Becoming Just Disciples in an Unjust World

Note: This is a dynamic document. A little over a month ago, a church in Dallas asked me to help them develop a discipleship plan that would foster growth in their congregation in the area of racial justice. The church is Presbyterian and is located in Dallas, so much of the research I did was on the Southern Presbyterian church; but honestly, any tradition can benefit from the research here. I’m going to be editing and adding to this document as I have time and ability. Normally, I wouldn’t publish something that’s rough/incomplete, but given the current needs in the American church, I decided to make the work that I’ve done on this local project so far available as a resource. Please feel free to share, as long as you give proper credit and share the original link. The copyright statement is at the end of the document. Thanks!

Looking Afresh at The Great Commission

In the world of North American evangelical Christianity, the phrase “The Great Commission” is so familiar to its ministers and lay leaders that they rarely question whether their understanding of it is accurate or complete. At the same time, 51% of churchgoers are unfamiliar with the term. Of those who are familiar with it, only 17% can identify the passage of scripture to which it refers (Matthew 28:18-20). 

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Confusing the making of disciples with the making of converts has become commonplace for people in evangelical traditions. Carl Ellis, Jr., Provost’s Professor of Theology and Culture at Reformed Theological Seminary, explains, “There is a difference between a disciple and a convert. A disciple is one who is in the process of learning to obey all that Christ commands. A convert is one who has surrendered his or her allegiance to Christ as Lord. Jesus commanded us to make disciples. This is the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). It is Jesus’ job to make converts. However, today we try to make converts and expect Jesus to make disciples. This [reversal] is the Great Debacle.”[1] He has explained elsewhere[2] that true discipleship happens both before and after conversion. The pre-conversion stage[3] of discipleship involves practical applications of the Word of God through things like justice, mercy, kindness, and planting nuggets of the Word of God to elevate their consciousness of God’s nature and God’s ethics (“the kingdom of heaven has come near”).

Consequences of Replacing the Call to Make Disciples with the Call to Convert

Epistemology Over Ethics, Word Over Deed. One of the consequences of replacing the call to make disciples with the call to convert, particularly in dominant-culture (majority-white) Protestant traditions, is a form of Christianity that is disproportionately focused on helping people know and believe the right things about God and the Bible (i.e., epistemology, word) and therefore weak on teaching believers how to rightly obey everything Jesus commanded (i.e., duty, ethics, deed), which has both individual and societal implications.[4] This imbalance is evident in the Master of Divinity programs at almost every major Protestant seminary in the United States. Of the 90+ credit hours typically required for the pastoral-track degree, the majority are dedicated to epistemology. Most programs require only one ethics course, if at all. This imbalance between epistemology and ethics carries over into the way churches offer Christian education and discipleship. They place heavy emphasis on the sermon during the weekly worship service and offer programs for every age and stage of life – small- and large-group Bible studies, workshops, special courses, book clubs, Sunday school classes – most of which are didactic in nature. It reflects, however consciously or unconsciously, an underlying assumption that people are primarily transformed by knowledge. Decades ago, author and theologian J.I. Packer warned, 

“If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us. It will make us proud and conceited. The very greatness of the subject matter will intoxicate us, and we shall come to think of ourselves as a cut above other Christians because of our interest in it and grasp of it; and we shall look down on those whose theological ideas seem to us crude and inadequate and dismiss them as very poor specimens. For, as Paul told the conceited Corinthians, ‘Knowledge puffs up… The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know’ (1 Cor. 8:1-2). To be preoccupied with getting theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher a motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception. We need to guard our hearts against such an attitude, and pray to be kept from it. As we saw earlier, there can be no spiritual health without doctrinal knowledge; but it is equally true that there can be no spiritual health with it, if it is sought for the wrong purpose and valued by the wrong standard. In this way, doctrinal study really can become a danger to spiritual life, and we today, no less than the Corinthians of old, need to be on our guard here.”[5]

Evangelical Gnosticism.[6] This consequence is directly related to the former. A quick survey of church history reveals that the most influential heresies of the second century were various forms of Gnosticism that syncretized with Christian beliefs. Gnosticism pre-dated the Christian era, and historically, has always been characterized by a form of dualism that treats the body and the material world as evil, or inferior, and what is spiritual as good. Ancient Greek philosophy promoted a similar body-soul dichotomy. The foundation of all Gnostic thought is a pessimistic view of the material world that “bemoan[s] the existence of the whole universe as a corruption and a calamity” and reflects “a feverish craving to be freed from the body of this death and a mad hope that, if we only knew, we could by some mystic words undo the cursed spell of this existence.”[7] Gnostics, quite literally, are “people who know,” and in their estimation, their knowledge makes them superior to those who do not know. If we understand these things about Gnosticism, then it becomes easier to identify. When the Gnostic elements of pessimism and elite salvific knowledge are syncretized with the Christian faith, it can sound or look like any of the following:

