Race, Racism, and the Gospel: Interacting with Jarvis Williams (part 6)

This post is the 6th post in a series of posts that I have placed on my blog recently (in rapid-fire I might add). The topic concerns the racial reconciliation movement that is being driven mostly out of Southern Baptists quarters. The most conspicuous men disseminating this concept are Jarvis Williams, a professor at Southern Seminary, and Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. These men are attempting to increase the focus of Southern Baptists on the issues of race in American culture (or so it seems) as well as in the church. The two basic foci centered around this topic are basically these: a focus on race as defined by levels of melanin and re-defining the mission of the church as extending into social, cultural, and political activism. Williams seems to lead the former while Moore tends to lead the latter. In the last post in this series, which is likely to be part 7 or 8, a final evaluation of these two streams will be offered in hopes of providing a better way forward.

Ideas have consequences. And I want to spend a few words talking about some of the consequences I have witnessed regarding this subject. Recently, I came across a young minister who has embraced the philosophy that undergirds the racial reconciliation movement that I have been evaluating. This young man penned an article over at The Witness. This website used to be called the Reformed African American Network. It is now called “The Witness: A Black Christian Collective.” I met with the young man to discuss the contents of his article and to express my concern about how far he had taken it. The purpose of this post is to spend a few brief paragraphs interacting with his article in order to demonstrate the negative impact that faulty thinking and poor arguments can have on real people in real churches. My goal is to challenge you to think better about this topic.

I think it is a good idea to disclose the basic presuppositions that I bring to this conversation before I get to the subject matter of the post. First, Scripture alone is our final authority for evaluating the theology behind the racial reconciliation movement. Second, I am speaking of the Church, not American culture, not the civil governments, and not society in general. Third, because melanin is an unscientific way to define race, and because melanin as a racial category is an arbitrary social construct that is inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture, it is perfectly acceptable to reject it. And I do reject it. Fourth, the mission of the church is not to shape the culture, influence society, or to impose on civil authorities. The mission of the church is to preach the gospel, baptize converts, and make disciples who will observe everything that Jesus commanded them to do. Fifth, if the mission of the church is to shape the culture, influence society, or impose on civil authorities, we should see that mission modeled by the first-century church. We do not see this anywhere in the NT. Therefore, we should not include such activities as gospel issues or issues that are central to the mission of the church.

Regarding the article, “Don’t Waste Your Black History Month,” it should be noted right away that the language used in the article is provocative and aggressive. The author refers to himself as a black Christian and the culture in which he finds himself as a “predominantly white context.” It is concerning that a Christian leader would be so non-critical in embracing pagan views about both himself and his culture. This is one of the most basic behaviors we endeavor to change as new believers in Christ. We recognize we are no longer of the world and therefore, we seek to purge the world’s way of thinking from our way of thinking. As Christians, we seek to embrace our new identity in Christ. We must put to death our old sinful cultural attitude and social outlook and replace it with one that is biblical.

One observation that stands out about the racial reconciliation narrative is that missing from its concerns is the basic responsibility that every Christian has, including every black Christian, to their pagan culture. And that responsibility is to be a witness of Christ for the gospel to their respective culture. If a person is not careful, he may find himself so obsessed with melanin and with a certain subset of injustices in the world perceived to be related to melanin, that he completely loses sight of the fact that his first priority is to live and proclaim the gospel in a culture that, for any number of reasons, is going to be hostile toward him. It seems a serious conflict to me that if, while sharing the love of Christ with someone, you are at the same time accusing them of being a white supremacist, or a racist, or a bigot, merely based on their environment. If the perception among white Americans is that black Christians view them as bigots just because they are white, then how is the black Christian supposed to be an effective witness for the gospel? I fear this fact is lost on many of those who are pushing this agenda. Perhaps it is a good idea for us to remind ourselves that should God will it, we may find ourselves in a sinful culture that hates and oppresses us for all kinds of unjust reasons. But that should not deter our love for the sinner and our focus on living and giving the gospel in that culture. I am quite sure that the first-century church was far more oppressed than anyone in our day. Yet, they enthusiastically published the truth of the gospel even to the cruelest of oppressors. They showed no signs whatsoever of engaging in activities geared toward ending their oppression. They accepted the oppression from the hand of God just as Jesus commanded. Either I am dead to self, or I am not. This is bone-chilling truth for sure. But truth it is. The pill is bitter. But let us not suppose that its bitterness shall not turn out for our own sweetness and for the glory of God. Indeed, it will! Even Paul’s imprisonment was for the furtherance of the gospel. I wonder how many leaders in the racial reconciliation movement would have been far more interested in ending Paul’s imprisonment than was Paul himself. Paul embraced his persecution. How far modern Christians in the West have wondered from a biblical attitude of suffering!

