I have been reading a number of books on the Missional Church recently. At first as I was reading books by Alan Hirsch, Darrell Guder, and Alan Roxburgh, I’d wished I hadn’t waited so long to jump into the missional church discussion. Then, after getting through about three books on the issue, I realized that as a product of both the African-American and Urban Multi-ethnic Church, I was raised up in the truly missional church movement.
The missional church discussion is both about a theological foundation known as missional ecclesiology and the process of the church engaging culture for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. All of the experts on the topic are European-American and European-Canadian. The discussion around the missional church for the most part is a White Church discussion. I appreciate that the authors are willing to admit this. The talk about the missional church is from the perspective of the history of both the European and European-American Church influenced by modernity and modernism. To understand the need for the missional church in the United States for instance, is to understand the church coming out of Europe influenced by Constantine, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. I would not argue against these being important things to know. As a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church, I realize the importance of understanding how the Reformation and the Enlightenment shaped the development of the church in the United States. Specifically, it’s important for me to understand the Swedish immigrant roots which shape the development of the Evangelical Covenant Church. I consider my understanding of this heritage as a gift. What I don’t understand is why European-Americans don’t see the gift of the missional roots and current missional activity of African-American, Asian-American, and Hispanic churches in America.
As a product of the African-American church, I can speak to a church that historically has engaged its surrounding culture for transformation. The African-American Church has a history of community engagement, development, and transformation. You can look at the missional impact of the Civil Right Movement as an example. Why missional theologians and practitioners ignore and marginalize the African-American Church is hard to understand. At the same time the African-American Church hasn’t always been helpful, because at times it presents itself as only being for African-Americans. But we must remember that the African-American Church is a forced church in a race-based society. If it weren’t for the defense and protection of the White Church, there would be no African-American/Black Church.
In today’s increasing multi-ethnic and multicultural reality, this must change. There is a need for a Post-Black, Post-White Church theology. This theology must include liberation and reconciliation theology. A true missional movement must be Christ-centered and multi-ethnic. If this isn’t the case, all the missional discussion is just a re-hashing and a recycling of the White Church. If the Church in Canada and the United States is truly going to be a missional one it must be multi-ethnic and there must be a diversity of respected voices speaking into its development.
The picture above is of one of my fraternity brothers (Kappa Alpha Psi) reading to a group of children at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Oakland, California. Our local chapter (Berkeley Alumni) volunteered for a health and literacy fair at the school. After the event, I reflected on these problems impacting urban public school education today-
MY TOP TEN PROBLEMS WITH URBAN PUBLIC SCHOOLS:
10.) The Lack of Greater Family Involvement
9.) That Both Political Parties Have Made Politics of Urban Education
8.) That Urban Children Get Caught In Between Unions and Activists
7.) The Some Teachers Bring Personal Agendas Into The Classroom That Have Little To Do With Education
6.) Unrealistic Expectations That Some People Have Of What A School Should Provide For Children
5.) Families With The Resources (Like Mine) Who Move To The Suburbs Or Choose Private Schools (Thought I Would Spread The Blame Around)
4.) Constant Turnover Of School Principles
3.) People With No Credentials Or Experience In Education Thinking They Can Educate Children Better Than The Urban Public Schools.
2.) Lack Of Sufficient Funding And Volunteer Support
1.) The Lack Of Innovative Collaboration With The Local Faith Community And Other Long-Standing Organizations.
Now that I have read Dr. John MacArthur’s latest book, Slave, I can now provide more thoughts on the main thesis within it. His main purpose in the book is to show us that as controversial and counter-cultural as it may be, we must accept that the primary way we find identity in Christ is as a slave to God. He begins by providing information on an “English translation conspiracy” that has taken the word for slave in the Greek and changed it to mean servant. So throughout the New Testament the servant has really replaced the word slave. We are then to look at all the texts in the New Testament around servant (which there are many) and see the revelation of the Christian life being the life of the slave.
My thought on this point is simply this. If we are to believe that there is an English translation conspiracy that has caused us to miss the mark on the true role of the Christian in relationship to God, why are we not so sure that there are no Greek translation conspiracies? How many times in the New Testament is the Greek translation taking Hebrew words out of context? In the book, A Prayer to Our Father: Hebrew Origins of the LORD’s Prayer, authors Keith Johnson and Nehemia Gordon actually make this case. They show through the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, ways in which the Greek translation has taken some Hebrew words out of its original context and meaning. Conspiracy?
