Thabiti Anyabwile is a council member of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) and the pastor of Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C. Over the years we have spoken occasionally at the same conferences, often because of my ministry relating to Islam, and his brief foray into Islam and subsequent exit from that religion. I recall speaking at a conference with him nearly a decade ago, I believe, in Toronto.
Concurrently with the MLK50 Conference, primarily (but not solely) put on by TGC, Pastor Anyabwile posted an article on his blog on the TGC website titled, “We Await Repentance for Assassinating Dr. King” (April 4, 2018) (found here). In the article, Thabiti reminded us that MLK was “assassinated, murdered, violently killed,” and that he did not just “die.” As he wrote, “The Civil Rights leaders standing on the balcony on that dark day pointed not only to Ray and the area where the shot was fired, but figuratively pointed to the entire country in its sinister hatred and racism.” He then made the case that the country as a whole is guilty, for he writes, “Until and unless there is repentance of this animus and murderous hatred, the country will remain imprisoned to a seared conscience.” He then adds “the Church” to the list, though he does not chart the path as to exactly how all of this can be processed consistently (since, of course, many in the country were only tangentially aware of, or concerned about, MLK and related matters). But then he added this short paragraph, which garnered a great deal of attention:
My white neighbors and Christian brethren can start by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man who only preached love and justice.
I am not the only one to point out that the complex knot of associations, groups, and individuals, thrown into this single sentence is next to impossible to disentangle. When you say someone was complicit in murder, you should have a very clear and identifiable mechanism of establishing said guilt, and given the broad net he throws, the assertion itself provides more than sufficient self-refutation. But the paragraph brought a great deal of response, which may well provide the background to Pastor Anyabwile’s comment that sparked my own reply.
Before addressing that, let me note some of my own context as to why I took a few moments to respond to Thabiti’s tweet to Phil Johnson of Grace To You. While this “field” of discussion is not anywhere near my central focus at this point in my life (I am currently very deeply involved in New Testament textual critical studies, specifically on the interface of the new CBGM methodology and the early papyri), I have commented on matters more than once in the past as issues in culture and the church brought opportunity to do so, always with the hope of edification. I learned a while ago, of course, that this is an explosive area, and you simply must enter into it fully prepared to be misread, de-contextualized, and otherwise pilloried, especially in social media. Over the past couple of weeks on my webcast, The Dividing Line, I have taken time to address a few issues related to the unity of the Church and the topic of racialism. I have walked through Colossians 3 and argued that within the fellowship of faith the singular lens by which we are to view each other is found in our common redemption, our common faith, our common indwelling Spirit, and the common renewal that is being worked out in us whereby we are being conformed to the image of Christ. I argue that the Apostle specifically and clearly denies that there are any distinctions in this renewal based upon one’s history, one’s ethnicity, or social standing. The unity of the body is found not in the noting and prioritizing of such things, but in recognizing that in light of the redemptive work of Christ, those distinctions are no more. “In this renewing work there is no Greek and no Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (v. 11). The phrase “but Christ is all” should not be overlooked. There is something utterly unique in the Christian faith found in the uniqueness of the God-man, in the Incarnate One, Jesus. The reason “every tribe, tongue, people and nation” can be one is that they are focused not upon themselves but upon another, Jesus. I assert that this means that my relationship with each and every true believer in Christ must, by nature of who Jesus is and what He did, transcend and eclipse any other human relationship, and that includes ethnicity, history or skin color. Individuals who once hated every member of another ethnic group (and the history of this in the world is long, and nowhere limited to any particular spectrum of human skin color) can come to the Lord’s table with those they once hated without hesitation because all of those hatreds and hurts are in the past and are rendered irrelevant by the “new man.” Both are being renewed and made that “new man,” so everything that has come before must be buried at the foot of the cross. When this reality is ignored the peace-making capacity of Christian fellowship worldwide is sacrificed.
