I was barely 20 years old when I accepted my first call to serve as a youth pastor at a small Southern Baptist church in Mississippi. To say I was naïve at this point in my ministry would be a remarkable understatement. I had no idea what I was doing, but my naivety was surpassed only by the enthusiasm I felt toward this first ministry opportunity that the Lord had given me. I was also embarrassingly ignorant to the history of racism present from the very founding of our convention and even more so to the fact that racism was still present in the church. It did not take long for me to realize that racism was very much still alive.
The writing was on the wall from the beginning, but I overlooked it. I desperately wanted to hope for the best. It wasn’t until we started bringing some young African American boys into an all-white church that I could no longer ignore it. When one of these teenage boys who had been regularly attending our church surrendered his life to Christ and expressed a desire to be baptized, I saw the racism in its fullness. When the Sunday arrived for him to be baptized, the two men who oversaw the practice of ordinances in the church refused to fill the baptistery for his baptism. I had never witnessed such a hateful act within the church. Their dissatisfaction in God’s creation (Gen. 1:26-27) and redemption (Rev. 7:9-10) led them to resentment rather than rejoicing over the salvation of a lost sinner.
Fortunately, there were others in this church who supported us and loved us, and they were truly doing the work of the Lord. I still consider them great friends to this day. But the sin of racism had made its home in this church and in many of its members. I wish I knew then what the Lord has taught me since.
How should we address racism in our churches? Allow me to offer three practical steps for addressing racism in our churches.
All sin is wrong. One lie is enough to stand in condemnation before a holy and righteous God. That being said, we need to evaluate sin before we can correct it. Since we live in a broken world, we will struggle with sin until Christ returns or calls us home. This is why we should not be surprised when a Christian brother or sister lies or becomes angry at times. Still, there seems to be a line somewhere between sins that we may expect from a Christian and sins that we don’t.
Racism falls into the category of sins that we should not expect from Christians and that should cause us to raise serious questions concerning the salvation of professing Christians who prove to be racist by habit.
This is an important distinction.
Not every racist action is immediately deserving of formal church discipline. When a brother or sister commits a sin of racism, we should ask several questions before proceeding. Is this sin characteristic of this individual’s life? Was their sin public? What level of influence will this sin have within the body? Was the sin intentional?
The conclusions drawn from the questions raised during the evaluation of sin will be instructive for how you should proceed in correcting the sin of racism. Some people in our churches may be unintentionally racist toward a people group as a result of ignorance to cultural norms. Ignorance of sin does not remove the guilt of sin (Gen. 20:3-7).
Still, a Christian who commits a sin of racism from a place of honest ignorance should be corrected and educated in private.
Habitual sin must be addressed more formally because of its implications regarding salvation (1 John 3:6). If someone in your church is characteristically racist in their attitudes or speech, consider how to initiate a Matthew 18 formula for church discipline. If this idea makes you uneasy, remind yourself that the goal of church discipline is not to remove people from our churches, it is to call Christians to repentance and a deeper relationship with Christ. This is a loving act.
Meet with this brother or sister in private, lovingly point out their sin, and call them to repent. If they refuse, take two or three more with you, preferably one of your pastors, and call them to repent. If they still refuse, let your pastor take their sin to the whole body and call them to repent. If they prove to be unrepentant at every level, then “let them be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). Treat them as one of the lost outside of the body and persuade them to repent and believe in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul gives us another picture of church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5. This disciplinary process appears to be much shorter, but the difference is not a result of church preferences, but of the nature of the sin. Both processes arrive at the same conclusion before discipline results in the removal from fellowship: characteristic unrepentance. In this chapter, Paul details how we should address sin “of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans” (1 Cor. 5:1). Regarding sins of racism that would fall in this category, your mind may drift toward violent hate crimes. These crimes would certainly fall in the parameters of a 1 Corinthians 5 formula, but this is not the only case.
In the church I mentioned above, with the men who refused to let a new brother be baptized, a 1 Corinthians 5 situation occurred.
Paul instructs the church to put these people outside of the fellowship of the body so that they may be broken with the prayer of future salvation (1 Cor. 5:5). Pastors, deacons, and lay leaders are not immune from being subject to church discipline. The church has a responsibility to keep our leaders accountable (1 Tim. 5:19-20). Thankfully, the pastor of that church courageously took matters into his own hands by personally filling the baptistery and making this baptism the centerpiece of that morning’s worship service, not concerning himself with the disdain you could see in many church members’ eyes.
Church discipline should be understood as one aspect of our ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). The goal of church discipline is that repentant sinners would be reconciled to God and to those around them. Racism is inherently divisive, which means it is subversive to the mission of the church. The church should pursue unity (Eph. 4:1-3). True repentance does not only result in right standing before God; it also increases the unity and peace of the church.
If someone in your church repents of racism in their life, encourage them to pursue reconciliation. Lead them to actively reconcile with those people whom they may have previously considered their enemies. Encourage them to love and learn from other cultures. Come alongside them and invest your lives in minority culture. Teach them to celebrate the diversity that God has created. Do not mute another group’s culture under the guise of Christian unity. Set an example for others to follow that demonstrates a true love for God’s children, all of them.
Dealing with racism in your church will be difficult, and it may break your heart. This is a great task, but it is not one that should be done in your strength. Be encouraged that it is the Lord who gives growth and saves the lost (1 Cor. 3:7). We do not have the power to change hearts. Such power belongs to God alone. We must be faithful to love our brothers and sisters by developing a culture that addresses sin.
The sin of racism is no different. I pray that the Lord will not allow us to be comfortable with racism in our fellowship and that he would give us boldness to lovingly correct such sin in our lives.
Connor Hinton is an MDiv student at NOBTS and serves at Immanuel Community Church.
 Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 49.