Thinking Theologically About Racial Tensions: Life Together in the Church

This is the final installment of a four-part series on thinking theologically about racial tensions. I posted an introductory piece three weeks ago. Then I wrote on the image of God and sin and guilt. Prior to this series, I also did a post on race and American history.

When I talk to my seminary students and pastoral interns about preaching, I often warn them against the sermon whose organizing principle is basically, “Here are a bunch of things I’ve been thinking about related to this passage.” Well, after reading this post, my students and interns will have every right to say, “Physician, heal thyself!” because I want to finish this series by offering a smattering of loosely connected suggestions related to race and racism.

If there is an organizing theme, it is, as the title indicates, about life together in the church: how we can maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3) and grow into maturity together in Christ (vv. 13–16).

My 15 suggestions apply to race most specifically, but I hope that most of the reflections can serve as helpful reminders for our polarized, politicized, and digitized world more generally.

1. Don’t lose sight of the mission of the church.

I won’t repeat the arguments Greg Gilbert and I made in What Is the Mission of the Church?, but even if one does not agree with everything in our book, surely most evangelical Christians want to affirm the central importance of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). When Jesus launched his public ministry, he called people to repent and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15). When Jesus sent out the disciples in mission, he called them to be witnesses to the resurrection and heralds of repentance and forgiveness in his name (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). And when we see Peter and John and Paul carrying out the mission of the church in Acts, we invariably see them teaching the word and preaching about Christ.

We are finite people with finite time and finite resources; let us stay committed to the ordinary means of grace—the word of God, the sacraments, and prayer—those things that if the church does not do them, no one and nothing else will.

2. Don’t lose sight of what it means to be a fully formed disciple of Christ.

Nothing in the paragraph above should be taken to mean Christians never talk about justice or current events or issues that might be labeled political. We ought to take every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), we are called to live as salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13–16), and in fulfilling the Great Commission, we teach the nations to obey everything Christ has commanded (Matt. 28:20).

As I’ve said before, social justice—by which I mean treating people equitably, working for systems and structures that are fair, and looking out for the weak and the vulnerable—is not a “gospel issue” if that means adding to sola fide, making anything else as central in our preaching as Christ crucified, or insisting that everyone be as fired up about my preferred issues as I am.

But if “gospel issue” means “a necessary concern of those who have been saved by the gospel” or “one aspect of what it means to keep in step with the gospel” or “realities without which you may not be truly believing the gospel,” then social justice is certainly a gospel issue (Lev. 19, 25; Isa. 1, 58; Amos 5; Micah 6:8). It is part and parcel of being a disciple of Jesus.

3. Love one another and aspire to live a quiet life.

First Thessalonians 4:8–12 is a forgotten passage in our day. But in a world that sometimes encourages violent upheaval, we need to hear Paul’s exhortation that the Thessalonians “aspire to live quietly” and “to mind [their] own affairs” (4:11). Clearly, Paul does not mean “be an island unto yourself” when he says, “mind your own affairs.” He commends the Thessalonians for their brotherly love and urges them to serve one another more and more (4:9–10). He doesn’t want us unconcerned for the needs of the body. At the same time, you get the distinct impression that working hard, providing for your family, and caring for the body of Christ is a life well-lived.

Sometimes quiet faithfulness is the most revolutionary thing we can do.

Sometimes quiet faithfulness is the most revolutionary thing we can do.

4. Be careful we don’t make good things for us requirements for everyone.

Your passion may be for adoption, or eradicating racism, or ending abortion, or for clean water, or for criminal justice reform, or for a thousand other good things. Not everyone will be into the same thing. We must allow for others to have a different sense of calling on their lives. Even a quick scroll on our social media feed can be overwhelming. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything we are told we must do. I refuse to believe that obedience to Christ requires a 35-hour day.

I have to attend to my primary vocation—which is to first be a happy and holy follower of Christ, then to be a husband and father, and then to be a faithful pastor (and there are actually quite a few hats I have to wear after that).

