Is there anything that concerns you about the present state of racial reconciliation in the church?
I had a conversation yesterday with a black brother and former pastor that concerned me. There were four of us there: me (the only white guy), two guys from my church, and this other guy.
As we began to talk, he asked me about some of the theological things that separated me from other white pastors in the city. I agreed that, yes, I take a pretty strong stand on certain doctrines and that, therefore, I have serious concerns about those who deny them.
Well, I could tell by his reaction to me that he didn't share my concern about doctrine. He thought that we could still do things together and still unite as one body. In other words, everything that came out of his mouth was minimizing doctrinal truth and maximizing pluralism.
So I pressed him on this issue and only discovered more and more diversity, pluralism, and relativism coming out of his mouth. We ended up on totally different pages, with me becoming more and more forceful in my articulation of doctrines that really matter (saying, "You have to know God. He has contours. He is one thing and not another thing") and him saying, "You have to tolerate, overlook, and ignore differences because no one has the whole picture."
What I learned from that conversation is that I think this black brother—and I do believe he is a brother—had bought in to a white epistemology of the last two hundred years that utterly destroys moral backbone. He, however, would have never seen it that way.
Many in the black community today don't realize that they have abandoned the moral vision of Martin Luther King, his father, and his grandfather, etc. They had a solid grasp of moral, spiritual, and theological truth that enabled the black church to stand strong against injustice with a clear sense of who God was and who Christ was, without any relativistic talk undergirding the cause of justice.
The present pluralistic, relativistic, post-modern, white, post-enlightenment way of thinking that has been embraced by so many black leaders today couldn't even begin to carry forward a moral vision of civil rights that Martin Luther King did.
So the irony I want to lift up here, in response to your question, is that this black brother of mine thinks that he is expressing an authentic black belief in pluralism that will enable us to get together and do more ministry, while I think that he is actually undermining the very thing that enabled the advances that we made fifty years ago. It took tremendous moral courage to stand against those who spoke relativistically and pluralistically in order to make progress in civil rights.
Any listener who thinks that the way forward in race relations is to dumb down doctrine, so that you can hang out and not count truth as important, is undermining the very foundation on which we must stand together to make progress against injustice and the forces that destroy families, cities, and kids.
Is he trying to eat the tree's fruit while killing its root?
Yes, and he doesn't understand that he is doing it. He thinks that constant concerned questioning about doctrine is going to separate people, whereas dumbing down doctrine will unite them. But what kind of unity is that? It's not the kind of unity that is going to exalt Christ or help kids!
He works with kids right now, and I told him, "Those kids don't need this brother. They need truth! They don't need to be told that truth doesn't count because they all have limited perspectives. That is what will destroy their lives, because they won't have any standards to keep them from getting involved with drugs or gangs or vandalism, etc."
Could that make Islam attractive to them?
Yes, and that's exactly what Thabiti Anyabwile, a black brother now in the Cayman Islands, did. He joined a black Islamic group in college because he saw that they had some standards and some conviction about truth. Fortunately, a Christian—who also had some conviction—came along and helped him see the real Christ. Now he is a preacher of the gospel and is leading a strong movement that will bless his people, the poor, his city, and broken educational systems.
So, what should racial reconciliation be based on?
Truth. Biblical truth, with a strong God-centered articulation of the gospel and the sovereignty of God.
There is a beautiful movement today of the "soul-dynamic" in the black church (see Carl Ellis' book Free At Last?). This dynamic is what characterized the black church over the years when they knew God and saw God, and the God that they knew and saw (not systematically, but experientially and with some articulation of biblical truth) was sovereign, solid, and real. He sustained the black church through slavery and injustice and through crisis after crisis. We now have songs and music that were born out of that suffering, and that vision of God is amazingly coherent with the reformed vision of God as expressed by John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, and John Owen.
So today there are many young, black, thoughtful men and women who are seeing that the reformed tradition is coherent with—not contrary to—what has been deeply held and believed and lived out of in the black tradition.
The common ground that is needed for racial reconciliation is the vision of the sovereign God of the Bible coming into coherence with the long-experienced sovereign God of the black church.