Thankful for the Evangelical Church in America: A Korean-American Perspective

As all Americans reflect on what they’re thankful for and especially the way God providentially brought the Puritans to settle this great nation, I wanted to write something personal and from the heart. An ode of gratitude to God for America, if you will. However, this article is also a response to a misinterpretation of Scripture that attempts to employ the language of social justice. It is a contrast between how two Korean-American professors look at the American church and our place in it.

My family and I immigrated to the United States from South Korea in 1969. Although I have spent most of my life in Southern California, the majority of my childhood was spent in the suburbs of Maryland just outside Washington, D.C. At the church where my dad pastored, one of my closest friends was named Soong-Chan Rah (hereafter, Rah). We had many things in common, including our love of sports and music. After my dad moved our family to take up a pastorate in Southern California, however, my friend and I went our separate ways.

When I began teaching full-time as a seminary professor, I learned that Rah had also become a seminary professor. He is currently a professor of evangelism at North Park Seminary in Chicago and has written books on the subject of social justice related to racism. One of his most popular and widely read books is entitled, The Next Evangelicalism.[1] In his book, Rah makes the following claims:

  • “European and North American Christianity continue to decline, while African, Asian and Latin-American Christianity continue to increase dramatically.”[2]
  • “Many sociologists predict that by the year 2050, the majority of U.S. residents will be nonwhite. A U.S. Census Report in 2008 revealed that ‘minorities, now roughly one-third of the U.S. population, are expected to become the majority in 2042, with the nation projected to be 54 percent minority in 2050.’”[3]
  • “Contrary to popular opinion, the church is not dying in America; it is alive and well, but it is alive and well among the immigrant and ethnic minority communities and not among the majority white churches in the United States.”[4]

Rah’s main thesis is that North American evangelicalism has been so influenced by Western, white American culture that it is difficult for the church to be distinguished from it. He notes, “In the emerging culture and the next evangelicalism of the twenty-first century, we must consider how evangelicalism has been held captive to Western, white culture and explore ways that the Christian community can reflect biblical more than cultural norms.”[5]

Rah’s rhetoric is forceful, if not offensive. What is Rah attempting to accomplish?

In my journey as a neophyte believer, a youth pastor, a campus ministry participant, an emerging leader, a church planter, a local church pastor and a seminary professor, I have increased in my sense of frustration with the cultural captivity of the church. I grow weary of seeing Western, white expressions of the Christian faith being lifted up while failing to see nonwhite expressions of faith represented in meaningful ways in American evangelicalism.[6]

In other words, he believes that people of different ethnicities, like himself, should be in positions of leadership within the American church at large. Rah believes that ethnic minorities are being marginalized and disregarded from having a legitimate voice in the church, which is the result of the church’s white captivity.

The answer to the white, Western captivity of the church, according to Rah, is repentance. He asserts, “Our corporate sin of racism and our corporate life as beneficiaries of a racist system require our corporate confession. This corporate confession must be led by those with a spiritual understanding and a biblical conviction—namely, the body of Christ in America.”[7]

It is interesting to note that Rah uses the broader sin of racism in America’s past in order to show how the white, American church needs to share its leadership with other ethnic minorities in the present and future. Furthermore, he fails to note that repentance from the largest “white” American denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), had already occurred more than two decades ago for their part in slavery and their opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.

Here is an excerpt from the SBC’s “Resolution on Racial Reconciliation on the 150th Anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention”:

Be it further RESOLVED, that we ask forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake; and be it further RESOLVED, that we hereby commit ourselves to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry; and be it further RESOLVED, that we commit ourselves to be doers of the Word (James 1:22) by pursuing racial reconciliation in all our relationships, especially with our brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 2:6), to the end that our light would so shine before others, that they may see (our) good works and glorify (our) Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16)….[8]

More recently, Christianity Today reported in June 2016 that the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) released their corporate repentance for their sin of racism in general and their opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act in particular.[9] This was followed by the official repentance of another denomination, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church Synod, for their failings with regard to slavery and racism. In the same month of this year, the SBC also officially repudiated the Confederate flag.[10]

Repentance is occurring in Christ’s body, and it must be recognized, not ignored. Reconciliation must be the goal, and such inflammatory language as “white captivity” must be toned down so that real healing may come.

Social justice is a large theme in the prophetical corpus of the Old Testament.[11] However, the kind of social justice that Rah desires is qualitatively different. The Bible never states that leadership authority or wealth should be equally and forcibly distributed to all people. He has bought into the evangelical progressive agenda of Jim Wallis (Sojourners), Tony Campolo, Ron Siders, et al.[12]

What Rah fails to realize is that leadership status is not something that can be demanded or forced; it is God’s prerogative alone. God, in His providence, grants people the necessary gifts of leadership when they are ready to assume that mantle of responsibility. “Social justice” cannot be the reason for individuals to demand positions of influence. The people who hold these posts have been chosen by God to lead. The spiritual wisdom and strength that has been divinely granted them must be the primary determinant, not a person’s ethnicity.

Far from a white, Western captivity of the American church, the truth is that there have been many ethnic minorities, including Soong-Chan Rah, who have been given key leadership positions within her ranks. As an Asian-American, I am grateful to work at a seminary under its godly leaders who have unflinchingly stood for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the full inerrancy of God’s divinely inspired Word.

Both Rah and I were born in South Korea and immigrated with our families to this nation during the late 1960s and early ‘70s. When I think about the American soldiers who sacrificed their very lives in the Korean War to keep South Korea free from the tyranny of communism, my heart is filled with gratitude. The truth is that Korean-Americans who now enjoy the freedoms and opportunities of this great country and the positions of leadership in the evangelical church are free from actual captivity, i.e., communism, largely due to America.

Moreover, when I think about the many American missionaries who selflessly gave their lives to spread the Gospel throughout the Korean peninsula and established Christian schools and seminaries from which my own father and father-in-law graduated, I am nothing but thankful. Lest we, Korean-Americans, be accused of nearsightedness, instead of criticizing the American church for its so-called “white, Western captivity,” we ought to be in a posture of gratitude and thanksgiving.

 


 

[1]Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009).
[2]Ibid., 13.
[3]Ibid., 14.
[4]Ibid.
[5]Ibid., 21. Rah’s mantra throughout the book is the “Western, white captivity of the church.” He borrowed this concept from Martin Luther’s tract, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, where Luther compared the Roman Catholic Church’s “stranglehold on the sacraments to the capture and exile of the Israelites by the Babylonians.” Cf. Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, trans. A.T.W. Steinhaeuser, Three Treatises (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg, 1947).
[6]Rah, Next Evangelicalism, 16.
[7]Ibid., 71.
[8]http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/899/resolution-on-racial-reconciliation-on-the-150th-anniversary-of-the-southern-baptist-convention. For a narrative account on the formation of the SBC, cf. Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 117-139.
[9]http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/june/pca-apologizes-for-new-and-old-racism.html.
[10]http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/june/southern-baptists-racial-reconciliation-sbc-civilitas-pca.html.
[11]Cf. Isaiah 1:17; Isaiah 10:1-3; Ezekiel 22:29; Amos 2:7.
[12]For more information on the evangelical progressive movement(s), see the work of Brantley W. Gasaway, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014). Progressive evangelicals are also known as the “Christian Left.”

John Yeo

John Yeo

Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Yeo is an Assistant Professor of Old Testament. Dr. Yeo has ministered to youth and college students for ten years as well as serving as an assistant and interim pastor in the Northern Virginia and Southern California areas.
John Yeo