I likewise had to deal with the blatant attempt to slander and delegitimize me launched by one of the participants at the MLK50 Conference, Kyle J. Howard. In a Facebook comment Mr. Howard had indicated that he, as a black man, would not feel “safe” with me alone in a room. This kind of rhetoric has no place in the Christian church, but given the inroads that have been made in many sectors of the church by ideologies born not in the Scriptures but in the leftist schools of Europe and in the writings of Marx, many “resonated” with Howard’s unfounded accusation and came to his defense. So, if you are slandered in this fashion without foundation and without evidence, you are still “guilty” of having “micro-aggressed” someone. This kind of activity comes straight out of the play book of the political left, and is experiencing sad, but real, success within the confessing faith.
It seemed, in fact, that a switch had been thrown over the weekend with the MLK50 event, for many of its participants and advocates came out of the event firing on all cylinders. Pastor Dwight McKissic used terms such as “hypocrisy” “inconsistency” and asserted a lack of “integrity and honesty” on my part as well, all within a very short exchange on social media. A number commented that they were “done” having anything to do with what I guess would be called the “non-woke church.”
So in the midst of all of this I saw a comment from Thabiti Anyabwile directed to Phil Johnson, President of Grace To You. Phil had dared (and in the current context, admitting you have ever met, conversed with, or done anything other than thrown a shoe at, Doug Wilson takes daring) to link to Wilson’s blog article addressing many of these issues, posted on April 2nd, titled “Evangeliguilt.” It can be found here. Thabiti responded to Phil in these words:
“Oh, now I see the problem. You don’t understand the gospel. This post says the gospel begins with “no condemnation.” Actually, the first command of the gospel is “repent.” But that’s precisely what you have difficulty with so I see why you’d like this post.”
I am uncertain if Thabiti has spoken at a conference with Phil Johnson, but I simply have to point out how bold this kind of rhetoric is. It is one thing to say, “I do not believe you are applying gospel principles consistently here” or the like, but to directly assert that Pastor Johnson does not understand the gospel? And what is more, the assertion is factually incorrect as it stands: the post by Wilson does not, in fact, say the gospel begins with “no condemnation.” Here is the only relevant portion:
If you want racial reconciliation, you have to start with forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the pinnacle we appointed to climb. Forgiveness has to be the foundation we build from. If you want men and women to reconcile their long grievances with each other, you have to begin with forgiveness, you have to start with pardon. The very first step is the no condemnation stage.
So it does not seem Thabiti was being overly careful either in representing Wilson’s words, nor in evaluating, fairly and properly, Johnson’s citing of the article. In any case, I chose to respond to Thabiti’s statement. Here are the tweets, as Thabiti reposted them:
First, the post nowhere says “the gospel begins with no condemnation.” It says the first step in reconciling men and women is “the no condemnation stage.” In context, then, obviously, the issue is inside the church, between Christians, not about conversion.
— James White (@DrOakley1689) April 8, 2018
Secondly, the biblical teaching on Christian unity, laid out in Colossians 3, says we as believers experience a renewal “in which there is no Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman…. Instead, “Christ is all, and in all.” (10-11).
— James White (@DrOakley1689) April 8, 2018
Very specifically the Apostle denies the the renewal that makes for the unity of the body of Christ allows distinctions—historical, genetic, ritual, ETHNIC, or cultural. To force a lens that places such distinctions in the forefront of our interactions in the body is error.
— James White (@DrOakley1689) April 8, 2018
The willingness to speak of any skin tone, whether white, brown, black or blue, so that you can create a generic bucket of humanity that makes no proper distinctions and attempts to divide and assign guilt along such lines is not only foolish, it is dangerous.
— James White (@DrOakley1689) April 8, 2018
But for the Christian, assigning such distinctions in the body is straight up *opposed to Apostolic teaching and practice.* The reason the church can exist amongst all tribes, tongues, peoples and nations is that the gospel puts us all in the SAME bucket: the redeemed.
— James White (@DrOakley1689) April 8, 2018
So please, Thabiti, consider well the path your recent articles charts, and consider as well telling someone such as PJ that he does not understand the gospel. Argue application if you wish—but what I am seeing after MLK50 finds its origins much more in Marx than Mark.
