More Christian than Black or White
I write to my white brothers who pastor churches in America. I write as a black brother, and I write with two things: 1) love for you in Christ, and 2) a sincere question:
What’s more important—our Christian identity or our racial identity?
I think you’d say our Christian identity, and I praise God for that. Yet I wonder if you think that because our Christian identities matter most or because our racial identities don’t matter at all—or at least not all that much. Maybe you’d never say that, but I fear you don’t see how you may be conveying that to your congregation.
Brothers, I want to suggest that since our Christian identity matters most, our racial identity—and other peoples’ racial identities—ought to matter more, not less. Why? Because all things exist for Christ, including our ethnic heritage; Christ is Lord over our entire selves (Col. 1:16). How can you submit to him what you don’t give mind to? Further, since your Christian identity matters most, you should lay down the status your racial identity gives you for the sake of the gospel. That’s what Paul did.
Though the Jew-Gentile divide can’t exactly be mapped to the Black-White divide, there were still racial dynamics and divisions amid Jews and Gentiles. Paul didn’t deny or ignore those dynamics; he leaned into them. And so he became like the Gentiles. Why?
“For the sake of the gospel,” Paul says, “that I may share with [the Gentiles] in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:23). And yet, Paul, the self-professed “Hebrew of Hebrews,” insisted that he held his Jewish identity so loosely that he "became as a Jew" so that the gospel might spread (Phil. 3:5; 1 Cor. 9:20). Paul did not scorn his ethnicity or divorce it from his understanding of the gospel—he leveraged it for the purpose of advancing the gospel. For Paul, Christ was greater than any ethnic heritage. Therefore we should submit our ethnic heritage to Christ and his agenda, not because our ethnic heritages aren’t good—there’s so much good in them—but because they aren’t God.
My white brother, how are you showing your congregation that Christ is superior to your skin color?
I’m asking you because ethnic minorities regularly do this when we attend churches where we’re not in the ethnic majority. I’m asking you because I regularly hear black brothers talking about how Christ is superior to our skin color. Consider what the brothers below have said:
Your Christianity must define your racial identity without denying it.
Your life ain't wrapped up in what you drive
The clothes you wear, the job you work
The color your skin, naw you're a Christian first
As much as I am an African-American, I am even more so a follower of Jesus Christ…In other words, my Jesus-ness must trump my blackness.
And yet, I rarely hear white brothers and sisters talking about what it would look like if they submitted their whiteness to Christ. Ethnic minorities have grappled with race in ways that white people in predominantly white congregations, communities, and networks haven’t had to. The cultural preferences of white people are often free from interrogation because they’re seen, and sometimes enforced, as what’s normal and neutral. My white brothers, have you taken time to consider whether or not you’ve let, even unwittingly, your cultural preferences become theological imperatives? Let me give you an example of how this might happen.
Phrases like “I’m more Christian than black or white” are gloriously true, but they’re often wielded in white culture to enable and encourage colorblindness—the theory that if we ignore race, then racial problems will eventually cease. Anyone who continues to talk about race is then labeled as someone who is un-Christ-like, divisive, and/or enamored with a social gospel.
Given how long African-Americans have been silenced and marginalized in American history, many have often felt as if they’re constantly fighting to be seen as equals. Statements like “I’m more Christian than black or white,” while true, sound patronizing when they aren’t nuanced. In other words, because generally speaking race is a more pressing reality to blacks than whites, please recognize that it’s harder to say “I’m more Christian than black” than “I’m more Christian than white.” If you’re going to tell ethnic minorities that “Jesus comes first,” please remember that unrepentant slaveholders and segregationists said the same.
History like this reveals the sad irony about racial identity in America: African-Americans didn’t ask for race to matter so much. A white brother once asked, “Why do blacks always talk about themselves as a group instead of individuals?” He didn’t realize that blacks didn’t start that. Historically, whites were the ones so obsessed with the color and placement of black peoples. In short, they told blacks, “Your skin color matters most.” But now, many white people blame blacks who believed what was a lie all along, a colorful fable told solely so blacks could be exploited and subjugated.
The blame often sounds like, “You always talk about race.” Or: “Jesus is more important. Can’t you just get over it?” This reflects how many American Christians largely have two speeds when dealing with an issue: something is either completely important, or it’s completely unimportant. Color used to mean everything, but now folks want it to mean nothing. Many whites now want to erase color without dealing with the calamities that come from past generations insisting upon it. But there can be no reconciliation without a reckoning.
I’ve written this, brothers, to ask you to reckon with the fact that you are white, and to consider how that factors into how you see the world, how you think others see the world, and how you treat others, including the people under your care.
I’m asking you to reckon with the fact that how tightly you cling to your whiteness matters to Christ. How much you submit your whiteness to Christ matters to Christ, and it matters to the cause of bringing others into the blessings of the gospel. But how can you submit something to Christ if you don’t believe it matters that much? If you don’t believe it even exists? How can you lay down the status your ethnicity affords you if you refuse to see what that status means?
White pastor, I fear you might think that submitting your whiteness to Christ ought to result in deeper racial apathy. You don’t think this due to your conscious, deeply-rooted racist spirit. Instead, the thought comes from ignorance—from not knowing what you don’t know.
In other words, brother, perhaps you just haven’t thought about race that much. Consider this a gentle invitation to do so because submitting your whiteness to Christ ought to result in deeper racial awareness, not apathy. It ought to result in eagerness to honor the good ways God has made us different. It ought to result in zeal to lay down the status and comforts your ethnicity gives you for the sake of the gospel.
What might this zeal look like? An exhaustive list is impossible, but this is 9Marks so here are nine suggestions in no particular order.