 “This world is like a wrecked vessel. It is going to pieces on the rocks, and God wants you to do everything you can to rescue your souls. God put a life-boat in my hands, and says: ‘Rescue every man you can. Get them out of this wrecked vessel.’ So God wants us to get our family out of the wrecked world into the ark of safety, as Noah did his family, and have them in Christ; and if they are in Christ, they are safe.”[8]

“Ministries of mercy are meant primarily to attract people to the gospel. Evangelism and saving souls are what really matter. If you feed people but fail to preach the gospel to them, if you fail to help them know Christ, then all you’ve accomplished is easing their path to hell.”[9]

For sure we should be concerned about helping people to know Christ. But the views above are neo-Platonic in nature and paint a dualistic world in which physical bodies are of secondary, even negligible importance, and souls are supreme. Ultimately, much of this has roots in eschatology. Christians are vulnerable to such views when they possess an eschatology that rejects the possibility of concrete, social expressions of the kingdom of God, resulting in an over-spiritualized, disembodied gospel. Discipleship that operates under such a framework, when coupled with a culture steeped in individualism and visions of upward mobility, trains people to care primarily about individual salvation and self-improvement (even doing good deeds serves this purpose), but it leaves them content to avoid investing in anything deemed worldly or secular, especially if it doesn’t directly affect them. It happens to dovetail nicely with the patterns of the world we’ve come to know as the American Dream,[10] which forms habits along the lines of consumerism, hedonism, nihilism, materialism, and insularism. These habits are not taught as much as caught, since they are embedded in mainstream American culture.

Conformed to the Patterns of This World – Local and Denominational Considerations

Now that we have identified consumerism, hedonism, nihilism, materialism, and insularism as patterns of the world to which Christians are not meant to be conformed, we’re going to see how they have played out in the arena of racial injustice; and we’ll look specifically at examples from Dallas history.

Between 1920-1924, the Dallas chapter[11] of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) grew into the largest chapter in the world (boasting a membership of 13,000 when the city’s population was only 160,000), partly because it recruited so effectively from Protestant churchmen. The membership represented about 1 in 3 eligible men in Dallas at the time. After a KKK parade took place in Downtown Dallas in May 1921 – one that featured 789 masked marchers, a flaming cross, and signs bearing all manner of white supremacist slogans – Dr. William M. Anderson, assistant pastor of the downtown First Presbyterian Church said, “someone is in earnest so things in Dallas can be straightened up.” Dr. Charles Claude Selecman, pastor of the First United Methodist Church and soon-to-be third president of Southern Methodist University, said something similar: “If the situation is such that a Ku Klux Klan is justified in Dallas, then it is a good thing.”

But these men are not remembered for their endorsement of white supremacy or the KKK. Selecman is remembered for growing SMU despite the financial hardships of the Great Depression, for seeing the endowment grow from $883,000 to $2,300,000 under his 15-year tenure. And Anderson is fondly remembered for being one of the original faculty of the Evangelical Theological College of Dallas (which in 1936 was renamed Dallas Theological Seminary) and for starting the charity clinic for babies in the basement of his church that eventually became part of the Children’s Medical Center of Dallas. In 1957, the school board of Dallas ISD even voted to name an elementary school after him.

It seems all but forgotten now that in 1921, First Presbyterian Church of Dallas was still part of the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUS), a union of churches whose historic support of slavery contributed to a major schism within the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) in 1837, and who seceded from the PCUSA in August 1861 during the Civil War to form the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA).

It’s a matter of general consensus now that American slavery was an evil and oppressive institution, so much so that many Christians today want to distance themselves from the Christians who supported it by asserting things like, “They weren’t true Christians.” But primary documents like the minutes from the 1862 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States of America reveal a theology and religiosity that today’s evangelical Christians would find familiar and quite similar to their own. Christians in the PCCSA supported missionary efforts to the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Cherokee, and Creek nations. They were concerned about the negative impacts of the war on the faith of converts from those tribes. They were dedicated to acts of benevolence. They raised money even during the chaos of war to send missionaries to India and China. In fact, many pages read like the minutes of any modern missional organization.

They even spoke of the 4 million black people living in the Confederacy as a mission field, and of the welfare of the black race as a sacred trust:

“The field is vast–the destitution lamentable. Our Confederacy covers about 840,000 square miles, with a population of some 8,000,000 of whites, and 4,000,000 of blacks. Among these are large numbers who never hear the Gospel from the lips of a Presbyterian minister, nor indeed from Ministers of any denomination. Church members of our own connection whose lot has been cast in new and destitute neighborhoods are blessed with no stated means of grace for themselves and their families. Our scattered sheep are wandering in the wilderness, without any one to care for them. And when peace shall once more have been restored to our suffering country, it is to be presumed that a fresh tide of population will set in. Then, too, the impediments which have heretofore restrained efforts in behalf of the colored race, whose lot is cast among us, will be removed so that in all probability there will be facilities of access to that part of our population never before enjoyed. This wide and needy field among the blacks brings claims of paramount importance to the sympathies and toils of the Southern Church, and it is to be hoped that from it a rich harvest is to be gathered in coming years. Providence has opened to us a vast missionary work at our own doors; and one altogether peculiar, and at the same time peculiar in encouragements. To the Church of the South the welfare of this race is committed as a sacred trust, and it behoves [sic] her to see that she is faithful to the obligations it imposes.”[12]