The young minister who authored this article says that the church needs to work to combat white normalcy. Immediately I am put off by the expression. I find it incredibly unhelpful to the discussion. It carries an us-them connotation and a narcissistic superiority complex that should be avoided at all costs. I have a feeling that white normalcy could mean something like, this is the way we do it or have done it at our house or in our neighborhood or our church for years so that is how it should be done. If that is the case, then there must be a better way to say it. And if that is the case, then someone will have to explain to me why my cultural traditions are bad just because they are white, black, or brown. The first mistake is to associate cultural practices with melanin or the lack thereof. Why do that? Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 10 tells us not to impose on the culture unnecessarily, but when and where possible, to accommodate ourselves to it. Everyone thinks their way of doing things is the traditional (normal) way of doing things. You see, normal only means the usual way of doing things. The author’s use of the word normal is regrettable and unhelpful. He wants to exchange normal in the sense of usual for normal in the sense of proper or natural, or even right or preferred or prescribed. If he truly means normal in the sense that every other way of doing things is immoral or inferior in some way, this would be a bigger problem. Additionally, if the author means “white normalcy” in society, then he couldn’t be more wrong about the church having a duty to combat it. That isn’t the business of the Christian church. That is mission drift. It is culture shaping. Culture shaping is passively incidental where it concerns the church if it happens at all.

The author goes on to tell us how we can combat white normalcy. He is operating on the assumption that it will take a long time for us to purge racist thinking from our attitudes. He says that it is deeply embedded in us because of the 400+ years of slavery. This sort of assumption reflects the kind of thinking we would find in someone devoid of the Spirit, not someone filled the Spirit and the Word of God. Yet, here the author is, Spirit-filled, shaping young minds at a conservative Bible-believing church, propagating the kind of nonsense that only someone walking in tune with the attitudes of our pagan culture would propagate. The author is not thinking about the role of the Spirit in the work of sanctification at all and there is a disturbing reason for this that I shall come to shortly.

The author gives us three suggestions if we want to combat white normalcy: 1) institute affirmative action for the pastoral staff; 2) institute affirmative action for the books you recommend; 3) institute affirmative action for conference speakers. There you have it. Affirmative action is the solution to the problem of racism in the church. How could anyone take seriously the qualifications for ministry and at the same time imply that the qualifications for pastoral staff outlined in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 be modified to accommodate the principle of affirmative action?

The author makes the following remark: If Christians are serious about proclaiming a gospel to all people, they must work diligently to combat the notion that Christianity is simply a white man’s religion that black and brown Christians may benefit from. There is absolutely no excuse for this kind of inflammatory insolence. In other words, unless Christians accept the author’s view and adopt his advice, then they are not serious about proclaiming the gospel to all people. Unless a church institutes affirmative action in its hiring practices for every position to include its pastoral staff, then that church is not serious about proclaiming the gospel to all people? And this young minister, after receiving pushback, held to his view. That is an incredibly arrogant and outrageous thing to say. There isn’t a shred of support for that language in Scripture. However, it permeates American culture and certain ideologies within that culture.

The young man goes on to say that “Addressing racism solely at the individual level does very little to alleviate the problem and even works to frustrate minority voices. A deeper understanding of worldview and the doctrine of sin are needed.”  Notice that the solution offered, whatever it is, must be one that minority voices condone. That it must not frustrate minority voices is one of the criteria for providing an acceptable and workable solution. The problem with this view is that the author is advocating for something that is outside the control of the church as well as the mission of the church. What the church is concerned about is making disciples, not racial equality in the culture. The church is only concerned about racism in its membership because racism is a sin. It is contrary to Christian love and unity. There is no other way to deal with racism than at the individual level. It is racism in the individual heart that is the issue. And that really isn’t the issue as much as it is an absence of the Spirit of God in the heart of the racist that is the real problem. Racist thinking, like any other thinking, if it is in a person’s mindset, is purged from their thinking through the work of the Holy Spirit as He applies the word to that person’s life. But the author thinks such an approach only frustrates minority voices. The goal and aim of biblical truth are not to make ease anyone’s frustration. It is to glorify God by proclaiming the truth. If addressing racism at the individual level, which is where it belongs, perhaps it is better for these minority voices to explore the real source of their frustration. Why the frustration? We all must search our hearts for how much of “me” is running my life versus how much of God is running it.

