Living with Diversity

Families are designed to help us learn to live with people who are different than us.

My 3rd child has started going to public school. That means that she is getting up earlier. What does she want to do in the morning? Talk. My wife and I like to quietly read and meditate in the morning, if possible. There’s nothing wrong with either preference. We’re just different.

But how are we going to deal with it? Can we tolerate the differences, live with them, and even thrive with them?

Sadly, many families don’t prepare people well for living with differences. Instead, they do one of three things. They either seek to suppress the differences, continually fight about them, or eventually flee from them.

The church is also designed to be a place where a diversity of people come together. A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus as the one who saves us from our predicament in sin and brings us to forgiveness and new life. Anyone can hear the message about Jesus, accept it, and become a Christian that very moment. Ideally, they also become a part of a particular community (i.e., the church) at that time.

When this happens, you have people who have a lot of different ideas, a lot of different backgrounds, and a lot of different experiences coming together to try and make the community work. Romans 14 describes the situation in the early Christian communities. The Christian teacher named Paul wrote to the Christian community in Rome describing this situation, “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. . . . One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike” (Rom. 14:2, 5).

So, what are we to do with this diversity? The church has often tried the same things that families try: suppress the differences or continually fight about them. They also do what families sometimes do when these becomes too difficult. The differences are so hard to deal with that they just separate (which leaves them just as ill-equipped to deal with differences as before).

In the same letter, Paul gives some helpful instructions on how to live together in diversity. Here’s what he proposed:

  1. Receive or accept each other. “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1). What if our basic stance toward others was to accept and receive them whatever their differences?
  2. Do not have contempt for others. “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them” (Rom. 14:3).
  3. Don’t take the stance of a judge. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” (Rom. 14:4). It’s easy for us to set up ourselves as the one who is evaluating everyone else. It’s better to come alongside people and see ourselves as all being evaluated by the One Judge (see vv. 5–11, and note, curiosity is a more helpful stance).
  4. Seek to remove things that are a hindrance to others’ progress. “Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (v. 13). We should consider how our actions will affect others.
  5. Remember not every hill is a hill to die on. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit . . .” (Rom. 14:17). Paul had an opinion on foods and days. He just said his views on these matters were less important than other matters. Learn to distinguish what’s more important and less important.
  6. Help others grow. What I’ve said so far doesn’t mean we just leave people where they are. We should help them grow. Here’s what Paul said, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (v. 19). What if we took this attitude in all our communities? What if we thought of everyone’s interests and what would help move us forward in the best way rather than simply looking to our own interests?

I believe that Paul presents a beautiful, compelling, and wise vision of communities living together and thriving diversity. I believe that any person who adopts Paul’s recommendations will contribute to making their community better, and so I want to try and live this out in any community in which I am involved.

I also believe that this is not just up to me. I believe the good news that the power of God is available through the resurrection of Jesus to renew me as an individual and the communities of which I am a part. That’s the good news that Paul preached in the 1st century and is still available to us today.

White Evangelicals & Race

Christian rapper LeCrae. LeCrae decided that he was going to distance himself from white evangelicalism. This saddened me. I’m not judging what LeCrae has done. I know that he is far from the only person who feels this way. This reminds me of the sad reality that white evangelicals and evangelicals of color in the United States are not as close as they could and should be.

That said, I do understand it. I can understand particularly why African-American evangelicals would feel like they don’t belong in white evangelicalism.

This has led me to think about my behavior as a white evangelical. Do I do things that make white evangelicalism unwelcome for my brothers and sisters of color?

But this issue seems so big. What can I do? Especially, what can I do concretely? I came up with a few ideas. Here are a few things that I think I should do in regard to the race issue. I’d be interested in hearing what your thoughts are on this issue and what white evangelicals should do.

