Race, Racism, and Gospel in the Bible: Interacting with Jarvis Williams Pt. 2

 

In his argument for racial reconciliation, Jarvis Williams makes a LOT of the fact that the gospel is not just about vertical reconciliation, but it is also about horizontal reconciliation. The idea of horizontal reconciliation is employed by those who have embraced the narrative that there is racism in the church, that systemic racism exists, and is the concern of the church, and that white Christians are inherent racists due to their environment even though they are mostly unaware of their racist attitudes. The narrative seems deliberately vague, almost always lacking in specifics, especially where the church is concerned. The argument, as well as the narrative, deserves intense scrutiny because of the ethical consequences involved. After all, to falsely accuse people of being racists is malicious slander.

Williams provides advice to his SBC brothers and sisters: “If my fellow Southern Baptists want to remove the stain of racism from the SBC, we must admit that racism based on white-supremacist definitions of race still exists in our convention and that such ideas depart from Scripture’s teaching on race.” This argument raises a number of questions. What is the “the stain of racism?” What is the “white-supremacist definition” of race and where is that documented? Moreover, what does it mean to say that this definition still exists in “our convention?” Does this definition exist if 1% of SBC members hold it? If that is true, how does the SBC actually purge that leaven from its ranks? I don’t know what percentage of SBC members routinely watch porn, commit fornication and adultery, or other sexual sins, but I would say that it is more than 1%. Does this mean that the SBC can never remove the stain of sexual sin from its midst? I really have no idea what Williams is saying here. If there is some visible, formal, larger percentage of the SBC that is engaging in racism, then it seems to me that those members ought to be called out, the specific behavior identified, and remedial action was taken without delay. It is unhelpful to talk about this problem in such a tenuous fashion. I also have to ask why Williams focuses on racism only based on white-supremacist definitions of race. Does he think that other kinds of racism are tolerable? For instance, it is a well-documented fact that racism is not isolated to one particular group of people with low levels of melanin in their skin. Racism is a global problem as old as sin itself. It isn’t going anywhere until sin is purged from the world. So, if that is the case, how do we deal with the sin of racism? We cannot purge the culture of racism any more than we can purge the culture of fornication and we shouldn’t try. That is not the mission of the church. But we can and must ensure that racism is purged from the body of Christ and that only happens one local body at a time, the same as purging any other error from our community.

I want to begin by talking about Williams’ argument for racial reconciliation. Specifically, I want to look at the word reconciliation. Since we are the church and we are dealing with this issue primarily from a theological perspective, we should use theological and biblical terminology. Williams argues that the gospel is not just about men being reconciled to God, but it is also about men being reconciled to one another. This is described as that horizontal element of reconciliation. Now, in the interest of disclosure, I use the NASB95 addition most of the time with the ESV as my second English translation. Mostly, I like the NA28. So, when I research on the word “reconcile” and its forms, I discover that it appears in NASB eleven times. Reconcile is translated into the NASB from four different Greek words. Six of those times it is from the Greek word katallassō. In five of these six occurrences, reconciliation is between God and man and once it is between a wife and her husband. The word carries the sense of exchanging a hostile relationship for a friendly one. Three times, the Greek word is apokatallassō. This word is used to assert that God reconciled both people groups, Jews, and Gentiles, into one body to God. The word is used to tell us that God has reconciled all things to himself through Christ (Col. 1:20). Finally, two verses later, in 1:22, Paul says that he has reconciled you in his fleshly body through death. Matthew uses the word diallassomai in 5:24 where the reconciliation is between two brothers. It means to be restored to normal relations or harmony. Finally, Luke uses the word synallassō when he tells the story about Moses attempting to reconcile the two Hebrews in Acts 7:26. The meaning is the same. The idea is to restore a friendship that was interrupted for whatever reason. In every case where the word reconciliation appears in the NT, it is dealing with a very specific estrangement: mankind as being estranged from God; a woman who was estranged from her husband; all things being estranged from God; two brothers and two Hebrews who were estranged from one another. Nowhere does reconciliation imply that humanity is estranged from itself. The one thing necessary for reconciliation is hostility/estrangement. Do human beings become estranged? Of course, they do. Is it because of the fall? Of course, it is. But are we estranged from one another the moment we are born, that is to say, natural enemies of one another? While we may be prone to develop hostile relationships with each other due to our sin nature, to say that we are born in such a state is at best an exaggeration. Why such an exaggeration? I contend the exaggeration is being driven by the narrative that the racial reconciliation proponents want to tell. When the NT talks about reconciliation, does it ever intend to denote ethnic or racial reconciliation specifically? In the instances where the word reconciliation is used, it does not. Even the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles is secondary to the reconciliation of humanity to God in Christ.

