Race issues fundamental to Christian witness, says Southern Seminary professor in televised program
The biblical story can speak to racial tensions in the modern world because such issues are critical to the gospel, said Jarvis J. Williams, associate professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on the regionally televised “Connections” program hosted by Renee Shaw on Kentucky Educational Television.
“Racial reconciliation and issues of race are part of the Christian gospel because Jesus, a Jew, came to save Jewish and Gentile people. He came to save people — not an idea but actual people,” he said on the program, which first aired May 15. “So therefore then if you do not believe or practice horizontal reconciliation, I would argue you have an incomplete gospel.”
Williams, who is the author of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology, said the modern idea of race differs from the cultural view in the biblical context. Race was not based on skin color in the New Testament world, he said, but on other factors like geography, language, politics, and religion.
While the Bible’s teaching does speak to modern color-based racism, Williams argued that race in the biblical world is chiefly a broader category for “otherness.”
“When we talk about racial reconciliation, the gospel means that all kinds of others — regardless of their ethno-racial identity, regardless of their skin color — need to be reconciled to God and to each other, and that happens through the gospel,” he said. “So for me, 'race' is a big category that includes all kinds of other people. So therefore, racism is really much worse than we ever thought."
Many evangelical explanations of the gospel focus only on individual conversion, but Williams argued that the biblical picture is more expansive. It extends beyond just how one becomes a Christian to include how believers relate to one another in their Christian community.
“The gospel is not only [becoming a Christian],” he said. “It is that, but it’s more — so that when you actually look at what Jesus does and what he preaches in the New Testament, he is about the business of unifying all people in Christ into this new community of people, and that unification takes place by people relating to God rightly and then reconciling to each other rightly through the gospel.”
Williams pointed to the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus ministers to all groups of people — rich and poor, socially elite and marginalized, healthy and leprous. Jesus’ call to repentance and faith is indiscriminate, and the grace of God recreates people into a peaceful, multiracial church, he said.
“That, I would argue, is the gospel. Not only how we get into the believing community, but how do we relate to each other once we are in?” he said.
The church’s role is to reenact the gospel story in their culture, which includes social issues like racial reconciliation, he said. In light of racial tensions on display in Ferguson and Baltimore, churches should not only be conversant in issues of race, but pattern true reconciliation in their communities.
“Jesus Christ says in the New Testament he has come to be Lord over everything and he’s bringing about, in his preaching and his ministry, the Kingdom of God,” Williams said. “Part of the response that he wants from those whom he’s calling into that kingdom is to act out the gospel in society, which means therefore that we must take strong stands on matters of race, poverty, life — things that would be related to these new gospel realities.”
Video of the program is available at the KET website.