In honor of MLK day, I wanted to spend some time this week blogging about his sermon, “Paul’s Letter to the American Church.” This has been a wonderful devotional exercise for me that has challenged me, inspired me and compelled me to prayer and lament. You can read part 1 here. Today I want to continue reflecting on another portion of his sermon regarding the Body of Christ.
Towards a Robust Theology and Praxis of the Body of Christ, Dr. King says:
The church is the Body of Christ. So when the church is true to its nature it knows neither division nor disunity. But I am disturbed about what you are doing to the Body of Christ. They tell me that in America you have within Protestantism more than two hundred and fifty six denominations. The tragedy is not so much that you have such a multiplicity of denominations, but that most of them are warring against each other with a claim to absolute truth. This narrow sectarianism is destroying the unity of the Body of Christ. You must come to see that God is neither a Baptist nor a Methodist; He is neither a Presbyterian nor a Episcopalian. God is bigger than all of our denominations. If you are to be true witnesses for Christ, you must come to see that America.
There is another thing that disturbs me to no end about the American church. You have a white church and you have a Negro church. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ? You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11:00 on Sunday morning to sing “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name” and “Dear Lord and Father of all Mankind,” you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America. They tell me that there is more integration in the entertaining world and other secular agencies than there is in the Christian church. How appalling that is.
It may seem obvious to note that Dr. King advocated for the end of segregation, appealing the dream where all people of all races could love and embrace one another in common humanity. Yet, it strikes me that Dr. King’s dream of a world where segregation no more seems rooted in a theology of the body of Christ, that the Church must be united in order to be true witnesses of Christ. As Dr. King composed these words, I’m sure John 17:22-23, must have crossed to his mind:
“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Dr. King’s theology of the body of Christ informed his admonitions of the American church. How does our theology of the body of Christ inform our desire to more fully reflect God to the watching world? Do we even have a theology of the body of Christ?
I fear that the Church today is more consumed with our differences, cultural nuances, theological disagreements, all with an air of superiority and arrogance. I am more guilty of this more often than most. Within the Christian subculture, we are more likely to highlight what distinguishes us from one another than what brings us together. Perhaps this is motivated by the zero-sum approach to fundraising or the saturation of ministries and Christian non-profits in America, but it all boils down to pride, sin and an ignorance and rebellion against the Church that Christ died for.
How can our theology of the body of Christ inform our praxis of Ecumenism in an increasingly polarized socio-religious climate?
And while Dr. King’s words to the denominational divides in the church begs contextualization to our contemporary situation, his words on racial segregation need no such interpretation. The American Church remains grossly segregation. American society persists in being an increasingly divided, racialized society. Income inequality, mass-incarceration, education and all other meaningful socio-economic statistics neatly and tragically align themselves along racial lines. Through the work of sociologists like Michelle Alexander and Michael Emerson to name just two, we have overwhelming evidence to suggest that as a society and as a church, we are simply not getting better.
While the solutions to these problems are complex and multifaceted, Dr. King’s points us back to the impossibly simple and simply impossible truths of Scripture: God is bigger than our divisions. Divisions cannot exist in the body of Christ.
We must live these precepts as if they are the true and literal words of a God actually bigger than our divisions. We must learn to love one another deeply. Not tolerate, not sing songs in the same room, not naively ignore our difference, but love one another in the fullest sense of the word. We must love the same way that Christ loved us.
How seldom we reflect on our oneness as the Body of Christ!
Even spending to writing this entry, makes me mourn to the extent that I have allowed division and segregation to creep into my fellowship with believers. I have chosen to exist in a segregated church with ease, comfort and safety than pursue a united church through challenge, listening, humility and hard conversations. I have chosen to slap a coat of glossy Christian subculture instead of allowing the renovation of the house of God to be fully expressed.
Growing up in our youth group we would sing this campy praise song “One Voice.” The words were certainly inspirational: “Let us be one voice that glorifies your name. Let us be one voice declaring that You reign. Let us be one voice in love and harmony. And we pray oh God, grant us unity.” And those lyrics were housed in the triumphant music of a most powerful anthemic Christian rock ballad. But being perhaps the only song in our repertoire that spoke to the issue of Christian unity, it quickly became stale and cliché. We would roll our eyes and predict the appearance of “One Voice” after the once-in-a-blue-moon sermon on reconciliation, diversity or Christian unity.
And as I consider the predicament of the American church, if our theology for Christian unity is stale and cliché, than our efforts at expression Christian unity will be impotent shekels of obligation and tokenism.
What would it look like to have such a robust theology of the Body of Christ, a God-given, God-sized dream for the God’s people that we would weep over its division, decry its imperfections and passionately seek its flourishing, even if it cost us our lives?
Rich passages like John 17, Ephesians 2, 1 Corinthians 12 and thousands of others can most certainly be the sword that pierces through the stubborn divides that have calcified over centuries in the American Church. Oh that we could rediscover the word of God in a fresh way that overflows into a radical praxis of Christian unity!
Simply put, what if we followed Dr. King’s example?