And yet, they were the same people who made clear where their loyalties were in August 1861 when they officially seceded from the PCUSA:

“This Convention does not assume to itself, nor does it claim for the Church of Christ, the right to determine the political relations of individuals, or to solve for them political questions. But this Convention has a Country that it calls its own: that Country is known as the Confederate States of America, and to it this Convention holds to be due our strongest affections and our greatest energies.”[12]

They wholeheartedly supported seceding and going to war to maintain the right to keep enslaved the very people whose welfare they deemed “a sacred trust.” They were willing to die for and to kill other Christians for the cause, framing their own military struggle in terms of “Christian patriotism” and “Christian duty” throughout. Blinded by assumptions about black inferiority, they had no room in their imaginations for a reality in which they were equal and free.

At the same time, they were deeply concerned when it came to matters of individual holiness, believing that the quality of their adherence to these forms of holiness (but not fair or just treatment of Black people as God’s image bearers) were tied to divine favor or anger – a reflection of their Puritan roots.[13] Take, for example, the following excerpts from a pastoral letter from the General Assembly “To The Ministers and Members of Our Churches and the Young Men of Our Congregations in the Confederate Army”:

“The awful and prevailing sin of our people is profanity. The name of God is taken in vain in the wicked curse, and the lewd joke… This is our crying, national sin, which, with many others, has brought down on our land the wrath of offended heaven.”

“The desecration of the holy Sabbath is another crying sin of our land… As you stand in the constant presence of death, make the Sabbath day, as far as possible, an occasion of preparation for it… Thus the Sabbath will prove a blessing and you will avert from your heads the wrath of God that comes on the land, because of the dishonor we, as a people, have placed on the day which He calls His own.” 

“In like manner we would warn you against the prevailing vice of intemperance. Besides the moral defilement which it always causes, wherever it prevails, the evil of this particular vice has manifested itself in a most striking manner during the progress of this war… Intemperance is that fell destroyer which carries to the grave more victims than war, pestilence and famine, all combined…it spreads misery and woe in its pathway, and death and hell follow in its train.”

“Another vice… [is] gambling. Besides the moral turptitude [sic] and sin of gambling, the taking from your fellows that which is theirs without a just return, this vice creates a morbid thirst after speedy gains and a spirit of reckless extravagance… and generally ends in his temporal ruin. A practice which produces such results is necessarily evil.”

In yet another display of inconsistency, delegates of the PCCSA made the following statement about unity at the General Assembly of 1862 without any sense of irony, quickly followed by an amendment to its Form of Government section:

“The General Assembly need scarcely re-assert its earnest desire to cultivate friendly relations with Churches professing the same doctrines, and practising the same polity. The unity of God’s people is not only a reality, but it is of the highest importance that this unity should be manifested to the world. Where this is not practicable this Assembly is ready to do all that is consistent with truth to promote peace, and hopes that the charity which is the “bond of perfectness” will ever characterize its intercourse with other ecclesiastical bodies.”[14]

“On motion of Judge Swayne, the following resolution was adopted, viz: Resolved That the second section of the eighth chapter of the Form of Government be, and the same is hereby amended, by adding the following words: ‘They shall not indulge in the discussion of questions of State, or party politics, or contraverted [sic] questions pertaining to civil government and policy.'”

The delegates approached the problem of disunity by prohibiting the discussion of politics, civil government, and policy, believing that it was discussion of these things that resulted in division rather than fundamental questions of right and wrong, just and unjust.

These glaring inconsistencies reflect in part the slippery logic of a Christianity tainted by Gnosticism. The syncretistic nature of it enables a kind of selective morality as well as selective concern about earth-bound circumstances, and that selectivity is driven by self-interest. That’s how Southern Presbyterians could consider profanity, gambling, intemperance, and desecrating the sabbath to be prevailing national sins that kindled the wrath of God yet consider their militant struggle to defend slavery and the way of life it secured for them as a patriotic and Christian duty. That’s how they could consider the 4 million black people living in the Confederate states as souls to be saved but not as bodies to be liberated – nevermind all the radical implications in the New Testament about everyone in Christ having equal standing (Gal. 3:28) and being heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17). That’s how they could gloss over the glaring roots of their denominational disunity and promote instead a superficial peace by silencing all talk of politics, policy, and civil government and focusing on missions and saving souls.

