The Church and Race

Recently a small stir has arisen over a church sign in Birmingham Alabama. The pastor of the largely African-American congregation, irked by a mostly white mega-church opening a branch in his neighborhood, put on the sign “Black folks need to stay out of white churches.” People as well known in the apologetics movement as Ken Ham have weighed in, pointing out the issues with the sign, which are numerous. It is not my purpose to condemn the pastor for his racist rhetoric, though, given that he has done this before, it probably would be warranted.  Rather I want to use this as a springboard to discuss what the church is and why non-existent racial divides should not exist in God’s people.

The word “church” is used seventy-nine times in the New Testament. Of those seventy-nine times, twenty-two times it refers to a church in a given city, such as Corinth or Ephesus.  A further four times the word is used to refer to a specific church in someone’s house.  The remainder of the word’s uses are more general, broadly applicable. However, not once is the word “church” used in Scripture with a racial or ethnic adjective. Never is a church referred to as a “Jewish” church or a “Greek” church. There is a “Roman” church some might argue, but that was a consequence of the church being located in Rome, rather than being composed purely of Roman ethnicity.  In fact, we find the opposite to be true.  Many of the people named as being part of the Roman church have distinctly Greek or even Hebrew names, such as Olympas, Mary, and Phlegon.  Clearly, this church was not composed merely of Romans.

While no church in Scripture is described in an ethnic sense, the Bible goes further and actually destroys the racial narrative so often thrust upon the church.  Paul, in explaining the nature of the true God to the Athenians said “Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;” Notice the phrase “made of one blood”. The phrase specifically refers to the nations of men all being of the same blood or descent.  The account of the flood in Noah’s day confirms that.  Genesis 7:23 tells us “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”  Since only Noah, his wife, and his sons and their wives survived the flood, all humans existing on earth must be their descendants.

If that conclusion is true, and since God put it in th Bible it must be, then there can be no racial differences, nor can there be a racial church. If every person is descended from the same family, then every person is equally human.  Yes there may be differences in appearance and culture, but those differences are not dehumanizing. While these differences may cause Christians to feel more at home in a church surrounded by people who look like them, there is no Biblical precedent for racial churches. In fact, the pastor calling for “Black people” not to attend “white churches” helps propagate the racism evolution built.

When the church is discussed in the Scripture, as we established above, it is never in a racial or ethnic sense. However, there are certain things about the church are established in the New Testament.  The second half of Acts 2:47 makes it clear that the church is comprised of saved people. “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Salvation, as taught by grace through faith in the rest of the New Testament, and Scriptural Baptism appear to be the only requirements to be part of a Biblical church.

However, while all of one faith, these churches are not part of one another. There was no overarching hierarchy in the New Testament.  Paul, who wrote the majority of the New Testament, founded many of the churches mentioned in Scripture. Yet the churches he founded always had a choice to listen to what he wrote them, or reject it.  His letters never take the tone of an order. Rather they are reasoned explanations, one could say arguments, that what he is saying is right and best. Consider the following passage from Galatians 1:10-16

For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ. But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.  For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.  But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:

Paul is discussing his qualifications to preach the Gospel. He is not ordering or demanding the Galatians to listen to him. Instead he explained his qualifications.  He had some authority based on his direct apostleship from Christ, but rather than demand obedience, Paul simply explained why he should be obeyed.

The church is meant as a local, inclusive body of believers in Jesus Christ. Never was it meant to be segregated ethnically as the aforementioned pastor seems to desire.  No church should ever see itself that way. Christ came to save all sinners, not just those of a given ethnicity, and the church ought to reflect that.

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