Once I heard that a well-respected and well-known civil rights leader criticized a neighboring racial reconciliation organization for only having conversations and events about racial harmony but rarely ever doing anything. “All they do is talk” was his indictment.
I’ve often wondered whether his criticism is true of most self-professing evangelicals. We have debates about racism and ethnic harmony on social media and at special events, but are we ready to be bold enough to confront and discipline men or women who show ethnic partiality in the body of Christ? If we’re serious about fighting the sin of ethnic partiality, also known as racism, in the church, we must readily address it locally and privately.
Confronting in Love
Over the last decade, I’ve encountered my share of racists. Some of the racists I encountered may have been truly Christian, but many were nominal at best. Most were older, and even church leaders, or men with a lot of influence in their respected spheres. Upon encountering a racist, I found myself emotionally distraught. I didn’t know how to respond. What do you do with these people? How do you engage them? I would seek counsel from men I trusted, but I can’t recall ever being given a clear path forward.
I should have turned to the words of Jesus.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (Matthew 18:15–16)
One way for minorities (and even those in the majority) to take action against racism in the church is to practice Matthew 18. If someone in your congregation is an unrepentant racist, Jesus commands us to “go and tell him his fault.” The counsel is given in hopes that all involved will be reconciled with one another. If he doesn’t repent, Jesus instructs us to “take one or two others along with you.” This ensures justice for all involved. If the accusation is shallow, the accused has third parties to come to his defense. If the accusation is founded, the accuser is protected, and the charges are sufficiently established.
Many don’t think racism is that big of a deal as long as no one is being lynched, enslaved, or physically abused.
When we read Matthew 18, we naturally sympathize with the awkwardness of the party being accused, rather than the accuser. Confronting others about sin, especially when there isn’t a relationship of trust already in place, is no fun and requires a deep love and concern for the accused and their soul. It’s even harder to do when you have to involve others. Many of us would rather not get involved, especially if the accused is guilty of a sin that we’ve become numb to. And racism is usually one of those sins. Many don’t think it’s really a big deal as long as no one is being lynched, enslaved, or physically abused.
Personally, I wonder how certain situations would have turned out for me if I had practiced Matthew 18 when I encountered racism in the church. I regret just “letting things go” and not loving my brothers enough to confront them on their sin. It was hypocritical of me to publically condemn racism, but never confront it privately in love.
Bold Enough to Discipline
What should we do when a brother or sister refuses to repent in the presence of two or three witnesses? Matthew 18:17 instructs us to take them before the church: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
It was hypocritical of me to publically condemn racism, but never confront it privately in love.
It’s easy for church leaders to give lip service nationally to dealing with the sin of racism in churches and denominations, but when the issue hits close to home and a personal sacrifice is required in order to address it, are we committed to addressing it? Are we willing to practice church discipline on a member with deep pockets, or a long-time family friend, or even a family member, or even a fellow elder who shows partiality towards someone of a different ethnicity? Many pastors can think of a list of beloved members who are “a little racist,” but whom they generally consider nice people. When their racism is brought to the light, and they dig in their heels, will you discipline them or will you duck?
It’s hard to take any Christian seriously — regardless of their skin color — who claims to believe racism is a sin, but allows a known unrepentant racist to teach, hold an office, or even be an active member of their local congregation. And I don’t use the word “racist” lightly. I’m referring to an old-fashion James 2:1–13 type of racism that shows any type of partiality towards another member of the body based solely on skin color.
The church needs less lip service and more love accompanied with action. Until we are willing to confront and discipline our brothers and sisters who are knee-deep in this type of sin, and others, we will be villages in valleys, rather than cities on a hill.