  1. Listen. James 1:19 says, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” For example, when my brothers and sisters speak about racial injustice, I want my first reaction to be to listen rather than to speak or react emotionally.
  2. Be honest about the history of the relationship of African-Americans and Whites in this country. A lot of it is very bad. I want to try to understand how this has worked out in my own area, family, and church and be honest and open about it.
  3. Be humble. Humility does not mean thinking lowly of myself (though that may be a part of it), it means thinking highly of others. For me, this means genuinely trying to understand the interests of others and see problems from their point of view.
  4. I want to make efforts to connect with non-white folks in my community. I want to make these efforts irrespective of how they react to me. One thing this means for me is sharpening my Spanish skills so that I can connect more effectively.
  5. Read material by and about non-white Americans. Not too long ago, I read The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. compiled by Clayborne Carson. This book was more than a biography. It also contained some of King’s most famous speeches and writings. It was much more moving for me to read about the civil rights era in King’s own words than just reading an account. It also helped me understand his thinking on a whole host of issues that still affect us today.
  6. Go to places and events where whites are in the minority and see what that experience is like. Then, take that knowledge back to organizations of which I am a part to make these organizations more welcoming to minority folks who come into them.
  7. Invite someone of color to come and preach at our church. I would like to include in this a time of fellowship to get to know this brother.
  8. If I support Donald Trump, do so with a great deal of humility. Recognize that most Christians of color in the United States do not support him. I would like to do my best to make it safer for those who do not support Donald Trump to share their reasons with me as a white evangelical and in the communities where I have influence.
  9. Attend events that celebrate different cultures and try to get to know the people involved.
  10. Attend a predominantly African-American Church. Ultimately, I would like to have some sort of regular participation in a church that is non-white where I can learn from these brothers and sisters on a regular basis.

These are some things that I will try to do because I think they are right and good and consistent with my Christian principles, thoughts, and values.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

Thoughts on Church Membership

The title of this post may not elicit the most excitement from my readers, but I think it is an important one. What we say about who gets counted in the church says a lot about what we think about the Gospel and the way that human beings can and should connect with God.

Here are some “theses” or “thoughts” that I wrote in 2012 after some serious prayer and consideration of this issue. My view has not substantially changed.

  1. Church membership must be based on our definition of a Christian, since all Christians are members of the true church invisible and should be members of the visible church.
  2. A Christian is someone who has repented of their sins and believes in Jesus Christ for salvation.
  3. Consequently, the test for church membership should be a credible profession of faith in Christ with a promise of repentance as well as a desire to do this in the context of a particular local church (as the questions for membership indicate in the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order).
  4. This simple test is confirmed by the Scriptural examples of the Apostles who welcomed 3,000 members on the very day (Pentecost) they professed faith in Christ. Similarly, the Philippian jailer was baptized on the very same day in which he heard and believed in the Gospel (Acts 16:31–34). If our test for membership does not approximate this, then our view of membership is defective from the apostolic example.
  5. If we desire to see God’s blessing on our ministry, then we should follow the example of the Apostles in the way we welcome members.
  6. We must also not give the impression that such members are not Christians or view them with skepticism until they become mature. There are adults as well as children in the faith and in the church as the Apostle John says, “I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for His name’s sake” (1 Jn. 2:11).
  7. Obviously, such a standard for membership will bring many erroneous opinions into the church, and there will be problems in the church as the example of the churches of the Apostles indicates. We must deal with these differences with patience, gentleness, and humility, following the examples of the Apostles and this rule: “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all” (1 Thess. 5:14).
  8. Our view of what constitutes the true church should be commensurate with what we consider a Christian to be. Any church that teaches that the Scriptures are the very Word of God, calls sinners to come to Jesus Christ freely for salvation, and teaches repentance should be regarded as a true church. Their members may be welcomed as long as they are willing to submit to the particularity of our church because the basis for membership in such churches is fundamentally the same as ours.
  9. While our relations with particular true churches of Jesus Christ may be less or more involved based on the opportunities provided in God’s providence and the wisdom of the elders of the church, they must have our Christian sympathy for their ministry, and we must love them as brothers and sisters in Christ. We should not view their professions skeptically simply because they disagree with us on certain matters that we believe are Scriptural. As we have opportunity, we should speak to them as brothers following the example of the Apostle Paul, “Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you” (Phil. 3:15).
  10. In sum, we should regard all evangelical churches as true churches and all evangelical Christians with the expectation that they are true Christians, welcoming them as our members when they so desire, even if they disagree with some truths that we believe are Scriptural.
  11. Stonewall Jackson is a good illustration of how this worked out in the Presbyterian Church. When he applied for membership in the Presbyterian Church, his views were Arminian. Nevertheless, they cordially accepted him as a brother in Christ. Eventually, Jackson embraced the Presbyterian system of doctrine. This would probably not have happened if the church had required an understanding and assent to the whole counsel of God before allowing him to join.
  12. This does not mean that there is no place to maintain the boundaries of what we consider to be the whole counsel of God. That place is in the ordination of elders. We must examine elders to see if they are sound in the faith. In regards to the membership, we accept a credible profession of faith and do not wait to bring them into membership. In regard to the ministry, we do not “lay hands on anyone hastily” (1 Tim. 5:22). Paul also tells Timothy, “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2). The elders of the church is the place to preserve the truths we believe are biblical and are confessed in our confessions.
  13. I believe that these measures will preserve a church that is properly centered on the gospel and that is both broadly evangelical and truly Reformed in practice and teaching. It will also lend itself to evangelism as it follows the Apostolic pattern of welcoming converts who confess their sin, profess their faith in Jesus Christ, and promise to live the life of the Christian. We should expect the blessing of God on such endeavors.