After the war, the North-South groups of Presbyterian churches were not able to unite, so the PSSCA became the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). During Reconstruction, the northern church launched the Mission to the Freedmen. Freed black people spurned the southern branch, the PCUS, and gravitated in large numbers toward the PCUSA missionaries. By 1882, the PCUSA Board of Missions to the Freedmen was sponsoring two universities, two colleges, five boarding schools, and 138 parochial schools. The Board of National Missions eventually phased it out in the twentieth century, but at its peak, the Board of Missions to the Freedmen supervised 438 churches and missions, 388 schools, 272 ministers, and 27,916 communicants. In contrast, the 4,000 black Christians who remained in the southern church tried to organize into an independent Afro-American Presbyterian Church beginning in 1874, but after four decades of poor support from white southern Presbyterians, they abandoned the project in 1916.

Between 1872-1876 of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, 1.2 million people immigrated to Texas, half of them from the North. As so many regions throughout the South did, post-Civil War Dallas developed an elaborate Lost Cause mythology that practically became a civil religion. It promoted narratives about the virtues of the antebellum South and framed the South’s cause in the war as just and heroic, an attempt to protect a way of life and the rights of its states in the face of overwhelming northern aggression. It denied or minimized the central role of slavery and white supremacy in the conflict, despite the fact that it was central in every state’s official secession declarations. Its peddlers argued that the North had acted as an instrument of divine will to release the South from the onus of slavery, which had been benign and uplifting for black people but had been a terrible financial and emotional burden on white people.[15] The Lost Cause became widely accepted by white Americans in the years following the war because of its usefulness in promoting reconciliation between northern and southern white people. In 1897, the Daughters of the Confederacy unveiled a 65-foot Confederate War monument in Sullivan Park (later named Old City Park) near downtown Dallas in a ceremony attended by the widow of Stonewall Jackson and the daughter of Jefferson Davis, as well as Union veterans that were now living in Dallas.

It’s beyond the scope of this document to cover history more comprehensively, so we’ll fast-forward to the 1950s. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka in May 1954 had caused the issue of de-segregation to come to a head, and I want to highlight some of the work that influential people within the PCUS were doing to shepherd the denomination away from its unjust habits of racial segregation toward a biblical view of people and community. At the 94th General Assembly of the PCUS, a specially appointed Council of Christian Relations presented a report on the Bible and human relations, racial integration, and the position of the church. The report affirmed that “every person is of infinite value, and therefore of equal value in the sight of God. In His sight there is no ‘superior race.’” It also contained the following:

“It is God’s will that the law of Christian love be operative in all human relationships. Guided by this law Christians recognize and meet need apart from the circumstances of one’s birth and culture. People are to be looked upon and treated as people. Whatever injures or prevents the growth of human personality is contrary to the law of love. The Christian’s conduct toward others must be guided by the law of neighborliness which seeks the welfare and happiness of all people.”

“Since segregation of the white and Negro people continues to diminish it is time to determine the Church’s relationship to this trend. This state of flux is due to two dynamic forces at work, the Federal Constitution and the Christian conscience, the one legal and the other spiritual, the one finding expression in statutes and court decisions, and the other in personal conduct, in the voice and policies of the Church. If it be judged that segregation is not merely the separation of two peoples, but the subordination of one people to another, we can, on good evidence, observe that the courts have shown more sympathy toward the Negro than has the Church. The Church would then find itself in the embarrassing position of having to adjust its sense of morality to measure up to the mores of the state. This would belie its pristine nature. Our Christ was and still is ahead of the times; the customs, traditions, and laws of it. The Church must strive to keep apace of its Master or become bereft of His spirit.”

The Council then made a number of recommendations: 

  1. That the General Assembly affirm that enforced segregation of the races is discrimination which is out of harmony with Christian theology and ethics and that the Church, in its relationship to cultural patterns, should lead rather than follow.
  2. That the General Assembly, therefore, submit this report for careful study throughout the Church, and that it especially urge:
    (1) That the trustees of institutions of higher education belonging to the General Assembly adopt a policy of opening the doors of these institutions to all races.
    (2) That the synods consider earnestly the adoption of a similar recommendation to trustees of institutions under their control.
    (3) That the governing bodies of the various conferences held throughout the Church consider the adoption of a similar policy.
    (4) That the sessions of local churches admit persons to membership and fellowship in the local church on the Scriptural basis of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ without reference to race,
    (5) That in this time of crisis and concern, we commend to all individuals in our communion and especially to all leaders of our churches the earnest cultivation and practice of the Christian graces of forbearance, patience, humility and persistent good will.

