A Response to the Biblical Storyline
By Brandon D. Smith
In October 2017, a group of white supremacists marched the streets of my city—Murfreesboro, Tennessee—carrying Confederate and Nazi flags, screaming racial slurs, and hailing Hitler.
One of the groups met in the parking lot of the church where I serve on staff and began to march past our building.
Most of the city was glad to hear the official rally had been cancelled. But the evil display of hatred affirmed the need to cultivate racial diversity in our local churches.
Murfreesboro’s population is only 16 percent African American, but our church is located in the highest concentration of that percentage. Most of our church members drive in from the predominantly white suburb-within-a-suburb areas of town.
While our church has been working toward racial reconciliation for many years and is growing in racial diversity, we have been reminded by national news stories and the events in our own city that there is more work to be done.
We don’t seek to be a church beholden to news events. However, our conviction is that racial reconciliation is not a modern-day political buzzword or piece of news fodder, but rather one of the core issues addressed by Scripture itself. For us, pursuing racial diversity is a response to the biblical storyline.
Racial Diversity and the Storyline of the Bible
When the white supremacists marched down our city streets, we saw the antithesis of heaven. In scripture we read:
You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slaughtered,
and you purchased people
for God by your blood
from every tribe and language
and people and nation.
You made them a kingdom
and priests to our God,
and they will reign on the earth. (Revelation 5:9-10)
The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, and there will no longer be any curse. (Revelation 22:2-3)
This gathering of nations—from the Greek root word ἔθνος (ethnos), where we get the word “ethnicity”—is what heaven looks like now, and gives a glimpse into New Jerusalem’s eternal population.
Eternity will not be white faces marching with hate-filled eyes under the Nazi flag of death. Instead, it will be filled with faces of many hues being healed by the Tree of Life under the blood-stained banner of the Lamb. Jesus’s blood has redeemed people from every ethnicity.
Throughout Scripture, we see a thread of God’s interest in spreading his glory to the ends of the earth through his image-bearers:
- He tells Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply,” insisting that the Garden of Eden be spread out to cover the globe.
- After the fall in Genesis 3, God sends a flood and starts over, giving Noah the command to “be fruitful and multiply” all over again (Gen 9:1). God’s purposes are not thwarted by sin. In fact, we see Him taking what appear to be radical steps in order to preserve his multi-national goal for humanity.
- God chooses Israel as his elect nation, but He doesn’t allow them to keep to themselves. In Leviticus 19 and in Deuteronomy 10, Israel is commanded to welcome and provide for visitors or wanderers from other nations.
- In Ezekiel 36, God promises His people that one day He will make things right again, and that part of that new creation will include people from all nations (which, of course, is pictured in Revelation 21).
- In the infamous table-turning scene in Mark 11, Jesus is not simply upset that there is gambling and extortion happening in the temple. He is also indignant that the outer court has become “a den of thieves” instead of “a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17).
The Bible makes it clear God wants diverse image-bearers from every nation, tribe, and tongue singing his praises. But this raises the most critical question for us: What should we do about it?
Let’s acknowledge the most important thing has already been done. Ephesians 2—perhaps the clearest call in Scripture for racial unity—says God is destroying racial and ethnic division through the cross.
This has important implications for Christians. Matthew 28:18-20 says we’re called to make disciples of all nations. I used to think of this as merely a call to “evangelism”—telling lost people about Jesus.
However, evangelism must be paired with 2 Corinthians 5:11-21: Christians are ministers of reconciliation. This means we make disciples of all nations as we look toward eternity—when all tribes and tongues will worship together, breaking down walls of racial and cultural divisions, and seek justice and equality for people of every nation, tribe, and tongue.
Here are a few ways my church in Murfreesboro pursues this journey toward intentional and sacrificial diversity.
1. We Pray
It is more comfortable to have a church that looks like how the builders of Babel’s Tower first looked: everyone with the same ideas and goals, speaking the same language and sharing the same background.
