Semper Reformanda—“always reforming.” This has been the motto, if not the consistent practice, of self-proclaimed biblical churches since the famed sixteenth-century reformation. That reformation commenced 499 years ago this month. Thoughtful Christians are grateful for that movement. As church leaders and their congregations became convinced of scriptural error, they humbled themselves and made the changes, even (and often) in the face of painful persecution.
By nature, the church formed can easily become deformed. Unbiblical teachings and their consequent unethical practices can become entrenched in the church. That is, until the Lord stirs the church to repentance and the needed reformations. Doubtless God is doing this today—globally.
Increasingly, the church of Jesus Christ is coming to see that racism matters—it matters a lot. And encouraging conversations and changes are taking place. This series is a part of that process—at least for us as a local church.
May the Lord grant us the grace to be biblically informed, inwardly transformed, and outwardly reformed as we seek biblical racial reconciliation.
We have noted thus far that racism matters because God’s creation purpose matters, God’s great commandment matters, God’s church matters, and God’s gospel matters.
In this study, we will note two more reasons: because God’s commission matters and because God’s glory matters.
God’s Commission Matters
God’s commission is recorded in Matthew 28:18–20: “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.”
The assignment of the church is the Great Commission and to address those challenges that arise as we are obedient. A major challenge that arises in the Great Commission is intimately connected to the commission itself: multi-cultural redemptive relationships. If we do not overcome our biases and prejudices, we will not be very effective in discipling the ethnos of the world.
We are responsible to address this matter of racism and ethnocentricity by seeking to reach all peoples. In fact, this is probably the most practical way to do so!
It makes absolutely no biblical (or moral) sense for the church to engage in cross-cultural missions and yet be racist. If we do not love those around the corner from us, then we are being grossly hypocritical to express love for those who live on the other side of the globe.
I attended a church years ago in the United States that very publicly made it known that they supported missionaries in Africa and yet would not allow black people to attend their services. It was shameful.
Clearly, the Great Commission is a matter of cross-cultural evangelism and discipleship. Literally, we are to disciple the ethnicities, the ethnos of the world—all of them, each and every one of them. Their souls matter. Their souls matter to God. They should matter to us. We should pray for the unreached and do whatever we can to get the gospel to them wherever they live.
Though we may not be able to relate directly to them, because we cannot identify with their culture and because we know so little about them, nevertheless, we should be able to relate to their plight. They are sinners who need the Saviour. They are people for whom Christ died. The reality of hell should make us care. We should care a lot.
The Antiochan Way
A multicultural church will have a wonderful platform from which to launch a worldwide and multicultural mission. The church at Antioch serves as a wonderful, real life illustration of what this looks like.
The founding of the church at Antioch is recorded in Acts 11:
Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
Some time passed in Luke’s account before we are introduced again to the church at Antioch, and this time we find a church with a multicultural leadership actively involved in cross-cultural missions:
Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.
“They sent them away” to many Gentile territories. The story of the impact of the church at Antioch is a remarkable one. This church impacted the world for good like none other; yes, even more than the church at Rome.
This church grew to encompass twenty percent of the city’s population of 500,000. It was home to some of the most outstanding church leaders in history, including Chrysostom “the Golden-Mouthed.” The church at Antioch was a spiritual force to be reckoned with for some 250 years. It was home to some of the best biblical manuscripts. It was a deeply multicultural congregation served by a multicultural leadership. Most notably, it was the first church in recorded history to intentionally send out missionaries with a multicultural agenda. It is for this reason that it serves as the model church when it comes to the Great Commission.
The Context of its Founding
In Acts 11, we read that this church was founded on the heels of Saul’s persecution. This persecution commenced with the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, and it peaked as recorded in Acts 8:
Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.
Part of the “everywhere” was Antioch, where a solid local church was ultimately founded.
This background is important. It shows that the church was founded by those committed to the Great Commission. It was founded by those who were free of Judeo-centric obsession (vv. 19–20). It was founded by the blessing of God (v. 21).
The church was grounded initially by Barnabas, and then by the apostle Paul, God’s missionary to the ethnos. There was no more fitting local church from which he could be sent on his mission.
But note that there is a broader context here.
In Acts 10, Peter preached at Cornelius’s house, and God’s gospel blessings fell on the Gentiles. In 11:1–17, he was grilled by the Jewish Christians as to what he had done, and he defended his ministry to the Gentiles biblically. The Jewish Christians concluded that God had indeed started a great work among the Gentiles. It is then that Luke takes his record back to the Antioch church in 11:19–30.
What Jesus commanded, as recorded in Acts 1:8, was now coming to pass. The Samaritans had received the gospel, as had the Ethiopian eunuch (chapter 8). This was huge. Those of mixed cultural heritage were now members of God’s one new man in Christ. Those who were darker than the Semites were a part of the one true family of God. The temple of God was being made up of stones that were very diverse.
But with the establishing of the church at Antioch, the multicultural expansion of the Great Commission became epochal. Cultural barriers were coming down, in a large way. Even the leadership of the Antioch church included those of varying pigmentation, pedigree and prosperity (13:1).
