How to neutralise racial tension in our relationship to other Christians within the body of Christ
In the first article on the Biblical Antidotes to Racism, we saw that racism is a poison that needs to be neutralised and eradicated. We saw furthermore that if we must overcome racism, we need to imbibe biblical principles that will have the effect of inoculating us against racial dogma, racial prejudice and racial dominance.
The focus in the last article was on antidotes that must aid Christians in overcoming racism as they relate to other humans. In this article I would like us to focus on antidotes that will help us to neutralise racial tension in our relationship to other Christians within the body of Christ. And in this regard I would like us to focus primarily on Colossians 3:11.
Paul’s intention in writing this epistle was to address a number of problems that faced the Colossian church: problems such as the influence of the philosophy of this world, which was creeping into the life of the church, Judaistic ceremonialism, angel worship and asceticism. And Paul sought to address these problems by lifting up Christ as the over-arching principle and focus of all they should think, say and do.
This Christ focus must particularly be made manifest in their relationships. Their relationships should be lived out in conformity with the fact that they are raised with Christ and related to him. In the immediate context of our text, Paul makes a contrast between life outside Christ (the old man) – life characterised by sin; national, ceremonial and social distinctions among men that perpetually separated them and fanned enmity between them, and life in Christ (the new man) – life characterised by virtues such as love, tolerance, patience, fellowship and peace.
Accordingly, he exhorts the Colossians, who had become new men, to put off the old man with his deeds and to live as the new man who is renewed according to the image of him who created him. And as possessors of this new image, they must bear in mind as they relate to others in the church of Christ that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian nor Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all.
What Paul is contending here is that there is a way of thinking, a way of acting, and a way of relating that is expected of those who have put on the new man even in the matter of race relations. And it is my duty in this article to open to us that way.
Now, it is no secret that even though Christ did not teach the church to be racist, that racism nonetheless is alive and kicking in many sectors of the Christian church. Dr Joel Nederwood of the Christian Reformed Church, wrote in one of their journals, in reference to the church in America, ‘But there is racism within our church – the same kind of institutionalised racism that grows everywhere on the soil of our continent … It is just a fact that our church has demonstrated more often than not that it is unable to receive as equals those of another race.’ Many I am sure will agree that he speaks for a considerable section of the church in South Africa as well.
A few years ago I heard of a church, somewhere in RSA, that had been predominantly white but over a period of time a number of people of colour began to come in to join the church. For a moment it seemed like both black and white could live and worship together. But it soon turned out that most of the white people were feeling quite uncomfortable about this mix that was developing. The leaders of the church consequently decided to start a new church planting work in another part of the suburb that was predominantly white populated and nearly all the white members of the church decided to relocate to the new church, leaving mostly the people of colour in the ‘mother’ church.
I have also heard several stories of racial clashes and prejudice in the churches. Indeed I have also been a victim of racial prejudice before now. I’ll never forget an incident I experienced many years ago in a church in Pretoria. I had been invited to preach there and as the service progressed and each time a hymn was announced, a white brother, who was sitting behind me would leap over to show me the page where the hymn was. He didn’t realise that I had chosen the hymns and was very embarrassed when the pastor asked me to go forward and teach the church to sing the third hymn, which they didn’t know very well. He was even more embarrassed when I was invited to go and mount the pulpit. Throughout the sermon, he wouldn’t look into my eyes. I have no doubt he meant to be helpful, but what was his basis for thinking that I needed his help? I had no doubt then that it was my skin colour, which happened to be different from his.
Of course, the problem of racism is not unique to our times – it is an old problem. In the early church there were always racial tensions between Jews and Gentiles. And part of the reason why Paul wrote to the Ephesians as well as to the Colossians was to ease racial tensions and to provide antidotes to any forms of racism.
And there are three antidotes in particular that I wish to draw your attention to. And the first is that we need to understand that:
1. The church by its very nature is meant to be united in diversity (Col 3:11). This being the case, four things must be true about it:
- a) It must be open to people of all races (v11). Paul stresses the fact that the church must include both Greeks and Jews, and the very fact that there are both Greeks and Jews in the church must not be an issue at all. What this means for us is that the church must open its doors to white, black, brown and yellow – every one of these has a place in the church of Christ.
- b) It must be open to people of all cultures (v11). The church must be open to people who practise circumcision as well as those who don’t. In the church there are neither circumcised nor uncircumcised – there are only Christians. Furthermore, it must be open to the barbarian and Scythian. That is to say, those of a primitive civilisation, and those considered to be insensitive and uncultured. Furthermore,
- c) It must be open to people of all states and conditions. The church must be open to the slave as well as the free.
