Racial Reconciliation, the Gospel, and the Church

Article
09.25.2015

The relationship between the gospel and racial reconciliation has been a contested topic among evangelicals of late.

Some Christians propose that the gospel and gospel action can solve the current racial divide in the church. I (an African-American) make this point in a book called One New Man, and biblical scholars Kenneth Mathews (European-American) and Sydney Park (Asian-American) make a similar point in The Post Racial Church.

However, there is hardly a Christian consensus regarding the church’s role in the work of racial reconciliation.

A SOCIAL ISSUE OR A GOSPEL ISSUE?

Michael Emerson and Christian Smith observe in Divided by Faith (Oxford, 2000) that evangelical Christians have traditionally viewed racial reconciliation and matters of race as a “social issue” instead of a “gospel issue.”

One white Southern Baptist pastor illustrates the point in his 2014 article “I Don’t Understand the Evangelical Response to Ferguson,” where he argues that racial reconciliation is a social issue instead of a gospel issue. Assuming the modern social construct of race, he strongly criticizes fellow evangelicals for suggesting, in light of the sad events in Ferguson, Missouri, that the Christian gospel speaks to issues of race and racial reconciliation.

To be sure, we should be extremely careful about referring to various issues as “gospel issues,” as D. A. Carson has observed. But Carson continues,

Certainly the majority of Christians in America today would happily aver that good race relations are a gospel issue. They might point out that God’s saving purpose is to draw to himself, through the cross, men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation; that the church is one new humanity, made up of Jew and Gentile; that Paul tells Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus as his brother, as the apostle himself; that this trajectory starts at creation, with all men and women being made in the image of God, and finds its anticipation in the promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Moreover, the salvation secured by Christ in the gospel is more comprehensive than justification alone: it brings repentance, wholeness, love for brothers and sisters in the Christian community. But the sad fact remains that not all Christians have always viewed race relations within the church as a gospel issue.

RACIAL RECONCILIATION, NOT JUST DIVERSITY

Part of the problem is that evangelicals can confuse racial reconciliation with multi-ethnicity or diversity, and so they begin conversations about racial reconciliation with a push for multi-ethnic churches.

I agree that gospel-grounded racial reconciliation produces multi-ethnic and diverse churches. But diversity is not the same as gospel-centered racial reconciliation and the goal of gospel-centered racial reconciliation is not simply diversity. An assembly of the United Nations is multi-ethnic and diverse, as is the army, or the local public high school, or so many other groups. Yet such settings hardly enjoy the racial reconciliation of the gospel.

Gospel-grounded racial reconciliation begins with what Christ accomplished at the cross. He united one-time enemies to God and therefore to one another. He made the two one. Racial reconciliation begins, in other words, with the “indicative” of who we are in Christ. And then racial reconciliation shows itself in our love for the “other.” It flows from the Spirit-empowered obedience and demonstration of who we are in Christ. To define racial reconciliation as simply diversity, or to think that our churches are racially reconciled simply because they might be diverse, is misleading.

To clarify, I strongly desire, promote, and live for ethnic diversity in both church and society. I am multi-ethnic. I have African-American, Native American, and Caucasian blood flowing through my veins. I long to be part of a multi-ethnic church. I am in a multi-ethnic marriage with a Hispanic woman from Costa Rica. I have a multi-ethnic son. My wife and I hope to adopt a little girl from another country. And I live in a multi-ethnic community. But none of these things depends upon a gospel-centered racial reconciliation. Gospel-grounded racial reconciliation, after all, is supernatural, not natural.

NEEDED: RELATING THE GOSPEL AND RACIAL RECONCILIATION

In order to understand what biblical racial reconciliation is and what it means for the church, Christians, first of all, need a better understanding of the relationship between the gospel and racial reconciliation. Let’s just consider Ephesians 2 and 3 for a moment.

The mystery of the gospel is an important theme in Ephesians (1:9-10). Paul defines this mystery as the unification of all things in Christ (1:10) and “the gospel of your salvation” (1:13). Chapter 2 then begins by recalling the fact that we are all dead in our sins and separated from God (vv. 1-3). “But God,” verse 4 famously begins, makes us alive in Christ and saves us by grace, say the following verses. Based on Ephesians 2:1-10, evangelicals often define the gospel with reference to our reconciliation to God (see esp. Eph. 2:1-10).

Yet that’s not all God does in the gospel. Paul goes on to say that the gospel includes the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles into one new humanity. Verse 13 begins with a second sharp adversative: “But now,” Paul says, and then points to something else Christ has already accomplished: those Gentiles “who were far away have been brought near.” They were brought near God’s promises of salvation to Jews “by the blood of Christ Jesus” (2:13).1

The good news of the gospel includes the fact that the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, died so that he would put an end to the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles, to reconcile Jews and Gentiles to God, and to each other into one body through the cross, which made both groups into one dwelling place of God by the Spirit (2:14-22). And Jesus himself preached this gospel of peace (=reconciliation) to Jews near the promises and to Gentiles far away from those promises (Matt 15:21-28).

