The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Friday, June 8, 2018

Review of All Are Welcome: Toward a Multi-Everything Church (Part 2)

We now turn to chapter one of All Are Welcome: Toward a Multi-Everything Church. This chapter is written by Eric M. Washington, who is "Associate Professor of History and Director of the African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College." The chapter is entitled The Most Segregated Hour: Roots and Remedies of An American Evangelical Problem.

Washington opens with a lengthy quote of Martin Luther King Jr., who said in 1963 at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo that the worship hour on Sundays is the most segregated hour in the United States, and that the church can begin repenting by removing "the yoke of segregation" from itself. King goes on to say that "the church itself will stand under the judgment of God" for its racial segregation. (Certainly, I would agree that racism in the church will be met with the judgment of God if it does not repent.) Washington replies -- "Sadly these words still hold true." He then shares a 2008 report that indicates only 7 percent of the nation's churches are multiracial, and that a 2015 LifeWay Research survey found that eight out of ten American churches had only one main ethnic group, and that most church-goers were okay with this.

Washington turns to the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and the Black Lives Matter movement to note that white Evangelicals often claim that people of color are causing more problems with racism by bringing attention to these killings. "In the aftermath of the Michael Brown killing, it became clear how racially divided America is. This includes the church." Washington shares the thesis of his chapter:

This chapter provides historical perspective regarding why a Black Church came into existence, and even continues, in light of calls for multiracial and cross-cultural churches. This chapter’s argument is that the Black Church is a product of White racism beginning in slavery and extending even now. African American churches function as a safe haven from the ravages of a racist society where African Americans can worship unashamed of their culture and lead in distinct cultural fashion.
Before we turn to Washington's historical survey, I'd like to comment on this quote. Is it true that African American churches exist today because of past and present racism? I think (as you will see) Washington makes the case that black churches began because of racism and slavery, but I am not persuaded that the predominant reason black churches still exist is because of present racism. I don't doubt this could be true in some circumstances, but I know of many welcoming churches that are mostly white, including my own church. If the argument is that white churches that do not go out of their way to reach out to blacks specifically are therefore guilty of racism (because of the history of slavery and racism in our nation), I cannot agree. Denominations recognizing and confessing the racial sin in their denomination (whether that sin is past or present) is necessary and beneficial. But pretending that we can go back and make amends for past sins by reaching out to the black community in such a way that prioritizes them over every other ethnic group is not a Gospel solution. Let me explain why by first turning to Ephesians 6:5-9,

Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.
God commands Masters to give up threatening, to not be harsh to their slaves. The command does not extend back to their father or grandfather's slaves, nor is their an explicit command to immediately set their slaves free, presumably even if they had been treating them harshly! Now, I am not saying that Christian love wouldn't lead to setting your slaves free (or NEVER having slaves to begin with because it was inherently wicked given the treatment of the slaves in route to the New World, among many other problems with slavery). What I am saying is that the biblical record itself does not demand reparations for the sins of our great, great, grandfathers. Even when God says he visits the sins of the fathers on the God-hating children down to the third and fourth generations, I do not see how this could be made to mean that all white people ought to be concerned to determine who in their family might have been slave owners, who treated their slaves harshly, and how today white people can pay back these slaves' offspring now some 150 or more years after the fact. Or if you had a Grandfather who owned a company and systematically chose to bar blacks from being his employees, I do not see how the Grand-child is obligated to hire black people specifically to make up for the injustice toward someone else who is now deceased. Could I choose to do this as an act of good-will and kindness? I don't see why not. But whether that is the right or wisest thing to do would depend on a multitude of circumstances.

One might say that black people today are growing up in terrible communities because of the sin of slavery and racism,  that those ripple effects are still being felt today. That may be true, and that is sad, and the gospel needs to be taken to them (as well as everyone else). But there are many sins which we commit, and many sins against many people, regardless of ethnicity, that have privileged some and disadvantaged others (and this cuts across ethnic lines; some ethnic minorities might find themselves in a more privileged position than a white person). Families cut each other down. Parents abort their children (and to my understanding, black parents abort their children at an alarmingly high rate compared to other ethnic groups), and children murder their parents. There is a tangled web of sin that cuts across ethnic and cultural lines in such a way that things cannot be sorted out until Christ returns. What God does say to do is to live a holy, righteous life, not showing favoritism to the rich or the poor (Lev. 19:15).

