In early September (2017), Theresa and I had the privilege of conducting a Marriage Retreat with the couples of the Atlanta Church of Christ in Gwinnett. As the following article from their leadership team indicates, they have a diverse membership. They have more members of color than white members, as a matter of fact. The retreat was held at a beautiful retreat center outside of Atlanta and the group was very warm, loving and flat-out fun!
As I told them near the end of the retreat, I expect this was our last such event to teach as a couple. Theresa loved every moment of it, but it showed us both that her physical condition made it wise to conclude our retreat teaching with that one. Although crossing such events off of our list for the future is difficult, we both felt good that this beloved part of our ministry concluded with such a wonderful group as this one. (I do pray that we can continue to teach about marriage through my book, “Fairy Tales Do Come True” – from Illuminations Publishers, IPI.)
Prior to the retreat, I met with the three elders and also had a great mealtime with their evangelist and his family. The elders wanted to discuss racial issues and share what they were doing in that regard. I was impressed with their hearts, their plans and what they had already done. Like my Dallas home church, they are ahead of the curve when compared to most congregations in addressing the need for more teaching from the leadership and more honest sharing between church members. I asked them to write an account of what they had done, which follows below. I was very impressed, as I expect you will be also. They were proactive, Bible-based in providing answers, and very thorough in the study provided to the church. May their direct and biblical approach in addressing this timely subject encourage many, many more churches to follow similar paths. Enjoy the read!
By Steve Collier, for the Leadership Team
Like most ICOC churches, the Atlanta Church of Christ in Gwinnett is a diverse church, and we frequently mention our diversity publicly. However, until this year, we rarely talked openly about racial/ethnic controversies in society and how they affect us. Discussions about racial issues occurred among our members, but these were private conversations and usually only between members of the same racial group. This created undercurrents of misunderstanding.
As Tensions Mounted, Reading and Teaching Increased
In 2016, the racially charged shootings by police and against police, and the Presidential election, created a new level of tension. At the beginning of 2017, we announced a goal to address these issues publicly. We started by having discussions among our leadership team. We read articles and blogs, including Gordon’s, and talked about them. At the same time, our lead evangelist, Steve Mukenya, suggested the whole church read the book Safe People by Cloud and Townsend, and discuss the book in our family group meetings. The Scripturally-based book helps us have safe and authentic relationships that foster spiritual growth. This foundation prepared the church to tackle the emotionally laden issues of race relations.
We next decided to teach an adult Bible class for the summer based on a survey of the letters of Paul. Our focus was the Jew/Gentile controversy, and how Paul’s teaching helps us deal with the racial/ethnic issues of today. As we were planning our class, Michael Burns book, Crossing the Line, was published – a tremendous help in our preparations! One thing Michael suggests is teaching about the Kingdom of God. Back in 2015, we taught a 6 month adult Bible class on the Kingdom of God. As prologue to our new Paul class, we held a 2 week review of the Kingdom of God. We read Old Testament Scriptures prophesying that all nations will be part of the Messianic Kingdom. We looked at the Sermon on the Mount, especially the qualities held up in the Beatitudes, as essential to how we should conduct ourselves as we discussed difficult issues.
Our theme Scripture for the class was Galatians 3:28. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. As backdrop to Paul’s mission and letters, we looked at the reluctance of the early Jewish church to reach out to and accept “those people” – the Gentiles. By contrast, Paul embraced the mission God gave him as apostle to the Gentiles despite his background as a strict Pharisee, having been trained not to associate with Gentiles. Within our church, we have both supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and supporters of President Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again.” Similar to the early church, are we willing to accept “those people” in our church? And are we willing like Paul to reach out to “those people” in our evangelism?
In Galatians, Paul emphasized that we are family – sons of Abraham (Galatians 3:7) and sons of God (Galatians 3:36). The Galatian church was divided between the Jewish camp advocating circumcision, and the Gentile camp emphasizing freedom in Christ. Addressing these two contentious groups, Paul’s list of sins is heavy on relational conflict – enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy (Galatians 5:20-21) . Conversely, the fruit of the Spirit is heavy on relational harmony, love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness (Galatians 5:22-23). We can have conversations with fellow disciples about racially sensitive issues (i.e., how could a disciple of Jesus vote for Trump/support BLM?), but we must avoid the sins, and instead listen to each other with the fruit of the Spirit.
In Romans, we studied how to deal with matters of opinion and matters of conscience. Jews and Gentiles differed strongly on what you could eat and drink, but Paul wrote the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). The Kingdom of God takes priority over our opinions – even strongly held opinions. Paul also taught “let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). Matters of conscience should not come between disciples – peace and building one another up are more important. We must always aim for peace when expressing our opinions – even deep matters of conscience, including those concerning racial/ethnic issues in American society.
With Ephesians, we took a frank look at the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14) in our own society especially between White Americans and African Americans. What are the Biblical solutions? Jesus destroys the dividing wall and makes us one; he makes us family – members of God’s household; he makes us fellow citizens in the Kingdom of God (Ephesians 2:14-19). Like Paul, we prayed our church would know the full extent of the love of God (Ephesians 3:14-19) . We must make every effort to maintain unity (Ephesians 4:3), and to forgive as God in Christ forgave us (Ephesians 4:32). These principles enable us to overcome the racial conflicts in our society that threaten to pull us apart. We taught this lesson one week before the tragic events in Charlottesville.
Philippians and the Pastorals
In Philippians, Paul wrote “whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). 1 Timothy calls us to pray for all people including those in authority (1 Timothy 2:2). Titus calls us to be submissive to rulers and authorities and speak evil of no one (Titus 3:1-2). Our final class was 2 Timothy, where Paul urges us not to become involved in civilian affairs, but to please our commanding officer Jesus (2 Timothy 2:4). What pleases our commanding officer? “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but be kind to everyone” (2 Timothy 2:24). Quarreling about racial issues is so common on the internet and in the news, but the Lord’s servant must not quarrel. We must be kind and gentle – even with those captured by Satan to do his will (2 Timothy 2:25-26).
The Sermon on the Mount
We closed out asking what should we do about injustice? How do we respond to evil people like white supremacists who advocate injustice? “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. . . . Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:38-39, 44-45). We cannot respond to hate with hate or to violence with violence. We cannot stand with groups who advocate a violent response to evil and injustice. We must love our enemies and pray for them. These are hard teachings – the hardest teachings of all time! But that is what Jesus calls us to do and to be. We prayed for Neo-Nazis and Antifa.
The class was well received by the congregation, and has spurred many cross-ethnic conversations among our members. We’ve invited Michael Burns and his wife to visit us for a weekend in November to explore ways we can continue to grow in this area. May God lead us!