In One But Not the Same, Pastor Chris Williamson challenges us on our divisive “churchanity” and renews the call for unity and diversity in the body of Christ. Plus, his surprising views on Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton, and political parties.
Among other burning debates, last month’s competing rallies in Washington, D.C. raised this question: To whom does the civil rights movement belong? Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” event and Al Sharpton’s much smaller “Reclaim the Dream” counter-event seemed to pit a white conservative vision for America against a more progressive African American vision, yet both invoked the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
We are living in strange times in America when it comes to race relations. For some, like radio psychologist Dr. Laura Schelessinger, the fact that we have an African American president means race should no longer be an issue. But don’t tell that to Shirley Sherrod, or a , or a white fashion editor named Elliana Placas. Sadly, our nation now seems more divided than ever around issues of race, class, and religion. And the church often seems like a leading contributor to the mess.
In his new book, One But Not the Same, Chris Williamson uses the apostle Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 — “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” — to help Christians identify a biblical model for pursuing reconciliation. Williamson, the senior pastor of Strong Tower Bible Church, a multiethnic congregation in Franklin, Tennessee, recently spoke to UrbanFaith about America’s various divisions and the church’s opportunity to bridge them.
URBAN FAITH: Why did you write One But Not the Same, and where do you see it fitting in among the slew of other books on diversity and racial reconciliation?
CHRIS WILLIAMSON: I wrote this book because I felt there was a need for the body of Christ to grow in the understanding and application of God’s diverse kingdom here “on earth as it is in heaven.” There are not many Christian voices speaking on the richness of diversity. I decided to use the journey of Strong Tower as a way to address that issue. By telling our story, as a 15-year-old multiethnic church, and by sharing some of the things God is revealing to us, I set out with an agenda to offer hope, encouragement, and instruction to Christian people who are tired of settling for segregated lives, ministries, churches, schools, and businesses.
In the book, you talk about the dangers of “churchanity.” What is that?
“Churchanity” is a term that one of my older friends in the faith taught me. Churchanity is when Christians make our faith all about church and not about the kingdom. It’s ingrained in us to be church Christians and not kingdom Christians. Jesus spoke more about the kingdom than He did the church, but we do the opposite and speak more about the church than we do the kingdom. When Jesus did introduce the church in Matthew 16, He did so in the context of the kingdom. We know the traditions of church but we usually don’t know the power and rationale of the kingdom. By focusing on the church the way we do, we remain churchy, traditional, segregated by race, and divided over secondary matters. Churchy Christians avoid suffering and run for comfort as opposed to embracing a cross. Churchy Christians are ingrown, church dwellers who make very little, if any, impact on the world we live in.
Ouch! So, what’s your definition of “the kingdom of God,” and how does it differ from the church?
In its simplest form, the kingdom of God is the rule of God, namely the rule of Jesus Christ, over everything, everyone, every place, every realm, every god, and every circumstance. As the late Tom Skinner once taught, “The kingdom is the King’s dominion.” When we know that we have a relationship with the King of all kings and kingdoms, it should cause us to approach life with a different kind of swagger. We should witness with boldness. We should pray with confidence. We should walk upright with grace. We should persevere through trying circumstances knowing that God is greater and mindful of what we can bear. We should obey our King without hesitation. We should love the poor because our King loves the poor. We should love all ethnicities because our King has made provision for all to come to Him. We should live in anticipation that our King will return and reign very soon. But in the meantime, He reigns and rules in me.
The Shirley Sherrod incident brought to the fore once again the Obama administration’s timidity when it comes to handling racial controversies. What is your take on the incident?
It shows us that we are not ready to take a realistic look at what is in our hearts in way of race, racism, and prejudice. Mrs. Sherrod candidly revealed to her initial listening audience the garbage that was in her heart concerning how she used to think about white people, or at least in that particular situation the white farmer that asked for her assistance. Before she was sound-bitten and taken out of context by a right-winged, propaganda blogger, she went on to reveal that she didn’t treat the man the way her evil inclinations were leading her. Instead, she did the right thing towards the man and did not hold the man’s color against him.
If we are honest, which we have trouble with these days, we would have to agree that we have thought terrible things about people outside our ethnic group and within our ethnic group. Jesus said that we all have defilement within our hearts towards God and one another. The only good news we have is that when our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts. Grace super-abounds over sin! To Shirley’s credit, she didn’t act on the negative dictates of her heart. Instead, she acted on values that are consistent with the heart of God. Unfortunately, the White House jumped to conclusions to appease the Right without getting all of the information. Although refreshing, America couldn’t handle Mrs. Sherrod’s honesty, transparency, and eventual integrity. Will you still love me when I reveal my sinful heart? Will I still love you when you share your racial reservations? If God still loves us, we can love one another while learning from Him.
In our increasingly polarized society, what can Christians do to find unity and reconciliation in the face of differing politics?