— James White (@DrOakley1689) April 8, 2018
Pastor Anyabwile begins his article stating, “I want to offer a brief treatment of how New Testament authors do, in fact, talk about ‘race,’ ethnicity, skin color, and even the cultural sins of entire groups of people.” But here’s my problem from the start: I never said the New Testament authors glibly ignored the existence of ethnicity, skin color, or cultural sins (I did not list “race” since there is, in their minds, one race, the human race, and the modern perversion of that concept into racialism is not consonant with their worldview). I did say that the basis of Christian unity is found in the eclipsing of these things by the over-riding unity that the renewal of the Spirit brings about in our lives, a renewal in which there are no distinctions. I can only assume that Thabiti’s conclusion, that being that “White Americans” are the equivalent of the Cretans of Paul’s age, is meant to substantiate his accusation against Phil Johnson, though both require quite a massive stretch of the imagination.
I would like to respond to just a few of the items Pastor Anyabwile raised. He begins by noting the future, eschatological unity of God’s people, which while true, is meant to direct us to the current, realized unity of the body outside of cultural and ethnic categories. Then he notes that the New Testament “speaks of the church’s missions in terms of ethnicity-specific strategy.” He refers here to the recognition of Peter as the apostle to the Jews and Paul the apostle to the Gentiles. Of course, these distinctions already existed and, of course, it is this very distinction that Paul is at pains to point out is ended in Christ, the middle wall of partition torn down. Indeed, I would say it is very much central to Paul’s theology that he fought against the great danger of a Jewish Christian church existing separately from a Gentile Christian church. His emphasis is upon the unity of the two, even in recognizing the need to reach out to all.
But it is important to note part of Pastor Anyabwile’s polemic here: it is opposed to “racial blindness.” That is, it is vital to his stance that we be very much aware, primarily aware, in fact, of the race of others, and, it seems, this is just as true in the church. I have often noted that I do not see color when I look upon fellow believers. I am not physically blind, but my sincere Christian experience is that I invoke (nor allow) any racial lens when interacting with my fellow believers. This will, at times, result in my missing something. For example, a great friend of mine that I have known for years has an American Indian heritage, and yes, you can see that when you look at him. But I had honestly not thought about it for many decades now, and it just doesn’t define my thinking of him. He is who he is. Whether Chinese or Vietnamese or African or Hispanic or Latvian or Norwegian—I simply do not care. It is not definitional of how we relate in the body of Christ. This is why I can preach and teach and minister in South Africa, or Ukraine, or anywhere else, and not give the matter a second thought. When I speak to young men after a class in Kiev or after a church service in Johannesburg, how much melanin they carry in their skins matters not the least to me. Do they love the Lord? Seek to obey His word? Trust in His goodness? What else is needed? We are fellow redeemed sinners, we are indwelt by the same Spirit, we have the same calling and hope. Period. End of discussion. Well, not today. The discussion, seemingly, has no end. And the “racial lens” is a major priority. So Thabiti can conclude one section by saying, “Whatever we say about the apostle, we cannot say he is ‘blind’ to these things as some say.” He was, in fact, “blind” to these things in the church and in relationship to the oneness we must have in Christ. Pointing out that there are practical ramifications for ministering the gospel in the context of the Jews over against, say, pagan Gentiles in a far away land is not overly relevant to the actual topic, since, of course, once God grants salvation to those pagan Gentiles they are no longer pagan Gentiles but fellow heirs and members of the body, and their past “paganism” is no longer to be taken into consideration. Nor, in fact, do we have any basis for saying they should regularly be called to repent for the evils their pagan ancestors inflicted upon others.
We then move into more important exegetical territory as Pastor Anyabwile begins to discuss the ecclesiastical distinctions he believes the New Testament makes. He argues that the distinctions Paul mentions in Colossians 3:10-11 do not “cease to exist” for “in the parallel passage the apostle says there’s ‘neither male nor female’ (Gal. 3:28) and Dr. White would be the first to point to the enduring reality of sex or gender and the maintenance of those reality in our present culture.” In actuality, a few Greek manuscripts, translations, and a few early writers, inserted “male and female” prior to “Greek and Jew” in verse 11, based upon the parallel in Gal. 3:28. But again, it is not a matter of these distinctions not existing but how they do not exist in reference to the renewing work of God in creating the one new man that is the basis for Christian fellowship and unity. Furthermore, the male/female distinction is part of God’s good gift to mankind, and is vital to the very definition of humanity and its continuance. Is skin color or ethnicity being placed on the same level as this basic category by Pastor Anyabwile? I certainly hope not!
