I am not qualified to write authoritatively on the vast majority of issues concerning racial justice, equality, or reconciliation. I feel a burden to listen and learn in this season of my life, rather than to speak. I did however have a rather enlightening moment this week during the T4G conference. I watched as Southern Baptist David Platt delivered a powerful and gospel-soaked message on whites, blacks, and American churches. I also watched as Ligon Duncan, chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, preached a confessional message on neighbor-love that struck the spiritual core of this fragile moment in evangelicalism.
I then watched as some pastors and other T4G viewers (and I’m certain more than a few non-viewers) expressed their disgust with the conference and with these speakers for talking about race at all. One particularly vociferous bro lambasted Platt for making biblical exposition all about politics. Another person lamented Ligon Duncan’s “obsession” with skin color. Several other folks still couldn’t overcome their rage at plenary speaker Thabiti Anyabwile for a TGC article he wrote which argued that there is a generational repentance necessary for the historic violence against black Americans.
The combustion of what I heard from the speakers at T4G and what I saw from a vocal minority in response got me thinking. Here are 5 thoughts I had. Take them or leave them, from one who is no expert but is paying attention regardless:
1. There is a reckoning due. The status quo will not hold, and this fact is due to nothing less than divine Providence.
From where I’m sitting, confessional evangelicalism has been forced, through history past and present, as well as the very fruit of her evangelistic labors, to encounter its racial message. In a way, the tensions are a testament to God’s blessing of our churches. There are ethnic minorities in our congregations and our institutions, and this is a mercy and grace of Jesus. Their voices are being heard, and that is a good thing. The status quo will not hold, and we cannot want it to hold without simultaneously wanting the fruits of evangelical labors to be revoked.
2. Evangelicals must label racism as a heretical sin and be consistent in our treatment of those who insist on holding onto such heretical sin.
Evangelical institutions and churches have used her biblical measures of church discipline and accountability to thwart the platforms of open theists, process theologians, Emergent church writers, sexual ethics revisionists, and others. Racism is an error and a sin no less than these other ideas, and in fact is demonstrably worse than most of them. If evangelical theology and praxis is worth protecting from the Rob Bells and Brian McLarens of the world, it is all the more worth protecting from tithers who register usernames like “The South Was Right” and apostatize in their spare time. Excommunicate the unrepentant, because their salvation might depend on it.
3. This is not going to be a clean shift. There will be errors. The question is which side do we err on.
There are deeply complex contours to this issue. If the possibility of making a misstep is grounds for throwing up our hands and giving up, then we should give up now. But if it’s not, then evangelicals who care about their own heart and the hearts in their churches have to decide in advance which side they’re going to err on when they err. Will they err on the side of excessive empathy and over-willingness to listen and change? Or will they err on the side of ancestral reverence and political hegemony? Should we really fear dipping into tokenism more than we fear a pinch of white supremacy?
4. Identity politics vs status quo is a damnably false dilemma.
It is possible to resist the secular spirit of the age both from the progressives and the nativists. Reducing people to their ethnicity, class, gender, or affinity group is not Christian thinking. The Bible explodes such easy categorization by submitting all our identities to our adopted identity in Christ. We must vigorously reject anyone who says that our recovery of biblical ethnic justice means we must adopt counter-Christian narratives of human flourishing.
5. Free churches can effect real change.
Evangelicalism is often criticized for lack of central authority. But visceral reactions to Thabiti, Platt, and others prove that central authority is not synonymous with theological authority. It is precisely the theological authority of anti-racism messages that some white evangelicals have resisted. When the Bible is opened, there is power, and thus there is anger at that power. Those who think that evangelical churches cannot effect real change without a radically different ecclesiology are looking for power in the wrong place.