We should feel guilty for disobeying the commands of Scripture; we should not feel guilty for not living the life someone else wants us to live.

5. Let us model compassion toward others along with a dispassionate analysis of the facts.

It is rare that you find both of these things in the same person, but the Spirit can work miracles. We should be people who feel deeply and think carefully. We must not bully people with arguments (even right ones), and we must not allow emotions (even sincere ones) to substitute for logic and evidence.

6. Let us rigorously attend to the definition of words.

We are people of the Word inscripturated, worshipers of the Word incarnate, and believers in the importance of faith-invigorating and faith-defending words in creeds and confessions. Of all people, Christians should care about definitions.

Systemic racism, social justice, cultural Marxism, diversity, privilege—these terms and phrases beg for definitions. We should also realize that labels often function as signposts to solution. The words we use suggest the remedies that should follow.

7. Remember the online world is not the primary world we should inhabit.

When younger people say, “You need to do something” (whatever that something may be), they are often thinking about doing something online (making a statement, joining a hashtag, posting a symbolic gesture), and that’s one way to do something. But praying is also doing something. Educating yourself is also doing something. Raising kids in the fear and admonition of the Lord is also doing something. Giving money in secret is also doing something. Correcting and encouraging others in private is also doing something. Teaching and preaching and praying in public is also doing something. Being salt and light in the work place is also doing something.

We should not think that the digital world is the only one that counts or that it is most important.

We should not think that the digital world is the only one that counts or that it is most important.

8. Don’t use labels and buzzword to shut down honest conversation and intellectual inquiry.

This happens on the left and the right. In some contexts, if you talk about racism or the lingering effects of injustice, you will immediately be labeled a “cultural Marxist” or a “Social Justice Warrior” or someone who is adding to the gospel. In other contexts, if you talk about personal responsibility or pathologies that may contribute to lingering disparities, you will immediately be labeled a racist or accused of white privilege or “not getting it.”

We can debate whether cultural Marxism is a thing and whether white privilege is a thing, but the operative word here is debate. Labels have their place at the conclusion of arguments. They are less helpful in the place of arguments altogether.

9. Consider that there is more than one legitimate way to assess the current state of racism in America.

I’m convinced the elephant in the room in so many discussions about race is that we don’t agree on how bad racism is in America. To a large extent, we have to admit that we aren’t all going to see eye to eye on this one. But perhaps we can inch toward some common ground if we realize that there are various ways to frame the issue.

Are we comparing racism in 2020 to racism in 1960 or comparing ourselves with other countries? Are we looking at the gains blacks have made since 1965 in absolute terms or the persistent disparities when measured against whites? Should we measure blacks in this country today against whites today, or against where black people were in the past, or against black people everywhere in the world? Will progress be marked by increases in personal wealth or in income or education? Should we look for increases in raw numbers or a narrowing of the gap between blacks and whites? Does the story we are telling start in the 1960s or the 1600s? Do our statistics look at blacks as a percentage of the population or blacks as a percentage when controlled for other factors? Is anti-racism a matter of an equal process, an equal opportunity, or an equal outcome?

You get the point.

Asking these questions does not solve the problem, but maybe it helps us see that there are different facts which can be used to tell different stories.

10. Distinguish between biblical principles and prudential judgments.

What makes the questions above so difficult is that they depend on prudential judgments. The Bible tells us that racism is wrong, but it doesn’t tell us the reason for continuing disparities or what the policy solution might be. Christians should not be tolerant of sin, injustice, and immorality (Rev. 2:18–29). At the same time, Christians should not assume that every disagreement is a matter of sin, injustice, and immorality. We need the category of each being “fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).

I fear that in the months and years ahead we will see Christians and churches and gospel movements reshuffling their associations based upon a unity not in shared Christological and soteriological truths but in the sameness of our political and cultural instincts.

