At my church, since shortly after Easter, we've been doing a sermon series on the Book of Acts. Now, it's been a very big-picture review of the book, we're not really doing every verse or even every story, we're focusing largely on the major beats of the book and what it says about the nature, origin, and source of power for the church. Last week, the sermon covered basically the whole first missionary journey, and this coming Sunday I've been asked to preach on the second. Which I am in the process of preparing, there is a big lesson from the whole trip, that's all fine. One thing I will not have time to talk about in depth there, however, that I really feel a desire to talk about, is what happened between those two trips.
Most of Acts 15 is occupied with the Jerusalem Council, at which they addressed the question of the day: how Jewish do gentile converts need to become to be considered Christian? That is, as non-Jewish people were entering what was then a predominately Jewish movement, how much did they have to adopt Jewish practice to be welcomed as members? The short answer in that particular instance was very little. It was observed at the council that the Holy Spirit was being poured out on gentile converts, which seemed to indicate God's acceptance of them (us, let's be honest here), and that acceptance into the church had been established as being a function of grace and not keeping the Mosaic law. Therefore, it made no sense to demand that people make themselves as Jewish as they could before they could be considered Christian.
Which, as it happens, reminds me of something else going on. I've been trying to figure out a way to say some of this, but I think instead I'll let someone else present the general concept and then just show how it applies.
Shannon raises a number of concerns above, but the one that is most relevant here is that the default expectation of white Americans, and white American churches if I'm honest, is that black people need to prove they can be white before they can be considered Americans (or Christians, in the churches). Because of the nature of this blog, I'm going to zero in on the application specific to churches and Christians, using the same general concepts that Shannon uses to zero in on sports (his own area of expertise).
See, when countries like England and Spain and France were out conquering the world, they had this notion that having Christians in the culture made the culture Christian. When Spanish missions were popping up in the new world, for instance, they did not simply tell the native peoples around them about Christ and offer whatever gifts they had in service to the community. They demanded cultural conquest; in their minds, being Christian wasn't simply a matter of serving Christ as Lord and rejecting the authority and draw of sin. It wasn't simply being Catholic, as the missionaries were. It was living like the Spanish do, thinking like the Spanish do, speaking the Spanish language, eating Spanish food. Being Christian meant, for all intents and purposes, being thoroughly Spanish.
This notion carried over to the new world. People around the world recoil at the concept of missionaries because they, or their elders, have memories of people coming in and establishing an American lifestyle and an American style of worship and American values and calling it all the gospel. This is why my wife and I, as hopeful future missionaries, are targeting a sending agency that would put us under the authority of native-born church planters, to lend them our skills and gifts but let them decide how the actual work is carried out; we are refusing to establish little outposts of America and call them churches, even accidentally.
And this is happening at home. Consider the recoil against identity politics. I have heard some version of this at all kinds of levels, from major movements within denominations to individual elders at little local churches, that "well, we want to support people who are hurting, but we don't want to get wrapped up in identity politics." But what are identity politics? Basically, they're nothing more than people saying "because of this, or these, aspect(s) of who I am, I have these specific concerns and issues and goals." See, what we are saying when we talk about wanting to avoid that, is that we want to help people who are hurting, as long as they are hurting in ways we understand. As long as they are hurting in ways we hurt. That people who do not share our history, or our experiences, or our backgrounds, or our relationship to government authority, must nonetheless act like they do before we can view them as brothers and sisters with an equal share of Christ and an equal right to be supported as family. In fact, we sometimes treat it as an attack on the gospel itself to consider the possibility that people with a different ethnic background are facing different problems. As Shannon pointed out, we expect them to look at the flag and our nation's history through our lens rather than their own before we're willing to consider their concerns valid.
Because this is what we've convinced ourselves Christianity looks like. Being a Christian means viewing the world and one's nation and one's flag and history the way white Evangelical Republicans do. And the result is that my Facebook wall has dozens of posts from people saying they do not, and cannot, understand how certain forms of protest help advance the cause. Hear me on this: no one cares if you understand. Very little of it is aimed at making you understand (blocking traffic does tend to have the implicit "if you're this angry about being unable to advance for an hour, imagine how angry you would be if your entire culture was unable to advance for decades" statement, but not everything does). The question is, are you listening? And if you are listening, what are you going to do about it?
