As protestors ask for justice, Christians are lobbing accusations at their fellow believers, deepening the divide between how we as Church view our role.
How do we begin to engage in dialogue about our role in addressing systematic racism? Is there a way that the body of Christ, can truly find where we fit into the conversation?
Two Views of the Role of the Church
In debating the role of the church, there is a push by some, to focus solely on evangelism. Many in this group desire for the church to spend more time on missions, defined as sharing the gospel. They believe that the Great Commission defines what churches and ministries should do. Any activity outside of inviting people to know Jesus and developing disciples is simply a distraction.
John Stott, in his book Christian Movement in the Modern World, describes this view as the traditional image of a missionary. Stott writes that an emphasis on evangelistic missions means that any other view of service work or Christian compassion is simply a platform to share the gospel.
Another view argues that following God require one to focus on social justice. Those that adhere to this view read God’s commands to care for the poor as their mandate for faithful action and that caring for the poor and those on the margins trumps sharing the gospel. Some even believe that sharing the gospel hurts the marginalized, and they, therefore, condemn evangelistic mission trips. John Stott writes about this view of missions:
"This is the view that God is at work in the historical process, that the purpose of God’s mission, of the missio Dei, is the establishment of shalom (Hebrew for “peace”) in the sense of social harmony, and that this shalom (which is identical with the kingdom of God) is exemplified in such areas as the battle against racism, the humanization of industrial relations, the overcoming of class divisions, community development, and the quest for an ethic of honesty and integrity in business and other professions."
The divide between these two views is deepening. As the deaths of unarmed Black men and women garner awareness for systematic racism, people are arguing about the role of the church. For those that hold a traditional view, they see the church's role to address racism through evangelism and addressing the sin by reconciling people to God. While others want us to focus on speaking out against racism and addressing systematic racism.
How as a church do we decide what our role is?
Not A New Debate
This debate has been going on for decades. After the Walter Rauschenbusch made popular the phrase “the Social Gospel” in the early 20th century, many in the evangelical community disengaged with social issues. “On wider ecclesiastical scene the social gospel movement became firmly entrenched in the ecumenical movement as embodied in the World Council of Churches from which Evangelicals were becoming further and further removed,” wrote Melvin Tinker in Reversal or Betrayal? Evangelicals and Socio-political Involvement in the Twentieth Century. Breaking from tradition, Evangelicals distanced themselves from social involvement, creating a gulf between Evangelicals and the wider ecumenical movement.*
During the 1960s, Evangelicals began to modify their views. During The World Congress of Evangelism in Berlin, Billy Graham explained the distinct evangelical approach in his opening address, “If the Church went back to its main task of proclaiming the gospel and getting people converted to Christ, it would have a far greater impact on the social, moral and psychological needs of men than it could achieve through any other thing is could possibly do.” This was the stance that many in the Evangelical community took.
There was a ‘paradigm shift’ in evangelical’s beliefs of missions a few years later, according to Rachel Tingle. “The ‘shift’ was toward what is called ‘holistic mission’ and the term ‘social action’ was exchanged for the phrase ‘socio-political involvement.” wrote Melvin Tingle.
In July of 1974, the First International Congress of World Evangelization met in Lausanne, Switzerland. Twenty-four hundred participants from a hundred and fifty countries met for ten days. During the meeting, John Stott chaired an International committee to create the Lausanne Covenant. The covenant, “defined the necessity and goals of evangelism, bringing together evangelicals from diverse backgrounds and shaping much of their endeavors for the rest of the century.” The introduction of the Lausanne covenant states, “We believe the gospel is God’s good news for the whole world, and we are determined by his grace to obey Christ’s commission to proclaim it to all mankind and to make disciples of every nation.” The covenant continues to outline the importance of evangelism, but it also includes the church’s responsibility to care about social justice. The covenant declares, “We, therefore, should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression.” The Lausanne covenant sought to unite Christians around the purpose of missions, which was both evangelism and social justice work.
While the Lausanne Covenant is still used to attempt to unite Christians around the role of the church, the divide between whether churches should engage, and how they should engage continues engulf communities.
Race and the Church
To try and explore all the ways that church is entangled with racism, would require us to study the first churches. Paul addressed the importance of reconciliation among the Hebrews and the Greeks in his letters.
The American church has its own messy history with racism. In the book Unsettling Truths, Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah explain how the Doctrine of Discovery not only allowed White Europeans to commit genocide to steal Natives' land. They write, “A dysfunctional social and theological imagination influenced by the assertions of the Doctrine of Discovery allowed Native genocide to be understood as a holy act of claiming the promised land for European settlers, akin to claiming of the Promised land and the subsequent destruction of the people of the land by the chosen people of Israel.” Our country has used scripture to justify genocide, slavery, Jim Crowe, lynchings, and Segregation.
