Brian Davis on Disagreements in the Church over Racial Issues

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In this video, TGC Council member Brian Davis explores how to maintain unity in the church body in light of racial tensions and hurts.

Scripture says in Ephesians 4:1–3, “I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Beginning at the end of the passage and moving backward from there, there’s an aim that Christ has for the church. And this aim is a direction toward which shepherds are intended to lead. And as Paul goes forward to consider the gifts that God has provided to the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12), we gain a clearer understanding of what we’re supposed to be doing. Shepherds are to make sure that the church is built up in love. In order to pursue this aim, we must have unity. We must be eager to maintain that unity and to be able to discern when there are oppositions to that unity.

And so when there is racial division that is threatening the unity of Christ, there needs to be an eagerness of a shepherd to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. And God is helpful to give us instruction. One way is to make sure that the way that we behave is worthy of the Lord, to walk in a manner worthy of the calling that we have in Christ (Eph. 4:1). This is the kind of walk that reflects the reality of that unity.

So, Peter, in Galatians 2, violated this walk of unity. He was acting as a racist while he was commissioned to help maintain unity. He was acting one way with the Jews and one way with the Gentiles. In response, Paul shows up and says, “You are not keeping in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Peter stood condemned because he was not walking in a manner worthy of the Lord.

Shepherds must first ensure that our lives, the way that we’re engaging the sheep, the way that we are engaging the conversation, is consistent with seeking to maintain unity and peace in Christ. This means that we shouldn’t act like a hypocrite like Peter. And it also means that we’re not partial to any particular racial or ethnic demographic in the church.

But how can we accomplish this? I think the way that we do that is through those virtues that are listed in the passage. Have humility, the mind of Christ, and don’t look to our own interests as the most significant but consider the interests of others as more significant (Phil. 2:4–5). You may encounter division because somebody is hurting, and they need to be heard. They might need to be encouraged. And that’s why Paul says, “Encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, admonish the idle” (1 Thess. 5:14). Some need to be admonished but be patient with them all. And that requires humility to not just see every grievance as something that has no legitimate basis. But you need to listen, you need to hear, and you to move toward people who are different. A response like this takes gentleness. So we don’t move toward them saying, “Get in step or get out,” or, “Assimilate or you’re threatening our unity.” That’s not gentle. Instead, we teach people, equipping them to pursue like-mindedness.

When Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2–3) are in your church, what does it look like to help them agree in the Lord to pursue unity? It takes gentleness and patience. Everybody in the church, including leaders and shepherds themselves, have a bunch of sin and a bunch of mess, a bunch of problems. And in all interacting and banging together, there’s no wonder that we’ll encounter a lot of issues. But the answer to this friction is not divide or only spend time with those whom you like. Instead, begin to consider what it would look like for us to worship together with our differences. What might it mean to, despite our sin, pursue unity in the Spirit and the bond of peace? We’re going to need forbearance, which means I have to put up with a bunch of stuff because I’m pastoring imperfect people. And the people in my church will have to put up with a bunch of stuff because I am messed up. The church must understand that we have to put up with each other because we’re not perfect.

And if there’s a racial issue that could divide that church, what that fundamentally means is that the entire church is not founded on Christ, that Christ is not the reason everyone’s there. And the shepherd must remind people why they are a part of the church, to remind people why we’re all family. We’re not family because we agree politically; we’re not family because we agree on social issues; we’re family because God has made us family because of Jesus. We were dead in our sin, dead to God, far from him, hostile to each other, but Christ because of his great mercy and love, he made us alive through dying on a cross for our sin, and bringing us to God in himself, reconciling us to God in himself, reconciling us to each other (Eph. 2:1–22).

So, now, Paul says this new reality is supposed to control us. And our job as a shepherd is to equip people, that they can experience this same reality. For the love of Christ controls us because we have concluded this, that one has died for all, and he died for all that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for His sake, who died for us and was raised for us (2 Cor 5:14–15).

We used to regard each other according to the flesh but regard each other thus no longer because we have all become new creation in Christ. We’re now the family of God together, and it is our aim. And it needs to be our work. It is our effort to work toward the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. Jesus died to bring us into oneness with himself and oneness with each other, to the glory and praise of God. So, I think a shepherd needs to lead carefully, decisively, biblically toward Christ-like unity in the church.