Bound Together: Racial Reconciliation Begins in the Church
By Jerram Barrs
Professor of Christian Studies and Contemporary Culture,
Covenant Theological Seminary Resident Scholar, Francis Schaeffer Institute
The failure of the Christian Church in many parts of the world and throughout time to speak out for and live out reconciliation between races may tempt people to believe that there are only a couple of obscure verses here and there in the Word of God which address this issue. But when we turn to Scripture, we find it is not just that there are a couple of verses here and there which address this issue—reconciliation is actually at the essential core of our most holy faith.
The Biblical basis for racial unity and reconciliation begins simply with the Bible’s statement of our common humanity. When Paul addressed the Athenians on Mars Hill, he appealed to our common humanity. The Athenians considered themselves to be a superior people. Wiser, more noble, more blessed than any other people on the face of the earth. But the apostle Paul said to them, “From one man God made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:26-28) We have a common origin and we all live and move and have our being in God.
This life that we have from God is glorious. Psalm 8:4,5 says, “…what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” What is man? Man is the offspring of God, crowned with glory and honor— because He has made us in His likeness. It is because we are all crowned with glory and honor, because we are made in the image of God, that James forbids us ever to curse another human person, ever to dishonor another person.
Every person that we are ever going to meet from wherever they come on the face of this earth, is a person made in the image and likeness of God. James teaches us in James 3:9-10 that to curse with our lips, or with our hearts and minds, to dishonor any person that God has made, is in the end to dishonor God who made them. To demean or to deny the full dignity and glory of any human person is to demean and to deny the glory of God Himself.
Secondly we must recognize our common shame. Not only do we share the same glory, we bear the same shame. We all inherit the sinful nature of our parents, from Adam and Eve right down to the present day. Adam and Eve, we are told in Genesis 5:3, begot a child in their own image, in their own likeness. We share the image and likeness of God, but we also share the image and likeness of sinful humanity.
Every human being that we will ever meet has to be prepared to make the same prayer that David prayed in Psalm 51:3 onwards, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” All of us have both inherited a sinful nature, that terrible shame, and we also all sin.
We all sin and fall short of the glory of God, as Paul expresses it in Romans 3. All of us disobey every day of our lives, every moment of our lives. We disobey the Word that God Himself inscribed in stone, the Word written in Scripture, and the word that He has inscribed on the hearts of every human person. That is what Paul teaches us in Romans 2—every one of us even fails to obey the law written on our own hearts.
Wherever we go across the face of this world, we will never meet anyone over whom we may feel morally superior. We all bear exactly the same shame. If we have sinned against one part of the law, James teaches us, we have sinned against every part of it because the law is one (James 2:10). The reality is we all sin all the time against every part of the law God has given and that He has created us to obey.
We are all the offspring of God and we all deserve to live under the judgement of God. One day we each will stand before the judgement seat of Jesus Christ and there our color, race, and culture will mean absolute- ly nothing. It is our common humanity as God’s image bearers and our common shame as sinners that will be the issues then. God’s judgement, we are taught over and over again in Scripture, will be completely impartial. He does not look, as human beings look, on the outside, He looks always at the character, He looks at the heart of people and the way we live.
It is because of the impartiality of God that repeatedly in the law of Moses the people of Israel were absolutely forbidden to make any distinction in their laws between those who are native born and those who are aliens. They were forbidden to discriminate between those who are strangers, those who are from other nations, other peoples, other races who are in their land.
We have many differences in our humanity. We are different in size, shape, beauty, color, language, and cul- ture. But these differences are absolutely insignificant in comparison to what unites us: both our glory and our shame.
New Humanity in Christ
Scripture describes the tragic divisions of every kind that have come to humanity as a result of our rebellion against God. There are divisions between man and woman, between man and his brother, between neighbor and neighbor, between tribe and tribe, and between nation and nation. The early chapters of Genesis show how that crippling division spread across the face of the earth. God confused the languages at the tower of Babel, both as an act of retribution and as a means of limiting the consequences of sin. But Scripture teaches that the division of language never sets aside our common humanity, nor does it set aside God’s purpose for the salvation of people from every nation on the face of this earth. In fact, God’s Word teaches that there is only one race. There are different nations and languages, different people and tribes, but there is only one race of human beings.
In order to consider the model of our new humanity in Christ, we look at Christ’s earthly ministry. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus Christ demonstrated utter disregard for the sense of superiority of so many of His contemporaries. Many Jews of His time saw God’s election of the people of Israel as a mark of their superiority over the other nations around them. They accepted this view in spite of the fact that the Old Testament itself forbade them repeatedly to think of God’s calling as a mark of their superiority.
When Jesus Christ came, He recognized the dignity of each person whether Jew, Samaritan, Canaanite, or Greek. In the Gospel of John, chapter 4, Jesus meets the woman at the well. She is a Samaritan, despised for her race, her religion, her gender, and her sin. Jesus came to this woman and treated her with the most won- derful dignity. He set aside the laws of His time to do so. It was against the laws of the Jewish rabbis for a Jew to eat food or to drink water from a vessel touched by a Samaritan, but Jesus asked her to give Him a drink of water. She was astonished and amazed that He would make such a request of her. This is how we consis- tently see Jesus Christ relating to people throughout his earthly ministry.
Whether people were despised because of race, gender, culture, or sin, Jesus went to them. Jesus went into their homes, He ate with them, and they received Him gladly. The Son of God showed us how we are to be. Jesus taught His disciples that after His death He would draw to Himself men and women from every nation on the face of this earth. He declared that His passion is that there would be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16). His design is unity among the people of God.
