… And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. (Acts 11:26)
Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (Acts 13:1)
“Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
American Christianity (Black, White, whatever) has consistently proven itself to be a failure when it comes to living the Biblical racial standard. There are exceptions in several neighborhoods across the country. But on a whole, a major reason why we constantly have crisis moments between (and sometimes within) ethnic groups is because we do not aim to be the kind of church and the kind of Christians that were in Antioch.
Of the clergy mentioned in the 13th chapter of Acts, Lucius is clearly an African from what is now eastern Libya. Ancient portraits of people from that part of the world at that time were considered to have some shade or another of brown with very curly hair and broad noses. In other words, if Lucius were walking among us today, he would be considered a black man. Another of these five leaders is Simeon who is called Niger. One does not have to be a Latin scholar to know that Niger means “black.” The other three men in this list of early church leaders were of ancient Jewish descent. Chances are their skin tones would have been somewhere in between what we today would call a “black” or “white” man. Antioch was a center of trade in the Roman Empire. People from all over the known world would have lived there from pale skinned Britons to the darkest of Nubians. From the text, we can see that race simply did not matter. Later in the 13th chapter, we find these men (under the power of the Holy Spirit) sending Saul and Barnabas to bring the Gospel to others in the world. So, this model of a universal church of a multi-racial people is the standard. From them, other communities of Christians under the same Holy Spirit would form. The Apostles of Christ did likewise and visited other lands to establish the church. Granted, a congregation in Scotland (Andrew) would be ethnically different than one in India (Thomas). But, the people were to be guided by the same doctrine as they worshiped the same Father, Son, and Spirit.
Unfortunately, America didn’t read the text and study Christian history very well. The Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia PA had their black members sit in the balconies and rear seats. Richard Allen and others rejected this indignity and formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Rather than admit defeat and seek reconciliation with their freed brothers and sisters, Baptist and other denominations split along racial lines. Whites who believed in modern outpourings of the Holy Spirit in the form of speaking in tongues failed to recognize the same gift among their black brethren and those who did did so in secret. Dr. King was right to bemoan the state of segregation among Christians in this nation. But, unlike with schools and workplaces, blacks and whites have become so accustomed to our religious apartheid system; neither side feels motivated to put together a movement to end it. Individuals who dare cross the line are considered “sell-outs” who have “forgotten where they came from.”
There is a fear on both sides of the racial divide when it comes to trying to have unity in Christianity. Neither side wants to give up the authority of their clergy and denominational governors. Nor does either side want their music and style of worship replaced with the other, even though they often mimic each other to the point where they are indistinguishable. And politicians on the left and right have infiltrated these bodies of Christ so deeply that race and political party are all but hand in hand. In short, the American churches are more concerned about protecting and promoting their little kingdoms on earth than trying to live to the Biblical standard of the Kingdom of Heaven. There are several non-denominational churches and organizations that have managed to find common ground in spiritual growth and worship and have diverse congregations. However, most American churches are more interested in maintaining walls rather than building bridges to overcome them.
Had American churches took the example of Antioch and Dr. King’s observation to heart back in 1963 when he wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail, we would be living in a completely different America. Not perfect. But, the climate that we see from the recent cases of Travon Martin and Mike Brown would be either different or non-existent as their shootings may not have happened. The church, as a whole, has failed to give America the racial climate that is in the Bible and that the Apostles taught us to have. Black and white Christians put past pain, cultural styles, and political leanings over the Savior who has but ONE body. Until there is serious effort to unite American Christianity, there will be more “Ferguson Missouris.”
I would love to brag that the Orthodox Church is doing a great job at healing the racial divide. But, up until the mass conversion of 2,000 Evangelicals into the Antiochian jurisdiction, the Orthodox Church has been way too content to stay within (in the words of the late Metropolitan Philip) “our own little ethnic ghettos.” I don’t advocate that we knock on people’s doors and pester them to convert. But, we must make a stronger effort to let America know that we exist and that our doors are open to all people just as they were in the first century AD.