In the years I’ve spent in the church listening to sermons and teaching, I can think of few times I’ve heard direct applications from the text made to the sin of racism or the sin of apathy toward injustice. Maybe I just didn’t have the ears to hear it. In my own teaching, I may have mentioned racism in a list of sins, or mentioned it as one of the things that will be “no more” in the new heaven and new earth, but I don’t think I’ve ever used an opportunity while teaching a passage to challenge these sins. I want to do better, and I imagine there are a lot of others who do too.
That is why I asked two excellent Bible teachers who bring a great deal of experience and credibility to this topic to have a conversation with me about how to rightly and helpfully apply the Bible to the sin of racism. Irwyn Ince is a pastor at Grace DC Presbyterian Church and director of the Grace DC Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission. He has contributed to the books Heal Us Emmanuel and All Are Welcome: Toward a Multi-Everything Church and is author of the new book The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best. Sean Michael Lucas—senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Memphis—is the author of numerous books on persons and institutions with a history tainted by racism, including Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life, The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards: American Religion and the Evangelical Tradition, Blessed Zion: First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi, 1837–2012, and For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America.
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Sean Michael Lucas: When I start trying to show people, “The Cushites, wow, they’re everywhere,” or, “The Egyptians, they don’t look like you.” And you begin to put color and diversity in the Bible, it actually is hugely refreshing both to white and to people of color. “This is what the Bible actually says,” and it’s like, suddenly, you’re reading the Bible in technicolor. And then it’s not a fear thing. It’s just, “This is what the Bible says.”
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible,” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books, and tracts. Learn more at crossway.org.
Now as Bible teachers, part of our job is to study and interpret the text of the Bible, and then apply it to the people that God has set before us. And that means that we have to think deeply about who we’re teaching, we have to think about the times we’re living in, we have to take into consideration sins they’re struggling to forsake, and even, or perhaps, especially, sins they’re blind to or perhaps have become comfortable with. Now, I’ve met plenty of people who are willing to admit that they struggle with or are guilty of sins such as gossip, unforgiveness, jealousy, that they’ve been apathetic toward God, or been in rebellion against God, maybe even adultery, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever met anyone or heard anyone say that they struggle with or confess the sin of racism out of a desire to forsake it. I think most of us prefer to point to someone else as having a problem with that sin, and we want to see ourselves as free of it.
As teachers, we know, simply to bring up race or racism, it opens us up to being accused of being influenced by certain social and political voices as if there is no such thing as the sin of racism, and that the Bible doesn’t speak to matters of justice. And yet it seems to me that as teachers, if we don’t open up the Scriptures and disciple those we’re teaching in this specific area, then we’re leaving the disciplining, the mind shaping, the attitude shaping up to another discipler, most likely cable news and social media. And so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the views of race and racism for many, perhaps most of the people that we’re teaching, have likely been far more shaped by cable news and social media than they have been shaped by the Scriptures.
Now, as teachers, we also know that hearts have to change for systems to change, for the church to change, and we know that the Spirit uses God’s Word to correct and convict. So it seems to me that a particular responsibility of the Bible teacher is to be equipped to apply the Scriptures to these things. And that’s a skill that many of us are lacking in, maybe we’re intimidated by the whole idea of it, maybe partly because we haven’t had it modeled well for us. As I think back, you know, I’ve been in the church my whole life, and I can think of very few times that I’ve heard applications made from a passage of Scripture about the sin of racism or the sin of apathy toward injustice in regular ongoing preaching or teaching. Or maybe it was there and I just didn’t have the ears to hear it. And I also have to say that in my own teaching, I may have mentioned racism in a list of sins or maybe mentioned it as one of those things that will be no more in the new Heaven and the new Earth. But I don’t think I’ve ever used an opportunity teaching in a passage to actually challenge these sins and I want to do better, and I imagine there are a lot of others who want to do better at that too. And so that’s why I have asked two excellent Bible teachers who bring a great deal of experience and credibility to this topic to have a conversation with me about how to rightly and helpfully apply the Bible to the sin of racism.
So two guests. First, I have Irwyn Ince who is a pastor at Grace DC Presbyterian Church. He’s the director of Grace DC Institute for Cross Cultural Mission. He’s a guest lecturer at RTS DC. And I’m getting to talk to him at a great time because right now, he has just had a new book come out that deals with some of the issues we’re going to talk about. A new book called The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best. Irwyn, thank you for being willing to talk to us about these things.
