With our 2019 perspective, we find it absolutely unbelievable that the founders of the SBC could preach the gospel while also owning slaves and regarding people for whom Christ died as sub-human. There are discussions ongoing as to whether the founders – blatant and unrepentant racists – were actually saved. We took action at the Annual Meeting this year that would prevent the founders of our convention and their churches from being a part of our convention today, because of their racism, an action I enthusiastically supported.
- Were the founders of the SBC false believers? Were they truly redeemed?
- Should we reject them entirely and all they believed?
- Is the SBC and its entire life stained because of the shameful racist history of its founders?
I am reluctant to delve into the question of who is truly redeemed and who is not. Some people seem to have paperback copies of the Book of Life and are able to speak with certainty that this person or that is not truly saved. I remember a seminary professor who told us that there would be two big surprises when we reach heaven, “Them that’s there, and them that ain’t.” I believe that the grace of God is much bigger than our human foibles and even the redeemed often fail to live out their redemption.
People who love Jesus and seem to be theologically grounded and spiritually mature in many ways can have blind spots through which a phalanx of enemy troops could drive trucks. Would that every believer demonstrated the love and holiness of Christ in everything he or she did, but that simply is not the case. Blind spots – areas of sin that ought to be obvious but which we ignore – are common among the saints.
We are coming face to face with the fact that racism has been a blind spot in the American church. Every time I hear a Christian brother or sister talk about “restoring” the American church to what it once was, I cringe. This myth, that our nation’s founding fathers were men of God seeking to establish a Christian nation of virtue and holiness, is much easier for white people to maintain than it is for the descendants of the slaves who were dehumanized, the Native Americans who were brutalized, or other ethnic groups who were treated shamefully. Racism has been part and parcel of the American experience for most of our existence. The greatest resistance to racial progress came from churches, from “Christian” people during the years of the Civil Rights movement. The racial history of the American church is not something about which we can boast.
Does that mean that American Christianity has been fake? Were there no real Christian faith among the segregationists? Is it wrong for us to love our country and to think that the American system of government is a good one because of the massive blind spot our forefathers had about race (one that has not been completely eradicated today)? To honor Christ, must we disdain America and view its “Christian” history as an abomination?
This is a difficult issue and as a lily-white Iowan, I am always a little nervous opining on racial issues. I have lived my life as part of the majority and except for my years in Taiwan and my 9 mission trips to Africa, I am inexperienced at being a minority. Those experiences hardly exposed me to systemic racism.
I have waffled on posting this because I realize how easily it could be misinterpreted. I care little about how the anti-social justice crowd twists it – they pretty much twist everything that doesn’t fit their narrative. I am more concerned that someone could think that I am attempting to excuse racism or downplay its serious nature, and that is not my purpose. I do not want to excuse, rationalize, justify, or give any cover to racism in any form. It is sin and runs contrary to the purposes of Christ, who died not only to save people by grace through faith, but as Ephesians 2 goes on to say, to tear down human walls and bind them together as one Body. That is why we say that race is a “gospel issue” – because uniting believers of every tribe and language into one people to worship God eternally is rooted in the purposes of the cross and to divide on the basis of race is contrary to the purpose of the cross.
Having said that, I noticed something as I studied Acts. Racism isn’t original to the American church. In fact, it was a central issue in the first church, the Jerusalem church. This was a great church, filled with people who loved Jesus, suffered for him, and were filled with the Spirit of God. We know they were filled because the Bible says they were filled. Yet, in spite of being Spirit-filled, deeply committed, Jesus-loving believers, they had a blind spot about racism that becomes clear when you look at Acts.
Race and the Early Church
At the beginning of Acts, the church was 100% Jewish and by Acts 28 it had expanded across the Roman Empire and was predominantly Gentile. This transition, from Jewish sect to Gentile church, is a key theme in Acts and was the driving force behind much controversy. There is ample evidence from Acts and from other texts that the church at Jerusalem, a model church in so many ways, never caught on to the heart of God to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. They were inwardly focused and content to reach Jerusalem, perhaps even Judea and Samaria, as long as the Jewish nature of the church was preserved.
Look at some of the biblical evidence.
- The Jerusalem church made no effort to move the gospel outside of Jerusalem. This can charitably be attributed to “God’s timing,” but there is no evidence of an urgency in the church for the gospel to move beyond the Jews.
- It was only when the church was scattered through persecution (Acts 8) that Philip and others began to carry the gospel to Judea and Samaria.
