“Forgive me, brothers.”
Reformed Theological Seminary chancellor Ligon Duncan fought back tears as he repented of racial blindness to 12,000 Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference-goers in Louisville, Kentucky, this past April.
“It has taken more than three decades for God to bring this blindness off of my heart,” he said.
The stillness of the crowd during Duncan’s heartfelt admission resembled that of the evening before, when David Platt preached from Amos 5:18–27 in a sermon subtitled “Racism and Our Need for Repentance.”
“I need to say from the start that I have failed to act as I ought on the issue of racism,” Platt said, “and God has opened my eyes to blind spots in my life and in my leadership, or lack thereof, in the church on this issue. God has revealed sinfulness to me that I had not seen in me. He has shown me things I will say tonight that I might have been offended by before.”
Behind Platt and Duncan’s repentance are stories of friendship that reformed how they saw the most polarizing topic in America.
Ligon Duncan’s Journey
In the Jackson, Mississippi, summer of 1990, Duncan taught his first course at RTS, “Pastoral and Social Ethics.”
Racism escaped his radar.
“If you grew up in the South, and you’re coming to Mississippi in 1990 to teach a course on pastoral and social ethics, what might be a social-ethical issue that you might want to at least just touch on?” Duncan said. “Well, racism might just be one issue that you want to touch on. Did it even occur to me to look at racism? No, it did not occur to me. I covered abortion. I covered birth control. I covered gender, sexuality, marriage issues. It did not occur to me to cover racism.”
It did not occur to him, Duncan told TGC, because he spent the first 30 years of his life with people who looked like him. His churches were predominately white. His friends were predominately white. He had black peers at seminary, but his relationships with them never grew close enough to challenge how he viewed the relationship between racism and the church.
[Duncan] had black peers at seminary, but his relationships with them never grew close enough to challenge how he viewed the relationship between racism and the church.
“In three distinct eras of American history—slavery, segregation, and civil rights—a lot of conservative churches have argued that talking about those things is divisive and hurts the unity of the church, so they shouldn’t be taught,” Duncan said. “Besides, ‘Those things are social and political, and the church is spiritual.’ Some of that had impacted me, I think.”
Duncan had also learned some of his Southern history through a Lost Cause lens, an ideology that paints the Confederate cause for the Civil War as heroic.
This lens did not last. His longtime friend Mark Dever began to invite him to preach annually at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., which was a more diverse congregation than his own. Duncan became friends with some “godly, Bible-believing” African American friends who loved “big-God theology.”
One of those friends was elder and future T4G speaker Thabiti Anyabwile.
As Duncan’s friendship with Anyabwile grew, so did his awareness of how they experienced different Americas because of their different skin colors. Duncan’s son, for example, has never been confused about his race, unlike Anyabwile’s son, who had never been labeled an “African American” until his family moved back to the States from his birthplace in the Cayman Islands. Duncan has also never had to warn his son about the risk of being large and wearing a hoodie outside. Anyabwile has. Nor has Duncan ever needed to think twice about buying his son a toy water gun, as Anyabwile had to after Tamir Rice’s shooting.
Because of this new relationship, Duncan began to see a new perspective. Without investment into lives different than his, Duncan’s T4G manuscript would have tackled race as much as his “Pastoral and Social Ethics” course did.
Without investment into lives different than his, Duncan’s T4G manuscript would have tackled race as much as his ‘Pastoral and Social Ethics’ course did.
“When you get to love someone, you start to care about the things that they care about,” Duncan told TGC. “So many of us live segregated lives. We’re not setting out deliberately to live segregated lives. We’re not living segregated lives out of a conviction that we believe in white supremacy or that we’re against race-mixing. It just happened because of the way we live. We talk about America being a melting pot. Mmhmm, not so much. We’ve got a lot of different cultures here, but we tend to stay to ourselves. And what that does is, it makes you blind to the experience of people who aren’t like you. And so, when you become friends with people who are not like you, and you let your guard down, and you love them, and you trust them . . . you can see things you didn’t see before. You’re finally in a situation where you can start learning.”
Duncan’s love for Anyabwile and other minority friends “sent me on a journey to read and reread, and to study and restudy, things I should’ve seen 30 years ago,” he said.
David Platt’s Journey
Platt’s journey began more recently. The Atlanta native, like Duncan, grew up in an overwhelmingly white, Southern area.
“I look at my life and ministry and, in so many ways, my world has been so white,” Platt said at T4G.
Then in September 2017, Platt became a teaching pastor in the Washington metropolitan area at McLean Bible Church, where people of 106 different nationalities attend. Platt met with McLean’s diverse staff about how to not simply look like a multi-ethnic church, but to live like one.