The General Assembly voted to adopt the report and its recommendations. Unfortunately, many of the churches responded with strong resistance. At the Synod of Mississippi of the PCUS on November 4, 1954, G.T. Gillespie, President Emeritus of Belhaven College, a Christian school in Jackson, MS, made vigorous protest against the 94th General Assembly on both constitutional and Scriptural grounds. He then delivered an address entitled, “A Christian View on Segregation: A Statement in Defense of the Principle of Racial Segregation.” In it, he denied being guilty of racial prejudice and centered his arguments in favor of segregation around the importance of preventing interracial marriage, the preservation of white “racial integrity” and the formation of a mulatto race, which would represent a fulfillment of Marxist ideology and Soviet communism. He also employed a number of Old Testament passages to justify his position. The Mississippi Synod adopted his address, and the Mississippi Citizens’ Council printed it and widely publicized it. Its formal response and proposal, as published in the L. Nelson Bell’s Southern Presbyterian Journal,[16] read as follows: “1. That the Synod cannot in good conscience and for other good and sufficient reasons comply with the recommendations of the Ninety-fourth General Assembly to abandon the principle of segregation in schools, young people’s conferences, and local congregation; 2. The Synod overtures the Ninety-fifth General Assembly to reconsider and rescind the action of the last Assembly in adopting the report of the Council of Christian Relations with the recommendations contained therein, as contrary to the constitution of the church and the example of Christ; 3. That the Assembly ‘redefine the functions of the Council on Christian Relations… and to take such other steps as may be deemed necessary to insure that in the future these and similar agencies of the church shall scrupulously respect and observe the principles set forth in the Confession of Faith, Chapter XXXI, Section IV, and in the Book of Church Order, Chapter XIII, paragraphs 57 and 58.” 

The Virginia Synod, in contrast, adopted the General Assembly’s recommendations. But individual churches like St. James Presbyterian Church in King William objected, stating, “We feel that the action taken by the General Assembly of our church and the Synod of Virginia, does not reflect the views and wishes of a very large majority of the lay members of our church, and is not in the best interest of good relations, between the two races, and such subject has no place in our church, and is doing great harm to the advancement of the cause of religion. Now Therefore Be It Resolved by the Session and Officers present of the St. James Presbyterian Church, that we go on record opposing the actions taken by our General Assembly and the Synod of Virginia, on this matter, we favor continued segregation in our churches and in the public schools of our State.”[17]

Rev. J.E. Flow wrote an article[18] on segregation that appeared in the Southern Presbyterian Journal. It probably represented the opinion that a great many white Christians in the PCUS held at the time.

“Our church stands for the spiritual mission of the church, and does not ‘intermeddle with affairs that affect the commonwealth.’ This is in our constitution.”

“Six or eight years ago, [Henry Sloan Coffin] was the author of the resolution approved by the Federal Council, by the U.S.A. church, and again by the World Council, that ‘Segregation is unnecessary, undesirable, unChristian and a violation of the law of human love and brotherhood… and we must work for a non-segregated community, a non-segregated society, and a non-segregated church.’ If and when we vote for union [with the U.S.A. church], ‘Yes!’ this is what we will be voting for, for it is all wrapped up in the same package. These are the present leaders of the U.S.A. church and they are in politics ‘up to their ears’ in the name of him who said ‘my kingdom is not of this world.’ Let others do as they may but I am not following any such leadership. Our church stands for the purity and integrity of the White man of North America upon whose shoulders are laid the burdens of the world. He cannot fulfill his destiny nor meet the fearful responsibilities except by remaining white as God made him and intended him to be. There is only one way he can do it and that is by jealously guarding his young people during the period of  youth and adolescence so that they will marry and intermarry among the people of Anglo Saxon origin. In doing this he will accord to all other races the right to maintain the purity and integrity of their own race, as God made them and intended them to be.”

Note once again how the emphasis on the spiritual mission enabled a complete avoidance of self-reflection about his white supermacist views, even invoking Jesus’s words, “my kingdom is not of this world” to justify it.[19]

Even in this brief overview, it is apparent that on matters of race, the white church has a long history of embracing positions that are now widely accepted as unconscionable (and were already unconscionable to men and women of intact conscience in their own era). More significantly, as the Council on Christian Relations pointed out in their report to the 94th General Assembly of the PCUS, the white church has not only failed to follow the Lord’s lead in these critical matters, but it has also repeatedly found itself in the embarrassing position of having to adjust its sense of morality to measure up to the mores of the state, or today, secular academic institutions.

Nevertheless, history provides some encouragement and inspiration. The people on the Council of Christian Relations who called their brothers and sisters in Christ to repent are among the great cloud of witnesses as we attempt in the present to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” (Hebrew 12:1) Before them, a courageous woman named Hallie Paxson Winsborough spent twenty-eight years in her position as the leader of the Women’s Auxiliary of the PCUS fighting for improved interracial relations, teaching people to reject racial stereotypes, and denouncing the KKK.[20] How do we lead believers courageously and effectively to engage with the injustices that persist today, even as we are inundated with worldly ideologies that seek to dismantle injustice but don’t account for the universal nature of human depravity and therefore lack redemptive power for sinners? How do we lead in a way that will bring about true transformation of our congregations so that the church can be a body that truly promotes human flourishing in our city and beyond?

