Apartheid and the Church

Stanton Petersen on Jun 04, 2020

Disclaimer: This blog post was written before the devastating events on May 25, which took the life of George Floyd. Now, more than ever, may the church come together to build racial harmony. May we not be defined by our skin color but by our blood, the blood of Jesus Christ.

The Dutch Reformed Church debated twice, in 1829 and 1857, as to whether "persons of color who had become members of the church should be served Holy Communion equally with born again Christians." [1] The decision they made would have such enormous consequences that it resulted in full-blown apartheid a century later.

This all started in the early 1800s when a flood of evangelical ministers came to the shores of South Africa. These ministers believed that God calls all people to enter a relationship with Jesus Christ regardless of background and ethnicity. As they preached the Gospel, many came into a personal relationship with Christ, including slaves and native people.

Fearing the equalization of races, many Dutch-speaking Christians began to voice their concern. They feared the integration of non-white Christians into their existing churches. A debate ensued, and the conclusion was shocking. To keep the peace with the Dutch-speaking Christians and to ensure the rise of evangelism, these ministry leaders chose not to integrate and thus served separate communion.

John Scheppers, writing on this very subject details, "Evangelicals were not, in their minds, promoting racial prejudice as much as safeguarding the priority of missions among the indigenous people. By assuring the Dutch settlers that missions would not automatically lead to racial integration, they safeguarded their evangelistic mission among the indigenous people. They had chosen evangelism as more important than racial equality. The right to evangelism was to be safeguarded at all costs. Even at the cost of the very Gospel, they sought to preach." [2]

Coming to America from South Africa, I (Stanton) have heard churches talk about the homogeneous principle. The principle states that churches grow faster when the people in the church are very similar. "If we want the greatest impact for the Gospel," they would say, "we must have churches of similar race and socioeconomic classes." Although not promoting racial prejudice, particular American churches have chosen evangelism as more important than racial unity. It does so at the cost of the very Gospel it seeks to preach.

Carl Sanders, a professor at Moody Theological Seminary, speaks to this very issue, "The church's mission is not to grow to a certain number; the church's mission is to be the body of Christ. The church's mission is to live out its nature and its mission and that involves placing faithfulness to Christ above faithfulness to a culture. It means putting faithfulness to add obedience above their church growth." [3]

These views, I believe, have given way to segregated churches. Sometimes we think that the issue of race, in our day and age, is outside the church but yet the most segregated time in America is Sunday. The time where racial lines divide our worship.

The Dutch Reformed Church in the early 1800s failed to realize that God calls for Christian unity and oneness even though there might be differences. Carl Sanders comments on Galatians 3:28, the passage where Paul writes about "there is neither Jew nor Gentiles." Sanders writes, "Jews and Gentiles, who had as striking cultural differences as one could imagine today—they were different in terms of their worship, in terms of their eating practices, their clothing practices, all sorts of things—and yet they're made one, and they're to express that oneness in their church body." [4]

Having multicultural churches widens our perspective of God. It also displays the church as a beautiful tapestry where we are not defined by our skin color but by our blood: The blood of Jesus Christ. As we move forward in building racial harmony in the church, may we realize that this is not a skin problem but a sin problem. One that only the Gospel can solve.

[1] Elphick, Richard. 2012. The Equality of Believers: Protestant Believers and the Racial Politics of South Africa. p43

[2] https://www.isiphambano.com/blog/how-did-our-good-evangelical-theology-allow-apartheid

[3] Ronn Johnson, Carl Sanders, and Michael S. Heiser, TH103 Introducing Bible Doctrine III: Humanity, Sin, and Salvation (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013).

[4] Ronn Johnson, Carl Sanders, and Michael S. Heiser, TH103 Introducing Bible Doctrine III: Humanity, Sin, and Salvation (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013).

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