For a Sober Appraisal of Segregation in the Church

The Rev. David Robertson has written about Selma, racism, and apartheid in the Church.

In Sunday school I remain being ‘indoctrinated’ with the belief that ‘red, and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight’, long before being anti-racist [sic] became the fashion of the day. Although human sin has distorted that image and resulted in the gross sin of racism, Christ came to restore that image. He died that we might be one. As Paul says, in Christ there is no Barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.

As the Apostle says,

For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.

Old humanity is being made, in Christ and by the Holy Spirit, into one new humanity. It almost goes without saying that the gospel of Christ brings together folk who might otherwise have little to do directly with each other: slaves and masters; Greeks and Jews; and even the least civilized Scythians on the edge of the world. That a White church institution should spend $10 million to move from the edge of the city centre to the suburbs, all to avoid serving Blacks, is clean contrary to the gospel. Likewise, it is no Christian spirit that moves Black Christians to object to White Christians’ presence in ‘their’ church. These are things Mr Robertson saw in Jackson, Mississippi, and having heard from others who come from Jackson I know the hearts of Christians need to be changed by the faith that they profess.

But I am not so sure that ‘churches based on ethnic or racial grounds’ are never biblically justified.

In a way, yes, no church based on ethnicity or race is justified: a church must be based on the faith of Jesus Christ. To pervert that basis and exchange it for similarity in looks and (sub)culture is hæretical. Today’s American society seems to have disintegrated so much that there are – though not so called – churches for the young and churches for the old. Even within a congregation with a broad range of ages, separation by age and life stage is so regimented that Christians in one group may feel discomfort at the mere presence of different people at ‘their’ events. So far has our society been splintered that few people will question it; and so, formed by consumeristic capitalism, they embrace separation in church as much as they have embraced identity politics, even if they sometimes go to events of token unity. In this separation we give the lie to the prayer of our Lord: Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The Church’s unity is basically mystical and not institutional, but it is to be observable enough that the world takes it as evidence that the Father has indeed sent his only-begotten Son. So this unity, though of spiritual and invisible origin, is not wanting in tangible reality. Faith is prior to the Church’s unity, not constitutive of it. Belonging in the one true Church is not a human work, since faith is not a human work, but showing the world that this unity is genuine is a human work. Thus much it is wrong to ground our common work in ethnicity or race, because that is not the foundation of the Church: the Church’s foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord.

On the other hand, though our natural gravitation toward others like ourselves must not be allowed to break up the social bonds of Church and commonwealth, I do not think we can simply say that no segregation is ever warranted. I affirm the importance of being our Christian selves as one, but I also hold that we must be ourselves as many. Even the nation of Israel had twelve tribes, and these twelve distinct but related groups formed a single people. And today, in the one and holy Church, there are many nations and tongues. To insist that each be dissolved in the whole is, no less than the vision of separate but equal islands, to deny that the faith is one: it is to deny that Christians are one until they have given up their cultures and identities for the authority of the centre. Such a call is crueller in principle than the detestable enormities of Rome, for it separates sons from their fathers and daughters from their mothers. It may be the call of liberalism, and the call of the July Monarchy that ruled over France from 1830 to 1848, but it is not the call of the Christian faith. There are other bonds, other loyalties, which are not greater than the bond of peace which is the Holy Ghost, but which no part of God’s word dissolves, because those bonds are made and consecrated by God himself. And God is one, and what he hath himself joined together, let not man put asunder.

So what we need to identify are those natural bonds which God has made. As Aquinas has said, ‘Gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit’: grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it. Parent and child, husband and wife, these are sacred bonds that the Church has no authority to break. Beyond these are other bonds that we must examine before pronouncing upon their maintenance the name of sin. To set oneself against the presence of different folk is to set oneself against the gospel; but to commit oneself to loyal service to one’s own people while loving those of other nations and together acknowledging the same God, as well as the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, is only to attend to nature as God has made it.

There is much sin that separates the Church, but there is also local loyalty that rather builds up the Church than fragments it. Let us discriminate these carefully.

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