The Longing of Christ
John 17 records the night of Jesus’ death. What is the passion, the motivation, the longing that fills Jesus’ heart as He prepares Himself to go to crucifixion? John 17:20 records His prayer, “My prayer is not for them [the disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” Jesus’ passionate prayer before He dies, is that we, His people—all of us—will experience the kind of unity that the members of the Trinity experience.
The longing of Jesus Christ is that we (black, white, yellow and brown; male and female; young and old; from every people, tribe, tongue and nation) may be one. Jesus prayed saying, “May they be brought to com- plete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Christ’s desire is not Asian-Americans here and Latinos there, Afro-Americans here and Anglo-Americans somewhere else, but rather that we may be brought to complete unity.
Jesus said that the world will know that the Father has sent the Son, because of the witness of the unity that we have with one another. How can we resist this prayer of Christ? This is the foremost thought expressed by Jesus as He goes to the cross. You may be sure that the prayer He prayed then is the prayer He prays for us today. Yet we live in a time when it is widely taught that if we want to grow our churches more quickly and more effectively, we must make them purposefully homogeneous. Just one group, one race, one culture, one people, one economic class, one group all the same. Such a plan for the growth of the church is a sin against Jesus Christ. It is the rejection of His final prayer for us before He died. It is saying, in effect, “Christ, we know better than You how to grow Your church. We know better than You what will bring unbelievers into the kingdom of God.” But God is building one temple—not a white temple and a black temple, not a poor temple and a rich temple—but one temple. That is Christ’s design.
In coming to Christ, we also come to one another. Later in Ephesians 4, Paul tells us what is necessary for this unity to be realized. He writes, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” In order to live a life worthy of the call of Christ, Paul teaches us to humble ourselves before one another and to be bound together in the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace into the body of Jesus Christ. So reconciliation with God can never be sep- arated from reconciliation with one another.
What Stands in the Way of Unity?
What stands in the way of the realization of unity in the body of Christ? What stands in the way of reconcil- iation? The things that stand in the way are our pride of heritage, our security in our cultural identity, our comfort in our color—all of these things stand in the way.
These things are what have made the church in every age slow to obey the Great Commission. These things caused the church in Galatia to divide in two over the supposed superiority of the one half of the congrega- tion and the supposed inferiority of the other half. But in Galatians Paul teaches us that that was another gospel, no gospel at all. To add anything to Christ, whether it is good works or our pride in heritage or histo- ry, to add anything to faith in Christ, including those things, is another gospel.
When this pride, this security, this comfort causes us to turn our back on Jesus’ prayer on the night that He died, then all we have is idolatry. It is idolatry that causes us to think we know better than Him how the church should be built before the world and we must repent of this idolatry.
In his letter to the Philippians Paul writes about his own identity culturally. He calls it “the flesh,” that is, all that we have as human persons that comes from our history and heritage. He says in Phil. 3:4, “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them dung, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” Each one of us needs to substitute whatever our own cultural history, cultural identity, cultural heritage, racial identity—whatever we like to put in there—in place of Paul’s words right there.
We need to be prepared to say with the apostle Paul, “I am white, I am English, I am Reformed, I am Presbyterian”—or whatever it may be for you—and say, “I consider this manure.” Those are Paul’s words. It is not just rubbish, I consider this dung in comparison to knowing Jesus Christ.
How do we move forward from here? Paul has told us the answer is humility. “Be completely humble and gentle, be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2). We must humble ourselves before God’s Word and before one another. We must see the idolatrous nature of our hearts toward our cultural comfort and identity and cry out to God to convict us.
If you have not been awakened to the need for reconciliation in the body of Christ then you need to cry out to God that He will harrow your heart. Ask the Lord to convict you of what His Word teaches not in an obscure verse or two here and there, but what is taught from the beginning to the end of His Word about the unity of the human race and the unity of people in Jesus Christ. We need to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand and under His Word. And then we need to make confession to God and to one another because the New Testament encourages us to confess our sins to one another that we might be healed. And we need to be healed.
We need to come before the Lord and say this to Him: “We have trampled on Christ’s high priestly prayer. We have despised His plan for the church. We have set aside the mystery of the Gospel. We have dishon- ored the name of Christ before the watching world. We have torn asunder His body.” That is the confession that we need to make. And then commit ourselves to repentance, that is, to turn away from those sins, from that way of living. And we can to have confidence that Scripture assures us Christ is our peace.
This is not a hard work to do because Christ has already done all the hard work. Christ is our peace. He has reconciled us to God and to one another already on the cross. He has done all the hard labor that needs to be done. He has given us the Spirit for this very purpose, that me might live out His reconciliation in the world and before the world.
This Sunday you probably will be going to church. Before you do so, remember the words of Matthew 5:24. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” The context of Jesus’ words here is our being critical of one another and despising one another and looking at another person and saying, “There’s a fool. There is somebody lower than I.”
May none of us ever go to church again to offer God our worship, to take Him our tithes and offerings, and go with an unreconciled heart to other people. Jesus tells us to leave our gift and to be reconciled. I chal- lenge you that when you go to church tomorrow, go as one who is reconciled, who has confessed sins, who has acknowledged what Christ desires for us, and has become committed to being reconciled every day of life to come.
This is something that we have to do one by one, each one of us. We have to commit ourselves to associa- tion. It is not something that will just happen. It is something that we have to do that Christ’s prayer for us might be fulfilled. He is praying for us—he will actually enable us to get to know one another across these racial differences, to serve one another, to sit down and eat together, to become friends with one another, to love one another. This is what we are called to do—simply to love one another as Christ has loved us.
This article originally appeared in Covenant magazine, the magazine of Covenant Theological Seminary. Reprint permission is available upon request by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. © Covenant Theological Seminary.