In Why the Church Needs a Family Reunion I laid out a vision for the church moving forward in our racially charged time by coming together for a long conversation in the same direction. But before we can come together, we need to understand history so we can learn from it. And we need to know the dangers we face if we’re going to avoid them. Before a little boy’s broken bone can be reset and readied for restoration, the X-ray is examined and shown to his family. Brothers and sisters, let’s look at the X-ray together.
The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, combined with the chaos of a global pandemic, have led to a culture-shifting global phenomenon. Our grandkids will study this moment and movement.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said there is something very wrong in a country where the thought of just getting pulled over by police strikes fear in his Black colleagues. He’s right, and millions agree. Here in America, some statistics indicate that up to 26 million people have protested racial injustice in 2020. This cultural moment is seeing larger participation than the civil rights movement. The New York Times reported that “…nearly 95 percent of counties that had a protest recently are majority white, and nearly three-quarters of the counties are more than 75 percent white” [my emphasis]. NBA and WNBA players wear “Black Lives Matter” shirts and statements for social change on the back of their jerseys. The NBA playoffs were postponed, out of protest by the players, after the shooting of Jacob Blake. Calls for justice are everywhere. This is unprecedented.
Even so, what’s being said today is nothing new. The difference—and what makes this moment doubly historic—is that, in my opinion, this time we’re not going back to business as usual.
At the Urbana Student Missions Conference of 1970, Tom Skinner delivered a powerful message on Racism and World Evangelism. Fifty years later, Skinner’s talk could be delivered today for its relevance to racial justice in 2020.
Skinner unpacks the history of racism in the United States of America, pointing out the devastating truth that slavery was upheld by three systems in American society: political, economic, and yes, religious.
“Numerous churches and denominations,” Skinner said, “preached that slavery was a divine institution ordained by God.” Skinner points out how professing and practicing Christians, with Bible in hand, argued that since Canaan descended from Ham, and Ham means black, therefore “God has cursed all Black people and relegated them to conditions of servitude.” At the time of this lecture in 1970, Skinner could name “at least a dozen Bible institutions in this country” still teaching that heresy in their classrooms.
So, my beloved brothers and sisters, with this wicked legacy looming in the American church for all these years, it’s only logical that there would be a residual, festering wound in American Christianity.
The story of Black people trying to survive in America from the start of Jim Crow in 1877 to about the 1950s is a grim history, but it must be recalled. The lynchings, burnings, rapes, false accusations, and beatings reveal, as Skinner pointed out, that “A Black man was looked upon as property and not as a human being.” This is why many Black families eventually moved North, uprooting to places like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia to chase dreams of justice and economic opportunity. But when they arrived, they discovered “patterns of segregation were no different from the South.” Injustice was all over the land of the free and the home of the brave, in the country that pledges liberty and justice for all.
I bring up this sad history in order to highlight the injustice and cruelty that people of color have endured. This is real. It happened. It is happening. From my perspective, it looks like there is more to these protests than momentary angst. I hope we can realize together how the protests didn’t overflow from nowhere. Certainly, the accumulation of pain from generation to generation has contributed to some of what is happening on the streets of America. From the aching history of families ripped apart on African shores, to being followed today in American grocery stores; from ancestors being treated as property, to having the police called on a Black man while he’s enjoying a walk on public property—it all fuels today’s protests.
In the face of injustice, we humbly and peacefully protest—praying to our Prince of Peace and showing that our confidence is first and finally in him.
While we feel the pain of our past and present, believers denounce riots loaded with violence, the defiling of property, and injury to civilians or police. The Bible is clear: we are to be angry and not sin (Eph. 4:26, my emphasis). In the face of injustice, we humbly and peacefully protest—praying to our Prince of Peace and showing that our confidence is first and finally in him.
Throughout this survey of history, the discouraging reality is that aside from a few notable exceptions, “The evangelical, Bible-believing, fundamental, orthodox, conservative church in this country was strangely silent,” Skinner said. During slavery, some Christians took a hands-off approach, arguing, “It’s not our job to get involved . . . those are social issues, and we’ve been called to preach the Word.” Other Christians even actively supported slavery.
History shows that racism didn’t only exist in American culture; it existed in the church. It played an undeniable role in shaping the history of the American church, and it exists today in various forms. Centuries of slavery and injustice coexisting alongside the American church cannot be shrugged off as if there are no lasting effects, wounds, or assimilated habits of thought that disparage the image of God in someone without us even noticing.
History shows that racism didn’t only exist in American culture; it existed in the church.
Preach the Word or Fight for Justice?
Following the rise of the social gospel of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a dichotomy grew in the American church. Many conservative Christians reacted to the theologically liberal social gospel by saying, “No, we’re called to preach the gospel!,” while others insisted that meeting physical needs and righting societal wrongs should be the mission of the church. As Skinner explained,
. . . the more the fundamentalists said, “Preach the gospel,” the more the liberals said, “Feed people.” And the more the liberals said, “Feed people,” the more the fundamentalists said, “Preach the gospel.”
