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 addressed how we are politicizing the church with our discussion on race/ethnicity. In this last post, I provide some concluding thoughts.
We have already seen the effects of current and past action in addressing ethnic strife by simply looking at the demographics of our churches. Many individuals lament the lack of ethnic diversity within our churches, but very few openly discuss the age segregation in our churches. It has been well-documented that Millennials and the Hip-Hop generation are the most unchurched generations within our country. Because of the historical failures of our denominations regarding ethnic prejudice, many in my generation have walked away from Reformed and Presbyterian churches to form their own churches and some have left the Church altogether.
The Purpose of the Church
There has been a significant amount of time spent in attempting to convince my generation to come back to the Church. There is a time for gentleness and kindness, but there is a time for tough love. As mentioned earlier, I know the consequences of walking away from the institutional church and it was honest, straight talk that convicted me of my sin. The truth is that walking away from the Church does not solve a single problem; rather, it exposes a deeper problem. Consider the words of 1 John 4:20-21:
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar, for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
From this passage, we can ask a number of questions: How can anyone claim to love Christ yet be unwilling to love those for whom Christ has died? How can anyone claim to love those for whom Christ has died and yet be unwilling to stick through the difficulties of a local church? How can anyone lay down his life for his brother if he refuses to fellowship with them at a local church? In short, it’s nothing more than self-deception to believe that you can genuinely love your brother without the local church.
God has always used His covenant community as the environment and primary means in which truth is transmitted from generation to generation. This is observed within the Old Testament where young men and women learned how to acquire wisdom by receiving instruction, and this is observed in the New Testament where God has equipped the local, institutional church with elders to instruct God’s people. Moreover, it is in the context of the local church where mature older saints serve as a model of conduct and instruction for younger saints as demonstrated in Titus 2.
It is through the institutional church (primarily on the Lord’s Day) where God dispenses His means of grace. It is the cadence of weekly Lord’s Day worship in the context of the local church that nourishes and sustains all weary Christians, regardless of ethnicity, class, gender, or age. Like many of you, my week is primarily comprised of work, family, and service to my local community. From the labors of the week, Lord’s Day worship and fellowship with the saints are the means in which God refreshes me. I expect that the Lord’s Day will be a day in which the Word will be preached, read, prayed, sung, and seen through the sacraments. I expect that the elders will be men devoted to the Word and to prayer, and I expect that they will keep watch over my soul. I expect for my fellow church members to be devoted to one another with brotherly affection, showing hospitality to one another and bearing with one another in love.
These ordinary means have sustained the Church from generation to generation and no collection of podcasts, blogs, online sermons, or select group of Christian friends can be a substitute for her. It is in the local church where Christian truth is preserved and applied to our heart, and it is where Christian hope is nourished. It’s nothing more than youthful pride that convinces us that the collective wisdom of the church is of lesser value than the counsel of youth. Just as King Rehoboam rejected the council of older experienced men and listed to the council of his peers, many have forsaken the wisdom of elder saints in order to listen to the unique insights of their peers and the consequences are far reaching.
The lesson that I continue to learn from older saints is that the witness and message of the Church is categorically different than the world. Our current society has externalized and projected evil into various social institutions (such as the criminal justice system). Our society’s hope is fixed upon this world and the transformation that man can do in this world. For this reason, the political process has become the chief religious hope of our society and many in my generation have placed their hope in it. As Christians, we know that the promise of politics promoted by secular leaders is nothing more than the rebuilding the tower of Babel. We know that God frustrates the plans of man and makes foolish the wisdom of this world so that His counsel will stand. We know that no political policy can ever deal with the pervasive depravity and evil rooted in the human heart.
In contrast, we have a hope that makes the real sufferings of this world pale in comparison. We have an eternal inheritance that is held by the power of God and this inheritance puts the combined glory of this world to shame. We are entrusted with a message that provides the only means of explaining and addressing the evils in this world. We preach Christ and Him crucified because our hope for full redemption and restoration resides in Him alone.
A Call for Christian Unity
For this reason, we must never forget our ultimate goal. There are many difficult trials, afflictions, and heartaches that we endure in the local church, but she is still the bride of Christ. According to Ephesians 4, we are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit, and this should be done with all humility, gentleness, and patience. We must always consider whether our rhetoric towards one another hinders this unity and compromises our message. We will all give an account for every word that we speak; for this reason, we must strive to honor Christ with our speech. Consider Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:29-32
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
As we work through our genuine difficulties, we must apply these verses to ourselves. Are we slandering fellow believers and holding “bitterness, wrath, and anger” in our hearts because they are “on the wrong side” of the debate? We must forgive one another and keep short accounts with one another because God in Christ has forgiven us.
Finally, let us remember what the Church is. The Church is not defined by sociological identification markers, which often divide us. Rather, we are defined as the ransomed people of God who have been redeemed from every tribe and language and people and nation. Despite our disagreements and conflicts, we have all been baptized into Christ and this is the foundation for our identity. Our water baptism points to our fundamental new identity in Christ, which transcends all ethnicities and cultures. Ultimately, we strive to break down ethnic barriers because we have been “renamed” in Christ.