Hermeneutics and Racial Segregation

This is an appendix from my recent book Searching for the Pattern: My Journey in Interpreting the Bible.

I have several vivid memories about race relationships in my history. 

I grew up in two very different places. In one city, African Americans lived across the river in a different city. They did not live in mine. I did not attend elementary school with any children of color, and neither did my congregation have any people of color in it. On one occasion, when a minister of an African American church of Christ from across the river visited my father for several hours at our church building, a neighbor called the police.

In the other city, I attended an integrated High School. The congregation where my father ministered was integrated in both leadership and membership. I was too young to understand or know how those dynamics played out in the congregation, but I do know I attended church with people of color. My father ministered in India for six weeks every year for a decade, and my family welcomed diverse guests across all ethnicities in our home for meals as well as lodging them for weeks or months. I learned to respect and love people who were different.

The first congregation I served as a preaching minister was in a northern urban center where half the church was African American and the other half was Caucasian. We were small but enjoyed wonderful fellowship. I officiated my first funeral there. It was the wife of my mentor and close friend, one of the congregation’s African American leaders who had led many to Christ.

When I moved to the deep South, it shocked my system. I remember sitting at a table with some elders and their wives near the Florida-Alabama border where, after talking with them about reaching out to the African American community, one of the wives grudgingly agreed to welcome them into the church but insisted she would not invite any into her home. At a congregation in Mississippi, I was present the first time an African American led singing. In response, three couples walked out of the building and left that congregation. I have known ministers in the deep South who were dismissed because they baptized a black person in the church’s baptistry, preached on racism, or were involved in community efforts toward racial reconciliation. On multiple occasions, I have seen white people flee congregations they had attended for years when African Americans grew in numbers that threatened the balance of power and/or added color to the youth group in an unacceptable mix. Some parents feared their children might date, perhaps even marry, someone of another race.

Racism is alive, and while I hope it is dying, it does not seem to be in its death throes. Indeed, I fear it is raising its ugly head with even more ferocity in the past few decades. Yet, nothing is more subversive of the gospel than racist attitudes and practices. Racism strikes at the heart of the gospel itself!

How does a theological hermeneutic address this problem?

As a matter of perspective, I suggest a blueprint hermeneutic does not address the heart of the issue well. Every congregation should accept every Christian no matter their color, ethnicity, or nationality. But how would the blueprint hermeneutic make this argument? It cannot point to a pattern except that no congregation should accept the ethnic division between Jew and Gentile. That is helpful, but it is insufficient. Might it be that the blueprint hermeneutic is not up to the task? Instead, when the blueprint hermeneutic attempts to tackle this question, it naturally shifts to a theological hermeneutic. In other words, it does not resolve the question in terms of a scripted pattern but with a theological argument, which seems rather obvious to all who love God and their neighbors. To the degree our history has neglected a theological hermeneutic, to that same degree racism is able to get hold of our hearts because we have been more deeply formed by racist social pressures and practices rather than by the heart of God. Like the elder brother who precisely obeyed all his father’s rules but did not know his father’s heart, some are so focused on searching for, arguing about, and precisely obeying a blueprint that they don’t know the Father’s heart.

To make my point, let me rehearse, in a brief way, how a theological hermeneutic addresses racism. I will not fill this out in any detail as I assume (and hope) most will see the point rather quickly. To do this, I will simply walk through the story of God and note a few significant points.

Creation. Every human being is created in the image of God, and, therefore, is crowned with glory and honor (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 8:5). Every human being has the status of a royal priest within the creation, and despite the fact that every human being has sinned and fallen short of this glory, every human being still images God. Consequently, no one should curse, hate, or mistreat another person (James 3:9-10).

God intended humanity to inhabit the whole earth (Isaiah 45:18) and commissioned humanity to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). When humanity fills the earth, humanity diversifies. People do not eat the same food, wear the same clothes, and have the same skin color when they live in such diverse places as Alaska, Guatemala, Singapore, Germany, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Consequently, these geographically diverse peoples created diverse cultures. Just as God created diverse plants and animals with diverse colors, so God commissioned humanity to fill the whole earth. Humanity, by God’s design, grew diverse, and this is as beautiful as what God created in other aspects of nature. God intended diversity, and God loves diversity.

Israel. Racists often appeal to Israel’s distinct role as a holy nation to support some kind of separatism or segregation. But this woefully misunderstands what God is doing in Israel. For example, God chose Israel to bless the nations rather than condemn them, and God ultimately wants to include the nations rather than exclude them. God called Israel to be “a light to the nations, that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). Further, God invited the nations into community, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 45:22). God sent Jonah to Nineveh, and Jonah, who did not have the heart of God, objected to the mercy God extended.

