Faith, Race, and Our Obligation

July 12, 2016

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Social justice



by Dr. John Neihof

I recently attended a conference for theological schools in the US and Canada. The mixture of evangelical, mainline, and Roman Catholic schools provides an adventure in contrast. As a Bible-believing Christian in the Wesleyan revivalist tradition, an old-time shouting, singing, praying, weeping, born-again, sanctified wholly, Holy Spirit called, missionary-minded, people-loving, neck-hugging, camp meeting evangelist, passionate professor, and seminary president, I am a bit of an oddity in these circles, to say the least.

One plenary session featured a panel discussion of theologians and leaders in the theological community. The program was titled “The Core Value of Diversity and the Committee on Race and Ethnicity.” The panel was charged with addressing contemporary issues of race and racial violence.

The panelists were asked to define the problem. They framed the problem of racism in the context of our work as theological educators, then quickly departed from any theology of race, reconciliation, and redemption to define the issues with familiar terms of societal systems, structures, and marginalization.

The second question asked, “How do we define success?” Systemic inclusion, strategic proactivity, creativity, innovation, risk-taking, and embracing the uncomfortable conversations surrounding ethnic differences were proposed as the answers. It seemed, strangely, that at a gathering of theological school leaders the only analysis of the problems plaguing our society and the answers offered were merely sociological.

Even though brief reference was made to the Christian theology of imago Dei, the creation of humanity by God in His own image, as the theological basis of human value, when one questioner asked a pertinent theological question, he was quickly “shot down“ by the panelists. His question was simply: “Isn’t the problem of race a sin problem?” He went on to describe the tribal conflicts of Africa, the Middle-East tensions, and the fear and suspicion embedded between “us” and “them.” A Middle-Easterner himself, he pointed out that the American perspective of the panelists was making race into a black-white issue, when in reality, these issues exist in myriad tones and hues the world over.

At that moment, I realized that the panelists seemed to have little to no interest in developing a biblical theology of race and ethnicity for the worldwide church. Rather, they were demonstrating the same ethno-centric narrow-mindedness that they were condemning by seeing everything through the lens of American history. Social science, communication, and Neo-Marxist social revolution and redistribution of power were variably proposed as solutions.

The panel discussion ended with a sense of hopelessness, darkness, gloom. From my point of view, the panelists had largely demonstrated a neo-Marxist worldview that predictably ends in nihilistic emptiness. It was apparent that if we, as theological schools, embraced the panelists’ solutions, none would be found. They said as much.

In the face of the obvious racial problems that still trouble our land, I believe we are called to think beyond our own history and cultural dynamics as the Church of Jesus Christ. Christ’s mandate is clear that the mission of His Church is to all people of every tribe and nation.

Matthew 28:19-20 “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.”

The world responds to the racial, ethnic, and tribal strife of our generation with social science and neo-Marxist responses. Why? because that is all it knows.

The church often responds to the racial, ethnic, and tribal unrest with a call to reconciliation. And yet, if the call to reconciliation by Christian leaders is to have the real and lasting effect people desire, such calls cannot be separated from the Great Commission. Otherwise, these calls seem strained and analytical, devoid of biblical action. The church must develop a laser-like focus to fulfill Christ’s commandment to share the Good News and make disciples.

What about a clear biblical theology of race in the church? Is there a biblical mandate that transcends our ethnocentrism and tribalism? I think so, and it appears to be intertwined with God’s call to holiness and life in the Spirit.

  • Acts 1:8 “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
  • Acts 10:15 “What God has cleansed you must not call common.”
  • I Corinthians 12:12-14 “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many.”
  • Galatians 3:27-29 “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
  • Colossians 3:8-11 “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.”
  • Revelation 7:9-10 “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

The Bible is intolerant of an “us” and “them” perspective within the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church is “we.” The power of “we” is the personal and corporate baptism with the Holy Spirit. Such a baptism is the spiritual and practical impetus for Spirit-wrought unity, empowering us to become the Body of Christ. Spirit-fullness must drive our theology of race. It did in the New Testament. It must today. Holy preparation to become and be Christ’s Bride together requires holy surrender, a Holy Spirit infilling, and obedient action to be His Church in this world.

I lead a multi-ethnic seminary with a clear confession of faith that is located in the deep South. Our founders made the explicit decision that our seminary would be a place for all people, regardless of race and ethnicity. This decision was not without personal, professional, and institutional angst in the racially tense climate of the deep South of the 1970s. As I reflect upon the panel discussion, Scripture, and the mission and context of my school, I have some deep desires and commitments:

  • I want Wesley Biblical Seminary to be Christ’s hands and feet in our community.
  • I want WBS to be a seminary for all people who are committed to our core values of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and Christ’s call to personal and corporate holiness.
  • I want WBS to witness in its educational pursuits the fact that the gospel transcends our racial differences, even as it enables us to value others whose backgrounds are different.
  • I want our faculty and administration to represent the diversity of those we serve.
  • I want our graduates to be formed in faith as disciples of Jesus Christ who are impacting spiritual, family, church, community, and social transformation for the glory of God.

The bottom line is that we are the Church—the Church universal. God does not measure us by race, sex, or ethnic background. St. Paul in Galatians tells us that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.“ Salvation leading to holiness (that alone can produce true reconciliation) is a gift from God that all people are welcome, even commanded, to receive. The Church must live out holiness through righteous living, welcoming all believers regardless of ethnicity. Christian fellowship is all about faith, confession, and victory over sin—both personal and social. May God grant us that victory over all sin, including the sin of racism, and shape us to be the Body of Christ today, and the Bride of Christ in the world to come. By this we can testify to a lost and confused world what true reconciliation and hope looks like.

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