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The Most Segregated Institution in America

May 10, 2008

Rural American ChurchIn 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke on Social Justice and the Emerging New Age at Western Michigan University. Following that speech, he received a standing ovation before fielding a series of questions by WMU’s President Miller. In that Q & A, he declared:

We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing in Christ there is no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this. Now, I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have. The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. Now, I’m not saying that society must sit down and wait on a spiritual and moribund church as we’ve so often seen. I think it should have started in the church, but since it didn’t start in the church, our society needed to move on. The church, itself, will stand under the judgement of God. Now that the mistake of the past has been made, I think that the opportunity of the future is to really go out and to transform American society, and where else is there a better place than in the institution that should serve as the moral guardian of the community. The institution that should preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body.

While Dr. King was speaking primarily about racial segregation, I would like to broaden his perspective to include the walls of ecclesial segregation between brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m not just talking about color, which is disgusting enough, but I refer to the ridiculous divisions over worship style and countless secondary theological issues like baptism, the gifts of the Spirit, approaches to church leadership, prophecy and views of the end times, architecture, and even which version of the Bible should be accepted and read by parishioners. We are a divided church, a broken church, a sick church, and a stubborn church here in the 21st Century.

These things were never intended to be this way by the Lord Jesus Christ, the only declared Head of the Church, His body. When the Apostle Paul wrote his nine letters or epistles, notice carefully the wording of his salutations expressed below in the English Standard Version:

To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints. (Romans 1:7)

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. (1 Corinthians 1:2)

To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia. (2 Corinthians 1:1)

To the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:2)

To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:1)

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi (Philippians 1:1)

To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae (Colossians 1:2)

To the church of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 2:1)

Except for Galatia, a large regional territory with multiple towns (and thus, “churches” in the plural), Paul considered every Christian in every town or city to be “the church of fill-in-the-blank.” He didn’t write separate letters, not even to the believers in Corinth who had begun petty squabbles over their allegiances to Peter, Paul, or Jesus. And I believe with all my heart that when God looks at one city or one town or one village, He only sees one Church!

We are made up of many members and yet we are called to be one. Everyone knows this, but no one seems willing to do anything about it. Americans are perhaps the worst offenders: many families get into their automobiles and pass thirty or forty houses of worship before they finally reach their Sunday morning destination. And pastors are complicit in this weekly tragedy, promoting an insular form of institutional Christianity that ignores the reality of our universal brotherhood in Christ.

Now you may be thinking, “Well how is it possible for all the saints in Atlanta to be together on a Sunday morning? Even Turner Field couldn’t hold the disciples of Jesus Christ in that large metro area.” I would agree. It’s not possible, but we could start treating one another with a little more respect and recognition. One day we might even dismantle our denominations and associations, encouraging Jesus-followers to think more broadly and a lot closer to home.

This is part of the appeal for me to identify with the post-congregational movement. I’m sick of the divisions and the one-upmanship of our present system. When I meet another Christian, I shouldn’t have to ask, “And what church do you go to?” before I decide to treat that person as a new creation in Christ. But we go to greater extremes than that! An old joke describes two Baptist who are sizing one another up, asking about various confessions of faith, end-times views, double predestination, and supra-lapsarianism. After eight or ten rounds of agreeing with one another on every single point, they finally hit on something they disagreed over and, quite red-faced and flushed with anger, one of them shouts, “Get thee behind me, Satan!!”

I’ll be the first to admit my participation, even my flag-waving promotion of this sort of division. At one time, I firmly believed that I had a corner on the truth and (almost) every other church in my community was not preaching “the whole counsel of God” to some degree. It’s amazing how smug we can become within our little tribes, isn’t it? But like Dr. King warns, the church will stand under God’s judgment for these things; however, that the church is “the institution that should preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body.”

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