- In Acts 10, it took a vision from God and the direct command of the Holy Spirit to convince Peter to go with the three men sent from Cornelius. He was reluctant to engage a Gentile with the gospel and God had to twist his arm to do so. Clearly, Peter was not chomping at the bit to preach Christ to the Gentiles!
- Word of the Spirit’s outpouring on Gentiles caused turmoil in Jerusalem. We do not know how strong the influence of the “circumcision party” was but Jerusalem Twitter was aflutter over this kerfuffle. They were not rejoicing that Gentiles had received Christ and been filled with the Spirit, but concerned about the Jewishness of the church moving forward.
- When Barnabas and Saul traveled to Galatia and reached many Gentiles, a controversy rose up that required the Church Council of Acts 15. How Jewish did one have to be to become a Christian? Racial issues (interaction between Jews and Gentiles) were a key issue as the church expanded.
- In Galatians 2, Paul tells the story of Cephas (Peter) seeking to please the judgmental Jews rather than following the gospel imperatives that included the Gentiles. He publicly rebukes Peter for his actions. The original Apostles and the Jerusalem church were not quick to idea of Gentile inclusion.
- The key verse in all this is Acts 11:19. When the Jews were scattered from Jerusalem, they began to travel and proclaim Christ, but look what it says. “Now those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.” They would not proclaim Christ to anyone but other Jews. NO ONE EXCEPT JEWS. The Jews of Jerusalem had racial tunnel vision, seeing Jesus as the Messiah of the Jews and little more.
- But God had a solution, the church at Antioch. With diverse leadership, this church took up the task of taking the gospel to a lost world. Acts 11:20-21 says, “But there were some of them, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.” With racially and culturally diverse leadership and a heart for the world, the Antioch church became God’s tool for the spread of the gospel to the world.
What conclusions can we draw from all of this?
1. The heart of God is for the ends of the earth and a Revelation 7:9 gathering of the redeemed – people of every tribe and language worshiping the crucified and risen Christ. But the human heart tends to be inward, focused on “me and mine.” Our natural tendency is contrary to the heart of God (no surprise there). This tendency is nothing new but has been part of the church since the first church in Jerusalem. Racism comes naturally to us. Fighting it is a supernatural work of Christ.
Application: When we confront racism in the American church, we are not saying it is unique in history. Racism, anti-semitism, racial supremacy – these things have plagued the church since Pentecost and have been one of the great impediments to the work of Jesus Christ. Inwardness and a sense that “our people” are more important than “those people” is the way human beings think – natural, flesh-driven thought. We must challenge the church to think biblically and spiritually.
2. When Jerusalem refused to adopt the heart of God, God raised up Antioch. When the Jerusalem church labored inwardly and failed to grasp God’s heart for One Body from every tribe and language on earth uniting in worship (Revelation 7:9), God raised up another church to do his work.
Application: This ought to chill those of us who love our land and want to see the American church and the SBC prosper. If you want to “save America” the last thing you want to do is recommend that we go back to the “good old days” when segregation and discrimination reigned. These things offended God and ran contrary to his purposes for the church. If the American church continues to be racially fractured, to promote nationalism and cultural supremacy, God will find another vehicle through which to work. He has used the American church and the SBC in wonderful ways, in spite of our blind spots, as he did with Jerusalem. But if we fail to follow his heart, he will find an Antioch church to work through, one that reflects his heart for the world. The American church and the SBC are not indispensable to the work of God’s kingdom.
3. God uses imperfect Christians, but that never excuses our imperfections. Jerusalem was a wonderfully imperfect church. The churches I have pastored have been wonderfully imperfect. Ephesus was wonderfully imperfect. God works with churches that are wonderfully imperfect but he also calls them to repentance, renewal, and greater holiness. We can never use the patience of God as an excuse for our own sin.
Application: God has used the wonderfully imperfect American (white evangelical) church. God has used the wonderfully imperfect Southern Baptist convention. He has graciously imparted his Spirit to empower our forebears and even us to proclaim Christ, reach the lost, and send missionaries all around the world. But God’s grace does not excuse our sin nor does it abrogate our responsibility to do better. We must continue to honor Christ, proclaim the gospel, and rid our convention of the trappings of racism and must conform our hearts to the heart of God.
God’s grace should be our motivation for holiness not our excuse for sloppiness.
Racism is rooted in the natural self-centeredness of the human heart. Me and mine matter more than you and yours. It is the work of Christ to turn us away from inwardness to have hearts that beat with Christ’s, to become his agents in building a one worshiping people from every tribe and language on earth. May we be more like the Antioch church!