I grew up in a self-professed non-denominational church. My mother began attending when I was just two years old, and I stayed until I turned 23 years old this past January. I am eternally indebted to my many church mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles.
Without question, my home church is my foundation and my refuge. It was there that I first learned about Christ and my call to spread the Gospel. That is why I write this letter—because of the deep anguish I feel having recognized that my beloved church, though it claims to take the Bible at its word, does not in fact live out the scriptural call to social action and daily service to those in need.
Instead, my church, like many non-denominational churches, is evangelical. The term “non-denominational” is supposed to connote a non-affiliation with traditional denominations. It is supposed to, as my fellow churchgoers put it, “avoid the stigma of Christianity.” Instead of calling themselves Christians, many evangelicals call themselves disciples—an attempt to more closely replicate the first-century church.
The purpose of this language is two-fold. First, it distances the non-denominational/evangelical church from historical moments of crisis such as the Crusades; and second, it is thought to bring its subjects closer to Jesus.
The word “disciple” is said to be a more accurate description of “true Jesus followers,” since the word “Christian” only appears a few times in the Bible and is described somewhat offhandedly (Acts 11:26 is a popular reference). The use of this terminology is intentional because part of the “disciple” versus “Christian” debate has to do with the church’s inability to accept complicity. The truth is that Christians and disciples have—historically and presently—been co-partners in death-dealing theological practice and have failed to answer Jesus’ call to daily service to the suffering.
“How are we defining what is radical? Are we only radical when it comes to sexual sin? Are we radical in our love for the poor? “
As I see it, there are three major points of potential reformation within the non-denominational, evangelical church. The first pertains to the spirit of apathy. Too many times I have witnessed firsthand the scorn, shame and rejection that comes when one of our own wanders or falls away. The phone calls stop, the texts cease, and the friendships end (scriptures such as Matthew 5:30; Matthew 18:15-17; and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 are usually cited as reasons for “radical” acts of amputation).
But how are we defining what is radical? Are we only radical when it comes to sexual sin? Are we radical in our love for the poor? Throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, God commands the people to take care of the neighbor. The neighbor is the prostitute, the widow, the child, and yes, the sinner in the church.
What would the world look like if we spent less time condemning and “praying” for queer and transgender people and spent more time speaking about the astronomical rates of LBGT homelessness? What would the world look like if we spent less time worrying about giving side-hugs, and more time worrying about the high rates of teen pregnancy in New York City and beyond? What would the world look like if we did not just invite homeless people to church, or revel in annual trips abroad to feed and take care of the poor, but addressed the growing housing and voting crises right here in our own backyard? What if we began talking about the increasing number of Black and Latino women, men and children that die at the hands of police every year?
As much as non-denominational and evangelical churches zero in on so-called “sins of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21), hubris is perhaps the most frequently mentioned sin in the entire Bible. This brings me to my second point. Self-righteousness—the belief that one has exclusive access to divine knowledge and is therefore justified in what one does—is appalling to God.
The implication of self-righteousness is that all those who fall outside of our definition of holiness are hedonists in need of saving. The problem with self-righteous thinking is that it divides society into us and them, disallowing community building. One of my favorite scriptures is 1 Corinthians 8:1-3. Paul pens a passage about eating food sacrificed to idols and cautions against being a stumbling block to others. He begins the passage:
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.
Why would Paul start his letter with a cautionary note about love? The answer is this: we all eat food sacrificed to idols; and we can all be like the people of Babel (Genesis 11:6), wanting to “make a name” for ourselves.
“A church is only as strong as the people who reside beyond its walls. No church can live in isolation, and no church ought to pretend to be blind to the reality of color. “
If we turn to the Hebrew Bible, Tamar’s narrative is a model for what the church should look like. Like Tamar, people of color, impoverished people and imprisoned people are the pariahs. They are metaphorical widows—not possessing land, not having economic viability, and not having worth.
Like Tamar, these ‘New Pariahs’ are forced into acts of desperation—whether it be through participating in black market activity, defending territory, or refusing to cooperate with authorities—that result in stigma and alienation. In the Tamar story what is understood as righteous is completely upended and re-defined. Righteousness is not just what doctrine or dogma one adheres to, righteousness is the work that one does to make one right before God. Righteousness means that you are willing to be slandered and stoned to death.
The fact that Tamar is listed as Jesus’ ancestor (Matthew 1:1-3) demonstrates that “election” is a fluid concept that can always be re-negotiated. What recourse do our society’s pariahs have? When will their acts be declared righteous, and when will their accusers and attackers be called to account? When will the church become a place of protection rather than a place of rejection?
A third potential point of reformation is in the area of color-blindness. This area is perhaps the most important to me personally: I am black, and God made me that way. As a result of slavery, systemic racism and oppression, my people and I suffer, just like many people of color suffer across the globe.
A church is only as strong as the people beyond its walls. No church can live in isolation, and no church ought to pretend to be blind to the reality of color. While there is neither male nor female in Christ, nor slave nor free, is it realistic to claim that non-denominational, evangelical churches somehow avoid classifying people altogether? Are we really blind to race, or are we simply afraid to broach the topic?
The Bible is neither apolitical, nor blind, and the text does not shy away from difficult topics. The Hebrew Bible is all about nation-building, land redistribution, juridical law and ethnic identity. The New Testament is about resisting against empire, egalitarian living, and socio-economic reversal.
Again, Tamar provides us with a map. Her narrative demonstrates that to be part of the elect is to work out one’s own salvation (Philippians 2:12), and to take agency in the “chosen-ness” process. Choosing ourselves means that we must affirm our humanity and our unique identity within the context of community.
For people of color, this process requires a different kind of disposition. “Lifting up” looks different to us. Maybe it looks like Tamar. Maybe it looks like subversive activity and impassioned protest. And maybe it looks a lot like rage, because maybe an indictment of white supremacist hetero-patriarchy requires a re-conception of righteous action.
Maybe we people of color are enacting a new kind of righteous indignation and confronting our Judah, and the established legal order, on our own terms. What if the church facilitated difficult conversations about race? What if it did not pretend not to see color but instead affirmed the feelings of Black brothers and sisters?
With the faith of a mustard seed we can move mountains—and we must.