Racism and the Body of Christ (Aug 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by John Allen Chalk
August, 1992

When Los Angeles exploded recently, I remembered my visit with Lost Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn in Watts on the day after the 1967 riot had been quelled. Supervisor Hahn, a committed Christian and a lifelong political leader in Los Angeles County, had invited me to come to Los Angeles and tour the riot-torn area of his district. What I saw changed me forever. Kenny said to me, “Christ is the answer, but how do we get both the church and the world to understand he’s the answer?”

The late 1960s produced meetings of concerned Christians all across the United States – Christians of all races, looking for answers to racial strife. Most of those meeting in Atlanta, Baltimore, Nashville, Dallas, Abilene, Los Angeles, and Memphis were consumed with bringing white church leaders into some grudging realization that there was a problem. Only a few of those meetings resulted in any concrete action.

Then came the prosperity and economic growth of the 1970s and 80s. Christians and local churches were swept along with the rising prosperity of secular America. The Worldly Church1 lost any concern it had for the continued hurts, insults, pain, and suffering of African-Americans. The Worldly Church and its related institutions experienced rapid growth, built new buildings, started new programs, and incurred staggering amounts of debt. All the additional accoutrements – material, secular, economic, egocentric – the Worldly Church indebted herself to acquire and own deadened any sensitivity to what racism continued to inflict on its victims – black and white!

The Worldly Church reflected the secular culture’s attitude toward racism. Cornel West, director of Princeton University’s Afro-American Studies, has observed that, “The fundamental failure of this country is to engage in a candid and critical discussion about race.”2 A female African-American businesswoman in Atlanta recently remarked that what she wanted to see from whites she knows is “a true interest in how so many fall out of the American dream and that there are forces clearly stronger than the individual. It’s like you’re in a boat and so many are falling off and people just keep singing and rowing.”3

I think some of us got the theology right in the 1960s and confronted the church’s failure with racism.4 We pointed to the nature of God as Creator of us all, to the nature of man as made in the image of God and restored to the image of God in Jesus Christ, and to the nature of our neighbor with whom we have the closest relationship in the body of Jesus Christ, the church. We got the theology right, and some of us preached it but didn’t practice what we preached. And our voices faded with the coming of the Worldly Church.

Racism is bigger, stronger, deadlier than any single individual. One of my good friends who watched from the sidelines the tempest over racism in Churches of Christ in the 1960s once chided me for concentrating on individuals rather than on the social institutions which, in his view, perpetuated racism’s stranglehold on America and on the Church. I didn’t understand then. I do now. America’s institutions, all of them, have kept alive racism. The Worldly Church included!

But I still believe that the actualization of the body of Christ on earth and in America can help eradicate racism. The church began in the midst of political, linguistic, cultural, and even religious diversity. Pentecost was no neighborhood picnic even though it was a Jewish festival. The first proclaimers of Jesus Christ that day in Jerusalem were given many different tongues required by the national, cultural, political, and linguistic differences among those who heard the gospel that day (Acts 2:5-13).

After Pentecost, the early church continually crossed religious, cultural and racial lines. The Hellenists and the Hebrews (Acts 6:1-6), the Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25), the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), the Gentile centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10) – first century church history tells a polyglot, multi-cultural, and multi-racial story. So direct, immediate, and uncompromising was the gospel’s proclamation and acceptance by different racial, political, and religious groups that the first church council had to confront racism. It determined that God had given the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles and had cleansed their hearts by faith without racial distinction (Acts 15:6-11). God’s gracious choice, the Holy Spirit’s work, and the recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord overwhelmed the racially biased Jerusalem leaders who concluded, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us to lay upon you [Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cicilia] no greater burden than these necessary things” (Acts 15:38).

How do we actualize the body of Christ in today’s racially divided world? We must recognize and obey the one sovereign Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 2:5-11; Romans 10:9-10). We must allow the sovereign Holy Spirit of God to gift believers for the life and work of the church (1 Corinthians 12:11, 13).

Christ’s body materializes in the world through her members, believers in Jesus Christ as Lord who have been filled with the Holy Spirit. As members of Christ, we have radically different moral imperative and power (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). As members of Christ’s body, we exercise our Holy Spirit-given gifts for the good of all the body’s members (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 14-31; Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:7-16; 1 Peter 4:7-11). Holy Spirit-filled members of Christ’s body produce healthy, redemptive, serving lives described in Galatians 5:16-26. There will be no racism in Christ’s body of obedient, Holy Spirit-filled believers.

What can we expect the actualized body of Christ in our communities to do practically and concretely about racism? You and your fellow believers must ask and answer this question, in faith, for your local fellowship (Romans 14:23). Here are some of my personal suggestions:

  1. Identify and become personally acquainted with every African-American sister church in your community. Identify areas of reciprocal concern and service.
  2. Determine why African-Americans or the relevant racial groups in your community have not been attracted to your fellowship.
  3. Create a college or vocational school scholarship fund that pays all living and tuition expenses for a racial minority person from your community. Award that scholarship to one new recipient each year. Follow the progress of and support emotionally and spiritually the scholarship recipient throughout his or her school period.
  4. Hire a trained African-American staff minister for your fellowship. If you can’t find one, then select and begin training one immediately.
  5. Start a subsidized day-care center for minority working mothers and make it the best child-nurturing center in your community.
  6. Determine what job skills are needed but not available in the minority work force in your community and start a non-profit vocational training center in the name of Jesus.
  7. Find a Holy Spirit-gifted person in your fellowship who can monitor and participate, as his or her gift to the body, in community political and social groups where racial problems are being addressed. Charge that person with the responsibility of making and keeping your fellowship aware of the racial problems in your community and the ways your fellowship can concretely address these problems.

Will any of these initiatives require money? Yes! If your fellowship doesn’t have the funds to start healing these divisions in our land, why aren’t they available? How are you spending your fellowship’s funds? Are all the current uses of your funds the result of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ or for the support of the Worldly Church?

The body of Christ takes up its cross and follows Jesus (Mark 8:34-38). The body of Christ is servant for all (Mark 9:33-37). The actualized body of Christ can and will heal racism as persons of all colors recognize the Lordship of Jesus Christ and respond to the work of God’s Holy Spirit who gifts all the body’s members.


1 See Leonard Allen, Richard Hughes, and Michael Weed, The Worldly Church – A Call for Biblical Renewal (Abilene, Texas: ACU Press (1988) for an excellent discussion of the secularization of the Church of Christ. I have borrowed the term “Worldly Church” from this insightful work.

2 Alex Kotlowitz and Susan Alexander, Tacit Code of Silence on Matters of Race Perpetuates Divisions,” The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 1992, P. A6.

3 Ibid.

4 John Allen Chalk, “Three American Revolutions,” Herald of Truth Radio Sermons, June-August 1966, Abilene Texas; Three American Revolutions (New York: Carlton Press, Inc., 1970).Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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