The Gospel and Institutional Racism

By Colton Corter

Last week was a really, really tough week. Few weeks in recent memory so sharply remind us of the reality of sin and make us long for the return of Christ. Two black men were unjustly killed for apparently nothing more than being black. Five white cops were murdered because they were white cops. The subsequent violence that has ensued has only deepened our wounds. Our nation is torn by the lingering ghost of Jim Crow. Many who thought he had long been dead and gone see the nasty truth that he never really died but has only been hidden.

Tons of sins were revealed in my heart. Anger. Indifference. Prejudice. Being quick to speak and slow to listen. Unbelief. You name it, the seeds of it reside in my heart. Events like those last week open up a ton of questions. Some wonder what we should do politically. Others question what the role of the church is during times such as these. What does the gospel have to do with justice?

One question that is kicked around is with regards to the difference between personal racism and institutional racism. Really it is a question of institutional sin and personal sin. Some worry that we have overly personalized sin and fail to see the gospel implications for societal structures. Others think that personal sin has no public consequence and often we talk right past one another.

While I am not sure the Bible ever promises to transform social institutions, God certainly has promised to abolish racism in one particular institution. That institution is the local church. God is pleased to display racial reconciliation, not primarily in the world, but among His people. Racism, though not to be accepted without raising our voices and shedding our tears, will always exist to some degree in the world. But where racism should not be expected and where racism will one day cease completely is among the people of the Kingdom of God, which is represented here on earth in local embassies called churches.

The Church is an Institution

Maybe you don’t think of the local church as an institution. But the local church is the primary institution that God has invested with authority on earth. The church is ruled by her head, Jesus Christ. Our King has authorized authority for the church that the individual Christian or even groups of individual Christians don’t have. Jonathan Leeman has said that the church is the highest authority for the Christian on earth.

The church exercises its authority by wielding the keys of the Kingdom, binding and loosing on earth as it is in heaven by means of the preaching of the gospel and use of the gospel ordinances. The local church is tasked with affirming what the gospel is. The local church is God’s means for preserving a testimony to His saving work through Christ. Gospel fidelity is the life-blood of the church. The local church also protects the gospel “who.” Congregations affirm who does and does not represent Christ. The church doesn’t make someone a Christian. The church does, however, confirm their claim to have been brought from death to life and justified by the righteousness of Christ through faith.

To sum it up, churches are God’s means to display His glory and holiness. Want to know what God is like? Look to local churches. Want to see the grace of God and the sufficiency of Christ in power? Look to local churches. God has been pleased to display His manifold wisdom to the nations in the local church (Eph. 3:10).

Racism and the Local Church 

The government is also an institution ordained by God, as is marriage or parenting. However, God deals with His church specially. The Apostle Paul does not expect the world to act like the church. As much as he longed for the society around him to be governed by the Spirit in justice and mercy, he wrote to the church (1 Cor 5:12). If we are looking for an abolition tract in the Bible, you won’t find one. But what you also not find is a book indifferent towards the sin of racism.

Far from being colorblind, our God has created ethnicity so that the gospel might transcend those natural lines supernaturally, with His name being praised by every tongue and by every nation. We all began as one race in Adam but Christ is created a new race in His Son by Christ’s penal, substitutionary death. The gospel of justification by faith alone can melt the racist heart, being leveled by the guilt of sin and sufficiency of the cross. Strangers according to the flesh become brothers when they both treasure Christ above all else. The power of the gospel does not abolish ethnicity so that there is absolutely no such thing as race, gender or etc. but brings us into one Christ, those belonging to a new, heavenly culture.

God’s wisdom is not displayed in the local church when racism is allowed to flourish or even if treated with indifference, being swept under the rug. To allow such a sin is contrary to what heaven will be like and is an affront to the holiness of the Lord. Do we denounce racism in the same way as we would sexual immorality or abortion? We should. The heart of racism is a failure to see and savor the glory of God in the gospel. Man is intoxicated by the aroma of his own glory. But when the gospel dislodges us from our imagined placed at the center of the universe, a kind of Copernican revolution takes place and God is seen to be the source of all our good. This then plays out in our horizontal relationships.

It sounds trite, but the gospel is the only way for real racial reconciliation to take place. This does not mean we don’t weep with the hurting and marginalized, nor does it excuse indifference to the pain of the world. It is good as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven to testify to the love of God by loving our neighbor. But we can never somehow transform this world into the Kingdom of God. The local church is where we can expect the Kingdom of God to be manifest, not fully but really, on earth. Gospel congregations are the place where black and white, Asian and Latino (rich/poor, old/young) fellowship with one another in the unity accomplished by our Lord on the cross. This alone severs the root of racism and leads to racial reconciliation with God at the white-hot center.

Is it a cop-out to say that it is the church alone that can model racial reconciliation? I don’t think so. Human institutions (governments, police forces, schools, etc.) are littered by institutional sins because they are made up of individual sinners. As long as people run the institutions, there will be sin. Praise God for His common grace that has given us law enforcement and government. We should lobby for those to be just and when they aren’t we should do all that we can to see that justice is done. But might we also bear witness to the fact that justice is yet to come. One day, all injustices will be repaid and that is horrible news to rebels against God – oppressors and oppressed alike! But justice has been satisfied for all those who would ever repent of their sins and trust in Christ! We haven’t received justice, we’ve received grace.

Churches must be serious about growing in their witness to the character of God. We don’t do that when we allow racism, blatant or subtle, to survive in our midst. God is glorified by the “supernatural breadth” of our relationships. White brothers and sisters, reach out to black brothers and sisters. Listen to them. Weep with them. Rejoice with them. Pray with them. Disciple one another! What binds us is not first a commitment to racial reconciliation but to Christ. However let us take this gospel to its logical and God-exalting conclusions in the local church. Allow the gospel to take its social shape, in membership and ordinary church life. It may seem foolish but that is kind of how God operates (see 1 Cor 1). One day when this institution of the local church passes away, when Christ returns, we will be perfectly reconciled to each other because finally we will be free from our sinning. Long for that day and, today, fight to live in light of that reality in front of a watching world.

God has decisively dealt with institutional racism. May we labor to cultivate what God has created!

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