Racism is Heresy

At the 2017 assembly of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America overwhelmingly adopted an uncompromising resolution that condemned the ideology of the Alt-Right (= white ethno-nationalism) together with “every form of racism.” It is a resolution with which we are in full agreement.

The Southern Baptists have adopted anti-racist resolutions in years past as part of an effort to distance themselves from the sins of their denominational forefathers. The most current resolution, however, is a response to the alarming resurgence of “blood and soil” nationalism. What is most notable about the SBC resolution is that it condemns racism as a theological heresy that is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is exactly right.

Racism and ethno-nationalism is a theological heresy that contradicts both the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of redemption. Moreover, these two themes are not separate; they are woven together. Central to the Christian worldview is the doctrine of the unity of the human race. All peoples on earth are traced back to two parents who were the special creation of God (Gen 2:7, 21-24). St. Paul found it necessary to teach Gentiles the proper doctrine of creation in preparation for the gospel message. “From one ancestor he made all nations” (Acts 17:26). Furthermore, God created this single human race “in his own image” (Gen 1:27), in true righteousness and holiness with dominion over creation. Even though sin has robbed us of this original righteousness, yet God’s image in humanity remains the basis for the universal dignity and respect (life and liberty) owed to all peoples regardless of ethnicity, religion, or even morality (James 3:9-10). God’s love for all peoples is the reason he sent the reluctant Jonah to the capital of Assyria, hated by all for their incredible cruelty. In the story the Lord asks the incredulous prophet, “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” (A reference to little children, 4:11).

It is often supposed that ancient Israel was an ethno-state that guarded racial purity. The facts are otherwise. When God brought Israel out of Egypt, it was already an ethnically mixed multitude (Ex 12:38). Diverse converts stood before Joshua, together with Abraham’s biological descendants and took the vows of the covenant (Josh 8:33). According to the law, all resident foreigners in Israel could become full-fledged Israelites by adopting the covenant (Ex 12:48; Num 15:14-16; Isa 14:1; 56:3-7). Ezekiel says, “You are to consider them [Gentile-converts] as native-born Israelites” (Ezek 47:22). There are a number of discrete examples of this. Moses married a Cushite (Ethiopian), Zipporah (Ex 2:22). Rahab was Canaanite (Josh 6:25). Ruth was Moabite, and she was also the great grandmother of King David! (Ruth 4:17). One of King David’s most faithful men was Uriah the Hittite (famously the first husband of Bathsheba).

Even those who were not citizens, who were resident foreigners, were owed both justice and love. “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33-34). Note that the logic of redemption is woven into the commandment. This becomes a major theme in the Law and Prophets. Minorities are held up as persons of special concern to God. Since a resident alien is more likely to be poor, they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, scapegoating, prejudice and injustice. Therefore, they are grouped together with the orphans and widows as the center of focus for the obligation of social justice (Ex 22:21; 23:9; Lev 23:22; 25:35; Deut 10:18-19; 16:11-14; 24:17, 19-21; 26:12; 27:19; Ps 94:6; 144:7; 146:9; Jer 7:6; 22:3; Ezek 22:7; 22:29; Zech 7:10; Mal 3:5).

God’s command for compassion toward minority peoples is grounded in Israel’s corporate experience of once being an oppressed minority in Egypt. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob also lived as sojourners in a foreign land. This has continued relevance for the Christian. Christians are often a maligned minority. Peter writes his letter to “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Pet 1:1). Majority culture Christians can easily lose this perspective. Yet, concern for the marginalized was central to Jesus’ ethical teaching.

What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? The rich young ruler wanted to justify himself with a narrow definition of “neighbor.” The first century Roman Empire was a society brimming with racial pride. Identity politics were strong on all sides. The Jews had a dim view of Samaritans. They would not eat with them, speak with them or travel through their towns. Therefore, Jesus tells his parable of the Good Samaritan. A man robbed and beaten lay on the side of the road. A priest passes by without assisting. A Levite passes by without assisting. But a Samaritan saw him and had compassion and helped him. “Which of these three do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The one who showed mercy. Jesus concluded, “You go, and do likewise.” It is clear, then, that Jesus teaches an unbound definition of the word “neighbor.” By no means may our empathy and concern be limited to our ethnic group (Luke 10:29-37).

When Jesus traveled to Jerusalem and witnessed the way that the Court of the Gentiles had been turned into a market, he overturned the tables in righteous anger. He appealed to Isaiah 56:7 saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17). Rather than acting as a light to the nations, the religious leaders placed impediments in the way of Gentiles that discouraged them from coming to know the one God that created the world and all people in it.