Protest march against police violence - Justice for George Floyd by Fibonacci Blue. Used under Creative Commons.
This basic issue was already addressed. At the Council of Jerusalem it was decided that people who are part of, or enter, the church do not have any requirements to adopt the mannerisms or rules or behaviors of the people who were already in the church. They needed to serve Christ, and while this will make some changes in their lives, the established church doesn't get to dictate full compliance with their own cultural norms before they are seen as brothers and sisters in Christ. No ethnic or cultural group gets to decide that Christianity naturally looks like their cultural norms. They didn't need to act like they had lived under the strict Pharisaical laws for generations before the Holy Spirit was poured out on them, they didn't need to get circumcised or adopt Jewish rituals before they could be considered Christians and given all the welcome and support that entails. Why now do we behave as though our black brothers and sisters have to act like they have our background, act like they have only our problems, act like us before we can extend the fullness of brotherhood to them? Why do we demand that they think like us, vote like us, walk like us, live fully like us, eat our food, speak our language, protest in a way we approve, before we can see any way to support them as family?
What is it going to take for us to listen? How many people are going to die before we decide to work with the hurting, to mourn with those who mourn, to weep with those who weep, to stand as agents of the Author of Life against forces that are bringing death and destruction? How badly must the world break around us before we realize that our own brokenness is feeding into it? How much more will we burden our brothers and sisters, people in our churches and serving the same Christ, not only with the trials they already face, but with our silence and judgment in the face of it?
"Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are."
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a number of Christian denominations had to wrestle with the role of scripture in the revelation of truth. The primary camps this usually fell into were those who held that the Bible was fully true in both its concepts and facts (called inerrancy), and those that held it was only fully true in its concepts. The former, for instance, would hold that Jonah literally spent time in the belly of a whale or great fish, while the latter would hold that the lesson taught by Jonah's story was important but the details were probably fictional. The SBC's turn to wrestle with these issues began with commentaries and books published as early as 1961, but kicked into a real fight in 1979. Guided by men including Paige Patterson, Adrian Rogers, and Paul Pressler, the churches which held to inerrancy (which was the vast majority of them) sent messengers to the SBC annual meetings and elected Convention Presidents and entity trustees who also held to inerrancy, thereby slowly shifting the seminaries and ministries of the SBC in a conservative direction. The matter was considered functionally resolved with the publishing of the updated Baptist Faith and Message in 2000. Most of those who opposed inerrancy left the denomination.
During the controversy, nearly everything had to be called into question. People seeking to keep their jobs while opposing the shift were very careful about their wording to suggest that they believed in the truth of scripture while avoiding making any solid statements on the details of scripture. Those who considered themselves liberal or moderate described the conservatives as lusting after power and causing unnecessary division in the denomination just to claim control. Some churches that seem to have actually agreed with the inerrantists ended up opposing them out of a belief that the resurgence or takeover was about a political agenda rather than a doctrinal difference. Those who took the side of the conservatives, which ended up winning the day, were those who saw past careful wording or caricatures to look for the doctrinal root of everything that was being said and done. An entire generation started as children, went to Bible college and/or seminary, and then took posts at Baptist churches and colleges during the controversy. That generation, and the one that was leading the controversy, spent over two decades training to see the world along very specific doctrinal lines and to look for the opposition that wore the masks of allies. This was necessary, the whole fight was necessary in my opinion, because ultimately the cause of inerrancy warranted a defense and this was the defense that needed to arise at that time.
The problem comes when you take combat strategies into a time of peace.
So what does that have to do with the letter, or my earlier post about the Founders Ministry dispute? The short answer is that a generation who views the world in terms of finding hidden enemies will always see enemies hiding among their friends.
The Controversy taught that generation that any difference in belief or practice is a signpost indicating a deeper attack on scripture. Those who raise questions about how the SBC handles things are trying to undermine the work of the Controversy Generation in reestablishing the authority of scripture. Those who come from a different perspective and therefore see a different application for the truths of scripture are substituting secular ideologies for the gospel. Every doctrinal or practical difference that can be associated with a different treatment of scripture must be viewed as an attack on inerrancy.