Irwyn Ince: Hello, Nancy, thank you so much for the invitation to share with you and your listeners. And just to let you know as I bring you greetings from here in Washington, DC, as we do this recording, my son is practicing piano, getting ready for his jazz camp which is virtual as everything is.
Guthrie: We’ll just enjoy it. And let me just say, I haven’t gotten to read The Beautiful Community. I have to tell you, I love the title.
Ince: [inaudible 00:05:52], thank you.
Guthrie: There’s something about that. It’s like, I feel, immediately, when I read that title, that instead of pointing a finger at me and berating me about things I haven’t done, things I must do, instead you’re holding up something for me to aspire to, something that’s beautiful that might create in my heart a longing for that. Have I, maybe, hit on what you were hoping to do?
Ince: Yes. Yes, you have. That is spot on, absolutely. I’m glad that that comes through because that is [crosstalk 00:06:29]…
Guthrie: Yeah, it really does. I look forward to reading it.
Ince: Thank you.
Guthrie: My other guest is Sean Michael Lucas who’s senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Memphis. Before this, he served for many years at First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We could spend a long time talking about a list of books that Sean has written. A couple that I wrote down that really have import to our discussion today, and I wish, honestly, we had a whole episode to talk about several of these. One of them is the biography that Sean wrote on Robert Louis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. So a southern Presbyterian who, and you can correct me on this later, Sean, if I’m wrong. But a father for us theologically and yet someone thoroughly entrenched in racism. Similarly, The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards: American Religion and Evangelical Tradition. He’s written Blessed Zion: First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi, which tells the story of the church, which, honestly, includes a history of racism. One reason I wanted to have him on is that, I’ve looked through the syllabus of a class he taught recently at Reformed Theological Seminary on the gospel and race. So, Sean, I’ll stop talking and say hello to you. Thank you for being willing to help us teach the Bible.
Lucas: Oh, thank you, Nancy. It’s my pleasure to be with you today.
Guthrie: Maybe before we dive into the topic, you could talk a little bit about your experience teaching in the deep South, and all this research that you’ve done on theological fathers and, could I say, their blindness to the sin of racism? Was that how you would put it?
Lucas: Yeah, I think that’s a good way of getting at it. Honestly, most historians will tell you that their work tends to be autobiographical, and so a lot of the work that I’ve done on religion and race, particularly among Presbyterians, has come out of my own blind spots. That’s where you opened in your opening, recognizing my own blindness, growing up in an upper middle-class family in the suburbs outside of Washington, DC, didn’t have any friends who were people of color. And, like, how did that happen? How does a child who grows up in Virginia, how does that happen? So, in many ways, trying to sort out my own, kind of, blindness, my own sin, my own complicity is, kind of, driven from some of the historical work. And then, obviously, that’s fed into ministering in South Mississippi and now Memphis and trying to help our folks see that the folks in the Bible don’t look like them and that the mission of the Bible that God holds out to us is really to form a multiracial, multiethnic people. And not just in separate churches, but we as the church, both locally in our neighborhoods, as Presbyteries, as denominations, really are to reflect this multiracial, multiethnic reality that the Bible pictures for us. So, yeah, so that’s been my journey.
Guthrie: Well, why don’t we begin? First of all you can tell me whether or not you agree with the statement I made that many Bible teachers don’t tend to make application when teaching the Bible to these issues? And if you agree with me, then also, what are some reasons you think that is?
Ince: I would say, I agree with you in this sense, that this is true in my experience when it comes to majority white evangelical context. In the African-American Christian tradition, these things are not avoided, they’re spoken of with, not solely about this but with regularity, with force, and intentionality. And so, in the black church, that wouldn’t be the case. Now, I’m in the PCA which is a majority white evangelical denomination. And I do think that even though it’s changing some, you’re right, your statement is accurate for, I think, a variety of reasons. Talk about race and racism, racial injustice is viewed by many to be a tangent to the gospel, something that’s not at the core of our understanding of the implications of the gospel, that to deal with the ills and the sin of racism, and racial injustice individually and structurally. That’s viewed as, you know, something that is not as high a priority as preaching about the need for our salvation. I would call it an unbiblical understanding of the spirituality of the church.
Ince: You can divide what happens to people’s bodies physically, an embodied life as if the gospel has nothing to say to that and the saving of their souls.