Now, when Paul talks about reconciliation in Ephesians, does he have racial reconciliation at the forefront of his mind? The text in Ephesians seems very straightforward to me. Since Paul never thought of race the same way that Williams and most moderns do, the answer has to be no. What then, was Paul thinking about? Paul was thinking about the mystery of the gospel. He was thinking about how the gospel is going out to both people groups. He was not thinking about how nice it is to finally have racial reconciliation. The promise from the beginning occasioned that enmity would be placed between the seed of the woman and the seed of the devil. This is made clearer in the Abrahamic covenant where God promises to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham. Men from all people groups would be reconciled to God. The promise was even more clear in Christ, we are all one man, one race, having been reconciled to God. The mystery of the Messiah is that the gospel reconciles all men, both people groups, to God. The Messiah has mediated a covenant that includes all flesh/both people groups. There is no valid reason to narrow the focus to melanin or even specific ethnic groups. Have you ever wondered why that is never the focus? Why not focus on the fact that God has reconciled both the English and the Irish? Or the North and the South?

Williams goes on to argue that racial reconciliation is bound up in the gospel, that it is a gospel issue. And he claims that the Bible provides grounding and warrant for his argument. But when one examines the texts that Williams contends offers this grounding, the argument is seen to be unsuccessful. For example, in Ephesians 2, Paul talks about two people groups–Jews and Gentiles–being reconciled to God as well as being united together in Christ. Williams attempts to show that what is being removed, what is at issue, the focus itself, is racial estrangement. The nature of the division between Jews and Gentiles is supposedly racial. This is why Williams goes back to Deuteronomy 7 and attempts to show that Moses is creating Israel’s racial identity based on geography, theology, and ethics. But Israel’s identity had already been determined in Genesis 12 with the call of Abraham. Moses was not establishing anything like racial identity in Deut. 7. See my last post for my interaction with Williams on that argument. The division between the Jew and the Gentile, according to Paul, was the law. Gentiles were outside the covenants of promise and the Jews were God’s elect. There was nothing racial about God’s choice of Abraham or his decision to make from Abraham a great nation. Paul clearly articulates this in Romans 9 when he says that God’s choice was based on his purpose according to his plan. The idea that we are all estranged from each other and need reconciliation is not the narrative portrayed in Scripture. But it is the narrative that racial reconciliation and social justice warriors tell. And if their narrative is to survive scrutiny, then it must stand up to the test of Scripture. For this reason, they frame the argument specifically to support their narrative and they don’t seem to mind stretching the truth a bit so long as it fits their narrative and furthers their agenda. Paul does not paint a picture of humanity being splintered into individual finite enemies of each other. Paul talks about two people groups that are divided from each other, not by race, but by divine prerogative. God is responsible for the division and distinction between the Jew and the Gentile. And it is God who destroyed that distinction with the blood of his own Son! Reconciliation in the context of the gospel is the work of God alone.

The question that we all must ask is this: if we are all in Christ, and everyone who is in Christ has been reconciled to God, and united with one another in one body, then why does Williams think that the work of reconciliation has yet to be accomplished. Let’s look at the language Paul uses again. Paul says in Eph. 2:19, So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and are of God’s household. God has reconciled us to himself through Christ. We are one man. Peter tells us that we are one chosen race! Whatever reconciliation was necessary from a gospel standpoint, it has been accomplished.

Williams wants to read racial reconciliation as we understand that expression, into the gospel and then turn that principle into a mandate for the Christian church to engage in the work of social justice by which he partly means ending systemic racism in the culture. He even goes so far as to claim that systemic racism exists in the church. However, Williams’ argument is largely unconvincing. Is there anything, then, to this horizontal view that Williams is talking about? Yes and no. I don’t know of any Christian who says that the gospel has nothing whatever to do with social concerns. What I do understand is that not everyone interprets the gospel to include social concerns in the way Williams implies. The gospel is the restoration and reconciliation of rebellious humanity to a holy God through the work of Christ. Man was created to image God. This imaging God takes two forms: to love God with his entire being and to love his neighbor as himself. These are the two greatest commandments. These commandments are expressed more clearly nowhere than in the Ten Commandments! The first four of those commandments tell us how to love God. The second six tell us how to love our neighbor. If you are looking for an explanation of what it means to love your neighbor, you should start with the last 6 of the ten commandments and work from there. And by the way, everyone is your neighbor.