The point of all of this is to highlight that the church cannot be party to racist attitudes and a faithful partner with the Lord Jesus Christ in the Great Commission at the same time.
If we do not overcome our tendency towards racist, ethno-centric, caste biases, we will not be very successful in our mission. Our efforts and our commitment will amount to mere tokenism. The church’s credibility is at stake.
The church has lost far too much credibility in large swaths of India, Africa and the Americas due to colonialism. We need to admit this.
We need to confess where the church has historically failed and change direction. We call this repentance.
The Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), which was only founded in 1973, recently held their general assembly in Mobile, Alabama. Two of the elders of that church suggested that they issue a public apology for the racist sins of the church in the past. During the 1960s, long before the PCA was ever founded, Alabama was the most segregated state in America. Though the PCA was not around at the time, this denomination realised that the church has a legacy that needs to be repented of.
The testimony is that it was a wonderful time. Many were brought under conviction for their own racism. I have a feeling that God is going to do great things through that denomination.
More Challenging Today?
There may be a very serious objection to my assertion that Antioch exemplifies how racism can be overcome in the church. The argument runs something like this:
Though there were clearly different nationalities in the church at Antioch, they nevertheless shared a commonality of a culture shaped by the Greco-Roman world. We might argue that, in South Africa, though we share the same geographic region, we do not share the same cultural affinities. For instance, we have eleven official languages, and much rural living while at the same time a large urbanised population. South Africa is an amalgamation of many different tribal, cultural groups of people, and therefore we might be tempted to ask, “What has Antioch got to do with Johannesburg?”
The answer is that, in fact, such diversity should actually strengthen our resolve to have a multicultural church and mission to display the same powerful gospel as experienced by those in Antioch. For, in fact, though the situations are not precisely the same, we should keep in mind the deep hostility that these various cultural groups often held towards each other. And yet they were united in Christ.
In sum, if we are not overcoming our sinful racist attitudes and actions here at home, we will hinder the greatest cause ever given to man: the Great Commission to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ among all the peoples of the world. As has been well said, the light that shines the furthest shines the brightest at home. How is our light of gospel-driven racial reconciliation shining here?
This has several practical implications.
First, when tempted to disregard another because of their pigmentation or pedigree, stop and consider the command of Matthew 28:18–20. Consider how your attitude and actions affect this mandate. It matters.
Second, when we are tempted to focus on our homogenous group, we should consider the record of the Great Commission in Acts 1:8ff. The record of Acts is the record of a slowly expanding church. The gospel reached across cultural and ethnic borders, turning the world upside down, in no small part because of its multicultural character.
Third, we should consider the heart of God when we are tempted to disregard those who are different. He loves them! The Bible could not be clearer. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Jesus said, “And I, if I am lifted up, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32). In the Good Shepherd discourse, He said that there were “other sheep” not of the Jewish “fold” that He needed to reach (John 10:16).
We need to proactively equip those of other ethnicities—to proactively partner with them. We who are white need to wake up to the reality that we are in the minority in South Africa, and that the face of the church is a lot darker than it perhaps used to be. (In doing so, let’s remember that the early church was very strong in North Africa. As one scholar has noted, “When we trace the history of the church and dismiss Africa, we miss the birth canal of our faith.”)
Soong-Chan Rah predicts that “by 2050, African, Asian, and Latin-American Christians will constitute seventy-one percent of the world’s Christian population.”
Once again, we need to face the reality that, generally speaking, the white church in South Africa had better access to sound theological education than the average black aspiring pastor. And the church has suffered, and continues to suffer, from this. That is why there is so much confusion in many black churches when it comes to the prosperity gospel and other heresies.
We must be intentional to try and correct this. We can do so by initiating opportunities to connect with black churches and pastors. That will mean having black pastors in our own pulpit. Even if we find it difficult to “follow” their preaching, relationships must sometimes take precedence over “quality of delivery.”
There are other ways in which we can do this: financially supporting black theological students; partnering with churches in predominately black areas; provide pastoral training and internships. These are just some of the ways that we can intentionally strive for racial reconciliation and work to help strengthen the church at large.
The Importance of Contextualisation
There has been much discussion in South Africa recently about decolonisation. Much of this has taken place in the #FeesMustFall student protests. There is much about this discussion that we should pay attention to.
There may well be some wisdom in revising some of the curricula used in South African schools and universities. For example, teaching Shakespeare, particularly in rural settings, doesn’t seem to make much sense. There are surely plenty of brilliant black writers whose writings would serve the same purpose.
What about requiring westernised suits and dress for the workplace? Missionary John Paton, Scottish by nationality, provided kilts for ex-cannibals in the New Hebrides, while he perhaps could have adapted something more suited to that culture. We live in Africa; surely allowing Africans to express themselves in the way they dress should be considered?
I have travelled to India and have observed very British architectural design in Kolkota, where India architecture would have been far better suited to the surroundings and the people there.
