The Idol of Unity Is Undermining the Evangelical Witness

by John Ellis

I speak from experience. As a pastor, I elevated unity above honesty, courage, and integrity. Because therein lies the path of least resistance.

For a brief time, I was a pastor in a reformed-ish Southern Baptist affiliated church. And I’ve observed in other pastors what I’m about to write. What’s more, pastor friends have confessed to me their own failings in this arena. Non-pastor friends have shared their confusion, hurt, and sense of betrayal watching their pastors elevate unity above honesty, courage, and integrity. Or rather, it’s more appropriate to describe it as hiding behind calls for unity.

Articles like this are a hard needle to thread. It’s easy to steer into self-pity and use the pen as an inappropriate confessional booth. Or, drawing on similar self-centered desires, it’s easy to use the pen as a weapon with which to take aim and discharge at others from the safety of my perch high on the white-washed temple steps of my heart. Regardless of my words in this article, I pray that the Spirit used at least some of my time as a pastor for God’s glory and the edification of God’s people. Likewise, I pray that the Spirit steers me into prudence and graciousness without surrendering honesty as I write. Because, and moving dangerously close to missing the needle’s hole, I want to use my own cowardice to illustrate one of the problems that exists among God’s people, and not just pastors, labeled white evangelicals.

Already thinking about writing this, I was struck this morning by a tweet from Kristin Kobes Du Mez, the author of the recently published book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (a book I recommend, by the way – and a book I’m planning on writing about in the near future). Her tweet is part of a Twitter thread discussing the condemnatory vitriol being heaped on John Piper’s head for his recent article about Donald Trump and how Christians should vote. With her tweet, as you can see below, she expressed the desire for those, like Piper who ostensibly find themselves cast outside the fold of the larger community of white evangelicalism, to evaluate their own complicity in the current state of evangelicalism and, adding my own words, the building of their own gallows.

To a much lesser degree than John Piper and many other godly men and women, Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s tweet applies to me, too. In God’s hard providence, I’ve had a lot of time this past year and a half to consider my complicity in what went/is going wrong in a tiny part of white evangelicalism.

Unity among God’s people is important. I’m not going to argue that, assuming that most readers, if not all, will agree. The question is: unity at what cost? For example, is unity more important than fidelity to the confession of Jesus’ full divinity? By way of another possibly trickier example, if a man, say a respected, long-serving deacon who teaches the adult Sunday school class, is discovered to be cheating a little on his taxes, do we sacrifice the ethical integrity of the body to preserve the feelings and retain the membership of those who believe that cheating on taxes is no big deal? In the abstract, the answer to that should be clear. In reality, though, when faced with the pressures of congregational “approval ratings,” meaning your overall effectiveness in the ministry and even possibly your job, that clarity can become muddied by all the boots stomping on the ground. I know; the mud is still being washed off my soul.

I loved being a pastor, for some self-serving reasons, to be sure, but for the sake of righteousness and serving God and His people, too. Being allowed to play a small role in the sanctification and growth of new Christians remains one of the greatest joys of my life. Likewise, watching mature Believers continue to grow, even during difficult seasons, was an encouragement to me and played a role in my own sanctification. I enjoyed preaching, teaching, and providing counsel to members. My joyful desire to teach and counsel, and, frankly, to simply be a pastor is what my heart used to tempt me to act in a way that failed to serve God and those in my church.

One Sunday morning, after the worship service, a young Black lady who had recently joined the church approached me. Flanked by two other ethnic minorities, and characterized by graciousness and humility, she asked why our church didn’t speak out more against racism. Caught off guard, I gave the standard two kingdom-ish informed answer that the corporate church was called to preach God’s Word, adding that when passages dealing with racism were preached, we did not shy away from confronting sin and calling people to repentance, explaining some ethics of that, both on the individual and corporate church level. As I spoke, I knew that I wasn’t really answering her question. She wasn’t asking about personal prejudice; she was asking about systemic racism and the corporate body’s responsibility regarding it. Adroit enough with words, though, I was able to manipulate my answer to avoid the real discussion while providing enough of an answer to satisfy her in the moment, enabling me to extricate myself from the conversation.  

To be fair, as I explained above, she caught me off guard. Whether that’s an appropriate excuse or not, I’ll leave it to others to decide. Poisoning my own well, so to speak, even in that moment my heart was turning towards cowardice. However, I did leave the three of them with the genuine invitation to come over to my house any time adding, “My wife and I would love to discuss this further with you guys and hear any thoughts you may have on how we can better glorify God and serve others in this area.” And they took me up on that offer.

After multiple conservations that were profitable and lasted well into the night, an idea began to form in all of our minds. I don’t remember who suggested it, but when it was first floated to open our discussions about racism to our fellow church members, we all immediately agreed.

After setting a date for what was supposed to be the first of three discussions and agreeing on a format, I composed an email invitation that was sent to a curated list of church members. Problem number one. The three young people of color wanted to invite everybody. I knew that would be a bad idea, specifically a bad idea for me. Doing my best to not “slander” brothers and sisters in Christ as well as not reveal too much about their fellow church members, I essentially implored them to trust me that I knew best who should be invited and who should be left off the list. Continuing their spirit of graciousness and humility, they placed their implicit trust in me.

