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Over the past few years, there have been some reports of a “Quiet Exodus” from White evangelical[1] churches by Black members.[2] Amidst recent rhetoric about racial reconciliation, this seems to suggest that Evangelicals have failed in this task. However, the continued support of the current president among the majority of White Evangelicals may shed some light on commitments that many Black Christians see as diametrically opposed to one another.[3] Namely, that one cannot claim to desire racial reconciliation while also in support of one of the most racially divisive presidents this country has seen in a long time.

This conflict caused me to reflect deeply on what would make Black Christians remain committed to these Evangelical churches and denominations. How do they defend their willingness to remain in these spaces? I was sad to discover that although some Black Christians use the language of the gospel and racial reconciliation, the true restraining force is what I call Christian neo-colonialism. In other words, many Black Christians feel it is necessary to remain connected with White denominations because of the ministry opportunities and access to financial resources.

In this 3-part series, I will tackle this oppressive version of the gospel message and detail how it leads to Black Christian dependency and White Christian control. I will also demonstrate how this vision of the gospel that rejects group-specific treatment leads some Black Christians to recoil from supporting projects that would benefit Black Christians specifically. I will then conclude by providing a potential model for genuine reconciliation.

In this first installment, I will focus on the biblical and theological issues involved with the level of commitment of “Black evangelicals” to evangelical denominations.

The Oppressor’s Gospel: Spiritualized Color-blindness

The “Gospel of Racial-Reconciliation” highlights interracial unity within the body of Christ by undermining responsibilities and commitments to sub-groups within the body of Christ. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 clearly highlights the unity of Christians. In fact, Jesus says that the unity of his followers testifies to the validity of his message (John 17:22-23). Consequently, the follower of Jesus has at least two motives to strive for unity with other followers of Christ: 1) The desire of Jesus (that they may be united), and 2) The aim of Jesus (so that the world may know that you sent me). It is quite clear that disciples of Jesus should pursue unity with all of his disciples.

In the book of Galatians, the equality of both Jews and Gentiles in Christ has a central role. Some Christians point to Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 to declare that identifying as anything other than “in Christ” is invalid. They highlight Paul’s apparent denial of ethnic, social, and gender distinctions to verify this claim. One may obtain exegetical clarity, however, after considering that the broader context seems to reveal that Paul is arguing that there is no ethnic hierarchy in the body of Christ.

Paul is not suggesting that people no longer belong to specific sub-groups related to their ethnicity or gender. Rather, he is saying that these things have no soteriological significance and should not hinder the unity of the body of Christ. Paul makes a similar argument in Ephesians 2 where he highlights the fact that the blood of Christ breaks down the barriers of disunity among fellow believers and prompts reconciliation (Eph. 2:11-16).

We have Multiple Identities and Commitments

Some professed Christians take the aforementioned truths and decontextualize and overemphasize them to exclude complementary truths that must be considered for a well-rounded theology of unity and oneness. They decontextualize the new identity believers have in Christ as an exclusive identity.

In other words, one is no longer Black or White, but a Christian. It seems that proponents of this position have not considered deeply the example of the apostles in Acts 6. When presented with a problem concerning the Hellenistic Jewish widows, the apostles did not miss the specific concern based on a commitment to a holistic conception of the unified body of believers. Rather, they made changes among the believers to address the needs of a specific sub-group among the whole body (Acts 6:1-5).

Those with a narrow idea of oneness also seem to miss the validity of addressing sub-categories within the unified body of Christ as demonstrated by Paul when he zeroes in on certain sub-identities among Christ-followers such as husbands and wives (Eph. 5:22-33), pastors and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1-13), Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 9-11), and widows (1 Tim. 5:3-16). In each of the aforementioned examples, an individual can both be identified as “in Christ” along with another identity. Furthermore, the specific sub-identity can grant a person specific responsibilities and require certain types of treatment by other believers. Therefore, recognition of belonging to any given sub-category does not negate the unity commanded in the previously mentioned passages. Being unified in Christ does not exclude one from commitments to specific sub-groups as long as these things do not conflict with Scripture.

Spiritual Idealism or Biblical Realism?

Another way that complementary truths are ignored in discussions about unity and oneness is through an overemphasis on abstract legal and eschatological concepts to the exclusion of existential realities.

What this refers to is the way some professed believers uphold certain biblical truths theoretically without considering the continued presence of sin in history (Matt. 19:8). We see Jesus making this distinction in Matthew where he points out the ideal for marriage (Matt. 19:6) but also identifies the reality that while there is still sin in the world, there must be room outside of the ideal to accommodate for human reality (Matt. 19:8-9).

In this circumstance, Jesus avoided both the extremes of legalism and limitless freedom. He provided a both/and analysis. This is insightful to discussions on racial reconciliation. There is a way one can miss the position of Jesus on racial reconciliation by exclusively looking at Galatians 3 and Ephesians 2, where Paul argues that Christians have been unified through Christ’s blood.

It is true that Christ has inaugurated the eschatological reality that believers are one unified body. However, one cannot ignore the history of racism in America and how that has created a segregated church. For example, most Christians would recoil at the notion that a woman being abused by her husband should continue to live with him based on the biblical truth that Jesus said: “What God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6). Most would intuitively know that when the existential factors are considered, the application of these verses must be consistent with those realities.

As the example above demonstrates, if this theological principle is not used, people can misuse Scripture in oppressive ways. Texts about unity can be used to ignore specific historical realities. If one holds to the spiritualized idealism, it may feel unorthodox to identify sub-groups within the unified body of Christ. This theology creates a spiritualized color-blindness that views Christians as a universal body with inconsequential distinctions.

There is a certain way a person can read Scripture that discredits any concern, recognition, or commitment to identities other than the “in Christ” identity. In the next series installment, we will continue with a description of the current condition of Black Churches and the way its dependency on White organizations creates a situation analogous to neo-colonialism. This will then give us the ability to consider an alternative model for reconciliation.

 

[1]I may use the phrases “White evangelical” and “Evangelical” interchangeably in this series.

[2]Campbell Roberton, “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches” in The New York Times (March 9, 2018), retrieved Dec. 12, 2019 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/09/us/blacks-evangelical-churches.html.

[3]For more on White Evangelical support of Trump see Philip Schwadel and Gregory A. Smith, Evangelical Approval of Trump Remains High, But Other Religious Groups Are Less Supportive” in Pew Research Center (March 18, 2019) Retrieved Dec. 12, 2019 from: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/03/18/evangelical-approval-of-trump-remains-high-but-other-religious-groups-are-less-supportive/

 

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