At the risk of sounding like a cliché, Christians need to talk less about their respective political parties and candidates and speak more about the Christ and His kingdom. Dividing over politics should no longer be tolerated between Christians, but the truth is we divide over how to best interpret the Bible. We major on the minors and miss the majors. Many Christians have long since aligned Jesus with either a Democratic or a Republican platform, as if Jesus rode the campaign buses of either party. Politics have become the head for many Christians and unity in the body of Christ has become the tail.
We all know that no political party or platform fully represents the kingdom agenda of God and neither should they try. In addition, Christians need to stop looking for political messiahs and moral deliverance through the horses and chariots of Washington, D.C. Christians keep talking about the church being the answer for the world today and not the government. Well, it’s past time to live like we believe that. We shouldn’t all have to vote the same way in order to be unified. We can be one without being the same. Once we learn that the beauty and the tension are in the balance, we’ll be able to work together once we come out of the voting booths. Have you ever noticed how politicians and pastors are often very similar? You wonder if they are really in office for the people or for themselves. Our creed should be to help people in need and not use people to feed our greed.
Your book also deals with the gender divide. What is your perspective on the role of women in the church?
It’s obvious that women have been mistreated, overlooked, neglected, and abused throughout the history of Christendom. Therefore, it is necessary today to redeem what has been eaten by the locusts of legalism and the mites of male chauvinism. It should be stated that a woman can have the same gifts of the Holy Spirit that a man receives from God. A man and a woman are intrinsically equal in all matters pertaining to creation and redemption, but equality of essence doesn’t equal sameness of role or function in the home or in church. In my estimation, it’s about order, not gifting. God never called a wife to be the head of her husband and I’m not sure God calls women to be pastors of churches.
Yet there’s ongoing debate among Christians regarding this issue. Is this a divide that can be overcome?
Although I do not see biblical support for the ordaining of women to be pastors or elders in the local church, I will not throw stones at a woman who is a pastor. I believe and practice that women should be empowered to preach and teach God’s word to the congregation just like men, but they should not do so from the office and authority of pastor. Have you ever noticed how Jesus celebrated, included, validated, and relied upon women in His ministry but He never called a woman to be one of the 12 apostles? Once again, it’s not about gifting but about order.
As we talk about social injustices today, many have observed that it’s not so much about race as it is about class? Do you agree?
There will always be a struggle between people based on race or skin color, especially in America.
However, it is usually more acceptable for people of different “skins” to hang together when they have similar “ends” (i.e. financial portfolios). America has always been about the color green. European and African entrepreneurs conducted business in a civil manner hundreds of years ago during the slave trade, and nothing has changed. But on the flip side, the homeless population in any major city is always integrated. Why is that? Because what brings them together is greater than what has historically divided them. Jesus saw this when He healed men in an ethnically diverse leper colony. The poor bond over the need to survive. Therefore, if we recognize our poverty of spirit, regardless of our economic status, we can come together and connect on the true meaning of life.
But how do you realistically get Christians of different socioeconomic classes together for authentic relationship and community, and not just in the victim-savior context?
In 2 Corinthians 8:8-15, Paul said that there could be equality and edification between poor saints and wealthy saints. People must discover that those of us with less material resources can teach those of us with more resources how to live by faith in God and be thankful because the tendency of the rich is to trust money over the Master. The wealthy, on the other hand, can teach the poor various life and job skills while being intentional to meet some of their immediate felt needs in the name of Christian love. The best context for this kind of learning and living together to occur between the upper-, middle-, and lower-income is in the local church. I feel this empowerment from the poor whenever I choose to minister and live among them at home or abroad.
What did you think of the Glenn Beck and Al Sharpton rallies that took place in Washington, D.C. recently?
I think they showed that America is more racially polarized than ever before and that the church is still content to follow political agendas disguised as spiritual causes. It happened in 1995 when an unbeliever and Muslim named Louis Farrakhan led black men to D.C. for a “Day of Atonement.” The white church was shocked that many black Christians followed Farrakhan. In 2010, an unbeliever and Mormon named Glenn Beck led mostly white Americans to D.C. in an effort to turn America “back to God,” though I doubt the black church was completely surprised that white Christians would follow Beck. In my opinion, though, the march, the man, the message, the movement, and the moment were mightier in 1963 than anything that occurred in 1995 and 2010 combined.
We’ll know the church is truly following Jesus Christ when the throng is made up of blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats.
How could Glenn Beck “reclaim the civil rights movement” when his reputation is that he never claimed it in the first place? How can Sharpton aim to “reclaim the dream” when his rally is made up primarily of African Americans? King marched with white people and Jews.
So, do you think the two rallies should’ve hooked up?
I don’t know about those particular events, but Christians must do better at embodying the expression of racial, social, and political diversity in this nation. It is possible to be on one team and not play the same side of the football. The offense and the defense can scrimmage each other all week long in practice, but when game time comes, we are to recognize that we are on the same team, fighting for the good of the entire team. Let’s start fighting for the good of the entire nation and not just our individual agendas. Let’s lift high the banner of Jesus and make room for different kinds of people to come under that banner.
For more information about Chris Williamson’s ministry, visit him at God’sDiverseKingdom.com.