Lucas: I definitely think the dualism that Irwyn is talking about where we focus on souls as opposed to bodies informs our reading of Scripture. I do think though, too, I think a lot of us read the Bible and teach the Bible kind of like the way I read Russian novels. When I read those Russian novels like Dostoevsky or Chekhov, or whatever, I can’t pronounce any of those people’s names, and almost immediately they become Bob, Bill, Jerry, Fred, you know? And they just show up that way because I don’t know anything about their names, I don’t know anything about their histories so I just name them names and represent them as people that I know. Well, that’s how, sometimes, we read and teach the Bible. We don’t recognize there’s actually remarkable ethnic diversity in the Bible, that there’s color diversity in the Bible. It wasn’t until I was 35 or 40 that I realized that King David probably wasn’t 6 foot, 170, 40 mile a week runner with salt and pepper hair, incredibly handsome like me, right? I just realized that, you know, 10, 15 years ago that, “No, David probably doesn’t look like me, Jesus probably doesn’t look like me,” and so forth. But we read the Bible with those glasses, and because of that, we don’t see these issues. And when we don’t see things, when things become invisible to us, then they don’t matter to us, we don’t notice them. So I think that’s part of it as well.
Guthrie: Well, there’s a couple of reasons I can think of that’s it’s interesting to me that neither of you mentioned, so tell me what you think about this. I would think another reason would be that either we think as a teacher or we think most of the people we’re teaching think about this as a political issue rather than a Biblical issue, and that maybe along with that is fear. Fear that flows out of either being uncertain about how to handle it, or being unpopular, you know, or the fear of just handling it wrong which we know can have significant implications. So either of you have thoughts about that?
Lucas: I definitely think those are an issue in majority white churches. It is striking, though, I do a lot of material in terms of, kind of, this Biblical storyline of a multiracial, multiethnic people. And when I start trying to show people, “The Cushite, wow, they’re everywhere,” or, “The Egyptians, they don’t look like you.” And you begin to put color and diversity in the Bible, it actually is hugely refreshing both to white and to people of color. “This is what the Bible actually says,” and it’s like, suddenly, you’re reading the Bible in technicolor. And then it’s not an, it’s not a fear thing. It’s just, “This is what the Bible says.” I mean, being evangelical folk, we were all about what the Bible says. And so, if you can show me, this is what the Bible says, then, “Okay, I don’t know how this is going to work out but we’ll go with that.”
Ince: I agree with you, Nancy, on those points. And particularly as it relates to fear. When we start talking about racism, we act as if we believe it’s the unpardonable sin. Like, it’s the sin that I can’t confess, that I can’t admit to having any vestiges of it residing in my heart, right? Even though the Scriptures are clear, like, there’s a reason why James will rally against the church for the sin of partiality, right? That’s what racism is. But because of how toxic it is and how woven it is into the fabric of American history, and how much, therefore, particularly to our white brothers and sisters want to say, “We’ve moved past that, like that was a problem back then. That slavery and Jim Crow segregation, you know, that was part of the shame of our past but we’re in a new day.” There’s a fear of bringing it up now and a desire not to feel any sense of personal shame around the issue of race or racism.
Guthrie: That’s helpful. It’s interesting to me, you said that we think of racism as the unforgivable sin. And there’s a sense in our culture that it is, I mean, if you tweet something that’s perceived as racist or say something perceived as it, you know, you get fired. So, in a sense, it’s the unforgivable sin. But it made me start thinking about, are we willing, as believers who know that, “The heart is desperately wicked, who can know it?” To be willing to say, “Okay, maybe there is this sin that lurks in me.” If I have a racist thought or inclination, does that make me a racist?
Ince: Great question. Sean, you want to answer?
Lucas: Yeah. Well, I’ll just will simply observe, you know, the 2018 report that the PCA produced on racial and ethnic reconciliation, we did a big survey of ruling elders and teaching elders. Ninety-Seven percent of ruling elders and teaching elders who responded said that racism is a sin. Only 3% of them said that they actually committed the sin of racism.
Lucas: So part of what we have to lean into is a recognition that, “Yes, I do have racist thoughts, words, and deeds.” As Calvin said, “The seed of every known sin is, it lies buried in our hearts.” And so, yes, it’s not only possible, it’s likely that I’ve had these kinds of thoughts, I’ve said these kinds of words, I’ve done these kinds of actions. And so, in the same way as with every sin, let’s name it, confess it, repent of it, and run to Jesus, and be honest about it.
