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Rejecting separate but equal again

NOTE: The 2015 ERLC Leadership Summit will address “The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation” to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families, and their churches. This event will be held in Nashville on March 26-27, 2015. To learn more go here.

We are praying for the day when saying multiethnic church will be a needless redundancy in evangelicalism. The church of Jesus Christ is the community of Christ-redeemed image bearers from every tribe, tongue, and nation who will ultimately be gathered in the consummated kingdom of Christ. A local church is an already visible outpost of the kingdom of Christ. A local church provides a vertical display of gospel reconciliation (God-to-man) but also a display of horizontal gospel reconciliation (man-to-man). Those normally divided by racial and ethnic differences are now counted as “one new man,” a new race of blood-bought brothers of the household of God (Eph. 2:15-17). The triumph of the gospel on display in Christian churches necessarily involves not only the reconciliation of people to God but also to one another (Eph. 2:11-22).

The inclusion of ethnically diverse peoples in the household of God is God's intention, fulfilling his gospel promise (Gen. 3:15, Gen. 12, 15, Ps. 67, Acts 2, Rom. 4, Gal. 3, 4, Eph. 2, 4, Rev. 5, 7, 14). It was followers of Christ in the multiethnic church of Antioch (Jews, Africans, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Asians) who were first called Christians (Acts 11:19-26) and who took the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world (Acts 13:1-3). The glory of the triumphant eschatological kingdom of Christ will be demonstrated by the multi-ethnic diversity of worshippers who exult, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).

Ethnic majority Christians must not simply say to ethnic minorities that we would accept you in our churches should you want to attend. For instance, the historically sinful refusal of white evangelicals in America to include African-Americans led to segregated white and black churches and a simple “y’all can come now” rings hollow. We must intentionally pursue ethnic diversity as a means of reflecting the glory of the Christian gospel. Ethnic minority Christians must not embrace segregated churches by saying we want to maintain our distinctive ethnic identity and not be absorbed into the dominant culture. The Bible calls us to celebrate our ethnic identity and heritage, not as ultimate, but as a providential marker of the expanse of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Our ethnic and racial identity must be reshaped by the gospel and subordinate to our shared identity in Christ. Consider our suggestions for Christ-centered gospel psychology for those in the ethnic majority and those in the ethnic minority in evangelical denominations and local churches.

Gospel Psychology for those in the Ethnic Majority

  1. Realize that the majority ethnicity must not define the identity of any denomination or local church: Being the ethnic majority in a denomination or local church should not constitute that denomination or local church being identified with the ethnicity of the majority. In other words, whites are the majority ethnic group in the Southern Baptist Convention (our denomination), but Southern Baptists are biblically wrong to think of the SBC as a white denomination. The same is true for any majority ethnicity. Christian denominations and local churches are inherently called to transcend ethnic boundaries because of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ. Our impoverished biblical-theological convictions and malnourished gospel-identity has brought us to a place where we are at peace with denominations and churches we consider to be separate but equal. The homogenous unit principle has become, far too often, the homoethnos principle of church growth.

  2. Avoid a paternalistic ethos and humbly learn from ethnic minorities: The ethnic majority should avoid paternalistic attitudes in relationships with ethnic minorities in their ecclesial context. An imperialistic ethos rightly turns off our ethnic minority brothers and sisters in Christ. For instance, without any conscious intent to do so, white evangelicals often communicate that living out the gospel means absorption into white evangelical culture. In my experience, minority evangelicals have been far more willing to humble themselves and learn from white evangelicals than the other way around. Well-intentioned social ministry to ethnic minorities in our churches can proceed with an aura of evangelical aristocracy, albeit a benevolent one toward needy people. Ethnic majority Christians should see ethnic minority Christians as vital Christian co-laborers from whom they need to be learners.

  3. Use your advantage as the ethnic majority for the advantage of ethnic minorities: The ethnic majority group has the responsibility to be self-sacrificial initiators in welcoming and learning from ethnic minorities. The majority group’s numerical advantage must not be used for its own privilege but for the advantage of the ethnic minority (Phil 2:6-7). In so doing, the majority group proceeds in a way that reflects the self-giving mind of Christ (Phil 2:3-7). The ethnic majority is not walking in line with the gospel by simply tolerating ethic diversity if it comes; a denomination and local church is only walking in line with the gospel if it sees ethnic and racial minorities as vital co-laborers. Ethnic diversity ought to be celebrated and not simply tolerated. The ethnic majority ought to be intentionally praying for and pursuing ethnic minorities for leadership positions in the denomination and the local church. A church at peace with ecclesial ethnic separatism is at odds with the mission of Christ. Serving the interests of the ethnic majority and counting them as more significant runs counter to the gospel (Phil 2:3-4). Upsetting the peace of anti-gospel attitudes and actions is the courageous work of a faithful shepherd of Christ. It is theological and ecclesial cowardice to say “Peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14).

