By Delroy Brown
Since its founding in 1989, Toowoomba International Christian Church in Queensland, Australia has attracted people of all walks of life from many nations. When asked recently to list three things they especially like about TICC, 33 per cent of the church members highlighted the ethnic diversity and harmony in the church. One respondent wrote, “At TICC, racism is not an issue: and people can gather from everywhere in the world to worship together.”
In an increasingly urbanized and diverse society, racial reconciliation among God’s people is both necessary and urgent. Demographic projections indicate that by the year 2042, minorities who currently make up one-third of the U.S. population will become the majority. Obviously, this state of affairs will put pressure on many mono-ethnic congregations to reconsider their position in an irresistible global system of change.
As people who believe in “where the Scriptures speak, we speak,” many may now wonder what the Scriptures say regarding the matter of racial reconciliation. The following biblical principles speak to the issue.
God’s Heart in the Old Testament
A first-grader went on her first day to a newly integrated school during the height of the segregation reform. Her anxious mother met her at the door at the end of the day to inquire, “How did everything go, Honey?” “Oh, Mother!” she said, “You know what? A little black girl sat next to me!” In fear and trepidation, the mother expected trauma, but tried to ask calmly, “And what happened?” She replied, “We were both so scared that we held hands all day.” This demonstrates clearly that racism is a human construct that ignores the fact that all human beings are created equally by God, descended from Adam, and made of one blood (Genesis 1:27; Acts 17:26).
The concept of racism is predicated on the belief that God respects persons based on size, race, color, nationality, or financial status. However, the Old Testament reveals God as impartial, respecting those who do his will regardless of their ethnicity. God showed his disdain for color prejudice by sharply rebuking Aaron and Miriam for their disapproval and criticism of Moses’ marriage to a black woman (Numbers 12:1-9).
Conversely, God rewarded the African Ebed Meleck who saved Jeremiah’s life by pulling him out of a well with a rope (Jeremiah 38:7-13; 39:16-18). As one Bible student observed, “Only Jeremiah and a black man who put his trust in God were saved from the wrath of Nebuchadnezzar. None of the Jews who felt that they were the chosen race of God without respect to righteousness were saved in that day.”
Jesus experienced discrimination firsthand. He entered a world of ethnocentrism where he instantly experienced exclusion (Luke 2:7). Sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) first used the word ethnocentrism to describe the belief that one’s own culture or religious traditions are central to everyone else’s. The recognition of Jesus’ birth by humble Jewish shepherds and wealthy Asian Magi (Matthew 2) represented a racial reconciliation pathway.
On one occasion Jesus had sent his disciples to prepare for him in a Samaritan village, but the villagers refused them entry (Luke 9:53-56). To retaliate, his disciples urged Jesus to incinerate them. Jesus, however, showed the way of reconciliation by declaring that his purpose was not to destroy lives but to save them (Luke 9:56, King James Version).
Other instances of how Jesus addressed racial reconciliation include his interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), the encounter with a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), and his Great Commission to preach the gospel globally (Matthew 28:18-20).
When Jesus drove out the money changers from the temple, he quoted Isaiah 56:7 and asked, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer’?” (Mark 11:17). This action of Christ speaks poignantly, as Curtiss P. DeYoung observes, “Racism is a sin and a racially divided church does not reflect Jesus’ vision of a house of prayer for all the nations.”
The Church’s Challenge
Although it wrestled internally with ethnocentrism and prejudice within society, the early church practiced a theology of oneness that enabled it to develop inclusive non-racial fellowships. Paul and the other New Testament writers taught racial reconciliation within the Jewish and Gentile context, accomplished through the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22). Paul certainly included racial reconciliation when he referred to all believers in Christ as “fellow citizens” (Ephesians 4:11-22). John Piper notes how both Jews and Gentiles move “together on one track—through one Savior, one cross, one body, one new man, and one Spirit, to one Father. . . . The picture here is that the true Israel becomes the church of Christ . . . And what unites this new people is Jesus, by the blood of his cross.”
Luke records Paul’s declaration that God “made of one blood all nations of men” (Acts 17:26, KJV). Piper continues, “The bloodline of Jesus Christ is deeper than the bloodline of race.”
James 2:8, 9 warns against favoritism. Peter learned by experience that the kingdom of Christ is an inclusive kingdom wherein racial reconciliation is normative. His prejudice was deeply challenged causing him to repent and reform (Acts 10:34, 35).
The contemporary church needs to contemplate and accommodate the New Testament template for racial reconciliation. We need to take our ministry of reconciliation seriously by being first reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). In essence, we need to practice what we preach.
Racial diversity and harmony prevail in what Efrem Smith calls “a sneak preview of Heaven.” This preview shows not a black, white, or multi-apartheid (separate cultures meeting in the same building) church, but one church consisting of every tribe, language, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9, 10; 7:9). As John Piper puts it, “God intends to have a people not just from three or four ethnic groups (‘red and yellow, white and black’), but from all ethnic groups. All shades, all shapes, all cultures. This is underlined by the four words people, tribe, language, and nation (Greek ethnos). This covers the whole range of ethnic diversity in the world.”
To deny people of color access to the Lord’s church is to have an attitude similar to that of Carmen Jones, a Christian woman who was hauled before a Jamaican magistrate for hitting another woman with a 2 x 4. “So, what did you do to the complainant?” Magistrate Lorna Shelly Williams asked. “Your Honor,” Jones replied, “I used a piece of stick to hit her three or four times, but I did not hit her out of anger. I hit her out of the love of God, to teach her that Christians must set an example, must love their neighbor as themselves, and should not bear false witness against their neighbor.” The church contradicts itself and loses sight of its heavenly perspective to love when it ignores racial reconciliation.
One reason racism is not an issue at TICC is that though some might be scared of change, we intentionally hold each other’s hands and follow Bible principles. When our son Jason gave us a GPS (Global Positioning System) as a gift, we were delighted. We could get in the car and rely on a lady’s voice to direct our way.
We soon realized how serious such directions were whenever we deviated from the instructions. The voice would say, “Perform a U-turn as soon as possible.” The Bible’s principles provide God’s GPS to direct our way in all things. Our deviation from racial reconciliation has lingered for too long. It’s time to heed the still small voice of God and perform a U-turn.
Delroy Brown is the founder and minister of Toowoomba International Christian Church in Queensland, Australia.
Race and the Church
by Soong-Chan Rah
(Moody Publishers, 2010)
The Post-Black & Post-White Church
by Efrem Smith
Multicultural Ministry: Finding Your Church’s Unique Rhythm
by David Anderson
Where the Nations Meet: The Church in a Multicultural World
by Stephen A. Rhodes
One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology
by Jarvis Williams
(B & H Publishing Group, 2010)
The Church Enslaved: A Spirituality for Racial Reconciliation
by Tony Campolo and Michael Battle
(Augsburg Fortress, 2005)
Crazy Enough to Care: Changing Your World Through Compassion, Justice, and Racial Reconciliation
by Alvin Bibbs
(IVP Connect, 2009)
Prejudice and the People of God
by A. Charles Ware
(Kregel Publications, 2001)