Ince: I go here with that kind of question, who am I, right? What is my identity as a follower of Jesus? I am in Christ, right? The heart of who I am is not a racist, but the heart of who I am is an image bearer renewed in knowledge after the image of my Creator. I am united to God through faith in Jesus Christ. That is the core of my identity right? And so, when I see the reality of sin welling up in parts of me, in my affections, in my heart, in my thoughts, and identify, particularly, the sin of racism and racist thoughts, sin of partiality, I don’t really, in one sense, care to call people a racist or say, “You confessed to being a racist as believers as compared to confessing to have racist thoughts, and notions, and ideas that need to be put to death by the grace and power of the Spirit of Christ.” To me, the most important question is, who am I, what is my identity? What am I leaning into? Am I leaning more into a sinful identity or an identity that is defined by something that is falling and sinful, or am I leaning more into the reality that I’d been redeemed and renewed in Jesus Christ so now I’m free? I’m free to confess if I wrestle with racism, I’m free to confess, “Yeah, okay. Yeah, some people may call me a racist because of how I think and what I say.” I’m free to confess it because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Guthrie: That’s the good news of the gospel right there, thank you, Irwyn. Yeah. All right. So I’m hoping we can spend some time, kind of, handing some tools to the Bible teachers who are listening who, perhaps, they’re thinking to themselves, “I don’t want to be silent on this issue but I don’t necessarily want to do a series on the topic. I want it to be more, as it arises in the various texts that I’m teaching, that it’s coming because it’s there and because I realized my people need to have this addressed.” So, week to week, let’s say I’m an adult Sunday school teacher working through various books of the Bible, should this be coming up in my teaching?
Ince: Yes, absolutely it should, 100%. And so here’s, maybe, a framework for approaching it. Well, Sean has already talked about the diversity that is there in the Scriptures, of peoples, of nations, ethnic groups, there’s color diversity that is attested to in the Scriptures. Very often at the church that I serve, we would just do a Sunday school class that is, kind of, a survey of the Bible, run through from Genesis to Revelation, right? You’re not going to be able to just dive deeply into every chapter and verse, but you’re trying to give a framework for how to approach the Scriptures and to see the narrative, the story that runs through the Scriptures. And you start with this reality that the first thing that the Bible declares about humanity is that we are created in His image according to His likeness. And you can talk about the fact that who is this God that we worship? Doctrine matters because God that we worship is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, right, one God in three persons. He is absolute perfection of unity in diversity, and diversity in unity.
And so even as we see the creation of humanity, male, and female, right, that there is this trajectory of humanity being created for diverse community. And as the story unfolds, and as sin enters the picture, you begin to see the fracturing of humanity into various camps and groups that are hostile to each other pictured for us in the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 when humanity is… I say, that’s the last time we were one big happy family. And we will one big happy family in our utter rebellion against the Lord and His explicit reiteration of the command after the flood, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth.” And Genesis 11:1 says, humanity, “They migrated to the East and they found a plain in land of Shinar. And they settled there and decided to build a city and a tower.” And they said, “Let’s do this, let’s make a name for ourselves lest we be dispersed from here over the face of all the earth,” right? And so God comes down in judgment and in mercy, and He creates what I call these ghetto communities. He confuses all language and so we don’t understand one another, right?
And so now you have the creation, you have the embedding of these hostilities between groups of people. What do we see the Lord do right after Genesis 11 is Genesis 12, right, and the call of Abraham? And what is God’s promise to Abraham? That, “In you all the nations of the earth will be blessed. All the families of the earth that I just had to have to divide and spread out.” Because Genesis 11 says, “The Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth.” The promise in Abraham is that through this seed I’m going to bring them back together, right? I’m going to bring reunion and reconciliation in this fractured humanity through the seed of Abraham, right? It’s God’s commitment. And you can follow it through the Scriptures and talk about our divisions, and see how they manifest themselves.
Guthrie: And as you continue the story, you keep seeing how God is bringing people into this one family. You started with Abraham, you know, and it’s going to be very soon where one of his descendants is going to marry a Canaanite wife, right?
Ince: Yes, that’s right.
Guthrie: Yeah. And all of that. So we see from the very beginning or when we turn the page to Exodus. And this nation is leaving and they’re becoming this people of God, this nation. And we read that people from many nations have joined themselves, right, to this one people. And so we get this sense that God has always intended for His people to be a multiethnic people. Sean, any thoughts about that, about reasons we should address these issues in our week-to-week Bible teaching through the Bible?
