Saturday, December 3, 2011
Race, Marriage and Christ
This week a small Free Will Baptist congregation in eastern Kentucky voted to bar an interracial couple from membership. The latest reports indicate that the church may overturn its initial decision, with pressure coming from the national Free Will Baptist association leadership.
The story of this church’s vote hit close to home for me for several reasons. My “people” are
from that same part of Kentucky (and that’s how you say, “my relatives,” if you are from there). My religious background is very conservative, and my guess is that on many moral issues I would have much in common with the members of that church. On top of that I have seen prejudice directed from some of my relatives against members of our family involved in interracial relationships. So this story stings on many levels.
It pains me to acknowledge that my home area of eastern Kentucky is particularly prejudiced, but that is undeniable. One simple line of evidence: Pike County always votes overwhelmingly Democratic in presidential elections. While President Reagan was wiping out Walter Mondale in almost every state in the union in 1984, Pike County voted for Mondale 57%-43%. And yet in 2008 John McCain defeated Barack Obama in Pike County 56%-42%. I don’t mean to suggest that resentment and distrust based on race is all one-sided, just that it remains a tragic reality.
The Bible teaches God has made us all from one man (Acts 17:21), and that in Christ there is no difference of degree in racial or social status, just oneness (Galatians 3:28). The world is filled with hate, fear and distrust revolving around race and ethnicity. God calls us to be different from the world, and indeed to transform it. Instead of being a powerful witness to the transforming nature of God’s kingdom by demonstrating acceptance of an interracial couple, this church instead bore testimony to pressure to conform to this world.
I am not suggesting that this particular congregation is the only church to give way to prejudice. Someone once said that the most segregated hour in America is 10 am on Sundays, and I think that cynical observation is still on target in many instances. To be frank I am uncomfortable with the reality that even though our congregation is in a pretty diverse area we have virtually no diversity in our membership. I have not seen any evidence of racism on the part of any of our members, but this does suggest that we need to do a better job of reaching out to those who are not from the same background as we are with the gospel.
I do think that in my lifetime we have made enormous progress in our country on these matters, though as this story suggests, there is still room for improvement. When I was young the only interracial I knew anything about was on the TV show The Jeffersons! Now they are much more common. And I can remember hearing people dismiss interracial marriages as a bad idea because of how the children will look! I don’t hear that much any more – probably because some of the most beautiful people in the world are from a mixed background.
And there was a time when it was common for Christians of different races to prefer to worship separately. I think that is (slowly) changing. One very popular preacher in the 40s and 50s, Foy Wallace, once wrote an article condemning blacks and whites meeting together to worship – including such horrible practices as shaking hands! I don’t know what kind of response his article got in 1941, but I think most Christians would angrily dismiss such an article today.
But there is one more point that I think should be made in this discussion. In Ephesians 5, after the apostle Paul compared the husband-wife relationship to that of Christ and the church, he says, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). The term “mystery” has special meaning for Paul. It describes God’s plan to “unite all things” in Christ (Eph. 1:10), uniting humanity with God (2:5-6), and Jews with Gentiles (2:11-3:13). This plan was a “mystery” – unrevealed – but now it has been revealed in Christ.
Going back to Ephesians 5:32, Paul says that his discussion of marriage is really about the profound “mystery” of what God does in Christ and the church. In other words, marriage is a picture of God’s uniting power. Our marriages should bear testimony to the power God has to unite people together in Jesus Christ. And given the fact that in Ephesians 2:15 Paul says that God is making Jews and Gentiles “one new man,” how better to illustrate the power of God to bring people of different backgrounds together than to see this lived out in an interracial couple? This is why barring interracial couples from church is so ironic – an interracial marriage is an awesome display of God’s ability to make two become one in spite of their ethnic differences!
All of us who are married need to think about the purpose of our marriage in these God-centered, gospel-proclaiming, Christ-imitating terms.