What Is the State of Race Relations in the Church?
It’s the third Monday of January, and that means in the States we are celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a fitting day to step back and assess the current state of race relations in our country. The timely question comes to us from a listener named Mark. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for taking my question. What is your sense for where race relations stand, especially in the church, right now? Are we making progress? Are we at a standstill? Since 2016 things have been tumultuous, to say the least, and I find myself bracing for another hit to these relations in this presidential election year. Where are you at, as you look around today?”
Standing with Every Tribe
Well, let’s start with the easy question, the glorious one: Where am I as I look around today? Where am I standing? I’m standing joyfully and expectantly, with King David, as he says,
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:27–28)
Kingship belongs to the Lord Jesus, and he is gathering his people from all the families of the nations. I’m standing with King David.
Where am I? I’m standing in heaven, exulting with the 24 elders as they sing and praise Christ:
Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth. (Revelation 5:9–10)
Every tribe, every language, every people, every nation into one kingdom — one priesthood. I’m standing with the apostle John and the elders in heaven there.
Standing in Athens and Judea
Where am I standing? Where am I as I look out? I’m running with Jesus in obedience to his command to do our part: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” — all nations (Matthew 28:19). Not just waiting for them, but pursuing them, loving them, wanting them, uniting with them — every one of the ethnicities of the world. I’m standing with Jesus in the pursuit of that command.
Where am I? I’m smiling with Paul on Mars Hill, as he looks around at these proud Athenians, and he looks them right in the eye and he tells them that the blood coursing in their veins is the same blood as in the barbarians that they despise. Because he said, “[God] made from one man every nation of mankind . . . on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). No multiple forefathers: some better, some worse, some one color, some another, some smart, some dumb, some fit for subservience and some fit for rule. No — one father: Adam. And every drop of every human’s blood came from one man. Get ready, Ku Klux Klan: we are all cousins; deal with it. I’m standing there, happy to have it so, smiling with the apostle Paul, putting the Athenians in their place.
“I’m standing at the bloody, wall-breaking, new-man-making, hostility-taking cross of Jesus.”
Where am I? Where am I standing? I’m standing on the plains in Judea with Jesus, joyfully challenged by the commands, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28). Meaning, even if you want to make a hopeless case for division, Jesus says, “Whatever your divisions, my people — my real people — don’t hate back. They don’t curse back. They don’t abuse back. They love, they do good, they bless, they pray for.” I’m standing on the plain with the God-man, who ends all race-based hate, all race-based abuse, all race-based cursing.
Standing at the Cross
So, where am I? I’m standing with the hated, cursed, beat-up, jailed, sleepless, hungry, most radical, most happy apostle — namely, my friend Paul, whom I love. And when he says, “Here [in Christ] there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11), I say, “Well, do we see the difference, Paul? Do we even see the difference between these groups?” I think the answer is yes. But we see right through those seen differences to the new creation, until the differences become no hindrance to unity, but only a help to joyful unity.
Where am I standing? I’m standing, finally, at the bloody, wall-breaking, new-man-making, hostility-taking cross of Jesus, who “has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility . . . that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:14–16). They don’t get much better than those words right there.
That’s my answer to Mark’s last question: Where are you at? As you look around today, I start there, because I think that answer — that glorious, biblical, Christ-exalting position — is a hundred times more important than John Piper’s fallible estimation about where race relations are today in America, and it will always be more important.
Stay Out of Step
So, let me give you three reasons why I say that — that is, why it’s so much more important, why I’m putting 95 percent of the emphasis there. And that will shed light on my other answers.
1. Gloriously Unpredictable
God’s grace and judgment are gloriously unpredictable in human culture — secular and religious. If you ask me, “How are you?” and I say, “Fine,” the doctor may tell me tomorrow I’m dying of cancer. I had no idea. But if I answer, “Not so good; I have cancer,” the doctor may tell me tomorrow that it’s gone.
“Kingship belongs to the Lord Jesus, and he is gathering his people from all the families of the nations.”
And so it is with God’s grace and God’s judgment in churches and in culture. The moment I tell you what trajectory we’re on racially, God could blow it up. He just could blow it up. He’s going to put me in my place. Beautiful things may be on the front burner for us, or more judgment — the first reason that I put so much emphasis on where we stand, not my predictions about where we’re going.
2. Diverse Land
America is simply too big and too diverse, both secular and in the church, for any assessment to be made that would cover every corner of the church and culture. Just when you point to ten churches that vote to fly the Confederate flag on MLK weekend, somewhere else in this amazing land of ours, fifty churches have sat under faithful, Christ-exalting, soul-searching, biblically faithful preaching for the last ten years, and a thousand sinful attitudes about race have been taken captive and destroyed.
And a whole new day is dawning in those churches, right when the other churches are doing something absolutely outrageous. That’s the second reason: the country’s too big and too complex. God’s doing more things than we realize.
3. See the Savior
And here’s the third and final reason. It’s the most important one too. Even though it’s right and helpful to see sin and name it, it’s a hundred times more important to see the Savior and name the beauty of the salvation he calls us to: salvation from the punishment for sinning and salvation from the slavery to sinning, salvation from final judgment and salvation from indifference to present injustice.
Another way to say it is this: It’s good when MLK weekend blows some fog away from past and present racial sins. That’s a good thing. But it is a hundred times better when MLK weekend blows the fog away from the face of Christ and the blood he shed to make us radically out of step with this sinful world.
So, Piper’s take on the state of the world is of very little consequence. God’s take in the Bible on the truth and the power of his word, his book, for the sake of every ethnicity is of infinite importance.