Gospel Psychology for those in the Ethnic Minority

  1. Reallocate the source of your identity: Both, the ethnic majority and ethnic minority must come to the realization that what defines the life of a Christian is not nationality or ethnicity, but what Christ has accomplished on the cross. For the most part, patriotism, nativism and nationalism are the primary sources of an individual’s identity, but in Christ, one’s nationality, earthly citizenship, cultural preferences and cultural ideologies ought to become secondary and, in certain cases, abrogated all together. The primary demarcation point of any believer should be their positional relationship with the Father as sons and daughters of God. This is where horizontal reconciliation begins. As Paul writes, “…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace… So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:15-19).

  2. Fight against inferiority complex, even if it doesn’t go away: Every member of an ethnic minority group has experienced silent racism, micro-aggressions, rejection, stereotypes, derision and in many cases direct forms of prejudice in the church. Due to this, feeling inferior is a constant temptation. The easiest response is to avoid the ethnic majority altogether and find a place of acceptance among people who are culturally and ethnically similar. The problem with this paradigm is that both groups (majority and minority) end up arriving at the same problematic and anti-Gospel reality, homogeneity. The majority out of preference and apathy and the minority out of seeming necessity and comfort. However, in order to experience horizontal reconciliation (the immediate implication of vertical reconciliation) ethnic minorities compelled by the gospel must risk vulnerability, even if the fear is present and never goes away. You must fight against it.

  3. “Us vs. Them” mentality must go: The ethnic minority needs to understand a fundamental truth; racism is not a geographical problem, but a problem of human nature. Racism is one of the manifestations of a morally depraved and sin-enslaved nature. All humans, regardless of their ethnic background are born with racist and ethno-centric hearts because they are sinners (Rom 3:23). Racism (direct or indirect) exists wherever sin exists and knows no ethnic boundaries. Understanding this reality means we can no longer envision the world us vs. them, but instead it is us vs. us. All people, including ethnic minorities, struggle with racist attitudes. Some have the power to institutionalize their prejudices but we all struggle with them. What do we do with this humbling reality? We flee to the cross as our only hope. The gospel is the ultimate identity equalizer. We all needed the gospel, and as believers, we are all transformed by the same gospel.

  4. Together and Equal: Acts 2 and 4, demonstrates the man-to-man reconciling power of the gospel for those who believe. The context is key to understanding. During Pentecost, when the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they started to proclaim the good news to all who were there. There were Jews from all ethnos (nations) under earth (Acts 2:5). They marveled at the fact that simple Galileans were preaching the good news in their own language. What happened after they put faith in Christ reflects the subversive countercultural kingdom of Christ. People from different tribes and tongues and nations came together as family. Acts 2 tells us that they had everything in common and Acts 4 tells us that they were in one heart and in one spirit. How could it be that people from different languages, cultural backgrounds and cultural ideologies were able to come together in such a beautiful familial embrace? Because that is what the gospel does. There is no room for ethnic sectarianism in the church. It is antithetical to the gospel.

Our Gospel Mission does not Allow Excuses

Having segregated churches is settling for far less than the gospel promises. We have no biblical right to voluntarily choose to function in the same locale as ethnically separate but equal churches. The unique difficulties and challenges in aggressively pursuing an intentionally multi-ethnic congregation should not be used as a case against attempting to walk in line with the gospel in regard to race and ethnicity (Gal 2:14). Taking up your cross and following Christ is always difficult. It always will be. Our Great Commission responsibility has always included challenges related to differences in cultural and language.

The theological conviction and missiological practice of a local church must center on and be energized by the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Great Commission. The obstacles to gospel fidelity are not a reason for surrender but rather the reason we exist as the cruciform community of the risen Christ who herald the coming eschatological kingdom of Christ. Cross-cultural vocational missionaries overcome cultural boundaries, language boundaries, and personal style preferences for the sake of the gospel and missional Christians must do the same in their own communities. The church is a cruciform missional community subversive to the satanic idolatry that animates racial and ethnic hostility. Suggesting cultural differences in music, worship, and style preferences as an excuse for being content with ethnically segregated churches is a rejection of our mission.

When congregations become preference based affinity groups they are not bearing witness to the unifying work of the Spirit of Christ. We fear that too often the make up of our churches testifies to the triumph of affinity based marketing more than it does to the power of the gospel and the coming kingdom of Christ. A local church that is not spiritually battling to be as multiethnic as its broader community is revealing that it is theologically anemic and missionally impotent. Our culture declared war on separate but equal Jim Crow laws in 1960’s and it is about time we do the same with the ghost of Jim Crow still haunting too many of our evangelical denominations and local churches.

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