“The concept of the black race and the white race originated with the Enemy himself. Just as he sowed seeds of doubt in the garden of Eden with his “hath God really said,” he has continued through the ages to offer a lie in the place of God’s truth. His attack has been anything but subtle. This web of deceit has brought hatred and bigotry into the church. What we are left with is a huge divide that is no more evident than at the 11:00 worship hour on Sunday mornings.”
– Dr. John M. Perkins, One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race
It was more than half a century ago, on December 18, 1963, to be exact, when, during a Q&A session at Western Michigan University, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated the following: “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning, when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”
Now, I want to say at the outset of this commentary that I do not ask that question in an effort to be facetious or to portray an acrimonious or argumentative attitude toward either Dr. King or his legacy as a civil rights leader.
Not at all.
Nevertheless, the truth is King’s assertion that 11:00 on Sunday mornings is the most “segregated” hour [in the American evangelical church] has essentially gone unchallenged since the day he uttered those words some 55 years ago – words that for many Christians who today identify as advocates and proponents of “social justice” within the evangelical church – serve as a primary impetus to promote a missiology founded upon the presupposition that the same culture of ethnic divisiveness to which Dr. King is alluding, a culture that initially gave rise to the Black Church in America, exists virtually unchanged today.
I, for one, do not believe that to be the case.
But what makes the ongoing appropriation of King’s declaration particularly concerning to me, is the dogmatic manner in which the term ‘segregated’ is used to describe what many believe to be an ethnic imbalance within American evangelical churches (and by “American evangelical churches” I’m referring specifically to churches whose congregations are predominantly white, as churches whose congregations are predominantly black, though perhaps just as ethnically imbalanced, if not more so, are never described in such terms.)
But, I digress.
When we hear words like segregated and segregation, more often than not we assume they are used within a contextual framework that is jaundiced and tendentious. This is particularly true given today’s socio-political milieu in which reminders of America’s history of ethnic discrimination against blacks and other ethnic minorities, especially in the case of Southern Baptist churches, seems incessant and ubiquitous.
That said, in no way am I discounting or minimizing that history. In fact, I am quite familiar with it on a somewhat personal level.
From 2009 to 2014, I was a member of a predominantly ethnically white Southern Baptist church whose origins date back to 1823, the same year that abolitionists Mary Ann Shad Cary and Mifflin Wistar Gibbs were born. But it wasn’t until the year 1827 that the church voted to allow blacks to become members.
Ponder on that for a moment, if you will.
That a so-called “church” – any supposed gospel-centered church – would have to vote on whether to allow others of God’s image bearers to be welcomed as fellow members of its local body is blatantly antithetical to the gospel (Acts 10:28). Nonetheless, it was while a member of this particular church that, in February 2012, I was afforded the distinct and unique privilege of becoming the first non-white person in its nearly 200-year existence to be ordained a deacon.
So, not only do I have an appreciation for the discriminatory history of the Southern Baptist denomination against black people, I have an affinity for it as well. But, be that as it may, contrary to what some evangelical social justice advocates might exclaim, the past is not what is at issue here. What is at issue is the continued acceptance of the subjective assertion that white evangelical churches in America – in the 21st century – are ethnically segregated in the same deliberate and calculated manner as was often the case many years ago.
I say “subjective” because the church must never be defined or distinguished in terms of metrics such as a congregation’s ratio of black congregants to white congregants, but of hearts that have been sovereignly brought by God to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. But that notwithstanding, a question that must be asked is this: by whose standard would such an “ethnic imbalance” be deemed to have been sufficiently remedied? Or, to frame the question another way, who gets to play God in these situations? After all, it is His church, is it not?
In his book, Race & Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed On Discrimination?, Dr. Walter E. Williams, professor of Economics at George Mason University, asks what I believe to be a very profound question:
“Just because blacks are not proportionately represented in some activity, how analytically useful is it to assert that the activity is racially segregated?”
The inquiry posed by Dr. Williams is, in my estimation, paramount to the matter of multiethnicity within white evangelical churches in America; and yet it is one that many evangelical social justice advocates refuse to answer (or at least consider). Instead, they continue to propagate the notion that multiethnic “intentionality” – a favorite term of theirs – is a “gospel issue” based primarily, if not exclusively, on the premise that Dr. King was – and is – correct in his original assessment and, as such, that the current ‘lack’ (whatever that means) of multiethnicity among white evangelical congregations is inherently rooted in the historic ethnic biases of the past. This denunciatory perspective is perhaps most clearly expressed in the book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, who jointly assert that:
“Despite devoting considerable time and energy to solving the problem of racial division, white evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it. This, we have seen, is because of its history, its thorough acceptance of and reliance on free market principles, its subcultural tool kit, and, more broadly, the nature of the organization of American religion.”
Perhaps you’ve deduced by now that I do not concur with those who would tender such assertions as the aforementioned. For to paint an entire ethnic population of believers with such a broad and accusatory brush is to suggest being able to discern the thoughts and intentions of one’s heart. And from what I understand, only God Himself is qualified to do that (Ps. 44:20-21; Jer. 17:10; Heb. 4:12).