1. Calling out ethnocentric sin (Gal. 2:11–14).
Consider how Paul rebuked Peter for pulling back from the Gentiles. He says Peter’s behavior is “out of step with the gospel.” Race matters are gospel issues, and they’re gospel issues because God says so. If we treat our ethnicities and the cultural aspects of them as the center of the universe, we are sure to err. That’s what happened with the Jews. They were upholding circumcision as necessary for salvation, but it wasn’t, and Paul made that crystal clear. Paul could’ve cozily sat back in the status that being Jewish afforded him, but he chose Christ over ethnic comforts.
How are you making that choice? Are there ways in which folks in your congregation hold up whiteness, or parts of it, as necessary for membership? Or at least for being a “mature” Christian? Are folks in your congregation relegating other members to second-class status because they don’t meet a certain cultural expression? Call that out, brothers. I fear many white pastors are concerned with simply not being racist, instead of being concerned with being a positive advocate for minorities—one who defends them as they would their own family.
2. Confessing ethnocentric sin.
In that same vein, brothers, look into your own life, and your congregation’s history, to see if you are holding up whiteness, or parts of it, as necessary for entrance into your church. Bring that to God, who is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
And we should bring that to God publicly. If we don’t, we’re unwittingly teaching our people that they don’t need to bring their racism to God, which is allowing them to potentially stay in error. Further, we’re teaching them that God isn’t concerned with these matters, or at least hasn’t provided the means to deal with them. Hence the thought, “Race matters are social gospel matters!” But the gospel is powerful enough to deal with them. We have all we need for life and godliness. So confess ethnocentric sin, brothers, and do so publicly.
3. Fellowshipping widely and letting your people see it.
When Peter retreated from the Gentiles, he retreated from fellowship. He didn’t want to be seen eating with them. You could imagine him saying, “I’m more Christian than I am Jewish!” But if you looked at his life, the opposite seemed to be true.
Brothers, do you have a diverse elder board? Who leads the service on Sundays and participates up front? Is it only people who look a certain way? And even if you don’t have a diverse congregation, do you have wide fellowship with those who don’t look like you? Do you go to conferences where you’re in the ethnic minority? Do you have close friends who don’t share your political opinions or cultural traditions? Do you have diverse men as guest preachers? Who do you quote in your sermons? If you’re only quoting white people, what’s that teaching your people? Have you asked multiple black people what their experience in your church is like, and have you believed them? Have you asked multiple Asian people what their experience in your church is like, and have you believed them?
If you look at Acts 6, you can see ethnic conflict. We can learn from what the apostles did there to address it.
4. They heard the voice of ethnic minorities.
They didn’t deny the complaint that was brought to them or ask for them to prove it. They heard their people, and they believed them.
5. Next, they gave a voice to ethnic minorities.
The deacons that were chosen were primarily Greeks, who were the minorities feeling the sting of the unfair food distribution. The apostles gave minorities a seat at the table—authority to make decisions and address divisions. The apostles didn’t run from these matters, nor let it distract them from teaching and prayer. They realized that the spread of the gospel and the preservation of the unity it brings is a multi-ethnic team sport. Why not listen to this talk by Thabiti with your staff and discuss it?
6. They thought of a solution.
White pastors, please notice that the apostles thought of a solution (deacons). They didn’t just ask minorities what they could do to fix it. While it can show humility to ask that, it can also be a way to escape having to face these challenges with critical thinking. Asking “How can I fix this?” can show a mindset that thinks racial reconciliation is an event, instead of a lifestyle. If Christ matters most to you, you won’t put the burden of solutions solely on minorities’ backs.
7. Leaving Acts 6, I want to highlight that Paul didn’t scorn his Jewish culture or forget it, but he did know it.
Brother pastor, have you taken time to consider what it means to be white? What does it mean to be in the racial majority? Have you read a book like White Awake? I make this point because you can’t sacrifice the status your ethnicity affords you if you don’t know what that status or ethnicity is. Again, we can’t submit a part of ourselves to Christ if we don’t consider it to be a part of ourselves.
Brothers, our congregations need to be taught on these matters. Did Paul even understand “race” in the same ways we do? Would he have even separated religious and racial identities as we might? These are questions that require careful, biblical study, and they matter for our context today.
8. Going off of that suggestion: read with your elders.
I’ll never forget when Mark Dever had our predominantly white elder board read Divided by Faith and talk, pray, and lament about it together. If people don’t see that these matters are a concern to you, brother, then why would you expect it to be a concern for them? If you don’t talk about these matters, you’re conveying that they’re a non-issue.
9. Lastly, pray about this.
My goodness was Alistair Begg correct when he said, “Satan has scored a great victory in getting sincere believers to waver in their convictions that prayer is both necessary and powerful.” Brothers, pray:
- That God would help you see the status your ethnicity affords you, and that he would show you how to sacrifice that status for the good of others and the cause of Christ.
- That God would give you wisdom in how to model to your congregation the fact that Christ is superior to skin color. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask…”
- That God would expose any cultural preferences that you’ve unwittingly baptized into theological imperatives.
Brothers, I praise God for the truth that our unity runs deeper than our genes. If the most important thing about me is skin color, then we cannot be united at the deepest level, and therefore my allegiance is most to my “kinsmen according to the flesh.” But if the most important thing about us is available to all who would repent and believe, if the dividing wall has been torn down, then we have the opportunity to share our deepest allegiances with both each other and our Lord—despite what the world says. We have an opportunity to know Christ together, and to see him in one another.
And finally, you have the opportunity to examine yourself and your ethnicity and better live as if it’s true: You are more Christian that you are white.