One stunning admission by this young man, a young minister at a conservative Bible-believing church is that he isn’t interested in the sanctification of the individual. He said to focus on racism at the individual level, which is to focus on racism as a sin, racism in the area of sanctification only serves to frustrate minority voices. This can only mean that, in the thinking of this young man anyways, minority voices are not nearly as concerned with the sanctification of the body as they are about racial reconciliation as it is defined by these leaders. And we have already seen that one of the solutions to this problem offered by this same young minister is affirmative action.

The second sentence in the author’s statement reveals a deep-seated narcissism in his thinking that requires serious attention. He thinks that he has a special ability of sorts to see what “white Christians” apparently cannot see because of their “whiteness.” I have read this sort of thinking in the writings of others who are involved in this movement. It smacks of extreme arrogance to say that one has to be black to truly understand the issues. The apostles never thought this way. Spirit-filled Christians ought not to think this way. I am pretty sure that men like Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Hodge, Warfield, Van Til, MacArthur, and others have a pretty good understanding of the doctrine of sin and worldview.

The next time someone starts talking about things like “white supremacy” or “white normalcy” or “white privilege” or “racial reconciliation,” ask for definitions and specificity. Ask for examples. The young minister who penned this article seems to be very engrossed in the racial reconciliation literature. One would think that if asked for examples of the problem in his local church, he would be able to provide plenty without hesitation. So, when I met with him, I asked for exactly that. The best he could do was tell me that some of the black Christians in his church felt left out when white families did not include them in lunch, get-togethers, etc. I told the young man that I don’t get included in those things either, but I don’t think it has anything to do with me personally or my skin color. Why should I? For this young author, if he reads this, the question is this: when a black Christian complains that they are left out or marginalized in some way and they attach the reason to melanin, have you ever asked them why they think that is the reason. Have you ever asked them to search their heart to make sure they are not hypocritically judging their brothers or sisters? Why would your default assumption be, as it seems to me is so often the case, it must be due to melanin? Additionally, have you asked them if they ever invite others to lunch or to get together on their own initiative? Relationships and discipleship is a two-way street. Why anyone thinks that such activities ought to always be flowing in just one direction is incredibly puzzling to me. Many Christians, if not most, are simply not good at bringing new people into their world. That is a legitimate challenge with which we all to one degree or another need help.

Racism and bigotry is a sin. It has no business existing in the life of any Christian. We should examine our hearts always to ensure that our attitudes reflect the attitude of Christ. To think less of someone because of melanin levels in any way whatsoever is both ignorant and ungodly. Contrary to what is heard over and over again in this conversation, racism is not a white man’s sin. It is a human sin. In my next post, I will provide a final critique of racial reconciliation and the threat it represents to the gospel. That will leave me with one final post in this series which will discuss a better way forward.

There is one final observation to make. Jesus personally gave the church her orders, her mission if you will. When we read those orders, outlined explicitly in Matthew 28 more so than anywhere else in Scripture, we discover that the mission of the church is to preach the gospel, to baptize converts, and to make disciples by teaching them to observe everything Jesus commanded. Well, Jesus did command us to love one another, to walk in the unity of the truth as one man, to be of the same mind if you will. That means treating racism as an individual sin that no disciple of Christ should ever practice. But for the young minister who authored the article, and for others like Williams and Moore, it seems to me that they have some ideas about loving your neighbor that Jesus failed to mention. One of them is shaping the pagan culture and government policy by fighting institutional or systemic racism as well as numerous other social causes. Odd that Jesus never mentioned anything remotely resembling anything like that. Of course, these men love to go back into the Old Testament Theocracy and impose laws from that era on the church. But they know very well that they are cherry-picking the text. As the body of Christ, and as leaders in the body of Christ, we should expect better from these men. Please understand that I am not indicting anyone’s faith by these posts. I am simply challenging their theories and refuting their arguments where I think such refutation is appropriate. And in case you are wondering, no, I don’t give a nickel for politics. I just plain don’t care who these men are, who they know, and what kind of influence they have come to enjoy. I do care about people who read my representation of Christianity. I am hopeful that God will be pleased with how I present his truth and represent his presence in the world. That much I do care about, and I care about it deeply.

If you have any questions about the true gospel as handed down beginning with Jesus, through his holy Apostles to the church, here is the record of Luke 24:44-49:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

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