Recovering the Call to Make/Be Disciples – Key Elements

In 1 Chronicles 12:32, the men of Issachar were described as those “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” It should be our prayer that the Lord would help us become people who understand the times and know what the church should do. 

We return now to the problem of epistemology over ethics. Hopefully, it’s obvious by now that making disciples and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded involves much more than transfer of information. It must involve a training in righteousness that includes but goes beyond personal holiness and encompasses how we conduct ourselves ethically, civically, geographically and politically as citizens of the God’s kingdom, in the particular places God has placed us. Historically, an underdeveloped biblical political theology has caused white Christians to passively succumb to the politics of white supremacy and segregation. As creatures who live in community with others, we are inherently political creatures, so if we don’t consciously develop a godly political theology, the forces in our culture will develop one for us. In the antebellum South and the Jim Crow era, white Christians consciously accepted and even christened the ideology of white supremacy. Today, most white Christians reject the ideology but are unaware of the way that all of us still live within the economic, social, and geographic structures that were erected via federal, state, and local policies when white supremacy was an acceptable ideology. The problems are less visible than in the days of slavery and “whites only” signs, but they are more deeply entrenched, and that is the challenge facing us today. Author and historian Isabel Wilkerson summarized it best in a recent article she wrote:

We in this country are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say: “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked Indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures in the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now. And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands. Unaddressed, the ruptures and diagonal cracks will not fix themselves. The toxins will not go away but rather will spread, leach and mutate, as they already have.[21]

But Christians won’t make helpful contributions to addressing these ruptures merely by theologizing. We always need to make sure we’re thinking as rightly as possible, but we also need to figure out how to do rightly. Right doctrine doesn’t automatically lead to right thinking, and right thinking doesn’t automatically lead to right doing. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have seen so many highly trained and well respected Christian leaders, seminary professors, and pastors to be conformed to the patterns of the world when it came to slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, racial segregation and inequality, Lost Cause mythology, racial prejudice, and other forms of racial injustice. Those same discipleship gaps persist today, as evidenced by the number of white Christians who deny there is any such thing as racial injustice.

Developing a discipleship based in narrative and action

In sharp contrast to the overwhelmingly didactic approaches that most majority-white Protestant churches rely on (sermons, Bible studies, classes, book clubs, workshops, conferences), Jesus’s teaching, as presented in the gospels, is mostly narrative, always embodied, and always wedded to action like crossing social boundaries (in some cases walking long distances to do it [Mark 7:24], and in other cases refusing to walk long distances to avoid it [John 4]), picking heads of grain with his disciples on the sabbath, healing the sick, changing water into wine, feeding hungry masses, calming a storm, forgiving his enemies, washing people’s feet, bringing in large numbers of fish, crossing the Sea of Galilee multiple times, confronting religious hypocrisy, casting out demons, and having meals in the homes of friends, disreputable people, and Pharisees alike. 

In Mark 4, Jesus teaches a crowd gathered at the Sea of Galilee by telling a series of parables: one about a farmer who sows seeds in different conditions with different results, one about placing a lamp on a stand to disclose what is hidden, one about the mystery of seeds turning into a harvest, and one about a mustard seed. According to Walter Brueggemann, “Telling parables was one of Jesus’ revolutionary activities, for parables are subversive re-imagining of reality.”[22] Jesus was constantly challenging the horizons of his listeners’ understanding of God and reality, inviting them to enter into God’s story more deeply. It’s important for us to realize, as modern readers in an urban setting, that the parables in Mark 4 shouldn’t be over-spiritualized. They meant very concrete things to his mostly agrarian audience that regularly scattered seeds on the ground and hoped for the best in a world that didn’t have the benefits of irrigation systems. They depended on the sovereignty of God. They also have a rich oral tradition through which they heard the scriptures sung to them in their synagogues. The parable of the mustard seed echoes the end of Ezekiel 17, where God promises to raise up Israel, even though it’s surrounded by more powerful empires (tall cedars).

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the field will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.”

After Jesus finishes telling these parables, it’s nonstop action for him and his disciples. That very evening, Jesus says to them, “Let’s go to the other side [of the sea].” They encounter a furious squall. The disciples panic. Jesus calms the wind and the waves with a rebuke. And before they can fully process what has happened, the group arrives at their destination, the country of the Gerasenes, where they encounter a man possessed by an entity that self-identifies as Legion, a military term. Jesus sends the unclean spirits into a band of pigs that rushes down a steep bank into the sea and are drowned. The formerly possessed man is now in his right mind and wishing to follow Jesus, but he tells him to go tell his family about God’s mercy instead. Jesus and the disciples get back into the boat and return to Jewish territory. Before long, a crowd gathers again. Jairus, one of the synagogue rulers, pleads with Jesus to heal his dying daughter. As Jesus and Jairus make their way through the crowd toward Jairus’s home, their trip is interrupted by a chronically ill and utterly broke woman also seeking to be healed. Jesus stops to listen to her entire story (Mark 5:33). While he’s still talking to her, Jairus’s daughter dies. Jesus goes to his house anyway, taking Peter, James, and John with him, and they watch him raise her from the dead.

