Bishop Kenneth Ulmer has been pastoring for decades in Inglewood, CA. He has seen more than his fair share of racism on the streets and on stages across the country. But he has recently launched a campaign to work toward racial understanding and reconciliation that has captured the attention of Christians across racial lines. UrbanFaith contributor Maina Mwaura sat down with him to discuss his work to confront racism and bring people together. The below interview is edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been around for a long time, you’ve seen the ups and downs when it comes to race? Why did you decide to get involved with such an event like this, for people to come together and talk about this important topic?
I think you just answered it, it is the the importance of coming together. And talking about it, you know, the Bible does a passage where the Bible says, Come, come, let us reason together. And our efforts is simply first of all, to start with coming together, which, especially in these days of division, and schisms, and “isms” that should be “was-ims” all the divisions in the body of Christ, just coming together is an achievement. Yes, I’ve been doing this for a while…and I don’t think I have ever in my life or ministry seen a season and a time where the world is as divided. But more importantly, and more grievously more painful, is that the church is likewise significantly divided. And I think what bothers me is that many don’t know, don’t realize it, or didn’t get the memo, or whatever. And we’re kind of going on in business as usual.
But it is not, as usual, but in many cases, in terms of COVID, and everything, will never be the same. The issue is, what are we going to look like on the other side of this, and the exhortation is, don’t come out of this empty handed. Don’t come out of this, having learned nothing, haven’t having achieved anything, having made no progress. Look around, reach around, grab around for what God is saying to you. I would say, What is God saying to the church? You know, the exhortation of, of John, he did have ears. Here, listen, get it, catch it, what the Spirit is saying to the church, what he is saying, you know, the Prophet said, God is doing a new thing. And I love that verse. And I think it’s Isaiah 43, where it says…don’t miss this…don’t you see that God is doing a new thing? And so I think, ultimately, our gathering is to come together, to reason to wrestle to dialogue, even to dispute and debate. You know, what are you hearing God’s saying, what is God saying, now? What are the words of the marching orders for the body of Christ, when we come through this thing, and of course, all of us would admit that we didn’t know we, we did, none of us knew we would still be in it this long.
And, I gotta tell you, I’m not a prophet, not a son of a prophet, but I think things may get worse before they get better. And by that, I mean, this is not going to be a quick fix. It’s a major cultural shift. And there’s a major cultural shift as relates to the body of Christ as relates to the mandate the commission of the church.
Why do you enjoy talking about race? Like you don’t mind embracing it. Like you don’t mind stepping into it. When a lot of people are going, I think I’ll avoid that conversation. What do you enjoy about it?
I think it’s the new frontier. I say we’re in the desert. I think it’s the new battlefield. And I think it’s a battlefield where God can God desires. And I declared God will get glory. But it’s a battle we cannot avoid. It’s a battle we cannot did not it’s a reality that we cannot deny. But I think I think it is it’s one of those desert lands, is one of those wilderness lands, is one of those battles that God is going to bring us through. But the idea is you got to… I love that passage where in Second Chronicles, where God says to the Prophet Joshua, “Look, the battle is mine. The battle is not yours. I got this.” But then he says, “but tomorrow, you got to go to the battlefield.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, if the battle is yours, Lord, why can’t I watch you take it now? I’ll just be the cheerleader on assignment. God said No, no, no, it’s my battle. When I win through you.
And I think it’s a season where it’s those of us who are willing to take the risk of going into the battle that is in fact God’s, and that God will win. I have some white friends who admit, and I love them for admitting, “Man, I can’t even afford this.” Like I know a couple of white friends of mine who said some public stuff [that cost them]. [A friend and I] did a video about George Floyd and everything. And I have I noticed friends of mine who stood up and talked about the oneness in the body of Christ and racism and stuff. And that friend had a back door revival. He had members of families, some of them longtime families who left his church just for admitting just for mentioning it. And so, I think there’s a price to it, and I have some friends who are not willing to pay that price. But my only excitement is [that] I think it is the new battlefield where God will get glory. But he needs soldiers like us to take the battlefield.
Has the Black church lowered its expectations regarding its pastors? According to Rev. Eric Redmond, the Eddie Long scandal provides us with an opportunity to reevaluate what’s required of our church leaders and to reclaim a biblical standard.
The allegations against Bishop Eddie Long are horrifying and disgraceful, but not necessarily shocking. For, unfortunately, many well-known Christian leaders of large ministries have made the choice of stepping outside of their marriages into sexual immorality. Even more unfortunate is that we, as African Americans, often excuse our morally failing leaders as people who are mere men or victims of white conspiracies. But sinners are not victims; they are fallen people who make choices.
Yesterday, in front of his Atlanta congregation, Bishop Long finally addressed the accusations that were leveled against him. He was right in saying the case should not be tried in the media, and it is not my intention to imply the man’s guilt in this space. Until proven otherwise, he deserves the presumption of innocence.
For pastors like myself, however, the allegations against Long should cause us all to pause and seek the Lord for more mercy and grace upon our own souls: “Lord, lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” But this sad episode also provides an opportunity for all believers to consider what we should expect of our Christian ministers in terms of character and morality, and what to do when pastors make choices that disqualify them for leadership.
What We Should Expect
First, churches should expect their pastors to be men who walk in holiness before God. All of us are called to be holy, for our God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). But pastors are called to live at a higher standard of Christian behavior than that of the general believer. When the qualifications for pastors (elders) are given in Scripture, the pastor is expected to be a man who meets the full composite of the qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-8; Tit. 1:5-9). Many of these qualifications concern the pastor’s personal holiness: “self-controlled,” “not a drunkard,” “not a lover of money,” “upright,” and “holy.” These qualifications should characterize the pastor throughout his tenure as a pastor, not simply during his candidate period at a church. This is the only way in which he can remain above the reproach of his people.