Another helpful passage is Deuteronomy 10:17ff.:

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. 18 He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. 19 Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Clearly, God does show kindness and mercy in an extra special way (and frequency) to the downcast and downtrodden. Yet as Deut. 7:7 and other verses show, God did not choose Israel because they were great and mighty. Their slavery did not absolve them of their sinfulness and unworthiness of redemption (whether physical or spiritual). God chooses whom He chooses for His glory, to make His name great, to overthrow Pharaoh and raise up an enslaved people to inherit the earth. And yet, when the Israelites sinned and rebelled, they could not appeal to their poor and wicked upbringing as slaves to the cruel Egyptians as an excuse for their sinfulness and God's eventual exiling them from the Promised Land. God did not tell them to return to their former overlords in Egypt and demand reparations (and note, those wandering in the wilderness were the same generation of Israelites that were set free from Egyptian slavery). Because Israel longed for slavery again and grumbled against what seemed to them to be a meager freedom in the wilderness with God, God was displeased and eventually punishes them (see Ex. 16-17, Num. 11, esp. v. 31-35) and ultimately causes them to wander in the wilderness for forty years, until a new generation can inherit the covenant promises.

Now, as I noted in part one, I do not consider my neighbors who are of a different ethnicity than myself to be a different nation that I must reach out to, certainly not in the sense that Christ in the Great Commission passage addresses (Matt. 28:19-20). Zacchaeus (see Luke 19:8-10) was required (see Ex. 22:1 and elsewhere) to make fourfold restitution of those he had defrauded, and he chose to give half of his possessions to the poor because he was rich, and Scripture demands that the rich be generous with their possessions. And he was rich because, as a tax collector, he naturally defrauded people and took more than he was supposed to take, in order to keep the extra for himself. But let's suppose he came from a long line of swindling tax collectors. Would he be required to make restitution for all those whom his fore-fathers had defrauded? Certainly not. And to my knowledge, we do not see that kind of thing occurring anywhere in the Old or New Testament.     

Returning to chapter one, highlights of Washington's historical survey include how whites were exclusively in leadership during the colonial period through the Revolutionary War, with only rare exceptions. Then, as free Africans migrated North, churches began segregating African American congregants. Whites in the south were able to control both enslaved and freed African Americans, regarding those who worshiped with them as only second-rate church members. Early on, few slave owners cared to catechize their slaves or baptize them, fearing this might mean they could no longer keep them as slaves. Dutch Reformed churches did more in the way of catechizing and allowing the enslaved to become members, marry, and baptize their children, however it does not appear that they could serve as deacons or elders. Congregationalist pastors believed their slaves were part of their covenant household and so they catechized their slaves, seeing the conversion of many. Other groups and even some catechism schools formed to reach out to black slaves with the gospel.  The First Great Awakening and New Light Presbyterians also served as a catalyst for more slaves converting to Christianity.

Washington then writes about the first black churches among the Baptists, Methodists, African Methodist Episcopal Church, and others from the 1770's and onward. It is all very interesting and well worth reading. Washington highlights the common refrain of racism and prejudice that blacks experienced: "Racial prejudice and the need to have churches under their own leadership prompted free Blacks in the urban North to start churches in the early nineteenth century....In integrated churches, African Americans had to sit in segregated seating in the galleries, and the leadership prohibited them from singing or speaking in worship."

Turning to the Antebellum Period, during the 1820's "States passed laws that eroded the independence and the ability of free African Americans from forming their own churches under their own control. Because of the Nat Turner rebellion, African American men were no longer permitted to preach legally without White supervision."

