The gospel calls for justice and unity in the body of Christ. We must respond.
On April 16, 2019, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary completed a three-part series of conferences that stretched over a year and explored the centrality of justice and unity to the biblical gospel. We also hosted luncheons that followed each event to connect pastors and ministry leaders and continue the conversation. We are grateful for the hundreds of individuals and churches who participated in this pressing conversation. Much still needs to be done.
The body of Christ is called as one new family, one body, with one Lord and one Spirit. However, we are not experiencing this unity. The events, tragedies and controversies around us expose deep divisions in the church. Some call for justice, while others long for unity. We share the essentials of the Christian faith, but we see things differently on the ground.
Too often, our divisions fall along racial, ethnic and gender lines that reflect the world's divisions more than the unity of the Spirit. Political and secular frameworks prevent us from engaging issues like poverty and racial justice faithfully, which leaves the most vulnerable without help and deprives the entire body of the richness of community.
- How do we address divisions among Christians through a gospel lens without surrendering to secular or political ideologies?
- How do we heal wounds from the past and embody the hope of the gospel?
- How can churches move toward multiethnic congregations or partnerships?
The gospel of Jesus Christ provides a way to reframe these conversations and move forward if we're willing to engage each other with open hearts and listen to those who are often the most marginalized. By "marginalized," we are simply referring to those who are not in positions of greatest influence, whose voices are muted and whose suffering is often left unaddressed.
In his book "Generous Justice," Tim Keller writes that biblical justice is "care for the vulnerable" and "right relationships." That was the guiding intent of this series. Through biblically, historically and practically grounded presentations, each conference event sought to:
- Explore the biblical theology of justice and unity as inherent to the gospel and central to the identity and mission of the church.
- Apply that theology to concrete areas of injustice (e,g., racial and gender inequity).
- Give voice to the ways our communities are suffering due to injustice or marginalization in these areas (see conference-specific focuses below).
- Discern how God is calling us to seek justice and unity in our respective contexts.
- Facilitate restorative relationships between ministry leaders from different cultural contexts and the communities they serve.
The church is where God's already-and-not-yet kingdom is experienced, so our response to racial, ethnic, gender and other divisions must be approached from a distinctly kingdom- and gospel-centered framework.
Each of the link below provides a short summary of each event with links to each talk. We recognize that there are other equally-worthy and urgent areas to address (e.g., Native American, Asian, Arab/Middle-Eastern, special needs, victims of human trafficking and so many others). We're just scratching the surface. In planning this series, we chose three areas where we felt we could speak authentically and effectively, from a context of authentic, intimate relationships that would lead to systemic change (i.e. structural changes in the institutions where we live, work and play). We hope to continue growing as an institution so that we can transform our organizational culture and continue to focus on others areas as well.
Part 1: Black/African American Experience & Perspectives
On April 26, 2018, we launched the series focusing on the nature and scope of the gospel and lifting up Black or African American perspectives on justice and unity. Our speakers explored both Old and New Testament theology, and we discussed the history of Grand Rapids as it relates to race relations.
We also reflected on the impact of Christian Baptism on Christian Unity, and the important task of interrogating our theological heroes, so that 1) we don't inherit and repeat their mistakes and 2) we can reclaim voices we may have passed over (e.g., Black women who were driven by their faith in Christ to confront slavery). We were encouraged by a panel of pastors discussing how justice and unity shape their ministries.
Part 2: Hispanic/Latino(a) Experience & Perspectives
On Oct. 2, 2018, we continued to explore biblical theology, particularly from Pauline perspective, and we lifted up Hispanic/Latino(a) perspectives on justice and unity. Our speakers considered what a gospel-centered perspective on citizenship and immigration might look like, both respecting a country's need to make rules about citizenship and also addressing the suffering of those who need our help (citizens or not).
We heard from a variety of experiences of those who have come to the U.S. from Central and South America, and we were challenged to consider the impact of intellectual colonization on Hispanic and Latino(a) people. We also heard the story of how Martin Luther King, Jr., influenced a white evangelical pastor to advocate for Latino(a) immigrants. Another panel of pastors shared how justice and unity shape their ministries within Hispanic/Latino(a) communities.
Part 3: Women in the Kingdom
On April 16, 2019, we concluded the series shifting our focus from race/ethnicity to gender. We asked the questions, "Is our vision for women robust enough to enlist and empower all women to bring all their gifts to the body of Christ? If not, at what cost?" The conference was not a debate about the role of women in leadership in the church, but rather a discussion of the experience of all women, including women in other parts of the world. Rather than focus on the theological debate, which is also important, we sought to advocate for women in all theological traditions, to name ways that women tend to be sidelined or underserved and to look for ways we can do better in the church. We pursued this while holding space for a range of theological views.
Our speakers and panelists came from different perspectives. They helped us reflect with fresh eyes on the creation story, the influence and initiative of women in the Bible and the impact of women in early church. We heard from women from a variety of contexts on how the church has helped them in their callings and what they have longed for. We also heard from a pastor serving in a complementarian context about his regrets, concerns and questions as he seeks to serve women in his congregation well. Lastly, we applied justice and unity practically to the topic of sexual assault/abuse. Pastors were given practical advice on why and how they can respond faithfully when women share stories of being harmed.
We pulled together a team of GRTS staff and alumni to plan and lead the Justice + Unity series. The team included Denise Evans, Julian Guzmán, Artie Lindsay and Darrell Yoder.