Do Disciples Dream Like Dr. King? (Part 1)

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Do our views on race affect our strategies to reach unbelievers in our communities—in our world?

Many well-meaning Christians might answer, “No! I just love everybody and try to reach them with the gospel.” Some folks might hesitantly answer, “Probably, but I’m not sure how.” A few might even answer, “Yes! Of Course!” But what makes them so confident? Why does this conversation about race and ethnicity even matter?

The conversation about race and ethnicity—difficult as it may be—matters because our love for our neighbors and our God is at stake. The Christian’s task is to love God and people (Matt. 22:36-40). Race and ethnicity affect how we see and love both. In fact, a biblical understanding of race and ethnicity is so central to the mission of God that to ignore race and ethnicity is to ignore God’s mission. Further, the Scriptures—from beginning to end—understand that God’s mission knows no manifestation, no finalization without redeemed ethnicities that comprise a chosen race.

To back up what I’m suggesting, I’ll clarify a few terms and review Biblical texts to show how race and ethnicity are entrenched aspects of God’s mission. Then, I’ll share a testimony from my own missions work to show the damage that results from racial and ethnic ignorance—a danger that when carried to its furthest extent can become an all too terrible mindset that many Christians have unashamedly owned. However, I’ll then use Dr. Martin Luther King as a positive example of what embracing a biblical view of race and ethnicity might accomplish. Finally, I’ll conclude with three possible places to begin for people who want to understand and apply a biblical view of race and ethnicity in their outreach. May God give us grace to join brothers and sisters from every nation around his throne!

Race and Ethnicity: Rooted in God’s Mission & God’s Word

Let’s make sure we’re all using the same terms in the same ways. (So often we muddy this conversation because we don’t start on the same page!) When I say God’s Mission (or the “mission Dei”), I mean:

God’s goal to get himself praise from his chosen people (made up of many ethnicities), who have been saved from the judgment that is due God’s enemies and reconciled through the gracious work of his Son, Jesus Christ, in his substitutionary, sacrificial death and resurrection.

Revelation 5:9-10 testifies that God’s mission is reconciliation with his people for the everlasting praise of his name (cf. Rev. 21:3). In that same passage we find that God’s people are made of many peoples (plural)—peoples from every nation comprise God’s holy nation (singular; 1 Peter 2:9). If a redeemed people, made up of peoples, is the ultimate goal, then it makes sense that making disciples of every nation is our continual task:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” our Lord said with all authority, promising to be with us to the end of the age (Matt. 28:18-20).

When Jesus says “the nations” he does not mean countries demarked by black lines on a map but people groups or “ethnicities” within the world. (Though researchers have sound ideas, we don’t know exactly how many people groups there are.) That Jesus would promise to be with us “until the end of the age” makes clear that his was not just a mission given to those who heard him, but given to us—the church! That God would task his mission to his church is consistent with the church’s very purpose:

“…through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms…” (Eph. 3:10).

In other words, the Church’s purpose is to glorify God. God brings glory to himself through his Church not only by reconciling man with God but man with man. In the early church, God took Jew and Gentile—two different ethnic groups with a ton of animosity for one another—and united the two peoples into one new man that resulted in a peaceful, loving people equally saved and cherished by God (Eph. 2:15; Acts 15:6). God would even go as far as to say that this new people is a new race (1 Peter 2:9)! The parable of The Good Samaritan shows the beauty of people who know God’s radical love—they radically love others even when—especially when—that other person is unlike them (Luke 10:25-37). After all, what good is it to love those who love us or to greet only our brothers—don’t unbelievers do that? (Matt. 5:46-48)

Race and Ethnicity: Defining Terms

But let’s make sure we’re still on the same page because I’ve now used the terms “race” and “ethnicity” a lot. Far from being categories that our Lord off-handedly mentioned in a few isolated passages in the New Testament, race and ethnicity—and I’m using those terms differently—are introduced from the beginning of God’s story.

Considering “race,” we find God in Genesis making from Adam and Eve one race— the human race (Genesis 3:20 c.f. Acts 17:26). In other words, all mankind shares a common ancestry in Adam. This means that Darwin and White Supremecist thinking is horribly wrong—there aren’t different species of people. Instead, we have a lot more in common than we might think, namely that we all are sinners in need of saving (Rom 3:23, 5:12). All people are brothers and sisters in Adam, and the Christian’s task is to win more brothers and sisters in Christ.

Considering “ethnicity,” we find God in Genesis creating groups of people around distinctions like language; God entrenched language as one primary way to distinguish cultures (Gen 11:9). In the next chapter of Genesis, God created an ethnicity (or a “people group”) by taking a Gentile, Abraham, and making him the first Jew (Gen. 12).[1] All this shows us that ethnicity isn’t one, solidified thing. It’s more fluid—it can change and bend over time and space; ethnicity is more dependent on culture. The category of ethnicity teaches us that people are very complex. Our many differences display the many features of God’s image, which can refract his glory like a thousand-faceted diamond. The problem is that the human proclivity is to idolize ourselves and demonize our differences. I committed this demonization when I first went overseas.

Part 2 of this post from Isaac Adams can be found here.

[1]For this point, I’m indebted to Thabiti Anyabwile and his interview with Trillia Newbell in her book, United.


Photo Credit: Dr. Martin Luther King speaking against war in Vietnam, St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota, featured on the Minnesota Historical Society’s Collections Up Close blog, Minnesota Historical Society

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