Williams talks about reconciliation as if there are two parts to the reconciliation as it concerns the gospel: veridical and horizontal. As mentioned above, there is little support for this idea. To be reconciled to God in and through Christ is to be united to and enjoined with everyone in the body. Paul said it this way: So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him, you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)

Peter says it like this: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:9-12)

In summary then, the reconciliation of Ephesians 2:11-22 is not racial reconciliation. In fact, it is not veridical and horizontal reconciliation either. It is humanity being reconciled to God in Christ. It is veridical reconciliation. Paul lays out the process clearly. The Jews and Gentiles are viewed as two people groups. The Jews are marked off, not by race, but by divine prerogative. They are the elect of God. God chose Israel according to his own purpose. By default, when you choose one man and his offspring to be your covenant people, you exclude everyone else. The covenant community is marked off by the law of God. The Gentiles were “strangers to the covenants of promise.” However, the blood of Christ has abolished the one thing that stood between the elect people of Israel and those who were not called: the dividing wall. The dividing wall is also described as enmity, the law of commandments contained in ordinances. It was the blood of Christ, shed for all the elect, that broke down this wall. Christ shed his blood so that he might reconcile the elect to God. “The first purpose of rendering inoperative the law of commandments, consisting in decrees, namely, to create one new person.” [Hoehner, Ephesians, 378] This seems far removed from anything remotely resembling modern ideas of racial reconciliation. After all, only those in Christ are joined together in this one person and the term reconciliation is not used to describe this work. “It is not that Gentiles become Jews as Gentile proselytes did in pre-New Testament times nor that Jews become Gentiles, but both become one new person or one new humanity, a third entity.” [Hoehner, Ephesians, 378-379] From Paul’s argument we can safely conclude that when men are reconciled to God, they also become one person in Christ. This is unavoidable. It isn’t a two-step process. We do not become reconciled to God in Christ while still having work to do in order to be reconciled with one another. Based on Hoehner’s observation we now have Jews, Gentiles, and Christians. But I think we still have two: the children of God and the children of the devil; the seed of the woman and the seed of the devil.

Jarvis Williams contends that there remains work to be done in the church where reconciliation is concerned. I do not disagree that the church always has cultural issues with which it must learn to grapple in any and every environment. I am not disputing that. But Williams and men like Russell Moore couch the language of racial reconciliation as a gospel issue because of the effect it has on their audience. It is a highly emotive expression. Using it is effective in the furtherance of the agenda. Everyone is doing that these days. What I am trying to do is to get the audience to think critically about these arguments and to measure them against Scripture. Whatever work there is to be done in the church where cultural gaps exist, it has nothing to do with reconciliation and more to do with understanding our cultural differences better. But there is a lot more to it than that. As long as there is a Christian church that transcends human culture, there will be cultural gaps. This is the beauty of diversity. The focus should be on ensuring unity in truth without impinging on cultural practices. Our cultural practices must be sanctified by biblical values. We need one another in order to ensure this is accomplished. Where cultural practices violate Christian principles and teaching, they must be abandoned. Where they do not, we have that old faithful expression: Christian liberty. Romans 14 is our guide.

In his article, How to Care About Social Justice Without Losing the Gospel, Russell Moore opens with these words: We need to stop pretending that Jesus does not call his churches to act on behalf of the poor, the sojourner, the fatherless, the vulnerable, the hungry, the sex-trafficked, the unborn. Now, the key expression to note here is “act on behalf of.” Moore explains that the example Jesus gives us is one of holistic caring for the physical and economic needs of a wounded person, not to mention the transcending of steep ethnic hostilities. However, Scripture implies that Jesus did not enter the world to put an end to poverty, at least not in this age. He Himself says we will always have the poor with us. Moreover, His feeding of the 5,000 was indeed an act of compassion but the theological significance was really the point of the gospel writers. Why did the authors include that story? What were the authors trying to do? They were pointing us to a man who has power beyond anything we could ever imagine. And let us not forget that those who followed Jesus for these reasons were sharply rebuked in due time and they inevitably ended up abandoning him. So then, it seems to me the same can be said about Moore’s contention that Jesus supposedly gave us an example of caring for the physical needs of people by healing them. Yet, we know that Jesus did not heal people in order to provide us with the example that we too should care for the sick. He healed people, out of compassion, but so that men would know that he was the Messiah, the anointed one come from God. Finally, it seems lost on Moore that this Jesus whom he says “transcended steep ethnic hostilities” would have been sued in our day for taking his ministry only to the Jews, for selecting only Jews to be his apostles, and for choosing only men to be his leaders. Williams and Moore are doing all they can in various ways to transform the gospel into an “evangelicalized” social gospel, so to speak. We are called to love the orphans and to provide for them. We are called to do the same with widows. The Scriptures are clear about that. But to expand the mission of the church and the gospel to end things like abortion, sex-trafficking, racism, injustice, etc. is going far beyond anything the Scripture teaches. Loving your neighbor does not equal becoming an abortion activist. I applaud those who are down at the mill every week. Follow your passion. Do your part. But do not confuse the mission of the church with transforming civil laws or society or the culture. Do not confuse the mission of the church with outlawing gay marriage, pornography, and prostitution. None of those things are included in disciple-making and anyone who claims they are is playing loose, fast, and free with the Scripture. This is mission drift in new garb, nothing more, nothing less.