And this is what Patterson was expressing in his letter. Whether conscious or not, the fear was that minority pastors, who have a tendency to view the SBC and the Bible in light of a different set of life experiences than white pastors, are in fact interpreting the Bible as subject to those experiences. That the interpretation of scripture does not begin with the claim that the Bible is factually true and the ultimate source of truth, but rather that the truth claims of scripture can and should be measured against a different standard. This is the same complaint of Founders Ministries, and the same fear that pushes against reform in the treatment of abuse victims, and the same understanding that led John MacArthur to misrepresent the actions voted on by the SBC over this past summer, and the same standard that demanded Kanye West to display a certain level of doctrinal maturity before his conversion can be seen as valid. It is present in churches, ministries, schools, conferences, and online spaces. And the thought process can be shown by example.
Liberation Theology is a school of thought largely held in black churches and present among other minorities that sees a certain relationship between the slavery to sin and the slavery of their ancestors (and/or ongoing issues and oppression they face), and therefore read the liberation from sin and its effects as a particularly notable promise in their lives. While individual views may vary, the core idea of the theology is that freedom in Christ is an important aspect of the gospel that has specific and unique application in their lives. Patterson's letter does not cite the existence of this framework as part of his concern, it is merely being used as an example. Detractors of liberation theology, however, view the emphasis on freedom from sin as a replacement for penal substitutionary atonement (the belief that the primary purpose of the death of Christ is to take on the weight of our sin on our behalf) and, as such, a false gospel. And, of course, a false gospel must come from a different read of scripture; and a different read of scripture, to the Controversy Generation, is probably a sign that inerrancy is being denied. Therefore, by this logic, allowing liberation theology to have a place in the SBC is a challenge to inerrancy and a reversal of the Controversy's achievements. That some opponents also believe the claims of ongoing oppression are false is relevant when it comes up, but on a doctrinal level this is the actual issue.
But this mindset, while a very good tool during the fight for inerrancy, causes more problems than it solves when it is applied to differences that do not come from the issue of inerrancy. Black people who hold to liberation theology, by and large, are not wrestling with what the gospel actually is or how the Bible defines it; they are wrestling with what that gospel looks like as it interacts with their lives and communities. Disputes about the nature of the manifested Kingdom of God do not generally arise from a dismissal of the authority of scripture, but from different attempts to piece together the authoritative clues that scripture contains. Allowing for the use of secular tools designed to help victims of abuse is rarely an attempt to reject the Spirit speaking through scripture as the primary means of healing, but an attempt to understand what specific needs a victim may have and therefore what parts of scripture or aspects of the gospel will best speak to those needs, and how to apply them in a healthy manner. But when these issues are handled with the mindset instilled in the Controversy Generation, the natural response is to oppose good things being handled by righteous servants of God out of fear that anything different is an attack in disguise. This pushes people away who are actually allies, causes continued pain in people who come to the church seeking healing and find only rejection, and damages our witness to those watching how we shoot at each other over every minor dispute.
Brothers, this cannot stand. I have said before that I support the work carried out by inerrantists during the Controversy, and I stand by that; I also believe it is necessary to see the impact the Controversy has had on the people who fought in it, and the ways their scars can cause unnecessary division now. We have had to fight for inerrancy before, and it is possible we shall have to again; but the question right now is what a church that holds to inerrancy will look like in a hurting world coming to grips with a host of problems that are being brought into the light. If we will not fight the battles that really exist because we are too focused on those fought decades ago, we will face a much greater loss than the roughly 1,900 churches who left during the Controversy. It is time to lay these weapons down, pick up the scriptures we fought so hard for, and begin exploring what it looks like to live them out today.
I stated that putting Donald Trump in the White House would legitimize a practice calling itself Christianity that has little, if anything, to do with Christ. That his election would not only encourage the false teachers he surrounded himself with during his campaign, but that it would embolden a host of problems that the church was harboring and failing to address. This past Sunday, the sermon touched on one of the ways I feel that concern has been realized.
The Foreigner Among Us
But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing [mother] tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.