The point here is, Dr. MacArthur may be creating another conspiracy in trying to uncover one. Or another way of putting it would be, he’s continuing the conspiracy of a Euro-centric captivity on biblical interpretation.
The next thing MacArthur does in the book is move to the Old Testament. His point here is to present the Exodus story as God bringing the Israelites out of slavery to Egypt in order to bring them into slavery under Him. This provides a very limited view of the Old Testament story. His foundation is in the interpretation of the Hebrew word “eded” which means slave and servant. What he doesn’t bring up is that this Hebrew word is rooted in another Hebrew word, “abad” which means slave, servant, husbandman, worshipper, and worker. I have two takes on this point in the book.
One, in MacArthur’s drive to make slaves out of all Christians, he leaves out another picture of the New Testament story. What about the picture of a God who frees a people from slavery, makes a Covenant with them, and then calls them to extend his love and justice to the poor, widow, orphan, and immigrant? MacArthur is so focused on “slave texts” that he seems to not care about what the Old Testament has to say about freedom, justice, and Covenant. The question becomes then, does Covenant equate Captivity? MacArthur seem to believe so. The second point is if the Hebrew word “abad” means slave, servant, husbandman, and worshipper, why is the focus of the book only on the slave portion of the meaning of the word?
The rest of the book is spent on looking at how Jesus and the authors of the Epistles in the New Testament mainly describe the Christian life as the life of an obedient slave to a Master, which is God. One, I cannot argue that there aren’t a number of biblical texts that describe the Christian as servant and slave. The issue is that this isn’t the only way the Christian life is described in the New Testament. In MacArthur’s focus on God as Master, he ignores the number of places where God is described as Father. I would argue that Jesus spends more time talking about God as His Father than as His Master. The disciple John spends a lot of time describing the Christian as a “beloved child.” MacArthur seems to believe that the only way to get obedience out of a Christian it to make him or her a slave. I respectfully disagree. The more we focus on God as Father and Liberator, the more space we have to describe the Christian as the liberated, transformed, and beloved child, who ought to live in obedience to a loving and all-powerful God of justice.
Finally, I’m saddened by how MacArthur hardly shows any sensitivity to the history and impact of slavery upon African-Americans. He doesn’t acknowledge that he isn’t the first European-American to use an interpretation of slavery in the bible to develop a theology and influence the masses. This is how slavery was justified many years ago in the United States of America.
Last week I received the latest addition of Outreach Magazine. Attached, there was a notice that it was time for me to re-new my subscription in order to receive another full year of the magazine. A bonus gift comes if I take advantage of a special offer right now. This special gift is Dr. John MacArthur’s new book, “Slave.” The caption next to the book says, “Best-selling author and pastor Dr. John MacArthur reveals one crucial word that revolutionizes what it means to follow Jesus.” On the back of this advertisement it says, “What does it mean to be a Christian the way Jesus defined it? MacArthur says it all boils down to one word: Slave.”
Well, I respectfully have some issues with Dr. MacArthur. First of all the book is black, which I think is somewhat ironic. I realize this was probably more a publishing decision, not Dr. MacArthur’s. A black book with the word, “slave” on the cover written in white. I’m sure purely coincidental.
Second, and more important, is this question- Is slave the primary way Jesus defined the Christian life? What about this text-
“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends, if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:12-15-NASB)
And what about this text-
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because he has anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the Poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19-NASB)
Is the primary way Jesus defines the Christian life and His role in it deem us the slaves? Even if you believe this to be true, there is enough Scripture to provide other identifications for the Christian than just slave. What about the Christian as liberated, beloved, child, heir, and friend? Why does slave get to be in the driver’s seat of the car of Christian identification?
I have to say that I have not read this book yet, so I’m just commenting on the advertisement of the book. I realize what an influential theological figure Dr. MacArthur is, which is why I must challenge in love, the premise of the advertising of this book. Why is it hard for some European-American theologians to see the bible story as one of liberation, not enslavement?
In the Old Testament, we read of a God who releases a people out of slavery, makes a covenant with them, and calls them to bring justice to the poor, orphan, widow, and alien (immigrant). Humanity is enslaved to sin, so in the New Testament we read of a Savior who comes to set us free by bringing new life. Is the God story really about slavery or about liberation and empowerment? I guess to a degree it depends on the cultural slant from which it is read and interpreted. As one who can trace his heritage back to a slave girl on my mother’s side, I see the primary way Jesus defines the Christian life as a life of freedom, follower-ship, an friendship. But, is this just my heritage or is it a true interpretation of the meta-narrative of Scripture; love, new life, freedom, and a new Kingdom? This is not to take away from obedience, worship, and Lordship. Jesus didn’t come to put us on a plantation, but to fulfill a promise. Is the Christian as slave revolutionary? Release from slavery is a more true revolution.
