By Michael C. Mack
“If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”
Dr. Martin Luther King wrote these words in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on April 16, 1963. Now, nearly 55 years later, his words seem prophetic.
King’s letter was in response to eight white Alabama clergy members who wrote a letter asking the “outsiders” who had come to Birmingham (a thinly veiled reference to King) to stop directing “some of our Negro citizens” in the “unwise and untimely” demonstrations for integration. They preferred to let the issue of racial segregation play out in the courts and to patiently wait for the social changes to happen over time. They said the outsiders’ resistance to racism, “however peaceful those actions may be,” were “extreme measures” not justified in Birmingham.
“I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction in being considered an extremist,” King wrote. “Was not Jesus an extremist in love? . . . Was not Amos an extremist for justice? . . . Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? . . . So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
This is not purely a racial issue, although that was the context of King’s letter. It is, as King pointed out, a church leadership issue. King said that with notable exceptions, he had become disappointed with the church he loved.
The source of King’s disappointment was that its leaders “have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” King’s call in 1963 to restore the self-sacrificial spirit of the New Testament church is our call today.
Over the next month, we’ll share stories of churches and individuals whom I would describe as more courageous than cautious. We learn about a black pastor who baptized more than 47,000 people and established more than 350 congregations, yet many of us, including myself, had never heard of him; we probe our opportunities for reunification; and we consider stories of racial reconciliation in the church.
As an advocate for our Restoration Movement, I am convicted by Martin Luther King’s words:
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.
Do these words describe the contemporary Christian church? Do they describe your church? Are we extremists for love, justice, and the gospel? I echo King: “I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.”