In 1995, Southern Baptist officials formally renounced the church’s support of slavery and segregation. The institution of slavery in America, which Baptists in the south desired to maintain against the desires of the Baptists in the north, led to the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. It was also this view of race that led Southern Baptists to oppose the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-20th century. However, this wasn’t just a reality among Baptists; this was true of Methodists and Presbyterians who experienced splits for the same reason in 1844 and 1861 respectively. In 2000, Methodists offered a public confession of guilt and renunciation of slavery at their annual General Conference. In June 2015, the Presbyterian Church of America offered its public confession of guilt concerning slavery and segregation at its 43rd General Assembly.
Some might be surprised to think that such confessions were necessary in light of what the Bible teaches about man. Regarding creation and value, the Bible teaches us about the dignity of all mankind from every nation stemming from being created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27; Acts 17:26). Regarding our moral state, the Bible teaches us about our sinfulness and the universality of sin (Gen. 3; Rom. 3:23). Regarding forgiveness and reconciliation, the Bible teaches us the impartial atoning work of Christ which unites man to God and to one another (John 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:17-19; Gal. 3:28-29; Eph. 2:11-22). Regarding eternity, the Bible teaches us about the multi-ethnic eschatological reality that awaits God’s people (Rev. 5:9; 7:9). These are basic truths that should serve as a simple framework for how we view our fellow man. However, we are not yet perfected and comments made by well respected Christian apologist and debater, James White, served as a great reminder of this truth.
On March 17, 2016, after White witnessed irresponsible and disrespectful behavior by a young black teen, he made several unjustified assertions about the teen’s upbringing and future based on his skin color and his present actions. His assertions were initially posted on his social media accounts, which he has now removed. You may listen to a summary of the issue here. The initial response from the African-American Christian community, including me, was of utter disbelief, and I think rightly so for at least two reasons. The first reason is that White’s assertions were hasty generalizations steeped in racist thought. After witnessing the teen’s behavior, White intentionally made it known that the teen was black and then stated assertions about the possibility of a lack of a father in the home, having children out of wedlock by different women and having multiple abortions. In a matter of a few seconds of observation White wrote this young man’s narrative based on statistics. Is this not hasty and unfair judgment? The second reason for disbelief is that much more is expected from him as a Christian, especially one so well acquainted with the Scriptures. There was no compassion or grace in White’s words.
Confronting White & His Response
As expected, White was publicly confronted by several African-American Christians. One confrontation I witnessed was thoughtful, yet direct. It reminded me that no Christian is above scrutiny and confrontation despite how influential he/she may be. Galatians 2:11-14 reminds us that believers may confront one another when the gospel is being compromised. White’s comments were out of step with the gospel because they were racist and judgmental and he deserved to be confronted. White was offered a chance to dialogue and learn about African-American culture and systemic injustice (not that systemic injustices caused the teen’s behavior). White’s response to the offer is what I found most disheartening. White dismissed his brother who confronted him and then charged him with ethnic gnosticism. Ethnic gnosticism is a form of gnosticism that states that those of a certain ethnicity can claim to have an experience or knowledge within it that those of another ethnicity cannot understand or have. In other words, one culture cannot fully understand the struggles of another culture simply because it is a different culture. White objects to this position and instead holds to the fact that all humans have the shared experience of sin. While I agree with White fundamentally – all humans are sinners, I disagree because every culture doesn’t experience the same effects of the common human sin problem. White’s arrogant unjustified comments and his dismissal of an approach for honest dialogue with a fellow Christian, who happens to be African-American, seems to be evidence of blindness to his own racism and paternalistic perspective. In addition, White addressed the issue via podcast in which he adamantly defended his position without the slightest hint of conceding to possible error. His response is exactly the kind of behavior that reinforces the existing racial tension rather than relieve it. I pray the LORD reveal the error of his thinking and his response and he would publicly repent.
Confronting Racism in the Church
Unfortunately, White’s response is far more common in the church than I’d like to admit. While strides are being made to address racism, it still needs to be addressed with much more frequency and comprehensiveness. If we are going to accurately reflect the gospel and its implications, namely the glory of Christ, racism must be confronted in the church. Apathy, aversion, dismissal and silence only further perpetuates the problem. Public confessions and conferences are good starts, but more must be done at the local church level starting in the hearts of pastors/elders as a church rises no higher than its leaders. As long as comments like White’s are stated, we will still talk about racism in the church.
For my brothers and sisters in the majority culture, if you’re not quite sure how to address racism, here are a few suggestions:
- Understand the definition and nature of racism.
- Understand what the Bible has said about man.
- Understand that your perspective of race is not all there is.
- Have believers of other ethnicities in your home.
- Have non-believers of other ethnicities in your home.
- Be willing to learn from people in minority cultures.
- Ask questions; don’t assume.
- Educate yourself about the history of racism and segregation in America.
- Educate yourself about the history of racism and segregation in the church.
- Have more than that 1 black friend. 🙂
- Pray for the LORD to reveal possible racism in your own heart.
- Letters to a Birmingham Jail by Bryan Loritts (editor)
- Aliens in the Promised Land by Anthony Bradley
- Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian by John Piper
- Divided by Faith by Michael O. Emerson & Christian Smith
Grace & Peace,