Before I leave off this post, I want to share a bit more information about an article I read recently on why black Christians are abandoning white evangelical churches. The article is precisely consistent with my own observations regarding the public conversations taking place. Darrell Harrison tweeted an article that he will be talking about tomorrow on his podcast. The article is entitled, A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshippers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches. The article appears in the NY Times. The thrust of the article is that Black Christians are leaving White Evangelical Churches after Evangelicals came out in full support of Trump in record numbers. The article chronicles the moves of a Ms. Pruitt who left her White Church after becoming disenchanted with her white brothers and sisters. The argument was really quite simple: Trump is a racist. How can these white Christians defend Trump? How can they vote for this man? Pruitt became uncomfortable in that environment and left the church. I bring this up because it is the heartbeat of this issue. The fact is that there is a real gap between white and black Christians and it has nothing to do with melanin for the most part and everything to do with more significant issues, like cultural values, practices, theological differences, and other deeply held beliefs. If there is any distance between those two macro-cultures, if you can put it that way, it is located in the area of culture, not biology. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. denied the virgin birth and resurrection Christ along with the inerrancy of Scripture. King once wrote that the resurrection was a mythological story. Nevertheless, if a white Christian classifies King as a heretic, someone who denies the faith, which is how one would classify a white preacher holding Kings views, most black Christians take the “touch not my anointed” attitude and a fight ensues. This is inexcusable. What is more important? The gospel? Or melanin? Do I remain loyal to the historic white leader even though I know he was an overt heretic? Do I accuse Voddie Baucham of being a racist when he issues a scathing rebuke to a Rob Bell or some white leader of prominence? I don’t. And frankly, I don’t understand those who do. The SBC is celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. in a couple of weeks. I admit that this is very troubling. These leaders seem quite content to look past the heresy of King and grant him a high status within the community of faith. King deserves status in the culture; he accomplished great things where society is concerned. However, those accomplishments pale in comparison to the obscure missionary laboring in the wilderness while doing all he can to uphold the truths of the gospel, and in many cases, risking life, limb, and even family.

What we need more than anything else from our gospel leaders today is honesty, courage, and integrity. What we don’t need is virtue signaling, politicking, and good-old-boy mentalities. The “I got your back, you got mine” nonsense has to be rooted out of the church either by loving correction or excommunication. Stand up, man of God, and be counted among the faithful men who have gone before you, giving up convenience and risking life and limb for the simple truth of the gospel, out of a love for God, for truth, and for those over whom God has placed you. Flee from the kingdom builders, the resume engineers, and the egomaniacs who obsess about their image day in and day out.

Between 850 and 859 AD, forty-eight Christians were decapitated in the Spanish town of Cordoba for religious offenses against Islam. All these martyrdoms were recorded by Eulogius, a Cordoban priest so that he could write up passions which would perpetuate the memory of these Christian martyrs through his martyrology.

Isaac
The first of these forty-eight martyrs was Isaac. Due to his noble birth, he rose to the highest rank in the local government that a non-Muslim was allowed, Secretary of the Covenant (Katib Adh-Dhimam). He gave all this up and went to live in a monastery close to Cordoba, in Tabanos. Isaac visited Cordoba three years later to ask a judge about some details of Islamic law. This official spoke about Muhammad’s life and this launched Isaac into a full-scale attack on Islam in which he affirmed that its prophet was being tormented in hell for misleading the Arabs.
The judge was amazed at this outburst and concluded that Isaac must be either drunk or mad. But Isaac assured the judge that he was compelled to so outspoken because of the “zeal of righteousness”. Isaac was promptly arrested, sentenced. His decapitated body was left hanging for all to see. Mark Water, The New Encyclopedia of Christian Martyrs (Alresford, Hampshire: John Hunt Publishers Ltd, 2001), 532.

This man, one out of thousands, had the nerve to speak the truth in the middle of the most hostile of circumstances. He had to know that his outburst against Islam in such an environment would cost him more than he could pay. Yet, his passion and love for the truth drove him to take the most unpopular and dangerous path available to him. He didn’t flinch. He regarded no one but God. And it cost him his life. What has standing for the truth cost you lately? Anything? We praise men who deserve ridicule because of what others will think. We aren’t even willing to ruffle feathers for Christ, how on earth can we say that we would die for him?

 

 

 

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