But I found the rest of Pastor Anyabwile’s comments in this section troubling. Let’s note his words:
But, of course, these egalitarian passages that describe our essential unity and (sic) Christ and equality through our union with him are not the only passages in which the apostle specifically identifies “race” or ethnicity. Let’s just stick with Colossians since that’s the text Dr. White chose. Read on into Colossians 4 and will see Paul noting the ethnic or racial backgrounds of a good number of people he greets. He points out who among them are Colossians, laments that he only has three Jewish laborers with him, and even points out whose (sic) a slave (Onesimus) on his team. Check out Colossians 4:7-17. So whatever Paul means by Col. 3:11 and Gal. 3:28, he does not mean we end up in a color-blind and race-blind and class-blind status in the Church. Indeed, when it serves his apostolic aims for equity, inclusion, affirmation, etc., Paul intentionally mentions those things.
I would invite the reader to look carefully at the referenced texts in Colossians 4. To read into them even a hint of “race” or “ethnicity” is to me very troubling. For example, in verses 7-17 we first meet Tychicus. No reference to race or ethnicity, only that he is a brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant of the Lord. Next we have Onesimus. Assuming this is the Onesimus of the book of Philemon, then whether he was a slave, or a freedman (depending on the chronology of the writings and the actions taken by Philemon), Paul makes no reference to either. His former standing is not mentioned, only that he is a faithful and beloved brother from Colossae. Then in verse 11 we have the reference to “these fellow workers for the kingdom of God are the only ones who are from the circumcision.” And what is this other than an observation? Is anything at all said about this making them different, or that we should consider their backgrounds or call upon them to repent for the sins of their people in persecuting Paul or anything even remotely like this? It is simply said that they were a great encouragement to the apostle, nothing else. Pastor Anyabwile is going to conclude this article by stating that “the New Testament is actually a pretty ethnicity- or race-conscious collection of writings.” It is very, very hard to avoid pointing out that this conclusion is not substantiated by the passages cited, nor by the argumentation included, and that by a long shot. Surely this passing reference to Col. 4:7-17 in no way grounds his argument, “So whatever Paul means by Col. 3:11 and Gal. 3:28, he does not mean we end up in a color-blind and race-blind and class-blind status in the Church. Indeed, when it serves his apostolic aims for equity, inclusion, affirmation, etc., Paul intentionally mentions those things.” Paul did not “intentionally mention” any of these things in this text outside of mere identification. Nothing in this text is even slightly relevant to Christian fellowship, unity, or anything else. If anything, the constant repetition of the idea of fellow workers, etc., shows the lack of distinctions, just as one would expect from chapter 3. We must surely see the influence of an outside source in such comments, an over-riding commitment to a viewpoint or theme that is not being derived from exegetical concerns.
The fourth category that Pastor Anyabwile brings up is “Hamartiological.” Now I remind the reader, we have strayed a long way from the original context of an accusation that Phil Johnson does not understand the gospel. I can only imagine that Thabiti believes these various categories are in some fashion supportive of the over-all narrative that is therefore important in establishing why he would say what he did to Phil. In any case, my statement in my tweets had been to assert that in the Church the very distinctions he is very insistent upon trying to find have been done away with in Christ and that creating “bucket” groups you can throw everyone into and then demand of them certain attitudes and actions is inappropriate. So Anyabwile writes,
Finally, and this is where our disagreement is sharpest, the New Testament does indeed sweepingly speak of ethnic, national or “racial” groups and their shared guilt and need due to sin.
But as we will see, it does not speak of such things within the fellowship of the saints, which is the point of this entire exchange. Now, he then states, “Again, we’re keeping with the New Testament, which is good because the Old Testament examples are legion.” Please catch that statement: why would such statements be “legion” in the Old Testament? Because, of course, the OT is dealing with national Israel, a mixed covenant, land promises, the coming Messiah, and all sorts of other threads and issues that are part of what has been fulfilled but not a part of the ongoing mission of the one body that is being formed by the work of the Spirit. Keep the proverbial eye on the ball here, for the example that Thabiti has chosen as the ground and basis of his argument is truly startling. Remember, my foundation has been the exegesis of an entire passage of Scripture that is specifically and directly on the topic at hand. Where do we go to ground this final plank of Thabiti’s argument?
