Racism in Church: How American Christians Rebuilt the Wall that Jesus Tore Down | Opinion

When it comes to race, the American church rebuilt the wall that Jesus tore down. KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

The Bible tells us that believing Christians must oppose every form of racism. God gave the Apostle John a vision of heaven as a multi-ethnic gathering, "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb." Heaven isn't homogenous, and neither were Christ's followers. The Apostles first publicly preached about Jesus to those who had come to Jerusalem from all over the world. The Bible lists no less than fifteen distinct ethnic groups who heard the message of Jesus for the very first time, including Egyptians, Libyans, Romans and Arabs. Jesus gave the Apostles a vision for his Kingdom where everyone, no matter their skin color or language, had the same access to the grace of God.

But we have failed to create that heaven on Earth. In fact, churches are among the most segregated public spaces in America. Research by sociologists at both Duke University and the Pew Research Center point out that of the 300,000 or so religious congregations in America today—all religious groups, not just Christian—only 7.5 percent of them would qualify as multi-ethnic, defined as a congregation in which no single ethnicity makes up more than 80 percent of those who attend. Look at just Christian congregations, and that number falls to below 3 percent. It's normal, in other words, for churches in America to be all-white, all-black, all-Asian, or all-Latino, and Christians of all colors seem to accept this without embarrassment. We are okay with driving down the street and saying, "That's the black church and that's the Korean church."

Racism in our society and racism in the church exist as the result of people turning away from the teaching of Scripture. And to our shame, too often in the past Christians endorsed a bogus theology of racial superiority that was used to justify discrimination, apartheid and slavery. But the Gospel makes clear that any form of division or oppression based on race is contrary to the will of God, so "only by returning to biblical truth as our overarching standard by which all else is measured will an accurate view of racial unity be seen and actualized," Pastor Tony Evans writes.

The early church struggled in pursuit of this vision. Their issue was between ethnic Jews and the newer converts to Christ who were ethnically other, all the non-Jewish people called Gentiles. Most of the first followers of Jesus were Jewish and they carried with them their Jewish heritage. In the days of Jesus, the temple in Jerusalem was divided into different courtyards. Only pure-blooded Jewish men could enter into the courtyard closest to the Holy of Holies, closest to the presence of Yahweh God. Anyone else, even though Jewish, was excluded from that inner courtyard. The Gentile followers were non-Israelites who were considered ritually unclean. They were forbidden from passing through the gates into the interior areas. Archaeologists excavating the temple ruins actually found the dividing wall that separated the Court of the Gentiles, and with it, etched in stone, a sign that read: "Do not proceed any further for fear of death." Stones were piled nearby just in case you were a Gentile who did not get the memo.

Racial hostility existed prior to the birth of the church and people do not automatically shed their old prejudices just because of their new-found faith. That racial divide spilled over into the church and threatened the spread of the Gospel. The Apostle Paul addressed head-on the tension between the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, writing to Gentile believers in Ephesus that once they had been on the outside looking in, excluded from the promises of God. "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility." In the Jewish temple they were segregated, walled off in the worship of God, but no more. Paul says that Christ dismantled the wall of racism that divided the early church, so that Jew and Gentile would come together as one people. "He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit."

An engraving of a "Negro Church," 1867 Getty Images

The great failure of the American church is that Christians rebuilt the wall that Jesus tore down. In 1787, two black men, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, were thrown out of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia for sitting in the whites-only section of the church . The next day, a group of African-Americans who witnessed the encounter bought a vacant store and started their own church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church was born. White evangelical Christians, like Henry Ward Beecher, were the backbone of the abolitionist movement but did not advocate for the full inclusion of African-Americans into white Christianity. The dividing wall was still there. And when Christian denominations split over the issue of slavery, as the Presbyterians did in 1858, the northern churches did not welcome African-Americans into their folds as equals.

The early church had to confront racism in its midst because it was an evil that went against the Kingdom vision of Christ and was an impediment to the spread of Christ's Gospel. We have to confront it for the same reasons. If we are ever to fulfill Jesus' petition in the Lord's Prayer for his Kingdom to come on earth, then the first thing we have to do is to at least acknowledge that the problem of racism is real and still exists in our culture and in our churches. And we have to take an honest look into our own hearts about our own subtle or not-so-subtle prejudices.

This year 74 teens and leaders from our conservative, evangelical, predominantly white Presbyterian congregation in central New Jersey will head to Jackson, Mississippi, and encounter nine different Christian organizations that deal with some aspect of racism. They will get a chance to meet a remarkable man named John Perkins. In 1970 he was almost beaten to death by white police officers in a jail cell in Brandon, Mississippi. He is an evangelical Christian pastor, a civil rights leader, a community activist, and author of many books on the topic of Christian racial reconciliation. Perkins once said, "We're talking about authentic Christianity—the Kingdom of God. Not this black-white thing. We have to acknowledge our failure and use this light of God's reconciling love. [Let's] get serious about tearing down these walls."

We are called to be Christ's ambassadors, envoys of his Kingdom. Christians should be leaving Gospel fingerprints everywhere they go.

Racial reconciliation is not a liberal issue. It is not a conservative issue. It is a biblical issue. Sure, it gets politicized and co-opted by people seeking power or wealth or recognition, but the misuse of the issue should not dissuade us from zealously pursuing God's vision for God's world.

Dr. Jeff Ebert is the Senior Pastor of the New Providence Presbyterian Church.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.