This is part 5 of a recent essay I wrote on Paul’s famous “One Body, Many Parts” metaphor as a practical guide for becoming a church that is unified across our ethnic and racial differences.
A GREATER GIFT FOR A MORE EXCELLENT WAY
If we follow Paul’s train of thought into 1 Corinthians 13 and 14, he woos a church gifted yet divided with an enticing two-fold invitation of 12:31: “Now eagerly desire the greater gifts” and “Yet I will show you the most excellent Way.” Having cast a compelling vision in ch. 12 for a church that is functioning harmoniously with a healthy understanding and appreciation for each of its gifts, in ch. 13 he describes this harmonious unity in poetic form.
1 Corinthians13 is often pulled out of context and read at weddings, but “When applied to a local church, it becomes dynamite.” When applied to to racial division and ethnic differences in the local church, its doubly explosive! Paul urged the Corinthians to desire (and develop?) the “greater gifts” given to the Body, and one way you will know it is great, I suggest, is whether or not that gift leads each member of the Body down the most excellent way—the Way of Love.
The Way of Love leads back to the source of the wound and pain, to the melting pot where soft and repentant hearts seek forgiveness, and seriously pursue reconciliation and healing. In Divided by Faith, Christian Smith and Michael Emerson call the church deeper down this most excellent Way where “Tears and hugs and saying I’m sorry is a good first step, but for me, the question is not one of changing the hearts of individuals as [much as] it is dealing with the systems and the structures that are devastating African-American people.”
To conclude, I want to make a case for ‘Ethnic or Racial Sensibility’ being a much needed Spirit-breathed charism or “higher gift” given to certain individuals in today’s church. The wise exercise and appreciation of this gift can lead divided churches down the path toward racial healing and heightened ethnic sensibilities among the rest of the members. In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul discusses various gifts—especially tongues and prophecy—urging the believers to “try to excel in those that build up the church” (14:12). He warns them against focusing on gifts such as tongues that primarily build oneself up while disregarding the rest of the Body.
For the task of racial reconciliation in the church today, I suggest churches stop pursuing gifts (or leaders, ministry visions, etc.) that mainly serve to build up one’s own ethnic group, and instead desire the gifts (or Spirit-breathed charisms) that can build up and build bridges to our larger, multiethnic Body of Christ. I suppose ‘prophecy’ is indeed one label for this charism and this kind of work insofar as the task of “building up” a broken and divided body sometimes requires first exposing the cracks and tearing down certain racist foundations. For me personally, Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise was a prophetic message that touched me deeply, exposing my own life-long complicity in systemic racism and blindness to my own white privilege. But can we push Paul’s point even further?
Paul is frustrated with the immaturity of the Corinthian congregation for being so caught up in their own spiritual experiences (ecstatic worship, tongues), that they are oblivious to the needs of the broader community around them—both other believers and inquiring seekers. Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children” (14:20). Might our racially divided churches in America be similarly childlike in our tendency to gather together and enjoy our own private White or Black or Latino worship experiences in our own spiritual tongue? While these worship gatherings may edify our own (ethnic) group, Paul would urge us to pursue the spiritual gifts and forms of worship that reach out and builds up the broader multiethnic Body of Christ in our area.
Paul says, “In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (14:19). Echoing Paul’s heart, may God raise up for this generation many Christian leaders willing to pass up ten thousand great safe and personally satisfying ministry opportunities within their own ethnic context, in order to pursue a handful of less comfortable groundbreaking efforts that build bridges across the racial divide and aim to bring healing to the larger Body. Churches too cozy speaking in their own ethnic tongues—their own traditions, styles, ethnic stories, etc.—are in danger of becoming deaf to voices of the other ethnic parts of the Body.
This danger and folly has been repeated too many times to count. In the words of Dr. King, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” The greatest danger of all in this, Paul says, is that we may be incapable of hearing when God himself is trying to speak to us through the voice of the ethnic other: “In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord”” (1 Cor 14:21). On the other hand, as we exercise the “higher gift” of racial and ethnic sensibility or intelligence in our ministries, may our diversity within unity dazzle curious onlookers who in turn declare, “God is really among you” (1 Cor 14:25)!