1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 (NASB)
The big question of the sermon was, do we reach out to the people around us with the same love and passion that Paul is here describing? He noted that churches in America have a particular opportunity of world evangelism based on the fact that the world is coming to us, rather than requiring we go to it. And when they come here, we have an opportunity to reach out and build relationships and show the love of Christ to them by sharing, not only the gospel, but our lives with them. But, of course, that relies on us actually welcoming them. So the sermon reminded me of some things.
God of our Sojourning
"Thus has the LORD of hosts said, 'Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.'
Zechariah 7:9-10 (NASB)
In Deuteronomy, God repeatedly makes the case that part of the reason Israel should remember to care for the sojourner among them is that they were, themselves, sojourners in Egypt. It's worth noting that, during this address, Moses isn't speaking to people who were adults in Egypt; this is after the forty years of wandering, when the generation that came from Egypt had died out. This is not a command given to the generation that remembers Egypt. Israel as a body was a sojourner, and is told here that it must never forget that fact.
He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR [God's] OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.
There are two grounds on which this argument stands. The first is that, while we are not under the Mosaic law as a people redeemed by grace, the ordinances given to Israel nevertheless point to some understanding of who God is and what His people should look like and we can learn from that; in this particular case, we need not conceptualize the lesson being given, as we may with laws like those banning mixed fabrics, since the reminder to care for the foreigner is given an explanation already.
The second is the nature of that explanation, and the fact that it has not changed. That the heart of God goes out to the foreigner remains equally true as long as God's heart remains the same, and we know that He does not change. And His call to remember the days of sojourning are true for Christians who sojourn in a fallen world just as much as it was true of Israelites who sojourned in Egypt.
How can we be the people of God if we will not act how God calls us to act, and love how He has loved us?
Of the first, it should be noted that our government is not actually set up to operate that way. Whether or not the apostles would have been at the borders of the Roman Empire welcoming travelers is hardly relevant when their relationship to government was fundamentally different from ours. The simplest way to put it is this: in a governmental system designed to be of the people, for the people, and by the people, what we task the government with doing is something we are doing. This also comes up in matters of social welfare, the claim that we are called to support the widow and the orphan and help the poor, sure, but we are never called to empower a government to take our money and have them do the supporting.* But this creates a division where one does not exist. When we vote for or against a program or a candidate, we are telling the government how we want it to operate on our behalf. We are directing it to function as our arms in carrying out large-scale operations beyond the scope of what we can do individually. It is no different from giving money and input to our church, or our denomination, about things we want to see happen.
As such, there is no division. If we are going to show God's love to the sojourner among us, we have a direct responsibility to support programs that allow sojourners to exist among us. Our attempts to support programs that restrict or remove sojourners from our midst are nothing less than an act of rebellion to the mission of our God.
The second is personal/national safety and, while literally all available data shows that there is no considerable threat from allowing refugees (or immigrants in general) in, the main focus for us as Christians is that our nation ultimately doesn't matter and our lives are already lost. We owe our nation no more allegiance than we owe Kazakhstan, because, as stated above, this is not our home. We have certain obligations to respect the authority that we live under, but that does not mean we give that authority more power and worth than it deserves. Nor will it be eternal. America will fall someday, whether to mortal forces or to the coming Kingdom of our Lord. What, exactly, are we preserving? And is preserving it more important than obedience to God?
As for personal safety, this is never guaranteed to us. We walk the path of martyrs. It is better for a terrorist to walk into a church and be greeted with the gospel than to allow him to continue in ignorance of the offer of salvation, even if he destroys that church and everyone in it. It is better to lose our lives by opening our doors to the unsaved than to live a long life and stand before God having never carried out His commands because we were more afraid of man than of Him.
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Matthew 10:28 (NASB)
To this end, I have watched for a couple decades as white churches have made strides toward integration. These were mostly had through visible invitation to community; singing the occasional worship song in Spanish or Afrikaans to show unity with Christians abroad, making a point of inviting people from other ethnic backgrounds to become members, having major denominations make apologies for former racist practices and beliefs and expressing interest in moving forward together. Some of it was just different styles of church that non-whites were interested in trying out. It seemed to be working. Formerly all-white churches across the country had more ethnic diversity in their seats, and that was that.
Then, a few years ago, it fell apart.
