Today is a day when a man is honored all across America because of an idea: that equality should be more than an ideal-it should be a reality. Martin Luther King’s impact is felt not just in America but has ripple affects across our whole world.
King famously said “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” As much progress as we have made since the time of King, it is still alarming that our churches in America aren’t very good at maintaining churches with various cultures within them. We would rather keep it the way it is: white church, black church, Hispanic church, Asian, etc. We find no such sentiment in the letters of Paul whose vision for the local church seems largely neglected.
…the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.
The NT church was not at all exempt from racial tension. (If this comes to a shock to anyone, they haven’t really read the NT at all.) But Paul never responded in his letters by advocating that the pork-eating Christians start their own church apart from circumcised ones. And yet this is precisely what we have going on today. Of course when more cultures are combined in the same space it makes for more problems. But the NT never advocates that we flee from racial tension or conflict by segregating ourselves into a more comfortable local-church life.
What not enough people understand (Christians included) is that the stance King took is not a modern one: it is the impulse of the NT. Equality isn’t modern: we find it to be the heartbeat of God even in the OT, though it gets fleshed out in the New. We find it in how converted slave masters are to now refer to and think of their converted slaves as brothers or sisters rather than slaves. We find it in how converted husbands are to now love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it rather than viewing their wives as objects or pieces of meat or secondary citizens. We find it in how, years before Paul, a rabbi allowed not just males to follow him but women and children as well, to learn at his feet along with men.
King was not unique in his critique of the institution or of Empire, nor did he invent equality (and neither did any of his predecessors or mentors for that matter). The fact that Christians have not always seen equality as the impulse of the NT is to our shame, as is the sad fact that it has often been pushed to the side for more “important” aspects of doctrine.
The question the Western church must honestly answer is this: does King’s claim about segregation being prominent in Christianity still ring true today?
The ground is level at the foot of the cross.