Reframing the Discussion: From Fear to HopeBy Timothy Gombis on March 22, 2018
Editor's Note: On April 26, Dr. Tim Gombis will speak at the first of three conferences on Justice + Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church. Click here to register. Today, we asked him to provide a taste of how we're going to engage this topic at the conference. How are we going do this in a way that is different than merely partisan or secular discussions? We hope this preview whets your appetite for the conference and pricks all of our hearts for what God desires to do in and through the body of Christ.
GRTS is hosting a conference on justice and unity, focusing on the fracture between black and white Christians in America and especially the injustices suffered by the historic black church. We want to discover together how God by His Spirit wants to heal our divisions and move us toward unity.
Engaging this discussion involves facing fears and dealing with suspicions. First, some might be concerned that this is a distraction from the gospel. If the church is called to preach the gospel and see people come to Christ, then how is dealing with racial divisions related to that mission? It seems that some sort of secular agenda is at work, pulling us away from our primary focus.
Second, many are fearful because so often it feels that we're going to face a bunch of finger-wagging and be hit over the head with accusations that we're bad people, that we are racists. Why do I have to show up to a conference to find out that I'm a bad person, just because I am white and go to a church with other white people?
Such fears have kept us from fruitfully addressing profound divisions between our communities. And our fears have kept us from noticing and seeking to transform the unjust societal arrangements that have resulted in the suffering of our sisters and brothers in Christ.
Fear and hesitation have kept us all from more fully enjoying the presence of God among us.
Thankfully, God's world-changing triumph in Christ has situated us perfectly to engage in this discussion without fear. The gospel calls us to this work, and God promises to overwhelm us all with His grace as we proceed, flooding our hearts with joy as we respond to His life-giving call.
First, we need to see that this effort is driven by the gospel. Evangelicals have historically focused on one aspect of the gospel—the call to individual conversion. But the New Testament gospel has a much larger orientation. God's good world has been hijacked by Satan and evil cosmic forces that hold people enslaved to sin. God is miraculously releasing people from evil's enslaving grip and transforming their lives. Paul writes about this in Ephesians 2:1-10.
But the powers of the present evil age have also turned races and ethnic groups against each other so that they demonize one another, calling each other by dismissive and derogatory names. Paul knew this reality well, as he indicates in Ephesians 2:11.
In Christ, God is building His church, made up of women and men of every racial and ethnic group. He has united us together into his one family, building us into a temple among whom God resides by his Spirit (Ephesians 2:13-22). The multi-racial and multi-ethnic church stands as a monument to God's triumph, proclaiming in the cosmic realm that God has defeated Satan and the powers of the present evil age.
Our discussion, therefore, is gospel work. If the church is divided along ethnic and racial lines, then we cannot credibly proclaim the good news of God's triumph in Christ. A divided church stands as a monument to the powers of the present evil age, which have separated humanity along tribal, national, racial and ethnic lines.
Discovering together how to heal our divisions and be transformed together is a move toward increasing the splendor of God's glory throughout all of creation and the cosmos. This is not a secular effort, nor is it a distraction from the gospel.
The very gospel itself is at stake. This is a glory of God issue.
Second, we are not seeking to blame people or make them feel badly. Shaming one another is a dead-end; it is counter-productive and unfaithful to the gospel.
As we undertake this effort, we are doing so from our identity as children of God, heirs together with Christ. We are not proceeding along secular grounds, talking about human rights and individual liberties. We may be United States citizens, but that identity is irrelevant to our mission.
We proceed in this effort from our Christian identity as those who have been baptized into the death of Christ. We have lost everything to follow Christ. We have responded to Jesus' call to take up our crosses. We confess together with Paul that "the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14).
Those who have been baptized have already lost everything, so we have nothing more to lose! And those who identify with Christ will inherit the world along with their Lord at his return. This glorious reality situates us perfectly to have this discussion, for we already know who we are. No one can take anything from us, for we have lost everything. And we will inherit everything one day when the kingdom comes in its fullness.
We have not been given a spirit of fear, but of freedom. God has set us up wonderfully, therefore, to engage this discussion without fear, suspicion or worry. We can listen to one another and learn about the experience of other Christians in our city, state and country. We can learn about our national history of injustice and the way that societal structures have resulted in the unjust treatment, oppression and suffering of our sisters and brothers.
What we hear and learn about may be painful, but we know that God surrounds us, upholds us, sustains and will continue to keep us. And as we engage in the difficult work of understanding one another, we can have confidence that God will empower us and flood our hearts with his life-giving and joyful presence. As He does, vistas of hope and avenues of promise will open up. This process will transform our imaginations so that we truly see how we have kept ourselves from living into the fullness of God's kingdom and how we can move forward toward being together the temple of God in Christ by the Spirit.