On a hillside in Galilee Jesus commissioned his disciples. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). It was clear that the Christian religion could not be limited to any one nation. In its essence it is an international, multi-cultural religion. But this didn’t answer the question of how Christ’s one church was to operate when various ethnic groups exist within close proximity. This became a stumbling block for the early church.

The Christian movement began first in Jerusalem. Then it spread into Samaria. These churches were culturally homogenous. But then the Apostle Peter received his strange vision where God commanded him to eat every form of non-kosher animal (Acts 10-11). When Peter protested, God’s answer was, that which God has declared to be “clean” must not be considered “unclean.” As Peter was pondering the meaning of this vision, messengers from a Roman Centurion named Cornelius came to fetch him. Cornelius had also seen a vision where God instructed him to seek out Simon Peter. Peter traveled to meet Cornelius, preached the gospel to him, and he believed. Those who were with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given “even on the Gentiles.” When news of this spread it scandalized the Jewish Christians. They accused Peter of defiling himself by eating with the uncircumcised. Peter defended his actions by relaying the whole story, and then concluded “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11:12).

The unity of Christ’s one church requires that we work to tear down ethnic boundaries. This was a hard lesson for the early church. This was a hard lesson for Peter! The first truly multi-ethnic church was in Antioch. Jews and Gentiles were united to form a single church. They ate meals together and shared life together. Peter was among them. But then men from Jerusalem came to observe the work and they were scandalized by such race-mixing. For fear of offending his brothers Peter withdrew from eating with the Gentiles and adopted a separate-but-equal policy. Even Paul’s missionary companion, Barnabas, was drawn into this hypocrisy. The Apostle Paul fiercely rebuked Peter to his face. “Their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14). If it were not for Paul’s radical leadership, the Christian church would have become segregated from the beginning. This would also be an implicit denial of the gospel. For “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:29).

Paul paints a picture of God’s people as an olive tree. Wild branches are grafted onto this one tree. This represents Jews and Gentiles from all over the world who believe in the one Gospel, who have received the same Holy Spirit and who are united in Christ’s one church (Rom 11:17-24). In another place Paul teaches that Gentiles are by nature alienated from God, without hope and without Christ in the world. But Jesus has torn down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile; he calls people far and near, and brings all peoples into the covenants of promise. In Christ we are reconciled to God and reconciled to one another. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:11-22).

It is incumbent upon Christians to work in order to better express our unity. This includes standing up for the dignity of all of God’s image bearers, tearing down racial barriers, and standing up for justice. Because of the persistence of indwelling sin, we will only achieve imperfect unity on earth. One thing is for certain: all of God’s people will be perfectly united in heaven. “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tries and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev 5:9-10). We are a Revelation 5:9 church and we condemn racism as heretical.

Encourage One Another With God’s Abounding Grace

“Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” (Romans 5:20).

Often Scripture exhorts us to encourage one another with the Gospel. This does not mean that we do not also encourage people by rebuke; rather that for the repenting Christian, the Gospel of grace has last word. Paul describes to the Thessalonians the Christian hope of our resurrection and writes, “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (5:9-11).

We have a remarkable pastoral example from the pen of Martin Luther who was encouraging his friend George Spalatin, who, for political reasons, had approved of an immoral marriage, became convicted of his sin and refused to receive any comfort. Luther concurs that Spalatin actions were an affront to God.

Luther then counsels his friend,

“Listen to the blessed consolation which the Lord offers you by the prophet Ezekiel, who says, chapt. 33,11: ‘As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.’ Do you imagine that only in your case the Lord’s hand is shortened? Is. 59, 1. Or has He in your case alone forgotten to be gracious and shut up His tender mercies? Ps. 77, 10. Or are you the first man to aggravate his sin so awfully that henceforth there is no longer a High Priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities? Heb. 4,15. … It seems to me, my dear Spalatin, that you have still but a limited experience in battling against sin, and evil conscience, the Law, and the terrors of death. Or Satan has removed from your vision and memory every consolation which you have read in the Scriptures… Or it must surely be that heretofore you have been only a trifling sinner, conscious only of paltry and insignificant faults and frailties. … Therefore my faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us, who are real, great, and hard-boiled sinners. You must by no means make Christ to seem paltry and trifling to us, as though He could be our Helper only when we want to be rid from imaginary, nominal, and childish sins. No, no! That would not be good for us. He must rather be a Savior and redeemer from real, great, grievous, and damnable transgressions and iniquities, yea, from the very greatest and most shocking sins; to be brief, from all sins added together in a grand total. … Aha! You want to be a painted sinner and, accordingly, expect to have in Christ a painted Savior. You will have to get used to the belief that Christ is a real Savior and you a real sinner. For God is neither jesting nor dealing in imaginary affairs, but He was greatly and most assuredly in earnest when He sent His own Son into the world and sacrificed Him for our sakes.”