In chapter 3, Paul refers to the stewardship of the grace of God given to Paul (v. 2). He describes that stewardship as a mystery that was made known to Paul by a revelation, and that mystery is the mystery of Christ as revealed to Paul by the Spirit (vv. 3-5). He explicitly states the content of the mystery is Jew and Gentile inclusion as “fellow heirs” and “of the same body” because together they are “partakers of God’s promise in Christ by the gospel” (v. 6). And he connects reconciliation between Jew and Gentile to the gospel by stating that God graciously called Paul to proclaim as good news the inexpressible riches of Christ to the Gentiles (v. 8).

It would not be exegetically accurate to say that Ephesians 2:11-3:8 are “about racial reconciliation,” at least in the way we think of those terms today. The ancient division between Jew and Gentile was not the same as the divisions we know exist between Black and White or Serbian and Croatian or Hutu and Tutsi or Japanese and Chinese. The division between Jew and Gentile was God’s own doing according to his covenantal plan, and Ephesians 2 and 3 dwell on the fulfillment of that covenantal plan. But certainly we must say that a lesson or an implication of Ephesians 2:11-3:8 is that Christ united Christians of every ethnicity together. He removed ethnicity as a barrier. The good news of the gospel, in that sense, includes racial reconciliation. Christ did it! He reconciled us both to the Father and to one another!

Christians who contend that racial reconciliation is a gospel issue also cite verses like Romans 1:16-17 and Galatians 2:11-14. Passages like these demonstrate that the Bible’s categories of identity and racial reconciliation intersect with salvation and gospel.

NEEDED: A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF RACE

In order to understand what gospel-grounded racial reconciliation is and what it means for the church, Christians, second of all, need a better understanding of race.

Race was one kind of social construct in the biblical world, and it is another kind of social construct today. Race in the ancient biblical world was a social construct based on special characteristics that had nothing to do with pseudo-scientific racism. Race in the modern world is a product of eighteenth and nineteenth century racist theories in Europe about the “science” of whiteness and non-whiteness.

Understanding the nature of past and present social constructs will help us to understand what really does and does not divide us. We must accurately diagnose the problem. The Christian gospel tells us that racism fundamentally exists because of sin. Racism is an evil ideology of hate, which shows itself most clearly through violent or prejudicial actions. But racism exists even without violent or prejudicial actions because of sin. Could the very construct of race be one more manifestation of the sin of racism? Racism begetting the very idea of race?

FURTHER TO GO STILL

Christians have come a long way on race relations since the inception of America. I am a proud black, multi-racial Southern Baptist. I became the first person of color to join Hindman First Church in Hindman, Kentucky in 1996. I came to faith in Jesus Christ through the ministry of this all white SBC church and began to see racial reconciliation personified as the brothers and sisters there ministered to me and my family, nourishing us in the faith and into my calling into the ministry. Furthermore, I am privileged to be the only African-American New Testament scholar teaching at any Southern Baptist seminary or institution of higher education (to my knowledge). Therefore, Southern Baptists who rightly understand and promote gospel-centered racial reconciliation as a gospel issue should are very dear to my heart, and the ethnic diversity that exists in the SBC should be commended.

However, in my view, at the moment, Christians in general must do a better job at defining the gospel, race, and racial reconciliation, and we must be intentional about pursuing racial reconciliation in our churches and communities. We must do a better job living out the gospel of racial reconciliation in community with real people in both church and society.

Five further steps occur to me. First, Christians must believe and preach the whole gospel, including what the gospel says about racial reconciliation.

Second, Christians must be honest about our racist past to answer some of the complicated questions in our racist present. Moreover, progress will be difficult, if not impossible, if we deny that racism still exists—individually and systematically, in both church and society.

Third, Christians should work to listen to ethnic minority voices within the Christian movement who have thought long and hard about the race of issue, how it intersects with the gospel, and how this intersection applies today. Whites must welcome minority voices at the leadership table whenever and wherever discussions about the gospel and race happen. And the white majority must share their privilege and power with those sensible voices among the underrepresented minorities and suffer with them. Minorities must be willing to sacrifice some preferences to live in a reconciled way in the church.

Fourth, Christians and Christian churches must boldly press the claims of the Christian gospel onto a racist society, and we must be willing to stand against any and all forms of racism with legal and peaceful means whenever we see racism raise its ugly head.

Fifth, as citizens and residents of the United States, we must hold our leaders accountable. If they commit injustice instead of uphold justice, we should take the necessary legal steps to ensure that justice under the law will be upheld for all citizens and residents.

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[1] He here offers a Christological reading of Isa 9:6, 52:7, and 57:19 in Eph. 2:13-18. “Peace” in 2:14 and the proclamation of peace to “those far off” and “to those near” in 2:17 link 2:13-18 with Isaiah. The proclamation of peace in 2:17 is a reference to the proclamation of the gospel. In Isa 9:6, “peace” refers to the Jewish Messiah. In Isa 52:7 and 57:19, “peace” refers to the salvation (=the gospel) that YHWH promised to bring to Israel through the Jewish Messiah.