The actions that followed those particular parables were directly related to them. In their world, the enmity between Jews and Gentiles was “the prototype of all human hostility.”[25] Once we appreciate this, then the storm they encountered on the way to Gentile territory takes on symbolic significance. Jesus was going about the business of reconciling all humans to himself and each other, and the storm represented the “cosmic forces of opposition” (Myers et al, 1996) to this endeavor. Yet Jesus demonstrated his ultimate dominion over the storm and therefore any opposition to his reconciling kingdom. His sovereignty, even as he slept, was the reality that his terrified disciples weren’t able to see in the middle of the storm. They saw it only when he calmed the wind and the waves.

When they arrived at the Gerasenes,[23] the territory appeared hostile and spiritually oppressive, but Jesus went there to scatter the seeds of God’s kingdom, and he strategically picked that location. As mentioned earlier, “Legion” is a military term. The city was inhabited by imperial soldiers. Jesus sent Legion into a “band”[24] (another military reference) of pigs that ended up drowning themselves in the sea. Here’s how it relates to the parable of the mustard seed. Israel was like a tiny mustard seed compared to the might of Rome, but Jesus had just demonstrated through a dramatic exorcism that he had ultimate dominion over the occupying force that was Rome’s imperial army (and whatever spiritual powers and principalities were animating it). It proved that he had the ability to work with something tiny and advance the kingdom of God through it, even under oppressive circumstances. Remarkably, the seed bore fruit. The demoniac was delivered and wanted to follow Jesus. Jesus sent him back to his family, however, to bear witness to them and others in the region. Jesus would not be there to oversee the restored man’s evangelistic proclamations, but we’re left to speculate that the healed man’s testimony did indeed scatter more seeds among the Gentiles that later produced a harvest.

Finally, the story of Jairus and the woman with the bleeding disorder demonstrated that the kingdom of God is not a respecter of status. The synagogue ruler’s privileged young daughter was not more important than poor, desperate, middle-aged, and ceremonially unclean woman. Jesus did not put her off to tend to a more urgent matter. He offered her the ministry of presence and dignity, and only after she was healed physically and emotionally did he go to Jairus’s house to tend to his daughter.

Crossing Boundaries 

Segregation remains a powerful force that keeps affluent white Christians in particular sheltered from the harsh realities that communities of color experience on a daily basis. As we saw in the previous section, Jesus regularly took his disciples out of their native territories to interact with the realities that existed beyond them, whether it was to Gentile territory or Tyre and Sidon or Samaria. [Dallas neighborhood] is essentially a wealthy, sheltered island community. If crossing boundaries is a non-negotiable element of discipleship, what would discipleship look like for all the white church members who live in [Dallas neighborhood]? Where would we need to take them? South Dallas? East Dallas? Historically Black neighborhoods in North Dallas? Who would they interact with, and under what conditions? Consider the challenge in the essay, Why the Affluent Need the Poor

Cultural Exegesis

The reason Jesus led his disciples the way he did is because he was thoroughly knowledgeable about the place where they lived – its culture, its rhythms, its taboos, its history, its social contracts, the spiritual forces at work, and its political circumstances. He constantly challenged his disciples to apply his teaching in embodied ways while interacting with all these realities. If we were to do the same in modern times, we would require them to learn the city’s history, learn how to analyze its politics and values. We would teach them to make observations about it and then ask questions about what they observed. For example, the city is very segregated. How did it become that way? Was it a matter of similar people flocking together, or were there other forces at work? (Hint: it’s the latter.)

The idols in Athens were easy to spot, but the idols in Dallas are harder to identify. Therefore, we are more likely to be participants in idolatry without being aware of it. Part of discipleship involves teaching people how to identify those idols. How do we do that? Do we recognize the spiritual realities Paul wrote about in Ephesians 6:12 and 2 Corinthians 10:3-5?

Historical Redemptive Imagination

One of the patterns of this world is that of selective historical memory. But a baptized imagination enables us to grapple with the historical sins of our ancestors and institutions and seek out a redemptive narrative by which people and communities are healed and God is glorified. We need to help people repent of selective historical memory, and that involves giving them the tools to process painful and shameful history in light of the gospel so they can at once confess its depravity without any need to buffer or deny and experience the freedom and joy of God’s forgiveness. Eugene Peterson wrote, “Repentance is not an emotion. It is not feeling sorry for your sins. It is a decision . . . Repentance is a realization that what God wants from you and what you want from God are not going to be achieved by doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts. Repentance is a decision to follow Jesus Christ and become his pilgrim in the path of peace.”[26] And, “If we define the nature of our lives by the mistake of the moment or the defeat of the hour or the boredom of the day, we will define it wrongly. We need roots in the past to give obedience ballast and breadth; we need a vision of the future to give obedience direction and goal. And they must be connected. There must be an organic unity between them.”