From my perspective, some of these themes seem to be present in our current dialogs on the topic of race.
The theological neglect mentioned by Tom Skinner in his sermon 50 years ago, where one camp neglects to preach while the other side neglects to apply the gospel to every aspect of life, is still present and prevalent in evangelicalism today.
But both of these extremes are wrong. Skinner makes it plain:
Both compartmentalized me. One said, ‘Just give him a passport out of hell to heaven, get him saved, give him eternal life and never mind about his oppression. Never mind about the fact that he has to live with rats and roaches. Never mind that he’s a fourth-class citizen. Never mind that he will be shot on sight. Never mind that there are places he can’t go.’ On the other hand, the liberal compartmentalized me because he wanted only to feed my belly. He did not see me as a total spiritual being.
Right now, within the church we have evangelicals joining the Black Lives Matter bandwagon for social change and evangelicals who hesitate to affirm the biblically mandated truth that Black lives matter* because they see it as a distraction from preaching the gospel.
We all know that the world is lining up on opposite sides. But what breaks my heart is when the church of Christ does it too, lining up in allegiance to a donkey or an elephant and not at the foot of the cross. Jesus won’t share our allegiance. One pastor-friend of mine, DeMyron Haynes, said the goal of the church is not to be in the political middle, “but rather to be a transcendent voice that speaks above both parties.”
Brothers and sisters, both extremes (the social gospel and “only preaching the gospel”) pervert biblical orthodoxy and misunderstand the church’s mission. We’re called to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, and we’re called to obey God’s law, walking in justice, mercy, and love for our neighbor. We can’t be biblical Christians without preaching the gospel, and we can’t be biblical Christians without pursuing justice.
We’re called to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, and we’re called to obey God’s law, walking in justice, mercy, and love for our neighbor.
Tom Skinner’s 1970 address is as relevant today as it was then. (Please, take an hour and listen to the whole thing.) But the difference between now and then is that now, there’s no way we’re going back to the way things have always been. This moment is too big, too different, too earth-shifting. Something’s going to happen—something’s going to change in our world.
The Church’s Decision
One problem I’ve discovered is that a significant number of White Christians in America either do not believe that the church has ever been complicit in the evil of racism, or they do not believe that racism is still a problem in American evangelicalism even now.
So the questions for the church today are: will we acknowledge our history? And how will we then live?
Honestly examining racism in the church (our family) hurts partly because it threatens our hero-worship. When we discover that some fathers of the faith were racists, we don’t want to believe it. Or we panic because we fear that their sin overrides everything they did or taught. But who among us is without sin? Romans spells it out: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23, my emphasis). If our identity is in Christ, we have freedom to acknowledge our sin, and the sin of even the most loved church leaders.
I’m confident I’ll see theologians like Whitefield, Hodge, and Edwards in heaven even though they condoned or participated in slavery. Cancel culture cannot condemn God’s elect (Rom. 8:33). Acknowledging sin does not mean we throw away all that these believers taught or wrote; it means we take sin seriously, and we take the blood of Jesus seriously. If we believe that Jesus’s sacrifice covers all the sins of his people, we don’t need to protect our heroes. Jesus has them. They’re safe.
But we do need to radically acknowledge our history in order to move on, or we may be doomed to repeat it. It seems like what’s happening today is intrinsically connected to what happened then. We must own up to this reality, engage with the past, and acknowledge where we come from if we’re going to get to a better place. And then we must radically pursue unity through the gospel. It’s been done before, brothers and sisters. And by God’s power, we can see it again.
Church history reveals the societal impact of believers who acknowledged the reality of sin and loved the gospel enough to proclaim it and act in accordance with it. C.H. Spurgeon had “the passionate belief that the gospel must be expressed in action. In addition to the Pastors’ College, he also founded a ministry to prostitutes, a ministry to policemen, two orphanages, and seventeen almshouses for widows.” William Wilberforce, the man who led the charge to abolish slavery in the UK, was a Christian whose faith led him to actively work for wide-ranging social reform. We have the examples of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and a host of other believers, like David Daleiden in the pro-life movement, whose faith led them to proclaim Christ and act for justice in the here and now.
These men and women acknowledged the reality of wrongs and injustices, and called the church back to faithfulness in both doctrine and practice. Will we come together in our historic moment to do the same?
Look for part two of this article coming next month, where I will share my concerns for the church today and a path forward in gospel-centered hope.
*Please note that we reject the organization Black Lives Matter. We believe that BLM is based in a secular philosophy that is actually anti-Christian; it is opposed to the clear teaching of God’s Word in various ways and denies humanity’s only hope for true liberation, the Lord Jesus Christ. However, it is biblically true that Black lives do matter. Let’s not allow those true words to be hijacked, nor immediately shut down any person who, feeling the weight of the world’s injustice, uses them.