We simply need to think about these things. At the same time, there is a wrong-headedness about the call to decolonise. There are some things that simply cannot be decolonised.
For example, it makes no sense to call for the decolonisation of engineering. It seems to me that the rules of structural soundness will apply worldwide. There are rules of mathematics that are universal: two plus two equals four no matter where you live in the world. (Although the example of four impalas may be better suited to a South African context than four British pounds!) Since we live in a multicultural society, we must be willing to apply give and take. We should not be hypersensitive.
But this aside, we must at the same time be careful of training pastors after a model that ignores one’s culture. Conrad Mbewe is a striking example to me. Known as “the Spurgeon of Africa,” Conrad is both Reformed and African. The church in his music is different to what might be expected in a largely white church. The way that he articulates biblical positions to his church is different than in an American congregation. The truths are the same, but the delivery looks different. It is the same content, but it is culturally “dressed” in a different way.
Anthony Bradley, a black theologian in the United States, has observed that, too often, when people of colour go to theological seminaries, they often come out with more than theological training: They also pick up a particular culture—one that can actually hinder their ministry. He concludes that this contextualisation is not helpful for them when they return to minister among their own ethnic people. He writes,
Predominantly white evangelical denominations and associations have established a cultural context in which the only acceptable blacks, Latinos, and Asians are those who tend to be what some might call “sell-outs,” “oreos,” “twinkies,” and the like—that is, those who are culturally white and tend to separate from their own ethnic communities. The more an ethnic person adopts white cultural norms, leaving his or her ethnic heritage behind and denigrating it, the more likely it is that that person will be embraced as a representative of “diversity” in evangelical circles.
But again, we are not to be content merely with racial diversity; We are aiming rather for biblical racial reconciliation.
Once again, we who have been privileged need to better steward our privileges for the furtherance of the kingdom. As one black theologian has noted, we need to “situate discussions of race within an understanding of white privilege. It is what it is. Instead of denying it, we need to think creatively about how it can be used for the advancement of the kingdom of Christ and for the common good.”
God’s Glory/Goal Matters
Finally, racism matters because God’s glory—His goal—matters. In Revelation 5, John had a vision of 24 elders before the throne of God. The elders were singing to the Lamb: “You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9–10). A little later, John had this vision:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
These verses give us a glimpse of God’s consummated purpose: all peoples bringing glory to God. Those who were originally separated by languages and ethnicity are now saying the same thing about our shared God and Father of our same Lord Jesus Christ. And this all happens by the same power of the Holy Spirit. We see a diverse yet unified people praising our gloriously gracious God.
In commenting on Ephesians 2:10ff, on God reconciling Jew and Gentile together through the gospel, Jarvis Williams writes, “Paul does not state here that Jesus’ death hypothetically achieved or can possibly assist in the endeavour of reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. Instead, he emphatically states that Jesus’ death has accomplished it for the believing community of faith (see 1:15; 2:8–9)!”
This is important—very important. Williams is highlighting what is true of the church. This is who we are: a diverse and reconciled people—reconciled to God and to all believers. So let us live out who we are.
What we see in this scene of consummated glory is how we should be living—now! We have now come full circle: From creation’s purpose to the fulfilment of that purpose. And it includes all pigmentation, all pedigree and all levels of prosperity. So, I hope that you can now see, perhaps a bit more clearly, that racism matters. It matters to God; it must matter to us.
Unarguably, racism matters. And we must not ignore it. This is a fundamental issue that therefore requires us to think clearly, deeply, theologically, biblically and practically.
With all of the angst faced by the church, let us do all we can to live out our conviction that all lives matter. Therefore, racism matters. It must be confronted, confessed and crushed by the one who himself was crushed.
We must be honest with ourselves: Racism runs deep in our sin nature. By nature, we are sceptical of those who are different. We don’t easily move out of our cultural comfort zones. We are hesitant to believe the best of others. That is, we are hesitant to love our neighbour as ourselves. Yet we must love one another, beginning by loving God.
As we learn to love God and one another, we will increasingly stop with our sinful generalisations. When Philip first met Jesus, he immediately went to tell Nathanael that he had met Messiah. When Nathanael heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, he immediately generalised: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Generally speaking, little was expected of Nazareth, but to make the absolute assumption that nothing good could come from there was wholly unjustified, for in fact the very best thing came out of Nazareth!
Let us listen to one another. Let us learn from one another. Let us look out for one another. Let us live with one another. Let’s do so locally—in the church and in our wider communities. And may God be pleased to bless our gospel-driven efforts and show the world a better way: God’s way for God’s glory.
Consider this helpful admonition from an author addressing the issue of Jews and Gentiles serving and worshipping together in the same local churches:
We should consciously labour for multi-ethnic congregations that proclaim in both word and deed that Christ is preeminent. Such a church will naturally partake of the majority culture, but constantly subject it to careful scrutiny in accordance with the spirit of the gospel. A church should always reflect the gospel, call with a voice of righteousness to all nations, and show by example what God in Christ does in the life of a community. This church will invite all men to the obedience of faith. May God forgive our many errors.