Consider Titus 1. The same apostle Dr. White evokes in support of his color-blind/race-blind ethic, speaks pretty bitingly about the Cretans.
So rather than going to a concomitant passage that would didactically speak to the issue, here we have a reference to a text wherein Paul is speaking to Titus about the difficulties he will face in founding and guiding the church on Crete. Let’s consider it in context and keep in mind one question: is this text even intending, in passing, to address the topic of the relationship of people of different ethnicities or, in our modern situation, of different skin colors, in the church? Paul had just laid out qualifications for the elders of the church, which included the ability to “exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (v. 9). Why is this so important in Titus’ context?
For there are many insubordinate men, empty babblers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision. It is necessary to silence them, for they are overthrowing entire homes, teachings things they should not teach simply for shameful gain. One of their own, one of their own prophets, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. This is why it is necessary to reprove them strongly so that they may be sound in the faith, not giving heed to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth. (10-14)
Now obviously the point of this text is to warn Titus of the challenges he will face from false teachers who try to sneak into the church. This is why he needs to make sure the elders he chooses are firm in the faith and in sound doctrine having the ability to refute falsehoods! But is it not just as clear that it is a wildly inappropriate text to try to drag into a discussion of ethnicities in the church? That is not what Paul is discussing at all! He is simply acknowledging a propensity on the populace’s part that might lead them to “giving heed to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth.” There is nothing about skin colors or privileges or anything even remotely connected thereto. Thabiti makes a massively unwarranted leap from Paul’s citation of Epimenides (the quotation given above) to the idea that we should not be upset with him! If Paul could speak harshly, can’t he? Is this really the argument being presented? It is hard to believe, but yes, it is. I simply must conclude that in points three and four Pastor Anyabwile has completely failed in his self-appointed task to find any kind of counter-argument to the foundational unity passage I have presented from Colossians 3.
So we are truly left without reason to accept his conclusion, “So, you see, the New Testament is actually a pretty ethnicity- or race-conscious collection of writings.” Whatever Thabiti might think that means, what it does not mean is that the New Testament presents a “woke-church” with a lens of racial prioritizing and historical guilt-mongering as its primary focus. He goes on to say, “The biggest wrong is minimizing or denying that racism exists or assigning meaning and emphasis to ‘race’ where the Bible does not. I contend that’s what Dr. White has done, not me.” I wish I could respond to this statement, but it stands alone, without previous definition or explanation. I believe racism exists. It is part of the sinful heart of man. There is racism amongst Arabs. Racism amongst Asians. Racism exists inside bodies covered in every shade of skin. There is racism in the hearts of light colored men, and racism in the hearts of very dark colored men. Racism ignores that God has made us all in His image. Thankfully, in the body of Christ, we are reconciled to God, and to each other, and our primary orientation is no longer ethnic but eschatological. That new man looks forward to the consummation of all things, not backwards to sources of hurt and animus between ethnic groups. This is why, again, the Christian church can bring peace in the most horrific of human conflicts. But that all ends when we import the lens of “race” into the body.
Yes to Identity!
This is why I have stood against this “woke” movement and its unbiblical attempt to insert a lens the Apostles nowhere demanded. It is the very radical nature of the body of the elect that gives such power of healing and peace to the Christian church. One body made up of many parts, chosen freely and beautifully in God’s sovereignty, the past forgiven, the future certain in Christ, the present the on-going renewal in which the distinctions that divide men and cultures and nations are done away with, for Christ is all, and in all.
We hear much about “identity politics” today. Christianity beat the movement to that concept by many centuries. Our identity is not ours to choose, however. Our identity is not determined by our genetics or our economic status. No, the Christian message about identity is an easy one: Christ is all and in all. He is our identity. His sacrifice redeems us, His intercession assures us, and as we live in recognition of His centrality in all things, the human-derived divisions that plague all of mankind are put aside. We come to one table, as one people, and the only lens we need for that is the one that shows us the Lord of glory, Jesus.