Lucas: Yeah. I mean, in terms of reasons is because that’s God’s big mission. If we’re not paying attention to God’s big mission then we’re misreading the story, ultimately. It’s not simply, “Me and Jesus.” That’s not God’s mission. God’s mission really is pictured in Revelation, you know, that there’d be a multitude that no man can number from every language, tribe, nation, people around the throne, “Salvation belongs to the Lord and to His Lamb.” I will say that generally speaking, as a preacher and as a teacher, I tend to work through books of the Bible, and I think, probably, most of your listeners do the same. And I think that’s generally a good strategy for addressing these issues if we don’t read the Bible as though everyone in the Bible looks like me.
In other words, as we work through Genesis, if we’re paying attention to the names, and places, and what’s going on, and how this is actually working, and the diversity that’s present, and in light of God’s mission to forge a multiracial, multiethnic people, well then, yes, you’re going to hit it over. Yeah, I’m preaching through Genesis right now, this Sunday is Genesis 4. And, you know, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I mean, well, yeah, it’s right there. And it’s going to show up over, and over, and over, again in Genesis, but it’s going to show up over, and over, again in the Psalms. I mean, all the languages of the clans, and the tribes, and the nations, those aren’t just missionary texts, those are, you know, East Nashville texts, or South Memphis texts, or, you know, Southeast DC texts, they’re about our neighbors all around us, the nations that are around us, and we’re to see them be part of God’s family. They’re Amos texts, their Isaiah texts. I mean, they’re Matthew texts. I mean, anywhere you go in the Bible, if you have the eyes to see, you will see the diversity and the racial issues that are present there, the justice issues that are present there, and you’ll talk about it.
When my wife bought a new car, you know, before she bought her Subaru, we didn’t know that anyone bought a Subaru, right? When we bought a Subaru, everybody was driving Subarus.
Guthrie: It’s true.
Lucas: And it’s the same thing when we read the Bible, if we pay attention to it, suddenly, we’ll see it in the Bible and come alive to it.
Guthrie: All right, I want you two to help us less experienced Bible teachers in showing us exactly how to do this from some different types of texts. Irwyn talked something about Genesis and I went to Exodus so, you know, we get a sense from the historical narrative. If we’re talking about the storyline of the Bible, we get there with this great mission of God. I wonder if one of you would, maybe, try one from a wisdom book like a Psalm. Is there a Psalm that, when you’re teaching it, it presents you with a great opportunity to confront the sin of racism or to challenge people in this regard?
Lucas: I think Psalm 67, David Howard, the Old Testament scholar calls Psalm 67, the great universal missionary psalm of the Bible starting with the Aaronic blessing, “May God be gracious to us and bless us, make his face shine upon us. Let the peoples praise you, let the nations be glad, let the peoples praise you.” So you have two of the four categories that are used in Genesis 10 to describe the racial diversity of God’s world. And he’s saying God’s mission is that, as he blesses you, and as he keeps you, and as he grants you wholeness and Shalom, what that looks like is the diversity of the nations gathered around God’s throne praising Him. Which means, if we don’t care about that, if we really only care about people who look just like us in our own economic status, we actually are missing the very heart of God.
Ince: Oh, that’s good. A psalm, it’s a psalm of [inaudible 00:29:54], Psalm 82. To Sean’s point, when you see in the Psalms, over and over again, this talk about the nations, right? The psalmists don’t always only talk about Israel and Judah, right, it refers to the nations. And just this last part of that psalm, all right, the psalmist is lamenting injustice, right, “How long will you judge unjustly, show partiality to the wicked’s cry or give your justice to the weak and the fatherless, maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” These are not just the people of Israel who are being referenced here. And in the last verse of the psalm, “Arise, oh, God, and judge the earth for you shall inherit all the nations.” That the whole earth, the whole world is Yours, Your inheritance are going to be all of the nations, right? All of these. And when that happens, the call to arise is so that injustice will be done away with, so that oppression will be done away with so that partiality will be done away with. And so, throughout the Scriptures, that point us toward righteousness and justice for diverse peoples, here, the nation.
Guthrie: Excellent. All right, let’s think about some prophetic books, although, I think that’s almost the easiest, perhaps. I’m thinking about, just the last night I was talking through the Book of Habakkuk with some women from my church. And the Book of Habakkuk opens up and the prophet Habakkuk is lamenting to God. He’s saying, “You know, everywhere I look, no justice is being done, and there’s violence being done.” And he is begging God to do something about this. And, of course, when God tells him what going to do, he doesn’t like it so much. But, certainly, we see the heart of the prophet there. And, I guess, in this season, maybe we talked about that in our conversation a little bit differently than we might have done other times in seeing a sense of injustice and violence. It just doesn’t make sense that that would be part of the fabric of the culture of the people of God, and that’s why Habakkuk is crying out to God. I wonder if there’s another prophet that comes to mind to you that you would certainly want to make some application from?
