If the Old Testament prophets told you that churches in America shouldn’t be segregated along racial lines, would you listen?
If Jesus told you churches in America shouldn’t be segregated along racial lines, would you listen?
For most of my life, this stuff wasn’t even close to being on my radar and I realize for many reading, it isn’t on yours either. I truly don’t mean to write judgmentally, self-righteousnessly or condemningly. But I do hope to show biblically that just because something isn’t on our radar as American Christians, doesn’t mean it isn’t on God’s radar–and like King Josiah or even like the reformers of the Protestant Reformation, when God reveals something to us from his word that we hadn’t previously noticed, we need to act on it.
Listen to what Jesus says in John 17:20-21:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
The “those who will believe in me” that he’s referring to is you and I. That’s pretty powerful stuff: Jesus praying directly for us. We should probably pay attention to this. What is he praying for? What is his will for us and the contemporary Church?
His will is that we as Christians are one, that we are in one another the way the Father is in the Son and vice versa, and that we are in God. If we do these things, the world will believe that Jesus is the Messiah!
How many times have we read or preached this text but completely missed Jesus’ heart and purpose? What I mean is this… it’s so easy to read this text and preach it and really have no real toes-on-the-concrete application for it. “Be unified” doesn’t really mean anything if it just means “be nice” or “get along” within the context of one Christian’s life or the context of one local church’s life. Was Jesus’ longest recorded prayer, a prayer he prayed immediately before his arrest, meant to simply tell Christians to “be nice”, something that actually has no practical application because it doesn’t tell us who to be nice to or how to be nice to them? There is no need for a miraculously answered prayer to happen for someone to “be nice” to the people they naturally feel like being nice to already.
In order to effectively and accurately apply this text today and in order to truly discover what’s on Jesus’ heart in this prayer, we need to understand some basic hermeneutic tools:
- The entire trajectory of the Old Testament (everything before Jesus) was that the Jews would be a light to the rest of the world (Genesis 12:2-3, 18:18, 22:18, Exodus 9:16; Joshua 4:23-24; Psalm 9:11, 96:3; Isaiah 49:6, 51:4). The turning point for this would be the coming of the Messiah, opening access to God equally to Gentiles (non-Jews) as to Jews.
- There was intense ethnic animosity and oppression between Jews and Gentiles in the time of Jesus, when bullet point #1 was to come to fruition.
- Many of the New Testament letters are specifically written for Jew and Gentile Christians to get along, love another, and be in community together in the church. Cultural conflict between Jew and Gentile Christians was the largest cause of conflict within the New Testament Church and thus was the target objective of the vast majority of the New Testament epistles.
- One has to wonder how many times pastors in the 1st century Church quoted Jesus’ words from John 17:20-21 in their sermons. It’s likely this could have been the text for the sermon every single Sunday!
Jesus’ prayer for unity in the Church and for Christians to be in one another the way the Father and Son are in one another would have been read and understood very specifically by the first century Church: specific to the Jew / Gentile divide. We also find letter after letter in the New Testament addressing this issue, further cementing that this was the context Jesus spoke to. Letters that never tell them to start segregated Jewish churches and Gentile churches, but always command them to love another and be in community together within the same local church body.
What’s more: Jesus clearly says that if the Church is unified along ethnic lines, rather than in conflict and holding the status quo of cultural bias, oppression and ethnic inequity, that the world may believe that you (Father) have sent me (Jesus). In other words, if the world sees integrated local churches, where community is built across ethnic lines, societal inequities and historical injustices are reconciled and remedied, the secular world will know that Jesus is miraculously God in the flesh and the Savior of the world. For how else could this amazing counter-cultural unity take place???
But if the world doesn’t see this type of unity, they are only going think Jesus is some religious moral teacher who teaches people how to be nice. Sound familiar?
These are not my words, they are Jesus’ words. They are Jesus’ heart and vision for the Church. To not equate the Jew- Gentile-divide of the 1st century with the contemporary white-black-divide in America is a failure to use proper hermeneutical tools when interpreting and applying the text. What Jesus meant then is still what he means now, no matter how inconvenient of life-interrupting or “that’s now how we’ve always done it” it might be.
Some might say, “All types of churches for all types of people.” No, this was not Jesus’ vision for us. It was not to have Jewish churches, Gentile churches, Greek churches, or Scythian churches. It was not to have white churches, black churches, or Hispanic churches. It was not to have racist churches, greedy churches, or egotistical / ethnocentric churches, because we’ll reach more people for Jesus if we have this type of homogeneity. There is nothing miraculous or world-changing about a bunch of people who are just like each other getting along the way the rest of society does.
This is not replacing the gospel with racial reconciliation. It is understanding the full supernatural impact the gospel was always meant to have on Christians. It is not an either/or, it is a both/and. It is to give the saving gospel of Jesus without divorcing it from Jesus’ heart and his commands for obedience. It is understanding that grace does more than get us to heaven–grace shatters our sinful nature and rebuilds it into the likeness of Jesus, a likeness that yearns for integrated churches, no matter the cost or the inconvenience.