But for what it’s worth, on the matter of ‘social justice’ in general, I happen to fall within the ideological camp of the late Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of most learned theologians the world has ever known, who, in his classic work Preaching & Preachers, declared that,
“This concern about the social and political conditions, and about the happiness of the individual and so on, has always been dealt with most effectively when you have had reformation and revival and true preaching in the Christian Church.”
Lloyd-Jones is right.
But he isn’t right simply because I agree with him. He is right because he is biblical.
The danger of our being so rigidly dictative about multiethnicity within the church is we essentially reduce those who comprise the body of Christ to nothing more than an assemblage of redeemed bean counters. For the only way to objectively determine if this multiethnic vision that the 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning no longer remains “the most segregated hour in America”, if that’s the case at all, is by visually observing and monitoring how many people of varying shades of melanin are occupying the pews on any given Sunday morning.
I am of the opinion that what many evangelical social justice advocates appear to lose sight of is that changing the ethnic makeup of a local congregation merely for the sake of changing its ethnic makeup is, at best, an exercise in aesthetics. Just because individuals of different skin tones are seated beside one another on a pew in a church does not portend they are genuinely unified in the way that matters most to God (Jn. 17:20-23).
“No one can read your heart. If you make a credible profession of faith with your lips, you can join a church and become a member of the visible church. Yet every day people join the visible church who are far from the kingdom of God. They profess Christ with their lips, but their hearts aren’t in it, which is why the distinction between the visible and the invisible church exists. Augustine said that the invisible church is the true church made up of the body of the elect, those who have been truly redeemed and transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. They are invisible to our sight but clearly visible to God, who can read the heart.”
What is prefatory to, and more important than, changing the ethnic composition of a local church congregation is changing the sinful disposition of the human heart (Prov. 2:6-10); Rom. 12:2). The former is accomplished by God only as the latter is likewise accomplished by Him (Jn. 6:44; 6:65). Given this reality, I believe we would do well to give prayerful consideration to the following thought from theologian and author John Piper who, in his book Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, declared that:
“Union with Christ is the key. When we trust Christ, we are united to him. His righteousness is counted as ours. Before God we are not guilty, not impure, not sinful. We are holy and righteous with the imputed righteousness of Christ. Not only that, but we are born into the very family of God. We are justified through faith, and we are sanctified through faith. We are counted as perfect in Christ, and we are put in the most magnificent family in the universe, God’s family.”
The irony of Piper’s comment is that in our temporal efforts to pursue heightened levels of multiethnicity within the evangelical church – efforts which, again, are undertaken primarily under the guise that multiethnicity is a “gospel issue” – in God’s eschatological paradigm the ethnic composition of His church is already an accomplished reality (Rev. 7:9). But because this reality is not fully visible in the sin-saturated world in which we live (1 Jn. 5:19), we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that it is up to us to bring what God has ordained as an eschatological reality to fruition in the here and now.
In other words, we have confused God using us to build His church with God needing us to build His church.
But theologian and author Dr. Michael Horton reminds us that:
“The church is neither a central agency with branch offices nor a group of individuals who decide to follow Jesus and therefore decided to start a church. Rather, it is a supernatural and eschatological reality that decends from heaven in the power of the Spirit through the means of grace (see Rev. 21:9-27). Just as each believer’s salvation finds its origin in God’s sovereign grace, so too the church collectively is the result of God’s gracious plan, not ours.” – Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples, chaper 17: The Church, p. 389
What makes the assertion that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most “segregated” hour in America so misleading, is it suggests congregations that are composed primarily of individuals who are of one particular ethnicity and whose members, for whatever reasons, may worship separately from those who are primarily of another ethnicity, are motivated solely by a desire to be segregated from them.
Congregational separation neither precipitates nor portends congregational segregation.
The beauty of the gospel is that our union with Christ – and with His people – is not a matter of aesthetics, that is, how many white, brown, yellow, red, or black faces are reflected on the home page of a church’s website, but of what God Himself has already done to unite His elect through the sacrificial, propitiatory, and atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins (Rom. 5:8).
As Dr. John M. Perkins states in the aforementioned book One Blood:
“Just as from one man, Adam, all human physical life began, it is from the blood of one man, Jesus, that all who believe in Him are born again and united into the family of God. We are indeed One Race…One Blood.”
Brothers and sisters, Christ has promised to build His church (Matt. 16:18).
It is a foregone conclusion.
As the 18th-century commentator, Matthew Henry, wrote:
“The Builder and Maker of the church is Christ himself. Building is a progressive work; the church in this world is like a house that is being built. It is a comfort that Christ, who has divine wisdom and power, undertakes to build it.”
With this comforting and reassuring truth in mind, let us humbly remember that regardless our ethnicity – an attribute of our human identity that is solely God’s doing (Acts 17:26) – to whatever extent our Lord chooses to use you and me to bring His eschatological promise to fruition, we must never confuse God using us with God needing us.
“…and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, the church continued to increase.”
– Acts 9:31b
This post first appeared on Darrell’s blog Just Thinking for Myself