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Rejecting Instant Fixes

Everyone wants quick fixes to big problems – a book club, a book list, a website, a resolution, a workshop, a 12-week study, a program, a boot camp – but the truth is, quick fixes don’t exist, not for a person and certainly not for an institution. The work of discipleship is slow, painstaking, nonlinear, and full of difficulties. We have to teach people how to suffer, how to be still, and how to persevere.

There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness. Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure.

The central reality for Christians is the personal, unalterable, persevering commitment God makes to us. Perseverance is not the result of our determination, it is the result of God’s faithfulness. We survive in the way of faith not because we have extraordinary stamina but because God is righteous, because God sticks with us.

What we envision offering is an extended (18-24 months) season of specialized discipleship training (“Becoming just disciples in an unjust world”) for a cohort of no more than 20 people to begin with. The pilot cohort will consist of the people who lead ministry endeavors at the church – the staff, the pastors, the lay leaders, the session. to bolster what is already there, to shore up the deficits in the ethical dimensions of discipleship. We will help people explore full counsel of Jesus and help them walk them out in real-life situations in different areas of town. They will learn how to build long-term relationships with people who are not like them. It will require a serious commitment.

[1] Ellis, Carl. “The Culture We Promote.” Prepared for The Billy Graham Center Evangelism Roundtable, “Issues of Truth and Power: The Gospel
[2] “Discipling Urban Young Men.”
[3] “Discipling Young Men On the Road to Islam” by Carl Ellis, Jr. Creating Options Together Conference (Cru Inner City), St. Paul, MN, October 2016.
[4] Question 3 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What do the Scriptures principally teach?” Answer: The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.”
[5] Packer, J.I. (1973). Knowing God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
[6] A term utilizeed by Darrow Miller in Miller, Darrow L. and Guthrie, Stan. (1998). Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures. Seattle: YWAM Publishers. Pages 46-47.
[7] “Gnosticism.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed on 7/19/20.
[8] Moody, Dwight L. (1878) “The Second Coming of Christ.” The Gospel Awakening, Comprising the Sermons and Addresses, Prayer Meeting Talke and Bible Readings, Of the Great Revival Meetings, Conducted by Moody and Sankey, in the Cities of Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Boston and Great Britain. St. Louis, MO: Scammell & Company. Page 667
[9] I once heard this statement from the keynote speaker at a missions conference I attended in February 2020.
[10] Fikkert, Brian and Kapic, Kelly. (2019). Becoming Whole: Why The Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream. Chicago: Moody Publishers. Pages 92-96, 98-99, 120. See also
[11] Payne, Darwin. “When Dallas Was the Most Racist City in America.” D Magazine, June 2017.
[12] Proceedings of a Convention of Delegates from Various Presbyteries in the Confederate States of America, Held in the First Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, Georgia. (Atlanta: Franklin Printing House, 1861).
[13] Individualism.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.
[14] Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. (1862). Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. Augusta, GA: Steam Power Press Chronicle & Sentinel.
[15] Phillips, Michael. (2006). White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. Page 47.
[18] Flow, J.E. “Positive or Negative?” The Southern Presbyterian Journal, September 29, 1954, pages 8-10.
[19] As an antidote to this line of reasoning, I recommend Eugene Peterson’s chapter on politics in Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination. See pages 117-118.
[20] Durway, Julia. “‘The field is endless’: Hallie Paxson Winsborough and Interracial Work in the PCUS Women’s Auxiliary, 1912-1940. The Journal of Presbyterian History. Vol. 78, No. 3 (Fall 2000). Pages 207-219.
[21] Wilkerson, Isabel. “America’s Enduring Caste System.” New York Times Magazine. July 1, 2020.
[22] Brueggemann, Walter. “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity.” Christian Century, March 24-31, 1999. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation  
[23] They are in Gentile territory. The Gerasenes is one of the federated cities of the Decapolis, where many veterans of the imperial army had been given land and have therefore settled.
[24] The Greek word used here, ἀγέλη (agelē), is often translated “herd,” so we miss the fact that it’s also the word used to refer to the military bands in which boys from Crete and Sparta were trained in combat. There is military symbolism throughout this story that’s set in a town full of imperial soldiers. Jesus is showing he has dominion over the occupying force.
[25] Myers C, Dennis M, Nangle J, Moe-Lobeda C, Taylor S. (1996). “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. Page 57
[26] Peterson, Eugene. (2000). A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. Page 29.

©2020 by Judy Wu Dominick, All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission.

Categories: Church/Ecclesiology, Culture/Social issues, Race/Ethnicity, Spiritual Formation, Uncategorized

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1 reply

  1. Awesome! Can’t wait to read this and to see what comes forth from this as your writing/teaching gets out. 🙂

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