Second, churches should expect their pastors to be men who model Christ. Again, all of us are called to follow Christ and our Lord’s walk before God the Father. In a more significant way, pastors must set an example of Christ for others to follow. At all times we must be able to say to our people, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, ESV). We are to “set an example to the believers … in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
Fighting for Survival: On Sunday, Bishop Eddie Long finally addressed the allegations leveled against him by four accusers. The unfolding saga illustrates the importance of pastors being “above reproach” in both their ministries and personal lives. (Image from New Life Missionary Baptist Church)
Believers are commanded to consider how their leaders live and imitate them (Heb. 13:7). If our people cannot see an example of Christ in us — including keeping our bodies pure from immorality — they cannot follow Christ by following us. To put it differently, our stead as pastors is no greater than our ability to say, “You can please Christ; just follow me and I will show you how to do it.” We have no credibility or meaningful role in evangelizing sinners if our message only is “God can change and keep you, but he cannot do the same for me.”
Third, churches should expect their pastors to be men who keep their marriage vows faithfully. Pastors must be “[husbands] of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; 1:6). The man of God must be one who keeps his marriage vows. This means that he should not be a man of remarriage, adultery, pornography-watching or addiction, or bisexual and/or down-low relationships, for each of these items stands in opposition to fidelity in marriage to one woman. This is an issue where lesser understandings and disobedience to this Scripture are harmful to our churches, and of which we, as African Americans in particular, need to raise our standards, for at least two reasons:
The African American family needs to hear and see modeled the message of the gospel and its significance for the family so that our families and community might be rescued from destruction. The social indicators of African Americans, including high divorce rates, high percentage of children growing up in single-parent homes, and high numbers of single, marriageable-age women — some of whom are now blaming the Black Church for the problem of their singleness — all point toward the need for the strengthening of the African American marriage and family. Couple this with the large numbers of African Americans who are members of churches, and you will see that there is an opportunity for the church to lead the way in repairing the ruins of the African American community. The repair work starts with the church being a place in which marriage is held in high honor. Typically this happens in places where a pastor holds his own marriage is high honor.
The gospel story itself is most readily portrayed and explained by the mystery of marriage. The gospel is the story of Christ giving his blood in death and rising from the dead in power in order to beautify the bride the he will wed in her final salvation (Eph. 5:25-32; Rev. 21:1-4). The gospel we proclaim to the world inherently says, “Do you want to see what salvation is like? It is like a perfect marriage between the Perfect Man and the perfect woman in perfect marital bliss forever and ever! Come get what you have always wanted in life!” We, the believers, are that bride that Christ is beautifying. We are the ones who should be able to say, “Christ will make your life like a great marriage; just look at my marriage” (or “my purity as a single believer,” cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-38; 2 Cor. 11:2-4).
Pastors should be the leaders in their congregation in preaching and living out the gospel — the story of the Perfect and Eternal Marriage. Otherwise, how can his people trust his word on marriage? When he says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church,” will he have any credibility? Can his members trust that his counsel on marriage will work for them if God’s power did not work for him? Instead of questioning their pastors, congregations should be able to trust their pastors as men who fear the Lord in all areas, including in their bedrooms (cf. Heb. 13:4).
When the Pastor Falls
Many of you might be rightfully wondering at this point, If a pastor fails in his marriage, what should happen next? There are no easy answers to this. Simply put, having not met the qualities of a pastor, that man is biblically obligated to step down from his role as leader of his congregation immediately. If he does not step down, his congregation should ask him to step down. This may seem harsh, but consider the alternative message you are sending to his wife, children, and the watching world that is in need of redemption. The wife and children are, in effect, being told that the church is not there to hold the head of their household accountable to the gospel. Thus, he can live two lives before them and God’s people and there is nothing his family can expect the church to do.
Moreover, we tell the world that our gospel is a sham and powerless. We appear to be people who say, “Well, you do not really have to live like a Christian in order to be one, or be a member of the church. We’ll prove it to you: just look at our pastor!” This is shameful, but it also is what we do when we allow immoral men to remain in their pulpits, and it is commonly accepted in the African American church. We must remember that, unlike King David or President Clinton, a pastor cannot divorce his work from his life, for his work is a message that must be modeled in order to be proclaimed with credibility and the power of the Spirit of God.
Let me be clear that requiring an immoral man to step down from his position as pastor is not a question of the man’s gifts or of his internal calling (which is subjective). It is a matter of his qualifications — his external calling, which are objective and verifiable for every man, regardless of his spiritual and natural gifts. Such a man may be gifted as a teacher and preacher. However, this does not mean he needs a pulpit. Instead, he needs repentance, marital counseling, brotherly accountability, a pattern of faithfulness in his marriage, and to make amends with the congregation that he has harmed. His gifts may be used to do outreach in the community or to teach a Bible study. But, at that point, he is not qualified to lead a congregation.
The fall of a pastor is a serious matter for the church as we seek to glorify God in all things. It must mean the end of a pastor’s tenure as his church’s pastor. Thankfully, because of the blood and resurrection of Christ, it does not mean the end of his salvation. For his fall is only a fall from his qualification for the pulpit. It is not a fall from the grace and mercy that secures our salvation in Christ.