The 2,446 Descendants of James Russell “Major” White

Me and my Dad, Myrland Edward “Sam” White, Jr.
Do you ever have an idea from childhood that sticks with you? Then, you say it out loud as an adult, and you think, I’m not sure that’s true! I’ve had experiences like that more often than I’d like to admit.

One of those ideas was that I (with my brother) was one of the last males in my line of the White’s.

I think there are two reasons why I developed that conception. First, my Dad’s name is Myrland Edward White, Jr. If any of you know him, you may be surprised to read this because he goes by “Sam.”

My Dad’s Dad, Myrland Edward White, Sr., died after 3 months of marriage to my Grandmother, Betty Lindsey. During those 3 months, my Father was conceived. For the first 3 years of his life, my Dad was often with his Grandfather, Sam White. He lived with them long enough to get the nickname Sammie that he carries with him to this day as “Sam.”

Eventually, Betty remarried to Lloyd Babb, and my Dad went into the orbit of the Babb’s and Lindsey’s with little contact with the White family.

The second reason is that growing up I didn’t know any male cousins with the last name of White. My Dad connected with one of his half brother’s, Larry, who was a White, but he had only one child, a daughter.

So, from one perspective I was right. I was one of the only male descendants of Myrland Edward White, Sr. However, what I discovered is that if you extend that out to one, two, or three generations beyond my grandfather, then it’s not even close to true.

Here’s how I made that discovery.

Through some strange circumstances that I won’t go into, I ended up taking a DNA test from Ancestry.com. This led me into an initial foray into genealogy. You can read about that here.

Through a couple of genealogists on my Mom’s side of the family, I had a pretty good sense of where my Mother had come from. However, I only had a vague idea of where my Father had come from.

So, I made it one of my goals to research my Father’s ancestors. I just needed some time to go through the material on Ancestry.com. That would be my start.

Several months passed.

Then, I got sick. As I lay in bed trying to recover from the flu, I realized I had enough strength to do some searches on the internet. It was time to research my Father’s ancestry.

I made some significant progress, but I also realized that when you look at other people’s research on Ancestry.com, you need to trust but verify.

Gravestone of my 3rd Great Grandfather, James Russell White
I knew my Dad’s Grandfather’s name on the White side was Sam, but I didn’t know much beyond that. Gradually, the story began to unfold. From what I could tell, My Great Grandpa Sam’s father was Robert Dempsey “Dock” White. Robert’s Father was James Russell “Major” White.

James Russell White’s family lived in De Kalb County, Tennessee and moved up to Russellville, KY, probably sometime in the early 1860s. I had moved to TN thinking I was going to a place where The White family had never lived before. Perhaps I was wrong.

In spite of this initial research, I was still skeptical. If this was correct, I realized that I probably had a bunch of cousins in Logan County, Kentucky.

So, I asked a couple of my older relatives on the White side if “Russellville, KY” meant anything to them. They both replied, “Oh, yes. We went down there to visit relatives often.” It turns out that five of Robert Dempsey’s children had moved to Owensboro from Russellville and yet stayed in contact with their relatives in Russellville. One of my living relatives even confirmed that they had heard the name “Major” White before.

I was quite satisfied that the link between my White’s and the Russellville White’s was established. Still, I wanted to know more, and I wanted more documentary proof.

I probably had searched James Russell White’s name on Google a few times, but I did it again. To my shock, I discovered that there was a book, The Descendants of James Russell “Major” White written by Michael and Barbara Christian. Wow! I thought. That’s amazing. I wonder if I can get a copy. I could not find it in any of my normal searches for book purchase.