Ince: I just love Chapter 19 of Isaiah. This declaration that He’s going to bring the nations to Himself, right? And Israel is talked about in the context of their enemies Assyria and Egypt. And the Lord says, verses 23 to the end it says, “In that day, there’ll be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come to Egypt and Egypt into Assyria. And the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day, Israel will be third with Egypt and Assyria. A blessing in the midst of the earth whom the Lord of hosts shall bless saying, “Blessed be Egypt, my people, and Assyria, the work of my hands, and Israel, my inheritance.” You know, I Imagine what kind of shocker was that to the people of Israel when Isaiah delivers this, “The Lord says, “Here’s a day that’s coming. You think these people are your enemies and that I’m against them, right? But there’s a day coming where I’m going to say, “Blessed be Egypt, my people, Assyria, the work of my hands, and Israel, my inheritance.” And so, again, it’s all over the Scriptures.
Guthrie: Well, it sounds like “The Beautiful Community.”
Ince: Yeah, yeah, that’s good.
Guthrie: You can pay me later. Okay. All right, Sean.
Lucas: Yeah, I was thinking of Isaiah also. I mean, Isaiah 11, “In that day, the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal for the peoples. Of Him, shall the nations inquire and His resting place shall be glorious.” And then Verse 11, “In that day, the Lord will extend His hand a second time to recover the remnant, the remains of His people.” And these aren’t Jews, these are God’s people. And where are they coming from? From Assyria which is the North, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush in the South, from Elam, from Shinar in the East, from Hamath, from coastlands of the sea which is the West. And so you have North, South, East, West coming under the banner of Jesus. These aren’t Jews, these are the nations. And then the chapter ends with that highway reference that Irwyn just mentioned. There’s a highway from Assyria for the remnant, the remains of His people as there was for Israel when they came up from the land of Egypt. And it’s all through Isaiah. I mean, the servant songs in Isaiah 42 and 49 speak to the Gentiles coming in. And, obviously, particularly Isaiah 49 plays a huge role in the New Testament. But even Isaiah 11, that directional movement of North, South, East, and West, and those places, they’re all named in Acts 2. So in Acts 2, you see the nations beginning to come in from the North, the South, the East, and the West.
Guthrie: All right, let me ask you a hard question, Sean. Let’s say that you’re teaching Isaiah 11 and I’m just imagining everybody in your congregation, they’re with you. All of these nations, you know, this idea of people from every nation, but maybe where they stumble is not nations East and West, but Memphis East and West, North or South, coming in close, not in some future gathering around the throne but right now. I mean, maybe that’s a gut punch to your people, is it? What would you ever do that?
Lucas: Similarly to what Irwyn talked about going from Genesis to Revelation and talking about this theme. Actually, it was right after my one-year anniversary so it was January, 2018. I took four Wednesday nights, four hours, so an hour each Wednesday night, and taught from Genesis to Revelation, the biblical storyline of God’s inclusion of the nations, and made the point these aren’t missionary texts in the sense of going over there, these are mission texts for us here in Memphis, and it’s about God forging a new humanity here. Our tagline is, “New people, new Memphis.” If we’re actually going to be a new people, then part of what that looks like is leaning into what Dr. King said on April 3rd, 1968 which was his daydream, was for a new Memphis to emerge. We’ve made those connections for our folks, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable, undoubtedly, but it’s important to make those connections so that they see, you know, this isn’t Sean saying this, this is what the Bible says.
I think that’s, sometimes, where we get crosswise with one another as you said in your intro, is, we take our cues more from CNN, Fox News, or whatever, as opposed to from what the Bible says. The Bible actually talks about all of this. And so, as Bible teachers, we have to show our people, “This is what the Bible says.” And then the question is, are we going to obey what the Bible says, are we going to disobey what the Bible says?
Guthrie: Yeah. Well, let’s move into the gospels and the book of Acts. Jesus, in some ways, maybe you get a mixed message from Him. And it might seem when you’ve got this Canaanite woman who’s begging for crumbs from the table. And he says, “Well, you know, I’ve come for the Jews first.” And yet we get other messages as well because He’s going to speak to that Samaritan woman, He is going to minister to the Roman Centurion. So where’s a place in the gospels that if you sensed, “Okay, I need to just humbly, winsomely challenge some people in my church who may be thinking, “Not me, you know, I would never have a racist thought.” Is there something in the gospels you think you might go to?