Social Justice in the Church
So they left. Because what had become apparent was that they were never anything more than guests. What so many white evangelical churches had done was welcome people in who didn't look like them, but then kind of expected those people to start looking like them. White churches continued to have white leadership that talked about the desire for reconciliation but did not ask what it was that had kept people away to begin with. There were no changes to the culture of those churches, no involvement of new ideas about practical issues secondary to the gospel. Sermons would look at abortion debates and rail on and on about the value of life and the need to protect it at all costs and then turn away any discussion on black youth laying dead in the street because they felt racial discussion was divisive; or worse, they would condemn the dead and pray for protection of the shooter from the trials they faced for killing someone. I've known some who have left the faith, or at least the church, entirely; but many simply walked away from a place they came to understand they never really belonged anyway and went looking for the places that had always looked like them.
Recently, a group called Founders Ministries released the trailer to a new documentary called By What Standard? which boasted input from a wealth of Southern Baptist leaders and theologians. The description the documentary offers for itself is that it is attempting to reveal and counter views seeping into the church that threaten to water down the gospel. While the documentary has not been released, so no one outside of the production team really know what it will say, the trailer focuses on those who have criticized how the church has handled issues like racial turmoil and sexual assault.
There are two things about which everyone involved, even the leaders being presented as attacking the church, seem to agree on. One is that the existing attempts at racial integration have not worked and probably can never work; the debate is about why it didn't work and what to do about it. The second is that there is nothing that should be allowed to take the place of the gospel at the heart of the church; the difference is whether or not other things have any place in the church.
You see, when someone comes along and says that we need to seek input from the people who feel hurt by the church, to find out how the church hurt them and if it can do anything to fix that, they are not necessarily saying that the church should then use that input as the fundamental basis for their activities. They can, of course, there are cases of that happening; but most often what is actually being suggested is that we learn how to apply the gospel in a way that more accurately shows the love of Christ and our unity in Him to the people around us. It is not a compromise of the gospel to ask how different people are hearing the gospel and what we can do to help them better understand it in their own lives.
It is true that we should not allow anything into our churches that contradicts the Bible. I would argue it is just as true that we should not allow ourselves to reject things that work alongside the Bible simply because they weren't born in the church. Social justice is not evil; it can become an idol, but so can everything else. I daresay our idea of a perfect church can be just as much of an idol. The desire to preserve the culture of the church, a culture that so often looks far more American than Christian, is not less of an incursion than allowing work to be done about real issues people in the community are facing.
And this is why racial integration didn't work. It's also why so many victims of abuse have left. It wasn't because the black people or the assault victims in the congregation demanded too much, it was because none of their requests or desires were considered important enough to try. We had decided that the culture of the church needed to look how we had designed it and then called any concern or idea that came from outside the white male experience as being a distraction. And any distraction was labeled an attempt to subvert the good work of the church, a "godless ideology." The white church was white to the core and made the mistake of thinking that anything black came from outside the church and had to be guarded against. We sought to bring them in so we could see they were there but never gave them the means to make it their home as well. The abused cried out for us to help them, to show the compassion of Christ on them and condemn the work of their abusers for their violence, and we told them they mattered and were important but refused to behave in any way that would show this to be true.
And now that they're leaving, we're bickering over whether or not it would be Christian of us to set our ideal experience aside and allow the changes that would make us look like the first century church we were trying to emulate in the first place. We told them their presence mattered but never allowed them to feel as though they mattered as people, let alone as siblings in Christ, as equal participants in a church that can cross cultural divides. We opened windows in our cultural walls and then cried foul when people on the other side pointed out that the wall was still there. We silenced people who had something uncomfortable to say and then condemned them for feeling invisible and unwanted around us.
It is true that we must not let the gospel, or the Bible that delivers that gospel, to be dethroned from the core of who we are. It is also true that in our treatment of people who have come to us asking for action regarding pain in their lives, we have been wrong. And we have people now standing up and calling us to repentance for our arrogance and dismissal of people who we invited in and then hurt. And if we will not at least be humble enough to ask if we were anything less than perfect, to even briefly consider the possibility that we are failing to live out the call God has placed on us, then we cannot expect God to have much patience with us.
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Gods At War
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Stanley E Porter
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