My wife and I were asked to speak at a conference called Building Bridges Instead of Barriers: Reforming Race Relations in the Church based on our experience within the PCA and our experience upon interacting with numerous individuals regarding the ongoing discussion of race/ethnicity within Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. In Part I, I introduced my speech by giving my personal testimony of conversion and how the Lord led me to being a member of a Reformed Church. In Part II, I addressed the topic of justice within the context of racial reconciliation. In Part III, I address how our political allegiances affect our discussion of ethnic strife.
Even though there is much discussion about ethnic strife within the church, there’s a broader discussion that is centered on ethnic strife in society and the Church’s role in the world. Although some claim that we are observing a debate between two-kingdom theology and neo-Kuyperianism, the overwhelming impression that I have received in the pew is that this is really a debate on politics. I come to this conclusion primarily because there are many who are using extra-Biblical sources to argue their point, whether from a conservative view (such as from Jordan Peterson, Thomas Sowell, and Ben Shapiro) or liberal view (such as Ta-Nahesi Coates, Cornel West, or Marc Lamont Hill).
The Noetic Effects of Sin
While common grace allows us to learn profitably from unbelievers, it should be remembered that the effects of sin on the mind—known as the noetic effects of sin—cause us to have intellectual prejudices, faulty perspectives, inconsistencies, irrational deductions, closedmindedness, intellectual pride, and a host of other problems. This is true whether one attempts to analyze the behavior of individuals or the interactions of individuals in society. Furthermore, a Biblical view of man tells us that it’s impossible to fully separate man’s intellectual faculties from his moral condition.
There are two important implications about these points. First, we must never treat academic sociological theories as morally neutral. Academic theories on human behavior are not merely a dispassionate analysis of data; all academic theories involve interpretations of data based upon the lens of the researcher. This suggests that the motivations of the heart do influence the formulation of some sociological theories. Second, we must not assume that we can “Christianize” every sociological theory that is posited. There must be wisdom and discretion when importing modern theories into ecclesiastical affairs. In particular, any sociological viewpoint that is divorced from a biblical anthropology will have errors that MUST be properly discerned. Christians naturally apply this discernment when applied to other academic fields. For example, when Christians speak about the Scriptures, we don’t use the naturalistic presuppositions of critical historians and treat the Scriptures as mythology. The same type of discernment should be applied when discussing sociological concepts within the church.
When Christians speak about social interactions through the lens of power dynamics, social stratification, “blackness”, “whiteness”, and intersectionality, we must be careful on how we use these theories and we must be careful to understand the presuppositions which undergird them. One major unintended consequence involved in importing language from the academy is that we now categorize Christians based solely on the language that is used, which usually makes us more suspicious of fellow Christians. As an example of this, let’s consider the concept of “safe spaces”. A “safe space” is an environment created for individuals to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization. Hence, a “safe space” implies a license to speak and act freely (without outside criticism) and to form collective strength. However, in the United States, the concept of “safe spaces” likely originated in the academy as a part of second-wave feminism’s tool for “consciousness raising” and political mobilization.
This concept was applied during The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference in 2018. At this conference, an event was hosted for “women of color” in which the hope was
this gathering will create a space for women of color to address particular concerns and issues, process them together in small groups, and pray for one another.
This appeared to be harmless, but there were numerous complaints about this event because (1) it gave the impression that voluntary self-segregation among sisters in Christ should be affirmed and (2) the particular concerns of women of color could not be genuinely addressed among white sisters in Christ. In all of our discussions, we should ask ourselves two basic questions: (1) Is the cure worse than the disease? In other words, is this proposed solution the best solution for the long-term health of the church? (2) If we are importing a concept from extrabiblical sources, have we carefully defined our terms in order to minimize potential confusion?
This also requires honestly. Most individuals despise those who cloak political agendas with religious language. This is true whether we are talking about the religious right movement or the social gospel movement. We should be honest with each other regarding our sources. If our argumentation has largely come from extrabiblical sources, then we should not pretend that it was exclusively derived from Scripture.
What is a Faithful Church?
If much of our disagreement on ethnic strife is based on politics, then this raises an important question: Can Christians who disagree politically coexist in the same church? There are a large number of political views shared among professing believers. I have had many sharp disagreements with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ regarding American public policy, both domestic and foreign. However, our unity in Christ ought to far outweigh our various political differences.
I fear that we are becoming increasingly intolerant of our political differences. In the future, I am concerned that American churches will become nothing more than the religious arms of our favored political organizations, whether on the left, right, or center. We are politicizing the Christian faith to the extent that many cannot differentiate between political statement and a doctrinal statement. In regards to dealing with ethnic strife, we are reaching the point where ethnic reconciliation is being read into various texts of Scripture. For example, I have heard sermons/lectures from Reformed ministers in which (1) Jonah’s refusal to preach to Nineveh is based on ethnic prejudice, (2) the Jew-Gentile hostility is identical to White-Black hostility in America, and (3) the woes of the scribes and Pharisees can be applied to race and justice.
I mentioned at the beginning of my talk that it was the ministry received through the local church that fundamentally changed my Christian life. For this reason, I am deeply concerned about anything that will displace the ministry received through the local church. Within the Reformed tradition, we have usually evaluated churches based on the consistency and faithfulness of the preached Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the shepherding care and oversight of the church. However, I am concerned that many are adding multi-ethnicity and political allegiances as additional criteria for a faithful church.
It was J. Gresham Machen and others who recognized that any attempt to re-define the Church will eventually lead to a re-defining of the Christian faith. We have already seen the disastrous effects of re-defining the Church in terms of feminism. If the past debates on gender have ruined entire denominations, it would be naïve of us to believe that our current debate on ethnic strife will not have any consequences.