Following the Civil War, "the AME denomination flooded the South with missionaries who planted churches. At the end of Reconstruction, there were AME churches from Florida to Texas. One reason for such growth was the obvious newfound sense of independence among African Americans. The AME also successfully implored freedmen to join the church to be under African American leadership." This is similar for Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, where "church segregation was more a force perpetuated by white racism and gerrymandering than attitudes by African American Christians despising fellowship with their White brothers and sisters."

Washington analyzes his historical findings, and asks how we can be a more catholic/universal church, where blacks and whites are no longer segregated in worship. Washington concludes that, given the aforementioned history, the burden is on the white churches to solve this problem. He mentions strides made by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1995 to apologize for slavery, as well as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 2002 and 2016, where confession and repentance was made for not loving black neighbors during the Civil Rights era. Washington then adds, "History demands White churches repent from their past and present racism and that African American churches walk with them down the road of repentance from racism." He closes his chapter by noting how African American culture has been largely denigrated in the United States, and that racism is woven into the fabric of our society. Thus Christians, black and white together, must be committed to removing racism in the church and society. Of course, that means removing racism in our churches today requires that our churches be a healthy mix of blacks and whites (and I suppose he would add other ethnic groups as well).

I agree that we must be committed to doing all we can to remove true racism from the church and society. But I am not sure exactly how far-reaching racism is in the minds of the authors of this book. If I do not favor black people over others in my evangelism, outreach, mercy ministry, etc., am I guilty of being a racist? Are churches who refuse to do this guilty of being a racist church? I do not think so. I would say just the opposite, that to favor any one ethnic group over another due simply to injustices committed in history is actually a form of racism and disrupts the unity and oneness that we all have in Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:3, "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit."

True integration should be desired in our churches, but not by showing partiality or favoritism. A church that is predominately white, or black, or any other ethnic group, may still be regarded as integrated, so long as they are not trying to be segregated. The desire to be integrated and the actual accomplishment of that are two different things, however. God has not promised that each church planted in an ethnically diverse community is going to yield an ethnically diverse church. Our goal should be to take the Gospel to all the peoples in our community, without showing partiality, and then to allow the Holy Spirit to save and bring into our particular churches whomever He wills. That may or may not lead to a church that reflects something of the ethnic diversity of Revelation 7:9-10, because Revelation 7:9-10, among other things, is not speaking of each individual church but of the church universal and the gathering of the church universal before the throne of God and Lamb of God. Revelation 7 is speaking of the consummated reality of the church universal, that is, the gathering of the Church from the four corners of the Earth at the time when all things are made new. Yet I have heard this used as a primary text in the racial reconciliation debates to support the idea that right now, all churches that are planted in ethnically diverse communities should reflect Revelation 7 diversity. The implication seems to be that if Revelation 7 diversity is not found, then that church is racist. But I do not see how taking the Gospel indiscriminately, without partiality and favoritism, is racist!

Or put another way, if each individual church is a species of the church universal, which would be the genus, then what some are claiming in the racial reconciliation movement today belongs properly to the church universal/genus, but they are mistakenly attributing this diversity to many if not all individual churches/species.

Or to put it one other way. If I order a pizza with each slice having only one topping, and each slice has a different topping from the other slices, the pizza collectively would have at least eight toppings (assuming there are eight slices of pizza). But does each individual slice of pizza have eight toppings? No, each has only one topping. In our churches today, it is simply impossible to have every topping/ethnicity represented, because I do not know of any one location where every nationality and people group is represented. So it is not possible for any individual church to truly reflect what Rev. 7:9 is addressing. Would it be hopeful and desirable that a church that is planted in a location with two or more ethnic groups also reflect that diversity? Certainly. But the Bible does not teach that the goal of our evangelistic ministry should be favoring ethnic minorities (or sexual minorities as the Revoice conference might desire) or any particular group over another. That doesn't mean that we might not have a group of  church members reach out especially to a nearby community that is primarily black, or white, or Latino, or whatever. Given the gifting and desires of each member in the local congregation, this might well occur, and praise God! But the church is not forced or commanded by God to pick and choose certain peoples or groups over others in order to reach the lost. 

Next time, we will examine chapter two, entitled, Regaining What We've Lost: The First-Century Church.

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