What the Church Offers for Race Relations
Pastor John, we talk a lot about multiculturalism in the church. The question for today is this: What does the church offer the world in race reconciliation, realistically? Is the church primarily a place to model racial harmony for the world? Or does the church bear responsibility to address police brutality and spearhead broader social changes? What would you say to listeners, and to leaders, who are trying to figure this out?
Well, let me start with a provocative statement, which would go like this: the church is not responsible for the condition of the world; the church is responsible for the condition of the church. And let me supplement that statement with a second one, which I hope refines it: the church is responsible to address the condition of the world and point the world to Jesus Christ as a great Savior from the wrath of God and the guilt of sin, a Savior who gives the power to be just and loving as a person in the world.
And if you put those two statements together there are really big implications that follow. One is that if the church successfully takes responsibility for the church, one of the ways that the church will address the condition of the world is by the alternative community that it is or is becoming. In other words, whatever transformation happens in the world is not a primary focus of the church, but a reflex of her focus on being a new kind of people in the world.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14–16)
Now whether the world is finally transformed by such a light, such a city on a hill, is not our responsibility. We are primarily a witness to the truth, not an imposer of the truth.
Three Parameters for Churches
So on the basis of those general thoughts, let me go back to the three specific questions, and let me give a brief answer to each one.
1. The church witnesses to the reconciling power of the gospel.
What realistically does the church offer the world in race reconciliation? Answer: a witness to the reconciling power of the gospel in our message, in our individual relationships and in our visible community.
Christ died, Paul said, that he might “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” — that is, killing ethnic hostility between Jew and Gentile, and, by implication, all ethnic hostilities that would rend the body of Christ (Ephesians 2:16). We are not responsible to make that happen among unbelievers. We are responsible to make it happen among believers. And if we succeed, it will be a powerful witness to the world.
2. The church models racial harmony, along with other fruit of salvation.
Is the church primarily a place to model racial harmony for the world? Answer: no, not primarily, but significantly.
To say primarily would be to elevate one specific fruit of salvation above all the others, which the Bible doesn’t do. What about love between men and women? What about love between old and young? What about love between poor and rich? What about love between educated and uneducated? What about the acts of love to reach lost people and unengaged peoples? What about sacrifices of love that aim to heal diseases or provide education or protect the helpless? No,, we should not elevate racial harmony above all other acts of love. It is essential; it is not supreme.
3. The church addresses injustice at large.
Does the church bear responsibility to address police brutality and spearhead broader social changes? Given what I have said, my answer is: yes, responsible to address; no, not responsible to spearhead — unless you call addressing spearheading, which it may well be.
The Old Testament prophets were relentless in calling attention to the collapsing conditions in Israel and the nations, but it was not their responsibility. It is not our responsibility, the responsibility of the church, to take up the task of training the police; that is the job of the state.
And my conviction, in conclusion, is that the church will have its greatest influence for the glory of Christ — individually and socially and eternally — if it stays riveted on giving biblical shape to the people of God, by his Spirit, through his word, as a witness to the world.