With these and many other remarks Luther encourages his friend to look to the glorious promises of the Gospel, which offers real forgiveness for real sinners by a real Savior.

Losing the (Cultural) Battle; Winning the War

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that gay marriage will now be legal in all 50 states. This ruling overturns the laws in over thirty states. But even in states where gay marriage was already legal, the courts overruled the will of the people. This decision marks a huge change in the life of our republic. Yet, honestly, it is hard for me to get worked up about because this change has been telegraphed since the mid 90s, and the failed strategies of Christians have made this change inevitable. Gay marriage arrived as predicted and precisely on schedule.

Somewhere in the mid 90s, Christian radio stations lit up the airwaves with activists panicking about the threat of gay marriage. There was no immediate threat, but the threat was looming on the horizon. Opinion polls surveying my generation and younger showed that a tidal wave was forming in the way that we perceived homosexuality. Most of the American population held to one of two views. One view was that homosexuality is an unfortunate mental disorder and those who suffer from it deserve sympathy. The other view is that homosexuality is a sin that requires repentance. But my generation was sold the narrative that homosexuality is genetically hard-wired and therefore morally neutral. Gay rights are equivalent to civil rights. Gays are therefore entitled to serve in the military, adopt children, and get married.

The strategy to combat this narrative was almost entirely legal and preemptive in nature. It was stressed that we cannot wait for this demographic shift to happen. Christians had better organization. We had churches, para-churches, radio and lobby groups. We still had a sizable majority of the American public on our side, and that majority was scheduled to shrink a little bit every year. We must strike first by passing laws and constitutional amendments in order to preserve traditional marriage. Curiously, these Christians took for granted that this demographic shift was going to happen, and nothing could be done to stop it.

I remember thinking that this was a disastrous strategy and doomed for failure. Gay marriage was legal nowhere. Such proactive laws or constitutional amendments guaranteed that these laws and amendments would be fought in the courts. The courts are historically more progressive than the general public. This would be Roe v. Wade all over again. This strategy was going to fast-track gay marriage in the United States. I was proved right. Even in a liberal state like California the voters passed a law banning gay marriage, which was overturned by the courts. Then we passed a constitutional amendment that was also overturned by the courts – declaring gay marriage to be legal by judicial fiat. No law required! This same story played out our most conservative states like Kansas where gay marriage was opposed by 70% of the voters.

This strategy was disastrous for a second reason. If this demographic change was really unavoidable then no law or amendment could stop it. Laws and amendments can be repealed or changed. Remember prohibition? If there was a legal strategy that we needed to pursue it needed to be a defensive strategy that strengthened the rights of churches and ministers to freely practice their religion according to the principles of their faith. But really, our strategy needed to focus on moral persuasion rather than legal coercion. We needed to win the hearts and minds of my generation with reasoned argument.

The only moral arguments I heard were exclusively from the Bible, and it was never clear why these arguments should be persuasive to those who were not evangelical Christians. More critically, however, even evangelical Christians did not understand why our Christian morality should transfer to public policy in our secular society. Young Christians were asking, “How does this affect me? Isn’t it like wanting to outlaw doughnuts just because I’m on a diet?”

Furthermore, Christians insisted on defining sexual orientation as a “choice,” which made it seem like it was a simple choice like deciding what cereal to have for breakfast or whether or not you felt like knocking off a liquor store that day. The language of “choice” ran counter to the experience of those with same sex attraction and was easily ridiculed by the public. It certainly didn’t explain why some professing Christians struggle with same sex attraction.

In my senior year of college we had course called Senior Seminar. The idea of the course was to integrate knowledge from the various academic disciplines. It is a great idea since academic study is often narrow, specialized and fragmented. We were assigned to write a research paper that integrated various disciplines: science, history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology. After thinking about the assignment for a while I reluctantly concluded that the issue of homosexuality was a perfect subject to be studied by all these disciplines.

Although the popular media assumed that sexual orientation was genetically hard-wired and determined from birth, I found that the academic literature drew a different picture. Masters and Johnson surveyed the twin studies and all the other studies that had been done to discover a genetic cause of inversion. They concluded that there was still no evidence that such behavior was biologically determined. All the evidence pointed away from that. When I turned to gay writers like philosopher Michael Foucault, Denise Altman and Judith Butler, I found that they had little use for genetic theories. Rather, they argued that sexualities are socially constructed identities that we assume. Certainly, the stereotype of the flamboyant, lisping man is part of an identity that is developed and acted out. The language of identity is similar to the language of choice, but it is more accurate because one’s identity is formed out of the sum of all our choices, influenced by the cocktail of our life-experiences, in a way that feels inevitable or even determined.