Ince: Yeah. I mean, anytime you see Samaritans, you typically have the opportunity to say, “Look, this is, you talk about hostility, you talk about racial hostility and animosity between people groups.” A prominent place to go is what everybody knows as the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” in the Gospel of Luke. And it was so well known that we, very often, wouldn’t hone in on the absolute hostility between the Jewish people and the Samaritans, and how radical it would be for them to hear this story that the people passing this Israelite by are his own people, and the one who shows him mercy and compassion is a member of a hated racial group where they have nothing to do with one another. And yet he’s the one who goes above and beyond in his generosity. Who’s my neighbor? Is the animating question. Who is my neighbor? And Jesus tells this parable. And so for us, all right, it’s to say, “Well then, who’s not a neighbor? Who can I or we have any excuse to say, “We ought not extend neighbor love to this individual because we have this history of hatred and animosity?”
Guthrie: Yeah, so it presents an opportunity for us to try to help our people, maybe even viscerally, feel that animosity because that might seem so ancient, right? And, well, that’s not the same as what’s here, and so presents an opportunity to somehow use our teaching skills to help them see some of that direct correlation.
Lucas: Central to Acts is the inclusion of the nations, and not in their own segregated congregations. Acts 10 and 11, the reason why Acts 10 is recapitulated in Acts 11 when Peter retells the story of Cornelius’ conversion is because it’s such a keynote in the missionary expansion of the church, the inclusion of the Gentiles, and the vision, three times, “Don’t call unclean what I’ve called clean,” God says. And so, the Gentiles are to be brought in, they’re not other but rather they are brothers, they’ve received the Spirit, they received Jesus, they’ve been baptized. And then they fight over it all again at the first general assembly in Acts 15, right? We tend to look at that as a justification by faith debate, and, certainly, it is. But underlying the justification by faith debate of Acts 15 that couples together with Galatians is something racial. You know, do Gentiles have to become Jews in order to be saved? And Paul says, “No, in their own particularity, as Gentiles, they can be saved, they don’t need to identify as Jews and follow our ritual practices and our racial practices that separate us from others.”
I mean, one of the ways you could paraphrase it is, does a black man or a brown man need to be a white man to be saved? Well, no, obviously not. And yet how often in the life of, even multiracial churches, do we expect people of color to adopt white ways instead of being more like the church in Acts where in Acts 13, in the very first verse, you get a peek into a session meeting at the First Presbyterian Church of Antioch. Just kidding. You’ve got all these characters, you’ve got Simeon who was called Niger which literally means black. So, guess what, he was black, Lucius of Cyrene who was from North Africa, you have Manaen who was Herod’s operative, a member of the court of Herod, and you had Saul who was a former Pharisee who hated Herod. Like, how do these guys get along? Well, they do because this is what God does, He brings racial others, political others to be part of the people of God centered on faith in Jesus Christ. So that whole run from Acts 10 to Acts 15 really does center on diversity being brought together in this beautiful community of unity.
Guthrie: At the very beginning of the book, you’ve got these people from all of these nations who are there, and they all receive the Spirit. But I also think about Acts 6. I mean, there’s a crisis in the church, and the crisis is, by the Hellenist it says, “Arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” I mean, this seems to me to be a racial problem, the church leaders are ignoring these particular widows. Why? They don’t have a heart for them, they don’t have eyes to see their need because they’re other than.” And then I think about Acts 8, this beautiful story of the Ethiopian eunuch and the gospel being shared with him. So, yeah, so many opportunities, certainly, in the book of Acts.
Ince: Can I just chime in on point on Acts 6 because you’re so right.
Ince: On the question of intent and impact, right? Because wherever I just talking about that passage, I will say, “I’m pretty sure that the apostles were not sitting around thinking, “Let’s neglect the Hellenist widows. You know, we don’t really like them anyway, let’s make sure that they don’t get their fair in the distribution of the needs, of the food and other things,” right? The point is, even if I don’t intend to cause harm to somebody who’s different, it doesn’t mean that my neglect or my inability to see them is not having very real impact on them. And so, a bridge might even be within our churches. Sean mentioned, you know, even diverse churches, very often, research will say that in the American context, at least, even racially diverse churches can tend to cater to white cultural norms. And we have people of color, African Americans in these majority white church spaces, very often, they don’t experience being seen in their embodied ethic identity. And it’s not because people are walking around saying, “I really hate that black person or that Latino person.” But it’s a reality that the things that we don’t see, we need the Lord to open our eyes because it’s not “harmless” even if we don’t intend to have a negative impact on people.
