Two days ago marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Almost five years later, in 1968, as Dr. King preached at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, he uttered these now-famous words, “We must face the sad fact that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning… is the most segregated hour in America.”
So here were are some 45 years later, and though great progress has been made regarding racial equality, the church remains a racially and economically divided institution. Dr. King’s statement rings as true today as when he said it.
The question is, does it really matter? I mean, what is wrong with a segregated church? Isn’t that really just a “social” issue?
Here are a few verses from John 17, Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, that I think begin to give answer to that question.
“I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom You have given me, for they are yours. All Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, which You have given Me that they may be one, even as We are one (John 17:9-11)”
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one, I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me” (John 17:20-23).
This prayer is part of a larger block of the book of John where Jesus is preparing His disciples for His death and departure. Here Christ prays that His people (that is, you and I and all Christians today), would be one like He and the Father are one. The result of that oneness provides both proof to the world that Jesus is who He said He was and glory to God.
However, it seems like the contemporary church has pursued a path of sameness rather than oneness. Sameness seeks out only those who look like them and those who like the same things. Oneness pursues and celebrates unity in diversity.
The model of that kind of oneness is rooted in the Godhead. The beautiful mystery of the Trinity is in view here as Jesus prays that God’s people would be perfectly unified, like Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even though there are distinctions in the Persons of the Trinity. (We are not Modalists who believe God just “appears” in different forms.) It is that kind of unity that we are called to display to the world, in all our differences, in order for God to be most magnified.
Unfortunately, too often we put our preference in the place of preeminence. We argue for a particular worship style or dress code rather than allowing Christ to be the head of the Church and creating a place that folks from “every tribe tongue and nation” feel loved and welcomed.
It is only by having the mind of Christ and the power of the Spirit that one can “do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit but rather in humility consider others more important than yourself.” (Phil. 2:3) If we are considering others interests as more significant than our own, then the things that tend to divide us no longer will because we are setting aside our preferences for something far greater—the unity God calls us to. When we do this, Christ is being made preeminent in all things (Col. 1:18).
This type of unity is a visual testimony to the reality of God’s love. Unity, according to Jesus, has a powerful apologetic impact on the world—an impact far beyond words. When the world sees God’s people operating in unity, then they “may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me.” (v. 23)
We know upon Christ’s return that we will be joined in worship with a throng of people who reflect the beautiful tapestry of color and culture that God has created. Perhaps we should begin practicing now so that our witness to the world is authenticated by what they see—a church united across racial and economic lines—and not just what they hear.
The “Jim Crow” laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1954. “Separate but equal” was untenable in the eyes of the law. A separate but equal church is surely untenable in the eyes of God. Not only is it a sad fact that the church remains divided, it is contrary to God’s design. As long as the church remains divided along racial and economic lines our prophetic witness to the world is weakened and the apologetic nature the church is supposed to pronounce is muted.
Dr. King wrote in Letter from Birmingham Jail:
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.
In light of recent events in the news highlighting the racial divide in our country, the world desperately needs the church to recapture her prophetic voice by “breaking down the walls of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) that divide us so that the average community is not consoled by the church’s silence but startled by her Spirit-led, God-glorifying unity.
It is time for us to speak boldly—in word and deed.