“Just because we have a 106 different nations doesn’t mean we are pursuing the kind of diversity and community that God designs for us to,” Platt told TGC. “We want to be intentional and make sure that it’s not just a majority ethnicity still dominating decision-making and thinking and processing in the church, so we’re really intentional about laying aside preferences and pursuing true, multi-ethnic community.”
Such a conversation is new to the 38-year-old Platt’s ministry. He believes this should not be.
Recently, a friend asked Platt a question that left him in reflection: “As you look back on your time pastoring [at the Church at Brook Hills], before you stepped into the role at the International Mission Board (IMB), what’s one thing, or a couple things, you would change?” Platt said, quoting his friend.
“The first thing that came to my mind was . . . I look back, and I was not intentional about leading the church toward greater ethnic diversity, in a way that would be a reflection of the gospel in our midst,” he answered.
McLean’s diversity opened Platt’s eyes to the lack of diversity in other parts of his life. Platt, who doubles as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s IMB, also admitted failure to mobilize African American Christians in mission as he ought.
His posture of repentance climaxed this past January when, on the weekend of Martin Luther King Day amid a 40-day fast, he taught from Amos 5:21–24 on the gospel and racialization. McLean held a panel discussion on race and the local church as well.
Then within the month, Platt gathered with the plenary speakers at T4G, as they usually do each January before the conference to dialogue about their sermon topics. Platt came to the meeting with a sermon idea, but he left with another.
“Some of the brothers were aware of the [Amos 5] sermon and said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’” Platt recalled. “I was really hesitant. ‘I feel like I’m in over my head, and I don’t have a stellar record on this issue.’ But they really encouraged me to dive into this issue and say all the things that I did.”
T4G 2018, whose theme was “Distinct from the World,” may have been the event’s most publicized stand against racism. But in interviews with TGC, Duncan and Anyabwile referenced the conference’s affirmations and denials that have existed since its inauguration in 2006.
Article XVII reads:
We affirm that God calls his people to display his glory in the reconciliation of the nations within the church, and that God’s pleasure in this reconciliation is evident in the gathering of believers from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. We acknowledge that the staggering magnitude of injustice against African Americans in the name of the gospel presents a special opportunity for displaying the repentance, forgiveness, and restoration promised in the gospel. We further affirm that evangelical Christianity in America bears a unique responsibility to demonstrate this reconciliation with our African American brothers and sisters. We deny that any church can accept racial prejudice, discrimination, or division without betraying the gospel.
If T4G’s trumpeting of Article XVII sounded louder this year, Anyabwile said it was due to recent events in the United States.
“The difference between 2006 and 2018,” he said, is that “for the last four or five years, the culture’s been roiled with the rise of alt-right, white supremacy stuff, and neo-Nazi stuff and all of these tragic shootings . . . such that now addressing these things in a more forthright and extended manner is important. But I don’t regard it as a major departure from where these men’s hearts and thinking were at least in some beginning sense back in 2006.”
Divided by Faith
One of the means by which Duncan and Platt’s respective friendships helped change their views on race was a book suggestion: Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith.
Published in 2000, Divided by Faith presents findings from interviews with more than 2,500 Americans about race.
“Their extensive research suggested an intriguing pattern,” Christianity Today wrote in its book review nearly 18 years ago. “Most white evangelicals deny the existence of any ongoing racial problem in the U.S., and many blame the media and African Americans who refuse to forget the past for any lingering racial conflict. This perception, contend the authors, is not so much informed by racism but by a commitment to an individualized theological worldview that blinds many white evangelicals to certain societal injustices.”
“If you are one of those people who thinks that racism is created mainly by the way we talk about it—or by talking about it at all—you should cancel your appointments one day in the next week, and read Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith,” said Mark Dever, who recommended the book to Platt. Former Capitol Hill Baptist elder Shai Linne originally recommended it to Dever.
Together for the Gospel
In the shadow of the nation’s capitol, pastors can’t successfully hide from politically charged conversations. They also won’t be able to successfully unite church members on every single political policy (nor should they try).
But at T4G 2018, Duncan and Platt emphasized that loving your neighbor who faces racism is obeying Jesus. And it’s not perfect conformity, but rather the church’s love for one another even amid difference and disagreement, that makes it distinct from the world.
“I look out in the church,” Platt said, “and I see this person over here, who’s sitting there and I know they are staunchly Democratic in the way they vote and work on political issues. And I look over next to them in the same row, and I see somebody who is staunchly Republican in the way they vote and the way they work on political issues. And I think, That’s the beauty of the gospel, when it has that kind of power, to bring together people who, otherwise, on many issues—many issues—would be on different sides of the aisle. But, when it comes to the gospel, they have a true unity. I want that picture to be evident in the church.”