On the day of the event, a Saturday afternoon, my wife and I placed a circle of thirty chairs in our backyard and set out refreshments. Around twenty-five church members showed up.

Even with my carefully curated invitation list, as soon as the discussion started, I realized we were in trouble, specifically I was in trouble. Problem number two.

I haven’t really talked about that afternoon with anyone other than my wife, so I’m not sure if other attendees picked up on this, but the fault lines were immediately visible to me. Thankful that at the moment they were talking past each other, I fought to corral the conversation and direct all dialogue away from the fault lines. I knew that if I didn’t, there would come a point where they would realize they were talking past each other and then the real discussion would begin. A discussion, apart from a miracle, that would terminate with angry, hurtful words, unjust accusations, and the potential undoing of our church’s unity.  

In the moment, and for a long time afterwards, I patted myself on the back for my efforts to stave off contention and preserve unity. That afternoon was one of the most mentally and spiritually exhausting times of my life as I fearfully saw the potential for my ministry to implode if I failed to control the discussion. My wife can attest to this, after the last straggler had left, I collapsed in exhaustion on our couch and sighed, “We’re never doing that again.” Problem number three.

Before explaining the three problems, I want to add that I betrayed the original three participants in our conversation. Not having spoken to her about it, my sense is that the Black young lady was the most confused of the three. Again, not having spoken to her about this, I surmise that her graciousness and humility kept her from drawing the appropriate conclusions about me, and she quietly let our plans to have a series of backyard discussions about systemic racism drop.

Even while patting myself on the back, I began to become increasingly troubled by my words and actions. I knew that I had personally hedged my bets when talking about my own views and beliefs regarding systemic racism and our (the local church’s) corporate responsibility. I hadn’t lied, at least outright, but I also hadn’t led. By God’s grace, I had been given the opportunity to actually minister, to lead. Instead, I took the path of least resistance for the sake of unity. And therein lies the three problems, which, frankly, amount to one problem.

During the runup to the event and during the event itself, it was revealed that our church’s unity wasn’t nearly as real as I believed. In short, I shouldn’t have curated the list, and I should’ve “steered” the conversation in a direction that confronted us with our failings and called us to repentance instead of controlling the conversation in order to ward off angry words and hurt feelings (the use of angry, hurtful words would not have been justified, to be clear). I believe with every ounce of my being that God’s people are called to live out Kingdom ethics. As a pastor, it was my task to serve God’s people in our church by teaching them a better understanding of the gospel, including Kingdom ethics that are indivisible from the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was my task to encourage, teach, and counsel God’s people in our church to glorify God and serve others by living out Kingdom ethics, specifically in this instance as those ethics relate to systemic racism. If I had acted with courage, honesty, and integrity as their pastor and people became angry and left the church, even causing further problems on their way out, they, and not me, would’ve had to answer to God for their actions. Likewise, if I had served the way Jesus did, and the membership decided I was too “woke” to serve as one of their pastors, so be it. The “job” wasn’t mine to protect. We (pastors and laypeople, alike) are not called to prioritize job security. We’re called to take up our cross daily and follow our King who willingly laid aside heaven and then his very life to serve those whom the Father has given him.

I wish that I could say that that anecdote was the limit of my cowardice and lack of integrity in the service of protecting church unity, but it wasn’t. Church unity is quite the drug, especially when personal esteem and goals are involved. But, for the sake of keeping the focus on this article’s thesis, I should exit the virtual confessional booth.

It’s easy to justify the prioritizing of job security under the rubric of preserving church unity. I’m afraid that many pastors and church members at large have used unity as a pretense to avoid naming sin in our midst and calling each other to repentance. That cowardice (and selfishness) has wide-ranging repercussions that does great damage to the ability of local churches and the larger community called evangelicalism to spread the gospel, make disciples, and glorify God in and through the service to the larger communities God has placed us. If you’re a pastor, pray that the Spirit will protect you from fear and enable you to speak truth boldly, no matter the consequences. If you’re a church member, pray for your pastors and encourage them. And do not be afraid to boldly declare and live out Kingdom ethics no matter the consequences to your relationships. Church unity is not more important than obeying Jesus, especially when that unity is nothing more than a house of cards to begin with.

Soli Deo Gloria

Andendum: While speaking with the young Black woman after church that Sunday, my obfuscation also included some dishonesty on my part. I didn’t really believe what I was telling her about the local church’s responsibility regarding social justice issues. In my defense, I was making an honest attempt to speak as a pastor and not an individual. Knowing that my own personal beliefs contradicted those of my fellow pastors and the prominent members (large tithers), I toed the “company line.” I could write much more about what I learned about myself, the power structure of evangelical churches, and the contradictory expectations pulling on pastors, but, for now, I’ll simply leave it at my confession.

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