Racism isn’t a problem “out there” in the larger culture or society – it has infiltrated every institution and system, including our churches. One need only look around at church on a Sunday morning to see the divisive impact of Christianity and racism in America. Any ideology that teaches that one people group is inherently superior to others is sin and an attack on fellow image bearers of God and ultimately an attack on God himself. Racism is a gospel issue, and Christians everywhere should actively oppose racism and seek to bring about racial justice and unity.
Racial Unity Is A Gospel Issue
In perhaps no other book in the Bible is church unity more emphasized than Ephesians. Verses 2:1-10 unpack mankind’s inherent opposition to God as well as His radical grace in pursuing us. Those He saves ultimately become His poema –an expression of His artful creativity intended to serve His good purposes. What’s often under-emphasized, however, is Paul’s continued line of thinking in Ephesians 2:11-22. If Ephesians 2:1-10 emphasizes God’s gift to His people in Christ, verses 2:11-22 unpack the implications of Christ’s saving work. The centerpiece of Paul’s argument for racial justice and reconciliation is found within this longer exposition:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him, you also are being built together into a dwelling place (Ephesians 2:11-22 ESV).
Christ’s accomplishment described in Ephesians 2:1-10 strengthens the implications of the gospel found in Ephesians 2:11-22. Through Christ’s suffering on the cross in our place, he reconciled us to God and to one another. Christians tend to see racial justice and reconciliation as secondary issues to the gospel, if they’re considered at all. However, Jesus saw unity across racial, economic, and social lines as such a central priority that he willingly shed his blood on the cross to purchase it. Through Christ, believers are not only adopted sons and daughters and co-heirs with Jesus but agents of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:20).
In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul stresses the connection between our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationships with each other, especially among different ethnic groups.
Ephesians 2:11-22 shows multiple realities:
- Christ’s saving work in action socially: Through the cross Jesus tears down walls of hostility bringing together Jews and Gentiles.
- The gospel as the great equalizer for all people: Apart from the grace offered in Christ all people are equally doomed to an eternity apart from their creator God.
- The Church as a united, yet diverse body: Christ’s sacrifice has purchased for himself one new man made up of people from every tribe and nation.
- The practical application of Christian ethics: Jesus’ life, death, crucifixion, and resurrection set the model of what it looks like for God’s people to love God and their neighbor.
God, through Christ, has torn down the dividing wall of hostility between ethnic Jews and Gentiles (i.e., anyone who is not Jewish) by redefining the Christian’s primary identity. Believers are no longer lost sinners but blood-bought children of God. Their identities are no longer found primarily in their ethnic, gender, or social characteristics but through their common salvation found in Christ alone. The gospel has the power to unite various groups within the church, eliminating points of hostility and reconciling Christians to one another. The gospel declares that there is no place for racial hierarchy or racist attitudes in the body of Christ.
In Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way The Church Views Racism, author Drew Hart explains the implications of Ephesians 2 this way:
We are free to follow Jesus into forbidden spaces we were socialized to avoid, spaces in which we previously believed we didn’t belong. Sharing life together means intimately identifying with people who carry the stigma of varying racial meanings in their actual bodies. Most practically, this can be expressed in regularly sharing life together around the table, as well as in Christian communal disciplines like reading and interpreting Scripture and praying together. The table—and I specifically mean sharing meals together—offers an opportunity to practice hospitality and intimacy that renounce racial hierarchy and racialized social patterns (2016, p. 168-169).
Pursuing Racial Unity Well
Woefully, many American churches today teach that racial justice and reconciliation are not gospel issues. If God’s people deeply care about the gospel and desire to grow in understanding, racial and socioeconomic unity must become priorities. In his book The Message of Ephesians, the late John Stott discusses the disconnect between sound Christian doctrine and the lack of reconciliation among God’s people.
It is simply impossible, with any shred of Christian integrity, to go on proclaiming that Jesus by his cross has abolished the old divisions and created a single new humanity of love, while at the same time we are contradicting our message by tolerating racial or social or other barriers within our church fellowship...We need to get the failures of the church on our conscience, to feel the offence to Christ… to weep over the credibility gap between the church’s talk and the church’s walk, to repent of our readiness to excuse and even condone our failures, and to determine to do something about it.
Stott sees this inconsistency as the most urgent issue facing churches today. The name of Christ, the spreading of the gospel, and the witness of his church are at stake. Stott continues:
I wonder if anything is more urgent today, for the honour of Christ and for the spread of the gospel, than that the church should be, and should be seen to be, what by God’s purpose and Christ’s achievement it already is--a single new humanity, a model of human community, a family of reconciled brothers and sisters who love their Father and love each other, the evident dwelling place of God by his Spirit. Only then will the world believe in Christ as peacemaker. Only then will God receive the glory due his name (1984, p. 111-112).
Christians should care about racism in their cities because racial unity is a gospel issue. If Christians really appreciate the cost Christ paid on the Cross, they must take seriously any threat to his commission. When young black men are disproportionately incarcerated, brothers and sisters in Christ lose fathers, sons, brothers, and friends. When families are separated at our borders, black men are gunned down in our streets, and unborn black and brown children are targeted in the womb, Christians should care because our Savior cares.
What’s at stake is the unity of the church and our witness in the world. The gospel does not say, “Jesus loves and saves people like me.” It declares, “Jesus loves and saves all kinds of people, mostly people who are not like me.” It’s time we change the narrative. It’s time that we take racism in our cities, communities, and churches seriously for the glory of God and the flourishing of others.
An Introduction to Racial Justice and Reconciliation
The concept of race has played a major role in the shaping and history of the United States. Professor Drew G.I. Hart explains, “Though the concept of race may be arbitrary, but it is not meaningless. Race is strategic; race does ideological and political work.” As a result of this strategic...Learn More