I will renew my subscription to Outreach Magazine so that I can read this book and speak more specifically to the theology being presented.
I was recently in a conversation with a fellow Christian who wanted to know why I use the term African-American. “We are all Americans” he said. “Terms like that just divide us.”
The further conversation that followed led me to deeper reflection and thru this blog post, explantation on why I choose African-American over Black and over simply the title, American.
One, I’ve come to the belief that race is unbiblical, so for a theological foundation around my identity, Black doesn’t work. Now at the same time, I honor the history of the identification Black. The Black power movement of the 1960′s and 70′s was about bringing honor, dignity, and empowerment to a racial label that made a people less than human. The definition of Black up until that point was rooted in the systems of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. The Black power movement redefined Black and reinvented a people group. I get this and honor it. But this still doesn’t take away from race being not only unbiblical, but unsubstantiated scientifically as well. Skin color and physical features alone are not enough to bring about major differences among people. The categories of race only bring about stereotypes leading to power and privilege for some and second-class status for others.
Culture, ethnicity, and covenant are biblical though. These are places thru which Christians can find identity. I’m an American, I have a lost history in Africa, but my primary identity is in Christ Jesus. I also have Irish and Native American in my family tree as well. But, more importantly, I am found in the family tree laid out in Matthew 1. This is the family tree of Jesus.
I also call myself African-American because I’ve actually been to Africa. Both times that I’ve been on this continent, I’ve been greeted with the words, “Welcome Home.” Recently, while in Kenya, I was made an honorary elder of a church. I was so honored by this experience that I couldn’t stop tears from flowing. I’m African, I’m American, I’m the beloved of God thru Christ Jesus (1 John 3:1). This is why I choose African-American over Black, but over all of that I choose to live as the Beloved.
10.) Act as if justice is simply a social issue and not a biblical one.
9.) Reduce the Christian life to individualism.
8.) Major in the minors theologically.
7.) Stop saying “hate the sin, but love the sinner” when we don’t do it.
6.) Feel comfortable with segregated church.
5.) Confuse political ideology with biblical theology.
4.) Act as if race, class, and gender are no longer issues to be dealt with.
3.) Avoid prophetic preaching.
2.) Missing out on being blessed by women in pastoral leadership.
1.) Ignoring the biblical mandate of reconciliation.
I am honored to be featured in this publication of Duke Divinity School. Check it out and let me know what you think.
In recent years I’ve heard some notable Christian leaders say things like this regarding the current political landscape in the United States-
“The conservatives have lost their hearts and the liberals have lost their minds.”
“One political side represents Socialism and the other, Empire.”
Regardless of if these quotes are true of the current political state in the U.S. of not, I have great concerns that political ideology has many Christians held captive. I’ve talked to Christians who religiously listen to political commentators who aren’t even Christians themselves. If someone critiques one of these commentators or disagrees with them, it’s as if they disagreed with Paul in the Scriptures or maybe even Jesus. I’m saddened by Christians that are set on fire by political shock jocks getting wealthy on the extreme edges of conservatism and liberalism. These same Christians don’t seem to be set on fire in the same manner by the Savior who proclaims that, “the Kingdom of God is now at hand.”
Now, I know that these Christians would passionately disagree with me, but that is because they see political conservatism and evangelical theological conservatism as the same thing. Others believe that biblical kingdom justice and political progressive ideology are the same thing.
We cannot allow fallen political ideologies and structures to limit the possibilities of true Kingdom advancement in the United States and beyond. The Kingdom of God as proclaimed in Scripture is supreme over and against any earthly government, including the one I like best. This means that though I believe democracy as worked out historically and currently in the United States is a better government model than others around the world, it doesn’t compare on any level to the truth, justice, compassion, transformation, reconciliation, and unity that comes forth from the Kingdom of God. And even though I believe what I do about democracy, I also believe that our government structure in the United States is currently broken, because every man-made structure in our world is fallen. Since all humans have fallen short, so are the ideologies and structures that we’ve created.
The Christian church is the vehicle which God has chosen to express the values, power, and outcomes of God’s Kingdom. The values of this Kingdom where communicated by our Savior Jesus Christ within Scripture. The church from this foundation ought to be presenting a Kingdom alternative and transforming solutions to the challenges we face today within the family, education, economics, community, health, and even tougher issues such as immigration.