Guthrie: Well, that is really helpful, Irwyn, thank you. I think we know the safe route if we want to take it as teachers is to just not speak to these things. And we often fear saying the wrong thing, we often fear offending any anyone. Although, that’s probably not true in every context, Irwyn. I mean, one thing this conversation has done for me already is that, many of my even prescribed notions about this, I’m thinking primarily about this conversation in a majority white church and not thinking about it and its challenges in a church with more people of color. Perhaps the way I’d like to end is for each of you to speak directly to whoever might be listening to this podcast and they’re thinking, “You know what, I’m seeing what’s going on in the world. I realize that I, maybe, haven’t been a steward of the opportunities that God has given me and is giving me as a teacher of his word to touch on this very important issue. And I want to begin to do that and do it well.” So would you speak to that person? Maybe you’re also helping opening their eyes if they don’t know already what they should be prepared for if they do this. And I’m imagining they should probably be prepared for some criticism. Would each of you, and Irwyn, why don’t you go first? Would you just speak directly to the person who, so far, this just hasn’t been on their radar in terms of applying the Scriptures in this way? And speak to us and help us with what we should do.
Ince: I talked earlier about our identity in Christ, that there is no condemnation. So this is not about feeling overwhelmed with a sense of shame. If I’m coming into an awareness of things that I wasn’t aware of before, and the place to start is really before the Lord in prayer, right? The Psalm 139, you know, “Search me, oh, God, and know my heart,” right? “You know it, but, right, expose it to me. Try me and know my thoughts, and see if there be any grievous way in me, lead me in the way everlasting.” And praying that honestly and openly. And, now, “How do I learn, and grow, and experience a different perspective than the ones that I’ve had to this point?” I’ve got to embrace the need for humility to say, I need to come into certain conversations in spaces as a learner. If I don’t have people within my close circle or church who come from different racial, ethnic background, then I’ve got to do some learning myself, maybe on my own.” There’s there are tons of resources out there, but it is entering in as a learner is key, right? Looking for the Lord to help teach and expose you to these varying perspectives so that you can grow in appreciation for the ways in which you ought to be loving your neighbors who are different than you. This is not an individualistic solo pursuit, the church is key here, the body of Christ is key here. So I’m not going on out in the desert on a monastic pilgrimage by myself to do this, it has to be in the context of community, and prayerfully, folks who are like-minded as we learn together with patience.
Lucas: Our folks have heard me say repeatedly, I don’t want us to be a race church, if you will. I mean, in terms of folks knowing that we’re for racial reconciliation and justice per se, I want us to be known as a Jesus church. And because we love Jesus, we love what Jesus loves, and we do what Jesus does. I think that’s a different focus, honestly, because as we follow and love Jesus, and love what Jesus loves, and do what Jesus does, then we have to do what the Bible says. And what the Bible says, what Jesus is up to in his world is Revelation 7, which is, “After this, I looked and behold a great multitude which no one could number from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples, and languages standing before the throne, and before the Lamb clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne unto the Lamb.” I mean, that’s Jesus’s mission in the world. And Jesus doesn’t do that, like, immediately, he does it mediatedly, he does it through us. He actually uses you and me for that vision to happen. So as we love Jesus, as we love what Jesus loves, as we do what Jesus does, we will inevitably care about those who are different than us whether economically different from us, racially different from us, different gender, we’re going to love what Jesus loves and do what Jesus does.
Guthrie: Well, I feel like this whole conversation deserves a little silent contemplation, doesn’t it? You know, we so often rush on to the next thing, and for those who are listening, maybe, rush on to the next activity or the next podcast. But maybe this conversation stirs in each of us, the need to do just as you said, Irwyn, and that’s one of the passages I was looking at and preparing for this too. This need to respond with the prayer of, “Lord, search me, and know me, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and then lead me.” And that’s what all of us need in regard to this conversation, that kind of humility, that kind of, as you said, Sean, wanting to love what Christ loves and do what He does. And that’s what we all want.
So I’m just grateful that you two are my brothers, and I’m grateful that you would be willing to give this time to me and to the listeners of “Help Me Teach the Bible” to help us in this way so thank you both so very much.
Lucas: Thank you.
Ince: Thank you, Nancy. It’s always good to be with you, Sean.
Guthrie: You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie. A production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracks. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel centered resources at crossway.org.