Racial and ethnic diversity in the church is not simply a cultural issue it’s a gospel issue.
I recently wrote about some encouraging signs of racial progress in a Southern Presbyterian church. While most of the comments were positive, one person raised a concern that I’ve often encountered: When you talk about race aren’t you bringing a merely cultural issue into the church and distracting us from the gospel?
Here’s the comment in its entirety from my post on Southern Presbyterianism:
What precisely did they say when the “got it wrong”?. I’m from ND – not a Southern [sic]. Got it wrong in the sense that no one has ever considered there [sic] hermeneutics defensible, ever in history? I am against spending church time on cultural issues and to “get the folk together so they look rainbow”, but since when has there been a bar to anyone who hungers and thirsts for Reformation comforts? What is it you are trying to facilitate? A certain look and feel? You present in the garb of cultural reform and transformation and not in the dress of the gospel doctrines so consider me as “unsold”.
How “They” Got It Wrong
I have to guess that “they” in the first sentence refers to Southern theologians. The one person I mentioned by name was R.L. Dabney when I said, “Many Presbyterian ministers have come a long way since R.L. Dabney and others who held similar theological positions dominated the discussion.”
So how did they get it wrong. Here’s a quote from Dabney.
But while we believe that ‘God made of one blood all nations of men to dwell under the whole heavens,’ we know that the African has become…a different fixed species of the race separated by the white man by traits bodily, mental and moral, almost as rigid and permanent as those of genus (A Southern Defence of Virginia: And through Her, of the South, 227).
Yes. He said that. African slaves were so separated in mind and body from the White man that he should be considered a separate species.
But I don’t intend to do as so many have done which is to portray figures from history in a single light. No person besides Christ is entirely praiseworthy, nor is any person without their redeeming moments. But comments like Dabney’s have left their mark on the church in the form of racially segregated congregations.
Is Diversity Just a Cultural Issue?
The commenters next statement is critical. He says, “I am against spending church time on cultural issues and to ‘get the folk together so they can look the rainbow.’”
To those comments I must say the gospel necessarily impacts culture.
First, we must not confuse the gospel with culture. The gospel is not culture and culture is not the gospel. The gospel comes first and it must always come first. But to speak of culture as if it had no place in the church is to assume that churches and the people in them are somehow supra-cultural or non-cultural. But culture comes with us into church.
Yet the gospel reorients us to our culture. It l demands that we find our core identity in Christ. We are no longer primarily Black or White, male or female, rich or poor, but we are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). If this is true, then what are the implications for a local congregation?
When Christians live out their core identity as children of God, then they are free to lay down their preferences for the sake of fellowship. Faith in Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior unites us across all other human divisions and allows us to worship together. As we live out our identity in Christ we no longer have to cling to our comforts but we can set them aside for the sake of welcoming our brothers and sisters who are different.
Paul sets a clear example in 1 Corinthians. “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I might share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22-23). The Apostle didn’t mind laying down any of his rights and preferences for the sake of winning others to Christ, and we should imitate him as he imitates Christ.
But despite the Bible’s teaching our churches still remain racially homogenous. Diversity looks different in different places, but shouldn’t our churches reflect the racial variety of the surrounding community? Why don’t they? This is where we must consider the role of culture in the church.
Diversity Isn’t Just a Heavenly Reality
The commenter objects to considering culture when he implies that the main goal in talking about race and the church is to “‘get the folk together so they look the rainbow”. But that’s not the only point of these discussions.
It is never enough simply to get people with different levels of melanin all under one roof in the church. While gaining more diversity is necessary, it is not sufficient. The true goal of increasing racial and ethnic diversity within the church is to obey the gospel.
If heaven is comprised of believers from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9, 7:9), then why don’t we strive for that reality now? We live in the time between Christ’s first and second coming. As we eagerly await the consummation of the age, we are called to be salt and light and a city on a hill (Mt. 5: 13-16). Should we then wait for heaven to come to earth before we strive for the heavenly diversity the Bible depicts?
Culture May Bar Us from “Reformation Comforts”
The commenter goes on to say, “but since when has there been a bar to anyone who hungers and thirsts for Reformation comforts.” There are overt examples. The recent work of Stephen R. Haynes in The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation tells how mixed groups of Black and White Christians were literally barred from entering White segregated churches. They were often blocked by churchmen themselves.
But the barring still goes on in less overt forms.
It goes on when Sunday School teachers and church members joke about the Pentecostal and Dispensational traditions in which many people were raised. It happens when Black Christians get automatically tagged for inner-city ministry or “ethnic outreach.” When your family looks at the church you attend and concludes that you must have “assimilated” to White culture and lost your “blackness.” It goes on when nearly all the books in your library about Reformed theology are written by White men. The bars go up when the hymns of centuries past are held up as more pure and worshipful than the simplistic and “repetitive” Gospel songs you cherish.
Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing comes a cultural preference disguised as a gospel imperative. And the exclusion is just as palpable as a deacon standing outside the doors of the church with arms crossed refusing to let worshipers inside.
When the entire cultural enterprise of a system of doctrine has come from a narrow cultural perspective and when the people who are entrenched in that culture push aside your concerns as unspiritual and a dilution of the gospel, then you are effectively barred from the “Reformation comforts.”
The Gospel Breaks Down Cultural Barriers
The commenters says I “present in the garb of cultural reform and transformation and not in the dress of the gospel.” But I say the barriers we’ve created through culture are a sin issue. And only the gospel can deal with sin.
If this were not the case then why did Paul rebuke Peter in Galatians (2:11-14)? Wasn’t Peter guilty of using cultural markers such as dietary restrictions and cleanliness laws to add requirements to the free gospel of grace? Didn’t Paul correct Peter by saying he was “not in step with the gospel” (emphasis added, 2:14)?
Cultural reform and transformation are the ripple effects of the Rock being thrown into waters of human history as the God-man Jesus Christ.
A Word to the “Unsold”
The commenter wants me to consider him “unsold”. So be it. I have no illusions that a post will convince him or anyone with similar persuasions that racial and ethnic diversity in the church is not a mere cultural issue but a gospel one.
Instead, I would urge all of us to search the Scriptures to see if these things are true (Acts 17:11). If you think that culture and the gospel are at odds, then talk to people who can speak from a firsthand perspective about the continued divisions in the church today. Forge cross-cultural relationships with the intention of learning more about another’s perspective.
At heart, though, I simply want to state clearly why I and many other Christians are so passionate about unity and diversity in the church. Why we look like fools in pursuing progress in an area where many remain “unsold”.
We are fools for Christ. We are fools for reconciliation between the races because we have been reconciled to God through His Son. We do not denigrate culture. We seek to redeem it as Christ will when He returns. And we do not set aside the gospel for a cultural cause, but our gospel-centeredness causes us to reconsider culture.
I hope that one day soon we all see importance of intentionally addressing issues of racial and ethnic unity in the church. But if not, I hope one day we’ll meet in Heaven along with a diverse array of people gathered to worship God side-by-side in eternal adoration of our Creator.