Many years ago, an African-American man attended our church by climbing the bell tower to listen to worship. He is buried eight feet outside church property but not in the church cemetery, according to the church’s policy at the time of his death. How can we move the cemetery fence without splitting the church or waiting for two more people to die before including him in our cemetery becomes “acceptable”?
Some gesture repenting of the sin of racism and indicating African-Americans are welcome in your church is certainly long overdue. In Christ, there is no “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” or black nor white. We are “all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) My personal preference would be that the fence be removed entirely as a symbolic acknowledgment that Christ has “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) that once separated the races.
Moving or removing the fence, however, would only be a welcome gesture if it symbolized a substantive change of heart within the congregation as a whole. If such actions could threaten the unity of the church, a deeper spiritual problem apparently needs to be addressed. Before discussing the physical fences at the church, it might be wise to invest some time and energy in activities that have the potential to remove the spiritual fences that exist within the congregation. Prayer, proclamation and Bible study are the primary means through which the Holy Spirit works to change hearts and lives. Considerable time and energy should be devoted to praying for the wisdom, discernment and patience necessary to accomplish this task.
Besides the Bible, three books could provide valuable insights for someone addressing an issue like this in teaching or preaching. They are T.B. Maston’s The Bible and Race, Carlyle Marney’s Structures of Prejudice and Frank Stagg’s commentary, The Book of Acts: The Early Struggle for an Unhindered Gospel. All these books are by Southern Baptists from the civil rights era, but they still can be obtained “used” over the Internet at Amazon and Alibris, or they still may be on the shelf in your church library.
Ideally, any suggestion to move or remove the fence should arise spontaneously, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, from within the congregation. With sufficient preaching, teaching and discussion regarding the Bible and race, some members of the church should become convicted about the racism evident in the history of your own church. The best role for the pastor in this matter is to serve as a mod-erator/mediator who makes sure the congregation considers the issue prayerfully, discusses the matter civilly and makes decisions in an orderly and constitutional fashion.
Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists in Norman, Okla. Right or Wrong? is sponsored by the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology. Contributors include Baptists in Virginia, Texas, Missouri and other states. Send your questions about how to apply your faith to [email protected].