Since it first began trending on Twitter back in 2014, #blacklivesmatter has been a hotly debated hashtag, not only along racial and political lines but also among Christians.
In recent weeks, since the tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor we have seen those lines drawn once again and even fortified within the Church.
My concern in this opinion is not primarily to argue for or against the use of slogans like Black Lives Matter over and against All Lives Matter but instead to argue for the excluded middle. Namely, that Jesus offers us something far more substantial than merely affirming that Black Lives matter, too.
Before I am able to make my case for a third and better way I will first need to establish a couple of things up front. First, the necessity of a unified Christian voice and purpose. And second, the inadequacy of the current hashtags and slogans being used. These will each be made in turn and be released in a short three-part series of articles.
Before I Begin
To my neighbors who may be reading along who do not believe in the existence of gods or who follow a spiritual path other than the way of Jesus, while this article is written with a Christian audience in mind, there are two take-aways for you.
First, I think there are going to be some general guidelines for public discourse here that will transcend the religious / irreligious divide and drive us as fellow citizens toward greater civil dialog.
Second, Christians are not people who agree on everything, we are people who agree on Someone. And that Someone is Jesus. He is the universal King of the cosmos and he has come in the love of his Father to rescue his people from the just penalty of their sins and to reunite all things to their proper order that were destroyed by human rebellion —which includes healing the wounds of racial injustice. As you read along, understand that we do not believe that we are perfect people. In fact, it is our recognition of our imperfection that makes us eligible to experience the forgiveness and grace of God. But even as we acknowledge our imperfection we are not satisfied in it. We are people who are struggling forward and who are committed to live up to the high honor and calling of our redemption and to live out the reality of our salvation together in community with one another as God’s heavenly family on earth, for his glory and for your joy.
The Apologetic of Love and the Necessity of Christian Unity
When we speak of apologetics in Christian religion we are speaking about making a firm defense of the faith. In 1 Peter 3:15, the Apostle instructs the Church to always be prepared “…to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” That word translated as defense in our English bible translations is the Greek word ἀπολογία or apologia. That is where we derive our word apologetics.
Typically, when Christians speak of apologetics we are talking about the field of theology concerned with making a positive case for the existence of God and the explanatory power of the Christian faith by offering material and historical evidence or philosophical and presuppositional arguments.
Rather than offering the aforementioned evidences and arguments for the Christian faith, the Apologetic of Love seeks instead to offer the displayed unity of the Church as the primary proof that Christianity is true.
The Apologetic of Love is not without biblical warrant.
In John 13:35 Jesus says to his friends, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” That means the degree to which we love one another well or love one another poorly, particularly in areas where we cannot seem to agree, says something about who we are to those who are watching.
Again, in Jesus’ High Priestly prayer for his disciples, he prays,
“As you [Father] sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” — John 17:18–22, ESV
That bit right there that I have underlined above, where Jesus prays, “…that the world may believe that you have sent me” is really important for us to understand. Jesus’ prayer is that we would be as united to one another as he is united to his Father in heaven. But his prayer for our unity to one another is not simply that we would love one another well in front of unbelievers to the point of making the gospel believable (or that our unity would prevent the gospel from becoming unbelievable as a result of our division). That does not seem to be what Jesus is asking his Father for because his prayer for our unity is directly connected to our being sent into the world as he was sent into the world. In other words, our unity should not merely be observable and convincing but operational and evangelistic.
We might say then that if Jesus is to receive from his Father the answer to his prayer, we must not simply be committed to loving one another well for the sake of putting our Christian unity on display but we must also be united to one another in our mission with Jesus and his Father and their united purpose to bring salvation to the world.
Jesus’ prayer for our unity and our unity’s intended purpose will continue to go unanswered in this dark season for as long as we remain sharply divided in our public discourse and seek to accomplish the wills of masters other than Jesus. And it will not go unanswered because the Father is incapable or unwilling to answer his request. It will go unanswered because we have chosen to seek something other than our Christian unity and to love something more than we love the world that Jesus died to save.
Unity Does Not Demand Uniformity
As I bring this article to a close let me address an objection that may have come to mind as you have been reading. And that is whether I am arguing for complete uniformity of Christian thought. I am not under the impression that Christians will —or even should— agree on everything that is not a core essential doctrine of the Church. We will not agree on everything that happens within our churches nor how we ought to respond to circumstances that are happening outside of the church in the wider culture.
Unity in purpose does not demand uniformity of thought. In fact, without holding some differences in our opinions and convictions our unity and our struggle to maintain unity would be meaningless.
Even as I write this article, having as my purpose to convince you that “_________ Lives Matter” is utterly insufficient to communicate all that God has to say about the creatures he has made in his image, I would be fighting against Jesus’ desire for our common unity if I allowed my failure to convince you of my position as the reason for our division.
We are not all going to agree on the reasons that have brought us to this point in our nation’s history nor the political solutions that will achieve reconciliation between blacks and whites. But as Christians, we must be simultaneously committed to loving this world and seeking unity within the Church.
Unity Demands a United Gospel Purpose
While we should not expect nor demand uniformity of thought within the Church, we must consider that since the purpose of our unity with one another has been established so that the world will believe that the Father sent Jesus, then we must be united as the Church in our gospel call to say something more substantial than merely affirming alongside the world the obvious fact that Black Lives Matter, too.
My concern in this first article has been to establish the necessity of Christian unity as a proof for the truth claims of Jesus. An abiding love and genuine unity may not presently exist between blacks and whites in the United States of America but that must not be said of those who owe their lives to Jesus Christ, whose death upon the cross destroyed the dividing wall of hostility that existed between people of different ethnicities and cultures. If we are not fighting for unity within the Church then we have forfeited our right to call people who are outside of the Church to live at peace with one another.
Secondly, we must seek to accomplish the purpose that our unity is intended to achieve. Our loving commitment to one another within the Church is not simply intended to make the claim that Jesus is the Messiah more plausible to an unbelieving world. It is intended to make the evangelistic enterprise more effective as we stand united in our commission to make disciples of all nations.
We must fight for unity in our public discourse. We must seek to understand what people actually mean by what they say. We must not take our cues from political pundits or revolutionaries. And we must be united to one another, even as Jesus and his Father are united, both in love and in purpose.
“Finally, family, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” —2 Corinthians 13:11, ESV
– Josh Elsom is the lead pastor of Soma Church and the Executive Director of 101 South College located downtown on Waxahachie’s historic square.