In addition, Israel welcomed and included the aliens who lived within their borders. Israel was explicitly commanded, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien” (Exodus 22:21). Israel was to love the alien just as she loved herself (Leviticus 19:34), and Israel shared its tithes with aliens (Deuteronomy 26:12). Aliens could eat the Passover (2 Chronicles 30:25), offer sacrifices (Leviticus 17:8; 22:18), and were included in the forgiveness God extended to the community (Numbers 15:26). Israel’s status before God did not authorize them to oppress others.

The Ministry of Jesus. While Jesus was sent to Israel in order to announce the coming reign of God, he did not neglect opportunities to serve and love Gentiles. We see this in his healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (Mark 7:24-30) and the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13). Ultimately, of course, the resurrected Jesus includes all nations as the object of gospel proclamation as he commissioned his disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18). More, of course, could be said.

Church. The church is one race. Believers in Christ share life in a new community that transcends all nationalities and ethnicities. Peter calls the church “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” In other words, they are a new humanity, and they are a race that includes all ethnicities and nationalities. Like Adam and Eve, and like Israel, this new race is a royal priesthood who proclaims God’s “mighty acts” (1 Peter 2:9).

Paul makes a similar point in Ephesians 2. Talking about Jews and Gentiles (the nations), Paul stresses that, through the cross, Christ knocked down the wall that separated Jew and Gentile and created “in himself one new humanity” (Ephesians 2:16). As a result, there are no ethnic or national divisions in the church, and there “are no longer [any] strangers and aliens” but only “citizens” and “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).

New Creation. The picture in Revelation 7 is quite clear. There “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” stands “before the throne and the Lamb, robed in white” (Revelation 7:9). Together they sing, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10). There is no segregation in the throne room of God!

Of course, much more could be said about each of these movements within the biblical drama. But I have shared enough to demonstrate that racism is fundamentally out of step with God’s agenda in creation and new creation as well as throughout the story.

At the center of the gospel is the mystery of Christ rather than a racist narrative. The gospel testifies to God’s love for the whole world through the gift of Jesus (John 3:16), Christ’s death for all (1 Timothy 2:4-6), and God’s inclusion of all within the church, whether “Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” because “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11). In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, nor slave nor free, nor male or female because we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28).

While this only touches the surface of this topic, a theological hermeneutic is at work here. We discover God’s values, God’s identity, and God’s heart through the narrative, and in Christ God testifies to the “mystery of godliness.” God in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit through the resurrection and seen among the angels as the enthroned Lord, is now “proclaimed among Gentiles” and “believed in throughout the world” (1 Timothy 3:16). With Christ at the center of our theology, there is no place for racism, and racist practices subvert the gospel.

As segregation within the church reared its ugly head in the 1870s, David Lipscomb, the editor of the Gospel Advocate, opposed it. In 1874, when a consultation of church leaders met in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, it passed a resolution that recommended that “our colored brethren who have membership with whites, whenever practicable to withdraw themselves and form congregations of their own.” Lipscomb opposed it, and he labeled it “destructive to the Spirit of Christ” (Gospel Advocate, October 29, 1874, pp. 1017-8, 20). On another occasion, Lipscomb wrote: “The whole idea of churches along race lines is contrary to the spirit and the precepts of the New Testament, and to refuse fellowship to a child of God because of its race or family is to refuse it to Jesus himself” (Gospel Advocate, August 15, 1907, p. 521).

Nevertheless, Jim Crow culture led churches of Christ to segregate into different congregations. They were not alone, of course. It was the dominant culture. Unfortunately, the effects of that segregation still loom large. Indeed, some Christians have believed, as one stated in a letter, too many people “fall for the big lie that segregation is unchristian.”

In this instance, unlike in many cases where churches of Christ divided, the gospel is at stake. Whenever racism dictates and influences our practice, it subverts the gospel, and we proclaim and practice another gospel, which is no gospel at all. In such a circumstance, we find ourselves under Paul’s anathema (Galatians 1:6-9).

May God have mercy!

6 Responses to “Hermeneutics and Racial Segregation”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Thank you for posting this word. May the Lord give us eyes and ears to see and hear!

  2.   Larry V Smith Says:

    Thank you for this wonderful lesson on God’s message to ALL of his people to move beyond racism and to embrace ALL of His children as He does with love and fellowship!

  3.   Freeman T. Wyche Says:

    How Courageous! God Bless You.

  4.   James Nesmith Says:

    It seems that anyone with God’s Spirit, an honest heart, and an open and understood Bible would grasp readily the powerful and profound yet simple truths you present in your article, John Mark. But perhaps that is the problem. Those who promote and persist in racism, by their practice, provide shameful evidence that they lack all three.

    My Lord.

  5.   Drew Ellis Says:

    Thank you for putting this together brother. Such a long journey for our country and our brotherhood, which should just yield to the Spirit.

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