In cross-cultural relationships we may have everything in common, and great love and affinity for each other, but if we do not deal with racial learning , with implicit bias , relationships will end up being dysfunctional. Without dealing with racial socialization, Christian leaders will not be competent at cross-cultural ministry, and we will repeat the mistakes of the reformers and early evangelicals . Three reasons why we must speak about race.

  1. We must speak about race for mission enhancing unity.
  2. We must speak about race because urban centres require competent cross-cultural ministry.
  3. We should engage with, rather than reject the social sciences, because they can help us figure out ‘what is the case.’ 1 Reconciliation depends on figuring out what happened.

The social sciences are producing lots of material on racial socialization. But there’s an understandable uncertainty about how to engage with this material. I want to suggest that the biblical category of idolatry provides a helpful, albeit challenging framework to analyse what the social sciences are observing.

1. Race is a Social Construct

The refrain ‘works of human hands’ reflects the idolatry of choice in the Old Testament 2 ‘Works of human hands’ describe idols as reflections of the human imagination. Similarly, the Apostle Paul states: ‘See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy’ . Philosophy that comes from the human imagination can be an idol that takes people captive.

Race is a social construct of white supremacy, developed from the 17th century and perfected in the 19th century to legitimize European colonialism 3 No one thought of themselves as black or white before the 17th century . Despite the fact that modern science has proven that race does not exist, people all over the world, for hundreds of years, have been taken captive by it. Why? Because like C.S Lewis put it, we have desires that this world cannot satisfy; desires that idols promise to fulfil.

2. Racial Idols Make False Promises

Idolatry can be understood as relying on something else to give what only God can give. For example, Israel entered into many treaties with surrounding nations for security, instead of relying on God for security. In Hosea 14.3 God called this inappropriate reliance, idolatry .

The idol of whiteness makes many false promises. One of them, is that white hegemony will produce stable, effective, fruitful leadership. The promise is that, if you put white leadership in charge, it results in stable growth. But consider the example of the Reformer’s participation with colonialism. Because you had only white leaders in charge of things, the normalization of racial sin resulted in instability for global mission. The promise is stability, the result is instability.

Consider the Homogenous Unit Principle, advocated by evangelicals like Peter Wagner and David McGavran in the 1970’s who claimed that:

“People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers.’ That is, the barriers to the acceptance of the gospel are often more sociological than theological; people reject the gospel not because they think it is false but because it strikes them as alien. They imagine that in order to become Christians they must renounce their own culture, lose their own identity, and betray their own people” 4

This is happening in the 1970’s just after the Civil Rights Movement. White evangelicals were essentially deciding to protect the idol of race by advocating for homogeneity. The promise is fast stable church growth, but 1 Corinthians 12 says that homogeneity leads to dysfunction, and it has. The metaphorical body in 1 Corinthians 12 has a mission and it requires unity among all its parts to accomplish its mission. When the body decides to rearrange what God has arranged, and call dispensable what God called indispensable, it becomes dysfunctional without even realizing it .

White hegemony and homogeneity characterize white led organizations for many years now. If this is not idolatry then what is it? Our generation needs clarity. Mono-cultural churches, in racialized societies , perpetuate racism and racial injustice! We must build multi-cultural churches, with multi-cultural leadership teams if we want to be effective in cross-cultural urban centres.

3. Racial Idols Are Fiercely Protected

Why do we have this conversation over and over and over again? We are all familiar with Tim Keller’s refrain; ‘idols are often good things that we love inordinately that become ultimate things’ because as Ezekiel 14.3 puts it ‘they are set up in our hearts’. We love them, so we protect them. People often respond to accusations of racially problematic behaviour with anger, silence, tears, withdrawal; all defence mechanisms to take race off the table.

But there is a deeper, theological defensiveness that is even more destructive to cross-cultural mission. It is the Slave Bible missing Jeremiah and Galatians. It’s Charles Hodge, Jonathan Edwards and Whitefield who weaponized the Bible in their fight for slavery and who vilified the abolitionists. It’s theological defensiveness.

In 1974 John Stott, as a minority voice, sought to correct his own evangelical tribe from the ‘dual mandate’ or ‘seed-fruit’ mandate. Billy Graham was saying that if the gospel seed is planted, the fruit of social change would grow naturally, so we must focus primarily on preaching the gospel 5

“I am convinced if the Church went back to its main task of proclaiming the Gospel and getting people converted to Christ, it would have far greater impact on the social, moral and psychological needs of men than any other thing it could possibly do.” Billy Graham

This separation and prioritization of evangelism from social action continues today. But we must reject this false dichotomy between justice and the gospel, in contexts of racial injustice, as demonic .

Rene Padilla, a Latin American Evangelical presents the content of the gospel as a message that is (1) eschatological , (2) Christological, (3) soteriological and (4) has a call to repentance and faith 6 We cannot prioritize one over the other . If you put the word ‘primarily’ next to the eschatological aspect of the gospel, you end up with a social gospel. If you put the word ‘primarily’ next to the soteriological aspect of the gospel, you end up with a truncated gospel that has insufficient social dimensions. Both result in syncretism and not orthodoxy. While our Lord had no problem affirming the soteriological aspects of the gospel, he also came to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God . Nor did He hesitate saying that the gospel is about liberation for the oppressed and good news to the poor . Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxis. A theology that de-emphasizes the eschatological aspects of the gospel leads to bad practice.

We cannot speak about God’s love in sending His Son when the communities doing the speaking are mono-cultural and seem to be protecting injustice. The medium is the message. What we do, is no less important than what we say. Evangelism in cross-cultural urban centres depends on our generation putting to death the idol of race. Idols always topple anyway. Therefore, as David Bosch puts it ‘the call to conversion should begin with the repentance of those who do the calling’ (2018 424).

4. Ten Application Steps

1. Differentiate between race, ethnicity, culture and Christian identity to enhance your cross-cultural contextualization

2. Repent of racial idolatry.

3. Diversify your leadership. This also means raising up leaders who come from working class backgrounds, and planting churches in working class neighbourhoods.

4. Love the Lord your God and walk humbly through race discussions.

5. Distinguish evangelism from mission but do not separate or prioritise one over the other.

6. Preach the full gospel, not a truncated gospel that excludes justice for the oppressed.

7. Speak out and fight for justice as an outworking of your gospel ministry.

8. Do not build homogenous churches that perpetuate racism.

9. Be bold in the Lord and expect that men may reject you but ‘the Lord takes the upright into his council’ (Proverbs 3.32).

10. You cannot work through your socialization and lead the process of transformation at the same time. Invite someone else or a diverse group, who are further along, to set the pace and trajectory for transformation.


  1. (Volf, M. 1996. Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Abingdon Press: Nashville: 233-240
  2. Wright, Christopher. 2008. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Leicester: Inter Varsity Press. 147
  3. ( Hirschman, C. 2004. “The Origins and Demise of the Concept of Race.” In Population and Development Review, vol. 30, no. 3, (accessed 24 May 2019): 392; DiAngelo, R. 2018. White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press. 17)
  4. Conn, H.M et al. 1978. Lausanne Occasional Paper 1. The Pasadena Consultation: Homogeneous Unit Principle (LOP 1). (accessed 24 May 2019)
  5. Bosch, D.J. 2018. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. New Yokr: Orbis Books. 416
  6. Padilla, C.R. 2010. Mission Between The Times: Essays on the kingdom. Langham Monographs. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 86-102

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