcilable-views-of-reconciliation-voddie-baucham.
 Anyabwile, Thabiti, article titled Many Ethnicities, One Race, February 26, 2010.
 McDermott, Gerald, article titled Race and Redemption, June 6, 2020.
 Though it is not conclusive where this term originated, Melito of Sardis, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian (among others) were all credited with using it.
 Ephesians 3:10-11
 Tisby, Jemar, The Color of Compromise, Zondervan Publishing, January 22, 2019
 Ephesians 2:14-15