What about libraries? I wondered. I found through WorldCat that this book was in 7 libraries in the United States. One of them were relatively close (compared to Utah!): Muhlenburg County Library in Greenville, KY. I was going up to visit some relatives in Louisville and Owensboro over Christmas break, so I concluded that I could stop by the Muhlenburg County Library’s Genealogical Annex and take a look at this book on my way home.

The Courthouse in downtown Greenville, KY
So, that’s what I did. I arrived in Greenville on December 28th at about 11:00 in the morning. Google Maps told me that my destination was on my right. I got out of my car and looked at the library. There was yellow warning tape in front of it: Under Construction!

Seriously? I thought. I come all this way, and it’s closed? So, I called the Genealogical Annex.

“Are you open?” I asked.

“Yes, we’re temporarily located in the basement of the Old National Bank. What do you need? Most of our stuff is in storage?” The lady on the other end asked me.

“Well, I’m looking for a book called The Descendants of James Russell “Major” White.” I replied.

“I have it!” She answered.

“I’ll see you in a minute.” I said and then hung up.

With the joy of potential discovery in my heart, I went over to the bank. The librarian gave me the book, and I sat down at the front of her desk while she worked on her computer in the tiny room where the Genealogical Annex was housed.

I opened the cover and saw the first page of the book written around 1996. I opened the book and began reading, “James Russell and Mary White did not leave behind many worldly goods. However, they had 10 children, and their 2,446 descendants have settled throughout the United States from California to Florida. . . .”

Of Course, Church Is Also for Unbelievers

It would seem rather obvious that church is a place for unbelievers as well as believers. After all, where else are people going to learn about who God is and what it means to be a Christian? What better place could there be?

Some argue that church is only or primarily for believers. Church is designed primarily to help believers grow, and then they go out and connect with people in the world. At the least, they might argue, unbelievers should not be a focus of the church as an institution. If they come, that’s fine, but having unbelievers in church is not a goal that the church should pursue, they might say.

I believe that this argument often grows out of frustration with churches that water down the Christian message in order to try and get people to come to church. I have also heard many people who think that if church is also for unbelievers, then it will simply be a church service where a simple Gospel message is presented over and over again with an altar call. Some Christians feel like they never get anything from these services that help them grow. They feel like they have been left behind in the quest for “numbers.”

Whether these sorts of complaints are just or not, I won’t attempt to answer here. It’s sufficient to say that there is no necessary connection between church also being for unbelievers and watering down the message or just focusing only on getting conversions.

In fact, I would suggest that merely repeating the simple Gospel message or watering down the Christian message is not particularly helpful either to believers or unbelievers. While it is true that in order to become a Christian, we only need a little bit of knowledge (i.e., John 3:16), following Christ involves understanding a whole variety of topics explained in the Bible at large.

For those considering whether or not to follow Jesus, it’s good for them to learn about what that means for their families, their work, their emotions, their time, and a host of other things. That’s why being in church where the whole counsel of God is taught is especially helpful for those considering Christianity.

But does the Bible teach that church is also for unbelievers? I believe it does. When God established His worship in the Old Testament, He centered His worship in the temple. According to Isaiah, the design of the Temple was to “for my house [to be] be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7).

When Jesus came to earth, the Temple had a walled in area outside of the Temple proper that was called the Court of the Gentiles. This is where money changers and those selling sacrifices set up shop. They took over the place where the Gentiles were to come and worship. That’s one of the big reasons why Jesus took some whips and cleared everybody out. When He did He said, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17).

If the people of the nations were to come to the worship of God when the distinction between Jew and Gentile was still part of God’s worship, how much more in the era where that dividing wall is broken down (Eph. 2:11–15)?

This seems to be Paul’s assumption in 1 Cor. 14. He says concerning people speaking in tongues: “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (v. 23). Notice that his assumption is that unbelievers and inquirers will come in.

So, if this is the case, then what does it mean for the church? Substantively, the church should not do anything differently. We should still sing, pray, preach, fellowship, partake of the sacraments, etc.

However, there are two ways that I approach these things based on the assumption that church is also for unbelievers. First, I try to think about hospitality (which of course would help anybody, even regular attenders and members of the church). Hospitality is when we think about how to make our guests feel at home. When we are hospitable, we think not only about ourselves and what we are used to but how those who are not familiar with our home, organization, or church might experience those places and then seek to make them more comfortable for them.

