As many former students are aware, my deep concern for the modern Evangelical church has been unrelenting for the past 16 years of teaching at Beeson. My critique has ranged to all dimensions of the church: ethics indistinguishable from the world, the refusal to bear the cross in discipleship, the shameful ignorance of basic and substantive knowledge of Scripture (both narrative outline and coherent theology), the blatant pursuit of power, money and self-glory among leaders, and, of course, contentless and powerless preaching, which only reveals negligent and cavalier approach to Scripture. These are all symptoms of the fundamental problem—deviation from the foundation of Scripture and the resolution to not only to read it, but to live by the Word of God (cf. Mt 4:4). And where the church strays from Scripture as the source for its identity, it loses its primary function as “salt and light” to the world (Mt 5:13-16). The effect of all these symptoms is ultimately the denigration of God’s Word and false testimony about the only living God who is holy, just and merciful. In the last three-and-a-half years, these concerns as well as prayers before God for his mercy and justice have escalated in intensity. And, as impossible as it seems, in the last two months, this grief for the church has reached an unbearable level of distress; my heart is broken into thousand pieces and the tears flow constantly.
The watershed moment was the video of Ahmaud Arbery being hunted down and murdered by men who behave more like animals than men. To be sure, Ahmaud’s murderers have not claimed to be evangelicals nor was the murder committed on the grounds of the gospel. The issue is that the Evangelical church has largely been silent not only in view of the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, but mute, if not actively complicit, in the pervasive racist prejudice in police and wider culture. To those who do not know me, this will sound like conformity to the liberal, secular culture. As all my students will testify with not one exception, this is not my vice. My mantra ad naseum is always single-minded conformity to Scripture. The question of racism urgently requires an immediate response from the church. The answer cannot simply be an amorphous “let’s just love one another” nor “murder is sin.” While both statements will find theological coherence to Scripture, neither rest on the theological rationale of the gospel message.
Thus far, as many evangelicals, I've tolerated racist attitudes and comments from other believers based on the rationale that the burden of faith and piety rested more on me than the racist believer. That somehow patience, grace and mercy on my part would serve as a "testimony" to them. And, of course, that the weightier matters of faith are salvation, faith, etc. rather than "social concerns" often labeled/demonized as "social gospel" or "liberal" issues of the Democratic Party.
I can no longer take this position. In view of Ephesians 2:11-22, any argument/mindset that advocates or silently endorses racism stands in direct contrast to what God has accomplished perfectly in Christ. Racism is not simply sin, but active resistance against that perfected work of God on the cross. [Students, remember the perfect tense (completed action in the past with continuing effect)? cf. Jn 19:30 “It is finished.”] For this gospel that proclaims Jesus has made peace for all of humanity and God (2:16-18), also proclaims that Jesus has made peace for both Jew and Gentile (2:14-15). Indeed, Ephesians 2:11-22 is rare in that Paul places peace between Jew and Gentile in 2:11-15 prior to what is indisputably the theological priority, peace with God (2:17-18). In Ephesians 2, peace between Jew and Gentile (racial reconciliation) is placed prior to peace made for all humanity and God (atonement) for emphasis. The two dimensions are not separate but of necessity coherent; there is no proclamation of peace between God and humanity without peace among all humans. In fact, there is no other gospel. For Paul, any other definition of the gospel which whittles down this radical message is "anathema," that is, a "curse"—it is ultimately heresy (Gal 1:6-9).
Should I allow heresy to continue and multiply as yeast within the body? Paul gives us a definitive example of what it means to be a true proclaimer of this gospel as he single-mindedly refuses to proclaim any other message. Paul, much in the pattern of Jesus (cf. Mat 15:12) refused to soften and thereby deform the gospel to accommodate personal bias, human ideology or tradition. He was willing to even publicly criticize a fellow apostle, Peter, for his duplicity (Gal 2:11-14). And consistent to his unswerving allegiance to this gospel, Paul endures all hardship in order to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles: "but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger..." (2 Cor 6:4-10).
As I read some of the posts of former and current Beeson students on Facebook, I cannot be more proud of their integrity and courage to speak out. As a teacher, I often wonder whether or not I actually have any effect on my students. My concern is not the increase of students’ intellectual ability nor even their parsing skills. The only question that matters is—“Has the resolution to cleave onto God’s Word as the only standard for their character, their life goals and their service before God been consolidated and established as the unshakable foundation in them, as result of my teaching?” Are my students taking a bold stand, whether in times of crisis or stability? Are they growing in prayer, knowing that the work that needs to be accomplished cannot come for their own wisdom or strength, but God alone? In essence, are they taking up the cross daily in their discipleship to Christ (Lk 14:26-27; cf. Mk 8:34-38; Mt 10:38-39)? Some of these questions are effectively answered as I see their posts on Facebook. Thank you; thank you; thank you! I cry tears of joy and pride as I see you boldly proclaim the gospel.
And in keeping with my role as teacher, I have one more exhortation for my students especially in light of Paul's enduring testimony. In Acts 14:8-18, despite the overwhelming positive response to the gospel and miraculous healing in Lystra, crowds are incited to stone Paul (14:19). But, Paul picks himself up and walks right back into the city and continues to proclaim the gospel and make disciples (14:20-21). Are you willing to risk offense? And, are you willing to doggedly proclaim the gospel regardless of persecution and endure all forms of abuse in the footsteps of Jesus and Paul? Can you walk back into Lystra after they stone you?
The coming days will provide a whole new platform for proclamation of this gospel, and, without doubt, it will come with much resistance, abuse and persecution, not from without but within (cf. 1 Thess 2:14-16). Resolve to proclaim the gospel in all its purity, and do not reshape the message to please either the left or the right. It was and remains to be the radical reshaping of all human history since the Fall. I, for one, resolve to shout the gospel in all its pristine, revolutionary form from the rooftop, unashamed and unafraid of what "good racist" believers may think. And for all those with similar resolve—I stand with you so that the proclamation is strengthened as “one body” effort.
Dr. Sydney Park is associate professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, where she teaches Greek and New Testament courses.