- d) It must also be open to people of all genders. For this point we do need to turn to the book of Galatians to appreciate the point. Paul in Galatians says, ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female.’ Women are not second-class citizens in the church; they are just as dignified and valued as their men folk (Gal 3:28).
Ultimately, what Paul is saying here is that the church must be open to all types and to all classes of people. I do not believe that the church is a colour-blind and a classless society. I do believe, however, that the church is a society in which all colours of people and all classes of people have a place. The point of Colossians 3:11 is not that cultural, ethnic, and racial differences have no significance; they do. The point is that that they are not to be a barrier to profound, personal, intimate fellowship. Singing soprano is different from singing alto. It’s a significant difference. But that difference is no barrier to being in the choir. It’s an asset. Being different in terms of our racial make-up must be an asset rather than a liability.
2. The church’s high ideal of unity in diversity has been undermined and will always be undermined by sin:
And some of the sins that undermine the unity of the Spirit are outlined for us in Colossians 3:8. They include sins such as anger, wrath, malice, filthy language, and lying to one another. They also include (if I may add) intolerance, stereotype thinking, impatience and pride.
Racism, of course, is a sin, that incorporates many of these sins. Racism is pride when one race lifts itself above another and looks down upon it. Racism is idolatry when it makes our race something of a god that we must pay homage to. Racism is murder when it makes people of one race hate brothers of another race. Racism is lying because it can injure the good name of a given race, and destroy the dignity of men who are made in the image of God. Racism in other words denies the gospel and undermines the unity that the gospel intends to build and maintain in the church.
If we entertain these sins, therefore, we will undermine the high ideal of unity in the church, which is brought about by the Spirit of God. On the other hand, if we hate these sins and love the glory and honour of our God and the good of his church, we will uphold this high ideal of unity in diversity.
3. The church’s basis of unity in diversity:
The church’s basis of unity in diversity is and must be Christ. The Bible tells us here in Colossians 3:11 that:
- i) Christ is all. This is another way of saying that Christ is everything to the individual believer and to the church. Without Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5). Churches and individuals that do not build on Christ can never defeat the scourge of racism. Notice that there are a number of ways in which the Bible demonstrates the fact that Christ is all particularly in relation to the matter of race relations:
- a) Christ is all in the sense that he is the ground of our salvation. He purchased our salvation through giving his life over in death. In so doing he provided a basis upon which all those who believe in him, whether they be Jew or Gentile, white or black, brown or yellow, can have their sins forgiven and righteousness imputed to their account (Rom 4:7,8). Furthermore, he through his Spirit regenerates and transforms the hearts of his people to a point where they can be set free from the mastery of the sin of racism.
- b) Christ is all in the sense that he is the sustainer of our salvation. He has all things in him. He has every resource that his people need to live godly lives and to overcome sin (including the sin of racism). He is all to his people. He is their light and life, their wisdom and righteousness, their sanctification, and redemption, their food and clothing, their strength and riches, their joy, peace and comfort. When Christians persevere in racism, it could well be that they are not tapping into this resource which alone is able to give them power to overcome.
- c) Christ is all in the sense that he is the consummator of our salvation. He alone gives us glory hereafter. He who gives us grace to overcome sin here below will also give us grace to live without sin in glory hereafter.
- d) Christ is all in the sense that he is our peace who has broken down every wall (Eph 2:14). He has removed the middle wall of partition that separated the Jew from the Gentile. He has fulfilled the Mosaic laws that separated Jews and Gentiles through the offering of himself as a sacrifice to God. He has removed the offending sin from man and turned away the divine wrath, and because both Jew and Gentile are now reconciled to God, they can be reconciled to each other. Similarly, because all the people of God, regardless of their race have been reconciled to God, they can and should be reconciled to each other.
- e) Christ is all in the sense that He is our only Lord (Acts 2:36). Culture or ethnicity is not our Lord. Christ is. There are Christians, aren’t there, who are more committed to their racial grouping and culture than they are to the Lord Jesus Christ? But it is Christ who is the Lord. He is all in all to us, exceeding precious, altogether lovely, the chief among ten thousands, whom and whose law we esteem above all creatures and things. We must therefore do his will with regard to race relations.