However, sacrifice is a part of the Christian life. We know that since our inclination is toward comfort, we need God’s help. We pray often that God would convict us of our selfishness and pride. We need the Holy Spirit to remind us of the gospel (John 14:26) and to ask for things we cannot even articulate (Romans 8:26-27).
2. We Listen
As Christians, we are called to be humble, teachable, peacemaking, welcoming ministers of reconciliation. We acknowledged that our first instinct should be to listen, not to shut our ears and throw out insults and dismissive platitudes.
If we can’t recognize that systemic issues in our land — a land whose largest racially-unifying moments (Emancipation Proclamation, desegregation, and voting rights) were merely legal concessions and not intrinsically built into our societal foundation — then we’re likely not ready to listen to those who feel the most hurt by it.
We began and continue this process by asking some of the minorities in our congregation to give us insights and speak into some of our sermons and classes on this issue. We also provide an open door for critique or pushback if something is said from the stage or elsewhere that could be offensive or off-putting.
We don’t have to agree on every nuance or policy, but our baseline recognition of the apparent historical and ongoing separation in our country means that we need multiple voices helping us navigate the waters. Instead of starting with opinions and defenses of our character or behavior, we should start with asking, “How do you feel about all of this?”
3. We Pursue Unity Within Diversity
Next, we put this into action fighting the temptation to be monolithic. The cross of Christ demands that we press on to the point of shed blood to love our brothers and sisters of all races and ethnicities.
Our churches should be as diverse or even more diverse than our neighborhoods. Imagine Sunday morning at your church being the most diverse gathering in your neighborhood each week! Our dinner tables should likewise have regular seats filled with those who don’t look like us.
We don’t make others become more like us; we instead find ways to enjoy diversity in preaching, singing, prayer, and leadership.
As Russell Moore so aptly puts it, in the fight for racial reconciliation, “We’re not getting anywhere if we gather in church with people we’d gather with if Jesus were still dead.” The death and resurrection of Jesus means sin and death are dead—taking hatred and division to hell with them.
We also encourage our folks not to merely post on social media about their frustration about race relations in our country. We tell them not to let their actions be relegated to hashtags and retweets.
True reconciliation happens around dinner tables and in personal interactions. True empathy comes not only from watching another viral video, but from putting your arms around someone whose skin doesn’t match yours.
True friendship comes not from a Twitter follow or a Sunday morning sentiment but from a lifelong commitment to co-suffering and co-laboring. True love does not happen with a half-hearted apology, but with an open mind to be an active part of the solution.
Though personal relationships are the most important, we also recommend that they read some books on race by black authors.
For example, we regularly recommend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Douglass, and United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity by Trillia Newbell.
Though written by white men, we have also found Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith to be a helpful primer on where the church has been and currently stands in terms of race relations.
Heaven on Earth
Racism is hell on earth, but we as Christians are called to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). We pray this way because heaven is perfect and will one day descend to the earth in a perfect, recreated garden-city (Revelation 21-22).
When Jesus tells the Jewish leaders that the whole sum of the Law is loving God and loving neighbor, He shows them the gospel is both vertical and horizontal (Luke 10:25-29).
And what example did he use to illustrate this point? The parable of the Good Samaritan—a hated ethnic minority who represented the gospel even better than the church insiders.
Yes, to preach the gospel is to preach the death, resurrection, and return of Christ. However, Jesus makes sure we remember that the implications of the gospel seep into every nook and cranny of our lives.
You may feel like only one friendship, or one conversation is a waste, but it isn’t. Nothing you do in this life is inconsequential. God works through even the smallest steps, however awkward and heavy they may seem.
Our church has had its share of blunders, missteps, and outright sins. By the grace of God, we press forward anyway, hoping we represent Christ more tomorrow than we did today. Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Make your church’s anywhere count
BRANDON D. SMITH works with the Christian Standard Bible and is a pastor at City Church in Murfreesboro. He is also co-host of the Word Matters podcast and the author of several books, including They Spoke of Me: How Jesus Unlocks the Old Testament.