I fear that in the months and years ahead we will see Christians and churches and gospel movements reshuffling their associations based upon a unity not in shared Christological and soteriological truths but in the sameness of our political and cultural instincts.

11. Consider that you may not know as much as you think you do.

The fancy term is epistemic humility, which means admitting that most of us are not experts on American history or law enforcement or economic policy or political legislation (or viruses!) or all the others things that we are agitated about at present.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get informed or that we can’t have convictions. But something is wrong if we hold these weeks-old or months-old convictions with the same enthusiasm and resoluteness with which we hold our Christian dogma.

Let’s be more sure about the Apostles’ Creed than we are about what is going on in Portland.

12. Clarify whether your main concern is explaining how we got racial disparities or thinking about how to move forward.

This is an oversimplification to be sure. But I’ve noticed in reading liberal black writers and conservative black writers, that the former tend to focus on where racial disparities came from, while the latter tend to focus on what they think will help black communities improve here and now.

Liberals say, “Look, we can’t understand what’s going on in lower test scores and higher unemployment and higher rates of crime without understanding the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.”

Conservatives say, “But those things are in the past. Black communities will not improve until they see themselves as having agency and responsibility in their own story.”

Both discussions have their place, and neither can be fully separated from the other. But clarifying what we are talking about is a step toward better understanding one another.

13. Beware of monocausal explanations for why people are the way they are.

Think about your life. How did you become the person you are? How did you get to the place you’re in? How would you explain your successes or failures? I look at my life and see good choices I made and a lot of hard work. I also see mistakes that didn’t cost me as much as they could have. And I see a whole lot of things—for good or bad, but mostly for good—that I didn’t choose: my godly parents, my good schools, my safe neighborhood, my middle-class home, my upbringing in church, my sex, my height, my Celiac, my bad eyes, my less-than-hoped-for athleticism, my easier-than-for-most-people good grades, the fact that no one ever offered me drugs, that no one ever introduced me to porn, that, for the most part, I’ve been treated fairly by others, and on and on.

My life cannot be reduced to my choices, my environment, or my race. But neither are these elements irrelevant. We are all complicated individuals who are who we are (and where we are) by a complicated string of events, people, decisions, and opportunities (or lack thereof)—some of them stretching back into the past in ways that profoundly shape the present.

I am responsible for my sins, the Lord is responsible for my blessings, and who I am is a mix of a thousand other factors. We ought to be skeptical of any explanation for a human life, or for a group of human beings, which suggests either (1) we all basically get what we deserve or (2) we are all the inevitable product of systems and structures outside our control.

14. Probe your head and check your heart before speaking out or staying silent.

The world wants quick, immediate, now—and sometimes fast is the necessary speed of the hour. But as a general rule, slower is better. Probe your head: Have I thought this through? Do I know what I’m talking about? Do I really believe what I’m about to say or sign? And check your heart: Am I speaking (or staying silent) out of love for myself or love for others? Would I say what I’m about to say if the opposite side loved it and my side hated it? Am I seeking to build up the body of Christ? Am I speaking the truth in love?

The world wants quick, immediate, now—and sometimes fast is the necessary speed of the hour. But as a general rule, slower is better.

15. Don’t lose hope.

It’s one of the reasons for our intense polarization: both sides feel like they’re losing. One side feels like the racists are in charge, while the other side feels like the Marxists are in charge. Despair is the order of the day. Christians, however, are people of hope. We are not going to move past race or racism in our lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean you and I and the church of Jesus Christ can’t move in the right direction. At some point along the way, you may get offended. You may inadvertently do the offending (or on purpose!). You may discover more sin than you knew was in you, or more freedom than you knew you could have in Christ. But let’s not give up believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things.

Whatever you think and fear in the present moment, believe that God hears and sees and knows (Ex. 2:24–25). Believe that he can bring beauty from ashes. Believe that Christ is still on the throne. And as we revel in that confidence, let us move toward others to learn from them, listen to them, and love them as we would want to be loved.