For the sake of this blog and the argument about the current racial tensions and protests in America, I want to focus on the rise of conservative Evangelicalism in the late ’70s and how it allowed racism to further divide our church. Paul Weyrich, who was a conservative operative and architect of the rise of the religious right in the late 1970s said, “What got us going as a political movement was the attempt on the part of the Internal Revenue Service to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies.” The movement was spurred on because conservative Evangelicals believed that the government was too intrusive and powerful. In Lisa Sharon Harper’s chapter in Still Evangelical, she writes, “The desegregation of public schools served as the backdrop for the conservative movement’s takeover and politicization of previously isolationist evangelicals.”
Using the fear of government overreach, helped make political conservativism “the official ideology of evangelicalism,” according to Harper.**
During the twenty-first century, Evangelicals began to engage in conversations about justice, ignoring how they had spent the twentieth century at best ignoring social and racial injustices and at worse perpetuating those injustices. The lack of understanding of the church's recent history, created disconnect as they promoted justice conferences and events. Harper writes, “Justice was sexy to white evangelical millennials, but it had absolutely no connection to the ongoing struggles of African Americans, Native Americans, poor people, women, immigrants, and the LGBT community in their struggles for equal recognition and equal protection of their divine call, and capacity to help steward the world.”
The fact that many evangelicals are engaging in conversations of social justice and racial reconciliation, it doesn’t erase how racial policies gave power and prominence to the modern-day Evangelical church or the fact that Evangelical church largely ignored or perpetuated injustices.
The rise of social media and the access of information about peoples’ and groups’ opinions have allowed us to become an even more polarized society than before, forcing the chasm between how Christians view missions to deepen. In her book Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland discusses the divide within Churches. She writes, “These days, Christians can easily go their entire lives without spending time with those who are different from them. Unfortunately, the more we spend time with people who are essentially identical to us, the more we become convinced that our way of relating to both Jesus and the world is the correct way. Over time our convictions grow stronger, and our attitudes toward different ideas and cultural expressions of worship become more negative.”
In the past decade, politics have highlighted our divide. “Evangelicals on the left and right are utterly embarrassed about on another, and each wants to disassociate itself from the other because of attitudes about the sitting president,” writes Mark Galli in Still Evangelical. Donald Trump’s presidency highlights the fact that many Christians identify their politics as “Christian”, “Biblical” or “Evangelical.” Using these terms leaves little room to understand our fellow Christians who are on the other side of the issue.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus prays for unity in the church saying, “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” The divisiveness is not only creating havoc within the church but is repelling people from the church.
Engaging in conversation cannot happen at the expense of our Black brothers and sisters.
The ways in which our country – and our church – have dehumanized the image of God, is abhorrent. Lisa Sharron Harper writes, “When we govern in a way that diminishes or crushes the capacity of people or people groups to exercise stewardship of the world, we are diminishing or crushing the image of God on earth. We are setting ourselves up as enemies of the kingdom of God – enemies of God.” Our evangelical church can and should find a way to be united, to engage in conversation about the role of the church in a way that lifts up all people.
Unity cannot happen without justice. Often the pursuit of unity has been at the expense of ignoring the voices and pain of the marginalized. This is not unity, but suppression.
The path to following God is a radical path that includes both proclaiming the good news of Christ and caring about systematic injustices. Stott writes, “It is not just that the [Great] Commission includes a duty to teach baptized disciples everything Jesus had previously commanded (Matthew 28:20), and that social responsibility is among the things that Jesus commanded. I now see more clearly that not only the consequences of the Commission but the actual Commission itself must be understood to include social as well as evangelistic responsibility unless we are to be guilty of distorting the words of Jesus.”
In today’s world, we are seeing how individual sin has created systematic realities that keep people in bondage. Social responsibility requires that we address the systemic evils that our sin has created. While we might disagree on how to address police brutality and systematic racism, as Christians we are called to care for Jesus’ sheep. Ignoring their pain is not an option.
Finding a way to disagree, requires us to be brave enough to care more about God’s people than we care about our allegiance to ideas and political parties. It will take the church choosing to listen to those who have been hurt and marginalized. And learning to confess, repent and lament so that true healing – both personal and systematic – can begin to take place in our country and the church.
* Last year, Judy Wu Dominick and I were having a conversation on Twitter about the Great Reversal. She suggested this paper I referenced in this post. On her website is a treasure trove of resources for helping Christians engage in racial and ethnic divides.
**Lisa Sharron Harper not only explains this shift but also includes our next step as Evangelicals in the chapter she wrote in Still Evangelical.