You Can’t Make These Stories Up (Race, Jesus, and Our Identity)

They were an African-American family who visited our congregation one morning in the early 1980s. Race.jpg

Ordinary folks.

I remember them as being a pleasant family that included dad, mother, and four children.

Yet, this would not be an ordinary day for our congregation located in a small town an hour south of Nashville. For the most part, our congregation was made up of wonderful people including: Dennon, Joy, J.W., Jimmy, Charlie, Ted and Brenda, Byron and Brenda, and Mary. Yet, the day was overshadowed by one man who became angry that these people would visit our congregation. After our worship services concluded that morning, one man demanded that our men have a “business meeting” that afternoon.

This was a new situation for me. I was a young minister, newly married, and preaching at this small congregation. This middle Tennessee church situation seemed like a another world for me. Less than three years earlier, I had graduated from the University of North Texas and was working full time at United Parcel Service.

Here we were, a group of men sitting in a small room in our rented storefront. Less than two hours earlier, we were partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Now this man, flanked by his two teenage sons, was ranting about this family visiting that morning.

“My boys may have to go to school with them, but we don’t have to go to church with them!”

I was stunned. I felt as if I had stepped back in time. Some looked at the guy in amazement. Some of the other guys starred at the floor. Finally, I said:

“I don’t know if these people will ever return to our church after this morning’s visit. However, we need to decide whether we intend to obey Scripture or not.”

The man and his sons abruptly left a few minutes later. Several of the guys shook their heads in disbelief.

It was a disappointing day and a disheartening meeting. It was also a reality check. While most people in that small congregation were not like this man, I learned that I would have to be clear about my own identity as a Christian and as a Christian minister. There was going to be some form of pressure in every church in which I would minister. Typically, this would be a subtle pressure to choose comfort over truth and being “liked” over discipleship.


Can you recall a situation in which you felt pressure to ignore the words of Jesus? Do you remember a time when one person attempted to sway a group toward a behavior that did not represent Jesus?


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18 thoughts on “You Can’t Make These Stories Up (Race, Jesus, and Our Identity)

  1. I remember a lady came into the office wanting me to prove where interracial marriage was wrong in Scripture. She wanted to use “my verses” to prove to her grandson that his interracial relationship was unbiblical. The temptation was strong to simply ignore but I said, “Ma’am, you will not find that support in Scripture. As a matter of fact, I can show you many verses that support the opposite of your position.” I could see she was upset with me but I could not believe what I was hearing. This was 2009. It’s a shame.

    • 2009. Sometimes it is amazing to me the wonderful insight that some had decades and decades ago. At the same time, it is amazing that we still stumble over old assumptions and thinking that does not remotely reflect what is in the Bible.

  2. I had a similar experience early in my career as a nurse. It was 1976, and interracial marriages were very uncommon in Alabama, at least in my small hometown. I was working Labor and Delivery and was taking report in anticipation of starting my shift for the night. The nurse who was reporting off told us that one of the patients was a young white woman whose husband was black. As I listened to the remarks made by the other nurses, I was shocked at the level of bigotry exhibited by these otherwise caring nurses, all of whom were Christians. One even stated that she would not take care of that patient! I said I would be glad to take care of her, and that I was disappointed in their reactions. One of the nurses, who knew I was a minister’s daughter, said, “So you think your dad would be okay with a white woman marrying a black man?!” I explained my position on that issue, which was in part taught me by my dad, that skin color has nothing to do with a person’s value. What was interesting was that one of the nurses actually thought it was “in the Bible” that it was wrong for one to marry outside of one’s race! Anyway, the night proceeded uneventfully and culminated with the delivery of a healthy baby boy to a very delightful couple!

    • Reading your comment, Connie, I was struck at the disconnect between the thinking of those who were Christians and and this situation regarding this couple.

      Sometimes Christians will be aware of God’s desire and choose to flagrantly disobey. They choose absolute disobedience over what they know God desires.

      Still others seem to move through life and just not see that there are certain disconnects between their faith and various ethical/moral situations.

      Somehow, that seems especially frightening.

  3. One Sunday night many years ago a man stood in a business meeting and said, “This church has changed.” By his tone it was obvious he was not happy. He went on to say that the church had grown too fast, which indicated to me the change he was talking about was “new-comers” versus “old-timers”. I grew fearful when some of the old-timers started expressing their agreement. I went around the room and introduced all the good men who were present in that meeting who were “new-comers”. When I came to one man, he had his hand raised and tears in his eyes. The look on his face pleaded not to be left out. (Everyone in the room was white.)

    • Wow. What a story. It is amazing what our fear will do to us and how it will prompt us to behave in ways that exclude others and allow pride to rule.

  4. I can believe it. I can because while attending Harding School of Theology I served with a declining church in Memphis where there was some blatant racism and mistreatment of the poor (mostly homeless). I decided to leave when the elders decided that “keeping the peace” was of more value than loving and serving all people without discrimination.

  5. We,in South Africa, because of our recent History, have to deal with the same difficulty day by day – and not all of ‘us’ completely understand the fully inclusive message of our Lord Jesus. Please never under estimate the strong inflence of family, culture,peers and the education of being superior. With all the will in the world, I still baulk at seeing a mixed couple walk down the street.
    The answer to my difficulty lies,I know, in seeing the world through the eyes of Jesus, in cultivating His kind of love.Please pray for me, for us, in South Africa.

    • S. Jensen, I am honored that you commented on this post. Thank you for reminding us of the powerful influence of family, culture, peers, etc. This is a great reminder.

