Race, Unity, and the Small-Town Church

Messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution last week in St. Louis to call for Christians to no longer display the Confederate battle flag. Here is the actual text of the resolution:

RESOLVED, That we call our brothers and sisters in Christ to discontinue the display of the Confederate battle flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African-American brothers and sisters; and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we urge fellow Christians to exercise sensitivity so that nothing brings division or hinders the unity of the Body of Christ to be a bold witness to the transforming power of Jesus.

Although I support this resolution, it’s not really within the parameters of this blog to speak to the history of the flag or to address the flag controversy directly.  But I do appreciate how the leaders of the SBC in recent years have been working to bridge and reconcile the divide between white and black Christians.  This issue is crucial to whether the church in rural and small-town America will thrive or continue to shrivel in the coming years.

The first reason is very practical: small towns in America are shrinking, and churches in these areas are shrinking (and dying) even faster.  There are simply not enough people for churches to only be filled with one kind of people–divided by race, by social class, and even by individual family groups.  These divisions keep these churches weak financially and in numbers of workers.

The second reason is about the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit.  When the Spirit came upon the church in the book of Acts, one manifestation was that they spoke in tongues.  This phenomenon is presented alongside a sort of “table of nations” (Acts 2:8-11), presenting a picture of sort of a “reverse Babel.”  Whereas at the tower of Babel, God had caused confusion and disunity because of the pride and sin of man, here the Spirit of God was bringing about unity across the dividing lines of nations and cultures.

When Peter explained what was happening to the crowds, he used a passage from the prophet Joel which again emphasized that this outpouring of the Spirit of God was for all people everywhere: “all people”; “sons and daughters”; “young men…old men”; “both men and women”; “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord” (Acts 2:17-21).  It is unmistakable from this text that one sign that the Holy Spirit is at work will be unity across the world’s dividing lines.

This unity must extend across racial lines.  It’s crucial in cities across America, where racial tension is heated and is seemingly escalating.  It’s crucial in small towns, where the dividing lines might seem more unspoken and amicable, but are still distinct and steeped in generational sin and wounds from the past.

The gospel speaks to these divisions and the Holy Spirit heals.  Churches will not stand out if we continue to be divided in the same way as the rest of the world.  We have abandoned the ministry of reconciliation and the peacemaking mission of the church for too long.  The Holy Spirit gives us power to be Christ’s witness in this world, and part of this power is the Holy Spirit’s ability to unite people in the Body of Christ.  Unity is not just a byproduct of the mission; it is a primary objective.

A couple of weeks ago, we baptized into our church a black young man who is about to be in the fifth grade.  While he’s not technically our first black church member, I see God’s hand in his life in a way that gives me hope that he’s the beginning of something new.  Our VBS last week was a beautiful reflection of the makeup of our town, with youngsters of all races joining together to sing, learn the Bible, and play.  But we’ve just started trying to figure this out.  Only the Holy Spirit has the wisdom and the power to finish this work and testify to the unifying power of the gospel to our town.

When Jesus prayed for the church just before his crucifixion, his prayer was that we be “one”: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).  Let’s continue to work to make our highest loyalty be to Jesus and pray to see this testimony to the world become a reality in churches all across this nation.

Published: Jun 21, 2016


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