Does Reformed Theology Impede Racial Reconciliation?
Before we jump into today’s episode, I’m reminded that the MLK50 conference is coming up in a few days in Memphis. Pastor John, I know you’re looking forward to it. And on the second evening of the conference, Wednesday, April 4 — which marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King — you’ll be delivering the final plenary session at 8:30 p.m. local time, in a message titled “The Glory of God and Racial Unity.” I’m really looking forward to this.
Today’s question: What does John Calvin have to do with racial reconciliation? Does Reformed theology obstruct racial unity, or does it offer a way forward? The question comes in today from a listener named Drew. “Hello, Pastor John. I live in the South and attend a church that holds to Reformed theology and does great work for the gospel of Christ in our city. My question: Do you think it is possible for people in the Reformed world to use theology as an excuse to distance themselves from churches that are predominantly African American in order to avoid any deep issues or discussions of race that come up? How do we fight this and gladly partner with our brothers and sisters in Christ? How do we address the real issues of racial history that exist, especially with churches that are less obviously Reformed in their theology?”
The first thing I would say is that the sinful human heart — that is, my heart, your heart, all hearts — are capable of taking every theology under the sun and every doctrine in the Bible and using it to advance our own personal preferences, even sinful preferences.
“Doctrine by itself is not a sufficient dam against the currents of sin that flow in the human heart.”
As far as the content of Reformed theology goes, I think there is as much or more truth for the overcoming of racial and ethnic animosities in this theology as there is in any other theology. I would even say there is more. But accurately articulated biblical doctrine by itself is not a sufficient dam against the rushing currents of sin that flow in the human heart.
We are not saved merely by accurately rehearsing and believing right doctrine; we are saved by a transforming miracle of the Holy Spirit called new birth. That new birth brings into being not merely new ideas about God and salvation and humanity and heaven and hell, but gloriously new affections and desires and longings and attitudes and dispositions.
This radical, miraculous, Spirit-wrought transformation — with its utterly essential manifestation in ongoing growth in grace and knowledge and love and wisdom — is all-important in dealing with matters of racial tension.
A New Humanity
So, no, I don’t believe the content of Reformed theology is a stumbling block to the pursuit of racial harmony and racial diversity. In fact, I think the content of Reformed theology is wonderfully, positively explosive in its true implications for overcoming racial hostility and suspicion and distrust and dislike.
But I’ll say again, any theological position can be made the servant of sin and is, in fact, made the servant of sin somewhere in the world. Right doctrine in the life of the church is profoundly important. I’ve given much of my life to it.
But even more important is the radical, supernatural, Spirit-wrought miracle of new birth that creates a new kind of human being. You might even say a new race — a new race that cuts across every racial and ethnic distinction. A new humanity that is not in its essence and not in its decisive, controlling heart white or black or Asian or American or British or German or Cherokee or Southern.
Let me point out a little catch in something I’ve said (and you’ve probably picked it up if you’re sharp). I said the content of Reformed theology is not a stumbling block to racial harmony. The reason I stressed the word content is because the very existence of doctrine complicates racial harmony because theology complicates human harmony.
Every church that believes that unbiblical doctrine damages people — and that’s certainly what I believe — will, for the sake of love, experience tension with other churches and other people that believe and teach unbiblical doctrine. They can’t treat it as negligible if it hurts people and dishonors God.
By doctrine, I simply mean how you understand the Bible, and what it teaches about the nature of God, the nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit, the atonement, the nature of faith, what the Christian life is like and how you live it, and what heaven and hell are like and how you avoid going to one and go to the other.
If a church down the street treats the Bible as one religious source among many, and treats Christ merely as an exemplary teacher, and belittles the substitutionary atonement as divine child abuse, and marginalizes the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification, my relational harmony with that church and those folks is going to be much more complicated than if they believed the historic Christian things I believe. That’s true whether that church is predominantly white or predominantly black.
“Reformed theology is wonderfully, positively explosive in its true implications for overcoming racial hostility.”
During most of my ministry, it has been much harder to relate to liberal white churches in Minneapolis than it has been to relate to Bible-believing black churches that we had connections with.
So, what I’m saying is that it’s not the content of Reformed theology or the content of Arminian theology per se that creates problems for racial harmony. It’s the very existence of doctrine itself that complicates that harmony because it complicates human harmony.
If a predominantly black church or a predominantly white church or any other kind of ethnic church believes and teaches unbiblical doctrines, this is added to any racial or ethnic challenges of harmony. But they are not the same, since the doctrinal challenges exist among people of the very same race and the very same ethnicity.
So let me give five very brief bullet points on what we might do in view of this multilayered challenge of relationships between racially and doctrinally different churches.
1. Let there be recurrent, earnest, biblical preaching and teaching on the blood-bought beauty of ethnic diversity according to Revelation 5:9: “By your blood you [Christ] ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Racial harmony and unity and love and respect and delight cost Jesus his life. Not to want it — and I say this to every church in any culture that has a history of alienation — not to love this, not to pursue this, is to belittle the blood of Jesus.
2. Let us preach and teach and counsel and converse in such searching and probing and fearless ways that we identify, name, and root out every form of ethnic lovelessness.
“Racial harmony and unity and love and respect and delight cost Jesus his life.”
3. Let us realize there are many different kinds of togetherness that may be appropriate for people holding significant doctrinal views. For example, there are friendships and work relationships and conferences and conversations and seminars and ethical causes as well as various kinds of services.
So we don’t have to despair of any kind of connectedness with people across racial lines if there happened to be certain doctrinal barriers in the way.
4. Let us find ways of saying to each other and to the community that if there are doctrinal convictions that create some limits of togetherness, it is not the racial differences that divide us. Let’s work at finding ways to say that — to make that clear.
5. Let there be an empathetic effort in our churches to know and understand the past and present streams that feed the river of present tension. Let’s not live with our head in the sand.