      I like what you said regarding Jesus. This is so true. It is seeing the world through his eyes and cultivating his love that makes a significant difference in how we see someone. Those of us who live in the United States need to hear this well.

      Thank you so much S. Jensen.

  6. Jim, I’m a little late getting into the discussion, but I wanted to relate a couple of incidents that I experienced.

    When I was a young preacher during the 1970s serving my first congregation I was invited to a member’s home for Sunday dinner along with a few other families. After dinner the men sat in front of the TV to watch a boxing match. It was between a man from what was then the Soviet Union and an African American. During one of the rounds I was shocked to here one of the men, a man who often led prayer during worship, yell out, “Come on, whip that n____.” At first I did not know what to say. I finally brought up the courage to ask him, “Don’t you want the American to win?” He looked at me like I had the problem.

    Excuse me for running on, but I need to bring out the truth that I still know people, members of the CoC, some members of other conservative denominations, some even relatives of mine who are preachers, who hold to the idea that African Americans were better off as slaves. The ones who are preachers actually believe that if a nation, either by war or other upheavals, found itself a slave holding society that in itself would not be an evil; that the evil would be because of evil masters. They use Eph 6 as a proof text; and, of course, the people who hold these views are white. As a child I believed them. I have again and again asked God to forgive me. I believe I was forgiven the first time; each time since was to help me never to forget.

    Oh, for certain, if they found themselves in the presence of African American members of the CoC they would shake their hands with great spirit, call them “Brother and Sister”, and in that setting treat them as full equals. Yet, they still believe, but careful about who they say it to, that America was better when black and white were two worlds.

    I used to think that that would all change with the next generation. But many of the children of those who hold such views are just as hard. So, I am not sure what will cure this disease that still eats away at the soul of so many church members. Indeed, Christ is the cure; but, when people are so certain they know the truth, what can chanege them? I am no longer a member of the CoC, but I still watch with interest; there is still a love there. I often think of what it could have been if the right leaders had presented the message of unity, especially through the south. But, what we got was a pride of knowing how to debate with old hearts.

    Forgive me for being “long winded”, but I appreciate the oportunity to tell my story.

    • John,
      I am so glad you left this post. Wow. As I read your opening story about your experience as a young minister, I thought about how that must have been so startling and disappointing.

      It is amazing how some Christian people can still harbor those attitudes. They can attempt to proof-text and do some exegetical gymnastics to justify such attitudes. However, I do not see how one can possibly harmonize these attitudes with the Sermon on the Mount or the overall radical teachings of Jesus in the Gospels.

      So glad you told this story, John. I’m glad you left a comment here and hope you will again.


  7. I am surprised that this would be an issue in the 1980’s, understandable perhaps in the 50’s or 60’s. I recall my home church, in as late as the mid-60’s, still questioning if certain humans, had souls (must have evolved from the country founder, giving 1/2 person credit for slaves). The task of a “pulpit” minister is a difficult one, having to satisfy to some extent, everyone, from different backgrounds, levels of knowledge and intelligence. Our teachings for as long as I remember, is what NOT to title the “pulpit” minister, paid or not. Certainly not, pastor. That spiritual duty is to elders, receiving that name. Appears the men of that church, tried to make you the pastor, rather than addressing the spiritual concerns the man obviously indicated.

  8. Thanks Johnny. I suspect that in the 80’s as with today, the attitudes about a whole range of subjects are going to vary depending on a number of factors, including location, past experiences of the people, etc.

  9. Gospel Advocate published a “classic” called Questions Answered, by Lipscomb and Sewell; a compendium of questions people sent to the GA along with the answers. Page 752 includes a question about WORSHIPING TOGETHER, WHITE AND COLORED. “A little girl” – 14 years old, and 1/8 negro, “came forward, confessed Christ, and was baptized.” There was no negro congregation in that community. Where should she worship?

    David Lipscomb answers – which, remembering the middle Tennessee environs, and that Lipscomb died in 1916! – may surprise some. Allow me to quote extensively:

    I have never found any sanction or authority in the Scriptures for different churches in the same community for different races of people. In the days of Jesus and the apostles the antipathy and antagonism existing between the Jews and the Gentiles were as great as that now existing between the white race and the negro race. I find no intimation or suggestion of separate congregations for the two antagonistic races. On the other hand, it is distinctly stated that his mission was to make of the two races one body in Jesus. I believe that is the only correct course to follow in any and all other ages. The race antagonisms would sometimes cause difficulties in the churches. Every difficulty rightly settled helps a church: every one avoided or wrongly treated injures it. The negro should have learned modesty and deference in the church, and the whites should have learned forbearance and helpfulness toward the negro, and they ought to live together in one church. Whatever we do to the least disciple of Christ, we do to him. If we refuse to recognize as a brother or sister the most despised of his disciples, we refuse to own him. I doubt if one who refuses to fellowship and encourage and help one who is his disciple because he or she is of another race can be saved. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40) As we treat the lowliest and humblest of his children, we treat him. If we refuse to fellowship Christ or to treat him as a brother or a sister, can we hope to be saved?

    • Ken, this is an amazing quote! I have never read this before. I do, however, remember the book as my parents had it in our home when I was growing up.

      I would love to know about the discussion that must have taken place in some quarters after this was published.

      This quote is a keeper. I am clipping it and putting in my Evernote.

  10. a fellow harding Bible student was sent out to preach in a small Arkansas town around 1999-2000, he wasn’t allowed in the building, because he was black