One of the best ways to learn how to do this is to visit other churches where you don’t know anyone. See what is comfortable and awkward and what is unhelpful. That will give you some sense of what others feel when they are visiting your church, especially those who may have never gone to church or been away for a long time.

The second thing I would suggest is closely related. I try to think of unbelievers when I study the Bible. We all approach passages of the Bible from a particular perspective asking particular questions. I think it is helpful for unbelievers (and actually to most believers) if I ask this question, “if I was talking to someone who knew nothing about the Bible, how would I explain to them why it is relevant for their life in the 21st century?” That can be a hard question, but it is a question that yields significant dividends.

One way I think about this is by asking (HT: Andy Stanley), what is the human question that this task is answering? For example, let’s take the genealogy of Jesus in Mt. 1. We could say that this genealogy shows how God keeps His promises revealed in the Old Testament. That’s true and helpful but probably not a big question on most people’s minds. We could also show how this demonstrates the true humanity of Jesus Christ. Again, a question not a lot of people today are thinking about, though it is an important one.

So, what do we do with it? We can talk about messed up families. All of us have messed up families to a degree. Probably many of us feel like our families are hopeless. Some of us may feel shame about or fear from our families? What the genealogy tells us is that God connects with types of families like ours and literally becomes a part of them. Doesn’t that present a significant amount of hope for families like yours and like mine? Wouldn’t this make us view our families a little bit differently?

My goal whenever I talk about the Bible is this: for each person to walk away saying (even if they don’t believe it), “If this is true, then it would be helpful. It would make a difference if this were true and I let this inform my thought or my actions.”

I think that if we do that, we could help believers a lot more, but we could also help unbelievers to see why church and an ancient book matter for life in the 21st century. I believe they would see that church is also for unbelievers.

On New Year’s Resolutions (With a Few of Mine)

Me at the cemetery of my Keith ancestors, a partial fulfillment of one of my resolutions (see below)
I’ve talked to a few people recently who’ve said that they don’t like New Year’s resolutions because they never do them.

I can understand that, but I would really encourage people to make New Year’s resolutions.

Resolutions are about thinking about life and being proactive rather than simply reactive and going with the flow. If we simply react and go with the flow, we will probably miss out on a lot of things and take the path of least resistance.

Making resolutions is about walking with our eyes in our heads (Ecclesiastes 2:14). King Solomon advises his son Solomon: “Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways” (Prov. 4:26). Making resolutions is about giving careful thought to how we live.

A couple suggestions on making New Year’s resolutions.

First, I try to think of my goals along the lines of Jesus’ growth as recorded by Luke: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” (2:52). From this, I take four categories: spiritual, social, physical, and intellectual. To this, I might add things that I want to do just for fun (though I could probably fit those into the four categories above).

Second, when I make goals, it seems best to me to make them as specific as possible. For example, “Stay in touch with my Grandma” is probably not a very good goal. “Text Grandma everyday” is a good goal (this was a resolution one of my daughters made, completely without my prompting, I might add).

Third, don’t give up because you fail. This is also one advantage of being specific. If you mess up, just keep going. If you forget to text Grandma one day, just text her the next day. If you don’t read the Bible one day, read it the next. Life is going to interrupt our goals. If you recognize that going in, you’ll be OK?

Finally, just make some goals. Think about your life. Don’t let life happen to you. Take charge of it and make things happen that you want to happen. Why should we not do that? Why be a slave to circumstances? Why not begin to change what you can change?

Here are a few of my resolutions:

  1. Don’t use computers or movies to relax in the evening except when doing so with other people. Instead, use fiction books.
  2. Go outside each day and work a little bit on my yard.
  3. Check the news and Facebook once a day only.
  4. Visit and tour the places where each of my grandparents grew up this year and see the places where they grew up and where my ancestors are buried (Note: partially accomplished already).
  5. Attend more worship services and church events in other churches.
  6. Connect individually with each of my children daily.

Reading over my resolutions, I realized that I need to follow my own advice on some of them and make them more specific. Thinking about our lives and what we want them to be is a continuous process.

At any rate, I hope in the next year to try and walk “with my eyes in my head.” Have fun making your New Year’s resolutions! “May the Lord make all your plans succeed” in 2018 (Psalm 20:4).