But, because the church in many cases is being held hostage by extreme political ideologies from the edges, many outside the church don’t know the difference between God’s Kingdom and empire or God’s Kingdom and socialism. Now here is the challenging truth though; there are parts of the value system of God’s Kingdom that sound socialist on first listen and there are parts on first listen that sound like empire. But, when you look at all that is the Kingdom of God now and into eternity it is so much more than any earthly government could ever accomplish. Within the Kingdom of God value system there is the individual responsibility found within the necessity of new birth and the communal call to care for the poor. One must take ownership of their own spiritual development and be willing to share the first fruits of their resources to help the hurting thru the mission strategy of a local church.
No matter if you believe in big or small government, you can’t deny a big God who desires to love the lost, heal the broken, and bring justice to the oppressed thru the church.
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the LORD’s commandments and His statues which I am commanding you today for your good?”
“He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Deuteronomy 10:12-13 and 18-19 (NASB)
These words written by Moses connect something very important for God’s chosen people. Throughout this book, God called the people to remember Him as their one and only God. This remembrance is rooted in the deliverance out of oppression and slavery in Egypt. From here, they are to know God, love God, and follow his commandments. One important element of these commandments is the execution of justice.
What God seems to be saying here thru Moses is, “I saw you when you were the marginalized and the oppressed. I delivered you out of this condition. Now out of remembrance, worship, and love, live for Me by caring for the marginalized and oppressed around you now. If you are not sure who those people are, let me be very clear; the orphan, the widow, and the alien.” In other places in Scripture the poor are also mentioned. In Matthew 25, Jesus extends this in a very clear way to the sick and incarcerated as well. This should lead us to understand the connection between Deliverance, Remembrance, and Justice. Let me take this a little further.
Jesus is our deliverance out of sin. We should not disconnect our understanding of this from the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. Just as the people of Israel were called to remember this, we Christians are to participate in the Sacrament of Communion as a remembrance. The Old Testament remembrance ought inform the New Testament remembrance. The New Testament remembrance should not remove the Old Testament remembrance. It is the combination of the two that fueled the movement against slavery and Jim Crow segregation in the United States of America. These movements were another great awakening in our country, which provided a new lens of understanding Kingdom justice.
Today, the church should still be about the evangelistic work of deliverance, the communal act of remembrance, and the missional work of Kingdom justice. As a product of the African-American church, I’ve never understood the historic divide in the European-American church between evangelism and the social gospel. I realize that the term social justice has taken on a bad name in evangelicalism and in many ways I understand why. Justice has been kidnapped to a large degree by humanism. This was the undoing of the Civil Rights Movement in a lot of ways. It went from being a church-based movement, to a secularized and political one. But the church should never stop connecting Evangelism and Kingdom Justice. God is a God of love, deliverance, and justice. We should always remember that.
Three months ago while in Kenya, I visited the town of Dandora. Dandora has the second largest concentration of extreme poverty in Kenya. The town is basically built on a trash dump. As you go into the town you see mothers, children, and pigs on a mountain of trash digging for food and other necessities. There are families in the town that are so poor, that when they have a child born they take that baby to the trash dump to die.
In the midst of all this though, there is a church in the center of town. I met the pastor and some of their ministry staff who work in partnership with Compassion International. They have a motto that says, “we find God’s treasures amongst the trash. I met a young man who had been rescued from the trash dump years ago. He now is in college. I will never forgot this trip. It has forever changed my thoughts on the poor, God’s Kingdom, and the mission of the church.
Last weekend, I was in downtown Los Angeles. Rolling Hills Covenant Church is one of the churches in the conference which I serve. They sent a Kingdom army of close to 600 people from their congregation to Skid Row. Skid Row contains about 60,000 homeless people in downtown LA. You don’t have to go all the way to Kenya to see poverty. Rolling Hills partnered with the Fred Jordan Mission to put on a tremendous service of hope. I had the privilege of preaching with the senior pastor of Rolling Hills to hundreds of the homeless of Skid Row. But, we didn’t just preach. People were fed. People were plugged into programs for life change and were extended the love of God.
In the area of Kingdom Compassion, Mercy, and Justice there is yet still much to do. Churches around this country and around the world must put themselves in a position to hear God’s voice calling us still to love the poor. We must find our local and global place of mission and transformation. My trip to Kenya three months ago and my visit to downtown Los Angeles last weekend has my spirit so hopeful of what God will do thru us, His beloved children.