Prophetic Dissent in the Sanctuary | CBE International

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Prophetic Dissent in the Sanctuary

Recently, someone asked my thoughts on racial segregation in the US church on Sunday mornings: “How will we ever move forward together, as a unified church, if people of color don’t forgive us for the past?”

Most white Christians don’t write “biblical” defenses of slavery, enforce segregation in the sanctuary, or argue for the inferiority of people of color anymore. Let’s put aside for a moment that we shouldn’t ask people of color to simply move on, to forget our past crimes and their inherited trauma on our clock and on our terms. It’s self-deception to declare racism a sin of the past and not an ongoing, daily trespass in the present.

Some Christians urge forgiveness from people of color in response to racism, for the sake of church unity. This simplistic argument crumbles when we grasp that racism is alive in the church and we remain deeply divided as a result. That social strife and division threaten church unity is not a new fear. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to this same concern from white clergy. He argued that the purpose of the church is not to preserve the status quo, but to overhaul it.

Many Christians rightfully stress the wide gap between shallow and authentic unity. Shallow unity papers over division and injustice. Shallow unity silences dissenting voices and rewrites the testimony of the oppressed, labeling it divisive and incendiary. Women are often the casualties when the church chooses shallow unity over justice and restoration.

I was fortunate to study under Christian reconciliation theologians Christena Cleveland and Curtiss DeYoung in university. They often reminded me that reconciliation fails without justice. When gospel justice flows swift, the heartrending work of reconciliation begins. Authentic unity is the inevitable conclusion of shalom-seeking, cross-centered reconciliation work.

Egalitarians are often accused of undermining church unity. We’re rabble-rousers, pot-stirrers, theological renegades. We distract from the true work of the church and obstruct the gospel. Women are designated bitter and rebellious if they voice dissent or prophesy critique.

But what are we really saying? We’re saying that those who speak hard truths—like Jesus did to the religious institution of his day—undermine the church. That centering women’s trauma distracts from our true gospel work. That the church can’t faithfully look in the mirror and still steadily win people to Jesus. That we prefer shallow unity to gospel justice and reconciliation.

Where does this preference for shallow unity come from? Why do we fear dissent in the sanctuary? We love echo chambers—with thick stone walls to muffle the lament of the least of these. But hard truths and thoughtful critique undermine not the church, but the church’s confirmation bias.

I don’t believe the church will be leveled by hard truths. Weak theology shrinks from challenge. A weak church fears critique. Strong theology presses harder toward self-examination. Strong theology invites prophetic challenge. A strong church thirsts for refinement.

Gospel unity is rarely easy. It pushes us beyond simple getting along. It invites restorative conflict for the sake of lasting peace and profound oneness. Authentic gospel unity can be found at the intersection of truth-telling, justice-doing, and reconciling—if we are bold enough to meet there.

Egalitarians aren’t afraid of godly conflict. We’re not worried that the church can’t handle our prophetic challenge to patriarchy. We know it can.

We know because we’re not leading a church mutiny; we’re prisoners of gospel hope. We’re stubborn shalom-seekers. We’re stuck on justice for women. We’re captive to a vision of a reconciled church. We aren’t undermining church unity; we’re relentless after it.

This article originally appeared as the editor's note in Mutuality 24.2: "Setting the Record Straight." 

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