Part of my job as editor of this ministry is research. Lately I have been reading hundreds of pages cataloguing racial injustice among God’s people. This history has been deeply discouraging to me. It’s not like it is new information. Slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, financial discrimination, and redlining are all things with which I’m sadly familiar. But I’m just starting to grasp the extent to which those who called themselves Christians were not only complicit in racism, but guilty of perpetuating it.
Reading this kind of thing is probably the most discouraging activity I regularly do. God’s people are supposed to be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14), right? The world will know we are Christians by the love we have for each other, Jesus said (John 13:35).
What happened? Is Jesus wrong?
To answer that, we need to look at all of Scripture. The story of God’s people is a long, complicated mess. The first people we meet in Scripture cannot obey the single command they’re given (Genesis 3:6). The next person is a murderer (Genesis 4:8). Even the heroes of the faith were deeply flawed people.
Abraham is involved in multiple incidents of marital infidelity or misconduct (Genesis 12:12; 16:4; 20:2). David is an adulterer and murderer (2 Samuel 11). These are just the high (low?) lights.
The story of God’s people throughout the Old Testament seems like a daisy chain of miscreants leading from failure to failure–then to the perfect God-man.
The perfect character of Jesus is striking as an abstract thought, but placed in the context of Scripture in the midst of all these trainwrecks it is downright shocking.
In light of this context, what are we to make of Christ’s statements about the conduct of those who would follow him? The New Testament gives us two truths to remember that both sober us and keep us from despair as we examine our tragic racial history.
1.Not all who claim to be Christians are Christians.
Some sins are so serious and public that their presence in a sinner’s life call into question his or her profession of faith (1 Corinthians 5). Scripture invites us to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). Jesus taught the same thing, saying that his judgment on the last day would separate the true believers from false professors, and one of the determining factors will be how each of us treated the vulnerable in this life (Matthew 25:31–46). The church has no room for those who practice sin and are unrepentant for it. One of the reasons we practice church discipline is to demonstrate to the world what Christians are not.(1) But a failure of church discipline—as is all too common—causes great confusion both in the church and in the world.
2. Christians are far from perfect.
The New Testament holds out incredibly high ideals for believers but is honest about the fact that we do not live up to them. That may feel frustrating, but it has to be that way. God does not lower His standards to accommodate our sin. He sends Jesus to save us and the Spirit to indwell us. Yet we remain imperfect, for now. Anyone who claims to be out sin is deceived (1 John 1:8).
We see examples of this in the New Testament. Before the Spirit comes, Peter is a groveling coward prone to self-exaltation. After the resurrection and Pentecost, he is a bold and faithful witness to the Gospel. But he still sinfully indulged factions in the early church and showed partiality toward Jewish Christians (Galatians 2:11). Paul became the world’s greatest missionary after a remarkable conversion, but he still had interpersonal strife and hard to part company with his longtime friend and companion (Acts 15:39).
Where does that leave us?
Believers are still evaluating the complicated legacies of flawed examples. Close inspection of our history and heroes will often disappoint and sadden us.
The problems aren’t limited to our history. Things are still not as they ought to be. God’s people are not unified as we will be in glory. We will have to confront sin in others and be confronted, ourselves. We need each other. And we need God’s continued help.
God alone knows the hearts of professing Christians past and present. We should be careful not to pronounce our own unilateral judgment in His place. But unrepentant sin of any kind calls into question a believer’s profession. All the more so with a sin like racism which is a serious failure to love which lies about the unity of God’s people and wrecks our witness of the Gospel. Racism must not be coddled. It must not be explained away if dealing with it requires us to take a hero off a pedestal.
As with the saints of old, God has gathered a sinful people together today to be his own. And that group both individually and corporately is in the process of being renewed into the image of Jesus Christ during this life (Colossians 3:10). And when we see Christ, every vestige of corruption will finally be put off, and we will be bogged down by our ongoing sin no more (Ephesians 5:27; Revelation 7:14).
The Church has a complicated legacy. She has not been what we wish she was, but neither are any of us, individually. As the Bride of Christ, may we not slander our bridegroom, even as we urgently pursue holiness. May each of us do that with zeal, looking forward to the day when we see Christ and are made like him (1 John 3:2).
(1) See 1689 Baptist Confession, Chapter 26
- Pray that believers mourn the disunity which has marked periods of our history.
- Pray that we would examine ourselves for all sin, especially sins against Christ and his body.
- Pray that the people of God would do the hard work of rooting out racism and its effects toward a more unified future.