History and sociology provided many supporting examples. The pan-sexuality of ancient Greece is an obvious example. To this we may add that even among straight people the dizzying array of fetishes and changing standards of beauty from decade to decade and from culture to culture illustrate the incredible plasticity of human sexuality. This was a powerful refutation of the lie my generation was sold: namely that same sex attraction affects one to three percent of the population – it always has and it always will – so we might as well make peace and accept it.

I saw that that all the evidence was in essential agreement with the Bible. The Bible adds only the value judgment. It is sin contrary to God’s purpose and design and against our natural functions. I later discovered Camille Paglia, a bisexual feminist professor who wrote a scathing takedown of the Presbyterian Church USA when they caved on this issue. I think her essay was called “The Joy of Presbyterian Sex.” She agreed that the Biblical and traditional Christian view was essentially correct. Her sexuality was in defiance of nature. Nature imposes it’s tyranny over us by choosing some to be male and some female. The joy of gay sex is it’s illicit rebellion against nature and the normal social order. Now, she argued, these idiot Presbyterians are trying to sanitize us with their sanctimonious views, and they want to impose on us family values like monogamy. They think that it is like a gay version of the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with Sidney Portiere, Mr. Smooth and perfect, recast as queer.

As a college senior there was one wrench in my argument. Geneticist Dean Hamer believed that he had discovered the “gay gene” and he published his study in Scientific American. It made the front page of TIME magazine and I think that the impression on the general public was that this matter is now settled. I found some peer reviews that made provisional criticisms of the study. I cited these concerns and emphasized how his study ran contrary to other lines of evidence. Several years later Canadian researchers discovered that Dean Hamer’s study was fraudulent. But that story didn’t make the cover of TIME magazine. Dean Hamer, a gay man and an atheist, published a new study called “the God gene.” No science journal would publish it; and Scientific American heaped scorn and ridicule on Dr. Hamer and his new study.

Even as Lady Gaga dropped her album “Born This Way,” the cultural is moving away from the language of determination and toward the language of “identity” and “choice.” Millennials understand this better than Gen X and older. For a long time the LBGTQ community had a problem with the B, T and Q. They understood that to sell this to the general public, the straight community had to believe that sexuality was binary. You are either born straight or gay and most people will be born straight. You can’t be both gay and straight! Of course, the Bs, Ts and Qs disagree.

So where do we go from here? First, I suggest that we not panic. The culture war has been going on since Genesis 3. Many Christians are decrying the present cultural decline, but we should remember that our country’s founding was steeped in the genocide of indigenous people, the enslavement of Africans and the multitude of evils that accompanied that. Our national crimes are many. We should remind ourselves that many unbiblical views of sex and marriage are already protected by law. This only adds one more to a long list, and it is no worse than the others. Pornography is legal. Premarital sex is legal. Having children out of wedlock is legal. No fault divorce is legal. Christians are accustomed to dealing compassionately with people who have been entangled by these sins, offering to sinners the love, grace, forgiveness and acceptance of Jesus Christ, all without compromising the Biblical standard of righteousness. We will learn to deal with the sin of homosexuality in a loving and compassionate way, yet in a way that still requires repentance.

But what about religious liberty? I think the real reason that this decision scares so many Christians is that we fear that the end game is to take away our religious liberty to agree with the Bible. Is that day coming? I honestly don’t know. Some pastors are arguing that the Supreme Court’s decision was right and we Christians should distinguish between civil marriage and creation marriage. It’s not the job of the government to enforce “Biblical morality.” I think, by the way, that they are equivocating on the phrase “Biblical morality.” Marriage is a common grace institution. It doesn’t belong to the church. Therefore, creation marriage is civil marriage. I digress. These pastors assure us that our 1st Amendment rights are guarded and that this decision won’t affect us. In the short term I think they are right. But things change, and they can change rapidly.

My biggest concern, however, is for the integrity of the church. Will the church have the courage to teach views that are not popular? The evangelical stand against sins like abortion, pornography, premarital sex or no fault divorce gives us reason to be optimistic. But the evangelical tradition that took such stands had some theological grounding. But now several generations of youth have been catechized by games and rock’n praise choruses and they are floating rudderless in a sea of modernity. So, what will happen to the church in America? I don’t know. But I know that God is Lord of his church and he has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against it.