But he is not just all. The Bible also says,
- ii) Christ is in all and under this we must stress the fact that:
- a) Christ is in all believers, regardless of their race, culture or ethnicity (Eph 4:4; Rom 8:9). We do not need to be of a particular racial grouping to have Christ in us. Christ is in all who believe regardless of their external looks (Acts 13:1,2).
Ephesians 4 also reminds us that there is one body and one Spirit and one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is above all and through all and in you all. Note the emphasis on ‘one’. All believers are in one body – the body of Christ and one Spirit indwells them all. There is not a body for white people and another one for black people and a Spirit for white people and a different one for black people. There isn’t a baptism for white people and a different one for black people. All experience one baptism of the Spirit and all have one God and Father.
That all believers, of whatever racial extraction, have Christ, who is our all, must make them very special to us. Our spiritual bond with them must matter more than our differences in race and culture. This, I believe, is what Paul is seeking to emphasise in this section of Scripture. What then must be our conclusion in the light of this?
- If Christ is all in our unity, being like Christ must be our priority if we must maintain the unity of the Spirit. And how are we to maintain this unity? Paul lays down the method here in Colossians 3 from verse 12 through to verse 17. We are to put on the fruit of the Spirit, and we are to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly. We are to fight racist tendencies with mercy, and kindness, humility and meekness and longsuffering. We are to bear with one another and forgive one another. White people must forgive black people and black people must forgive white people for any racially motivated wrongs they may have done to each other. Furthermore, we will only fight racism by putting on love, which covers over a multitude of sins. Also we must strive to have peace rule over our hearts. Perhaps you are struggling with a bad conscience over a poor racial relationship. Endeavour to clear the matter with God and with that person. That’s the only way you will have a conscience at peace. Clearly this passage is not just a general admonition to unity, but also a specific admonition to unity where the natural barriers of race so clearly manifested themselves. This text brings home a powerful message to a church divided along the lines of race (see also Eph 4:1).
- Because of our spiritual unity in the church even across the lines of race, we must war against prejudices we have developed against brethren of other races over time. We need to steer clear of expressions such as ‘blacks can’t organise’ or ‘whites can’t live together with black people’ or ‘black people don’t know how to spend their money. It seems that they would rather spend it on clothes and expensive cars than on a good home’ or ‘whites are selfish and patronising.’ ‘I know for a fact that there are many more bad coloured people than good ones and this is a shame. I think that they could easily be straightened out if they were taught the word of God’ or ‘in the minds of some of our white brethren “fellowship” usually means a paternal relationship.’ Such prejudiced thinking must be got rid of and it must give way to relationships that are based on love and mutual respect and trust.
- I wish to make some suggestions that will contribute to racial reconciliation.
Firstly, we must pray that the Lord would help us to realise the ideal that he so clearly reveals in his word with regard to race relations.
Secondly, we must search ourselves as ministers and churches to see where we stand in the matter of racism and if we find we are wanting, we must repent and seek the Lord’s forgiveness.
Thirdly, we must preach and teach our people how they ought to relate to this question of racism. An exposition of the second chapter of Ephesians may be a good starting point.
Fourthly, we must examine the patterns within our churches that erect barriers to other races and endeavour to remove those barriers with the help of God.
Fifthly, we must endeavour to develop real and individual friendships across racial lines. This may help us shed some racial prejudices. We must make it a point to minister to new residents who are settling into our communities and are learning our culture and language.
We must also study the cultures of those living amongst us. We must also strive, where people of other racial groupings meet biblical qualifications, to share leadership with them.
Sixthly we must do church planting in our cities and other communities in which racial division and conflict are often most evident, bringing the healing power of the gospel in word and deed to bear upon the situation.
- I would like to end by giving us a picture of the goal of Christ when he established his church. It was our Lord’s aim that in this new ‘race’ of humans – all ethnic groups in the world will be included (Matt 24:14). And the church must be the visible expression of that, this side of eternity.
In Revelation 5:9 we are shown the perfect realisation of that goal. The picture we see there is a picture of heaven. In that picture peoples of all nations and tribes and clans and languages join together in worship. The implication is that in heaven we will recognise these distinctions while at the same time we are wholly united as one people. The unity, the diversity, and the harmony of the races will be among the features that will bring unending glory and honour to him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb.
May we who are this side of eternity endeavour to join the church triumphant in displaying something of this glorious unity in diversity, to the glory of our Saviour who died to bring it about. Amen.
Ronald Kalifungwa is Pastor of Lusaka Baptist Church, Lusaka, Zambia