The Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC) and The Gospel Coalition (TGC) recently sponsored an event in Memphis known as the MLK50 conference. According to their website the purpose of the event was to “reflect on the state of racial unity within the church.” Although I was unable to attend, after listening to several of the videos there is a need to conduct a postmortem of what was said, especially since this topic is becoming highly emphasized and debated within the Southern Baptist Convention.
The MLK50 event had no shortage of speakers and as with most conferences there were both positive and negative aspects to the ongoing dialogue. Some were thoughtful, articulate and applied theological rigor, but one speech in particular caught my attention as being particularly dangerous for the church and as such warrants proper analysis and critique. These were the words of Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Dallas, TX. His unfortunate words during this event will probably prove to have the greatest damaging effect due to his influence among younger pastors and evangelicals.
First, Chandler’s mannerism through the speech presents a tone of intellectual superiority through an unwillingness to be challenged in his thinking. Making the claim that people who disagree with your position should be labeled as “fools” is hardly the attitude which should exist in a Christian pastor. Using your position as a platform by which to declare inferiority on anyone who would dare challenge your propositions with intellectual rigor is to claim nothing more than a superiority of position in order to squelch competing ideas. Describing 300 former members of your church as “fools” for leaving on the basis of what they perceived as an unbiblical position on statements about racism is hardly the attitude one would expect from an evangelical minister. Likewise, ending your speech with a warning that anyone who dares to challenge your position will be labeled a “fool” who you “don’t have time for” vastly contrasts the Pauline model of leadership. Critical thinking and the application of theological rigor in the marketplace of ideas is necessary for a topic such as this and Chandler’s unapologetic approach to dampen this process hinders his ability to clearly consider alternative propositions.
Second, his facts on African culture are uninformed and his application of this to the public classroom is skewed. Making the claim that American public schools do not address African history is misinformed. Chandler seems to expect American history classes to cover the complete history and culture of the African continent as part of the American slave trade and civil rights movement, even though this would defeat the purpose of segmenting history classes by region as a means of necessity due to the voluminous nature of historical materials. Public schools provide world history classes which are designed to address areas such as the history and culture of African countries. If Chandler had taken one of these classes he might have remembered that Northern Africa is vastly different culturally from the rest or the continent, primarily as a result of the influence from the late Islamic Conquests; a point he fails to recognize in his speech.
Additionally, drawing the conclusion that white evangelical Americans are oblivious to the rich African culture as a result of the public school system assumes that African Americans are in some way more knowledgeable in this area. However, the vast majority of African Americans living in the U.S. are just as likely to be uninformed about their own cultural heritage as their Anglo-Saxon peers, in the same manner as third and fourth generation Asian or Indian American migrants are also unlikely to fully understand their cultural background or history.
Third, attempting to apply the biblical model of ethnic diversity in soteriology (doctrine of salvation) to the modern civil rights movement is stretching the biblical text and fails to recognize the principles being applied. I am not aware of any evangelical church in America which believes African Americans or any other ethnicity should not receive the gospel message and be equally compelled to repent and confess sins in order to be saved from God’s wrath. In fact, the missions budgets of most churches reflects otherwise. Furthermore, I have not heard of any churches recently who have denied a person attendance to their worship services on the basis of ethnicity. We may have churches whose demographic is defined predominately by one ethnicity, but does this constitute racism? The existence of congregations which consist of predominately African American ethnic backgrounds is not evidence of racism, but may only be a recognition of cultural differences between ethnic groups. In the D.C. area we have congregations with predominately Asian, Middle Eastern and Hispanic Americans, yet Chandler (and others who are sharing in this opinion) fail to break down these supposed barriers in the church. For some reason their opinion seems to consider recognizing cultural differences among these ethnic groups as acceptable, but throw out the same principle when it is applied to African Americans. Similarly, they accept ethnic differences on the foreign missions field, but not in the American culture, which consists of a conglomerate of different ethnic backgrounds.
Fourth, desiring diversity merely for the sake of diversity is not a biblical principle. The result of appealing to emotions with the absence of logic, is that one is prone to making very foolish statements. Using a grading scale by which to determine qualifications for ministry leadership positions, which includes ethnicity as a qualifier is nothing more than engaging in the same racism Chandler claims to appall. Martin Luther King Jr. would not have shared in a vision for black people to be given opportunity on the basis of race, but on their own merit as people created in the image of God like every other member of the human race. MLK would likely be appalled by the approach of Chandler to seek out African Americans for leadership positions simply on the basis of their skin color instead of individual achievement and expertise.
In his own words, Chandler desires to find African Americans to which he can “give power away,” to include preaching and seats of not just voice, but shaping.” It is difficult to understand the “power” Chandler is referring to because it is not explicitly stated, but this is an area, where at its worse, might be the most concerning. Based on the context, Chandler seems to believe that he is the one conferring power by appointing people to the positions of pastors or leaders in churches or organizations. In the context of pastoral ministry this still does not pass theological scrutiny because the authority of the pastor starts and ends with God’s Word. A church leader has no authority beyond this. Neither Matt Chandler nor any other pastor, elder or church leader grants authority to anyone, they can only be the means by which God uses to examine whether an individual satisfies God’s requirements for leadership (Titus 1:5-9; 1 Tim 3:1-7; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Last time I checked, there was no ethnic requirement outlined in the Bible for being a church leader.
Overall, Matt Chandler’s speech could potentially do more to increase racial tensions in the church than to absolve it. His need to stretch the biblical passages on ethnic inclusion of the gospel to fit within the context of the modern civil rights movement, paired with his supposed need to resort to labeling people as fools, along with an abdication to white guilt or privilege, all seem more like attempts to prove he is not a racist while speaking to a crowd of predominately African American audience. This more closely represents the underlying principle found within the Bradley effect theory, than calling people to correct their thinking through a biblically-defined theology on ethnicity. For those unfamiliar with this theory, it hypothesizes that white people are more likely to inaccurately declare support for a black political candidate to a pollster on the basis of societal pressures which motivates the person to ensure they give off any appearance of being racist. While this has typically been limited to political theory, it likely has some warrant in the current social climate being created in certain church denominations.
The most damaging effect of Chandler’s speech is not merely in the inaccuracy of his message, but his encouragement of pastors to use their pulpits to make the same declarations. When combined with an attitude desiring to crush any opposition to his thinking, complete with emotional appeals through self-satisfied stories of weeping and late nights lying awake, provide a cocktail for disaster, especially among the impressionable young pastors who have elevated him to rock star status and hang on to his every word. If the words and appeals of Chandler are followed by pastors, it will do nothing more than create a new form of disunity in the church where one never existed. These types of emotionally based propositions steeped in superiority bias will create a tension whereby those who Chandler is attempting to defend (African Americans) will ultimately become frustrated by those to whom he is criticizing (White Americans), when people do not respond according to the view he is purporting. Of course we should also consider that all these words were spoken by the same man who said in this same message that African Americans don’t need help from white people. Based on the full message, he must not really believe that.
The topic of racism is an important topic for Christians to wrestle with, but the type of speech being currently used at conferences such as these will do nothing more than create more division than unity. Let’s commit to having an open, honest discussion about this topic in a manner which accurately represents God’s Word. I think we could start by not labeling those with differing opinions, fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, as fools.
Video link: https://vimeo.com/263229171