Sometimes we argue and take sides over non-essentials. For example, the older I get, the less I care about immersion vs. sprinkling baptisms. I’m just trying to be a decent person on mornings when I’ve run out of coffee, so I really don’t care how much water is involved at your baptism. It wouldn’t be wise to split a church or fight with a friend over that. Better to shut up and drink my miserably inadequate cup of tea.
On the other hand, you’re not necessarily sowing division when you disagree, even when you disagree fiercely, loudly and publicly.
Paul didn’t hesitate to call out Peter in front of “all the others” in Antioch as described in Galatians 2:11-14.
Paul did not hold back with the Galatians, either. When some church members demanded that Gentile Christians convert to Judaism and be circumcised, Paul wished they would “go the whole way” and castrate themselves. That’s some strong language!
He wasn’t creating division. Paul was identifying harmful divisions that already existed, and calling for true unity.
Jewish Christians didn’t think that they were sinning when they insisted on circumcision. They thought they were standing up for God’s ways even if it was unpopular. It didn’t occur to them that their opinions and perspectives were biased. For them, circumcision and Judaism were the norm, a given, obvious.
I don’t know how they reacted when they got Paul’s letter. I bet they weren’t particularly happy. I bet that some got angry and offended, at least at first. It must have been humbling. I wonder if some laughed over the castration quip.
Unity during the 1960’s?
Sometime in the 1960’s, my grandma invited a Black congregation to her church for a prayer meeting. This made lots of people in her church very, very angry. If she wanted to pray with a Black church, that was her choice, but she shouldn’t force it onto everybody else. People showed up to pray, not make a statement about integration, which was a hot button political issue at the time.
Church members insisted that they “believed in equality,” but this was something else. This was controversy and politics, and a distraction from the holy work of prayer.
My grandma hadn’t expected to offend anybody. She was inviting her church to take the first steps towards meaningful unity with a Black church—and it made people uncomfortable. They said it created trouble, when in fact, it exposed the trouble that had been hiding in church members’ hearts all along.
Afterwards, my grandma encountered so much hostility that she left to attend a different church.
Around that same time, Martin Luther King Jr wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He lamented the passivity of white pastors who were afraid to engage in the civil rights movement. He wished that they would stand with their Black brothers and sisters. In saying this, MLK wasn’t creating division. He was calling it out.
For centuries now, Black Christians have asked white Christians to join them in true fellowship and solidarity. They cried out for unity, for in fact, their lives often depended on it. “Hey Christians, people are burning our churches and throwing bricks in our windows. Our loved ones are dying. Help us out!”
Most white Christians responded with some variation of, “It’s your own fault. Lay low and quit stirring up trouble. It’s divisive.” That’s what many Black and white Christians told Martin Luther King Jr.
They preferred the familiar, sinister disunity that was already in place over the loud, upsetting work of calling people to something better.
Martin Luther King Jr. listened, prayed, and chose to march anyways.
Silence is Not Unity
Jesus’ last recorded prayer before the cross was for unity among believers. Unity is a precious, serious calling.
Real unity is hard. It takes work (just ask any couple who has been married for more than six months).
Lately I’ve seen people use “unity” as a way to silence those who are calling for repentance and racial justice. Silence is false unity.
Unity does not mean we dodge hard conversations—in fact, it’s the opposite!
Christ-centered unity requires greater engagement when we disagree, not less. We must listen before we speak, but we must speak. We must forgive and ask forgiveness, and give each other the benefit of the doubt. The only way to achieve unity is to dive into Spirit-led conversations and sometimes, admonishments. We must repent and call others to repent.
If we avoid talk about racial justice in our churches, we’ll avoid offending our friends. We’ll have a fun time putting together Operation Christmas boxes. We’ll happily, easily enjoy our church picnics, worship services, and prayer meetings.
But we won’t be living in unity with the overwhelming majority of our brothers and sisters of color.
Has the majority of the American Church ever once acted in unity with Black Christians? Some white Christians were incredible allies in abolition and the civil rights movement, but they were exceptions. Passivity and silence were far more common, and white Christians have always been among the most formidable opponents to racial justice.
Christians who talk about racism today aren’t creating disunity. The disunity is already there. Sunday is still one of the most segregated days of the week. Anti-racist Christians are starting a conversation about this division, and insisting that we address it. They’re trying to do what Paul did with the Galatians.
It’s sure unpleasant. It requires a lot of humility to change. We’re saying, “yeah, what we’re doing isn’t working anymore, or maybe it was wrong all along.”
It doesn’t feel good to be singled out, for someone to look you right in the eyes and say, “that’s sin!” Ancient Israel hated it so much that they usually stoned the prophets who called them to repentance.
But the person correcting us isn’t the one splitting the church. Our sin is the problem, not the fact that they’re naming it.
We’ll only achieve unity in the American Church if we talk about racism openly and often. We must prioritize learning how to stand in unity with our Black brothers and sisters–and it will be uncomfortable. We must lovingly call out our friends’ and church members’ mistakes, just as Paul did with Peter. We must live in grace!
One of the most important things you can do immediately is start reading and listening to Black Christians. Re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone is a tough but compelling read. Next, talk with your family and friends about what you’re learning–even when it’s uncomfortable.
Jesus prayed for “complete unity” so that “the world will know that You sent Me.” What a testament to God’s power if Christians across the country become a driving force for healing, reconciliation, and unity today!
Click to read Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Order The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone. Or check the library!