the shape of leadership

Which Lives Matter?

In a nation torn by political polarization and personal rancor, a loving Church offers the only way forward.

George O Wood on January 18, 2017

The 2016 presidential election is over, but the political polarization and personal rancor still hang in the air. At the level of policy, our nation faces many substantive challenges: abortion on demand, the continuing breakdown of the traditional family, immigration reform, income inequality, law enforcement controversies, racial and ethnic disparities, religious freedom and the list goes on. How can the Church speak prophetically to such issues without stumbling over political tripwires?

Two years ago I sent a statement that started an unforeseen and unintended controversy in our Fellowship. That event, considered in hindsight, presents us with a teachable moment. Certainly, I learned from it. Perhaps you can too.

An Unintentional Controversy
In December 2014, I was in the middle of enjoying the first sabbatical of my entire ministry. I usually stay plugged in to cable news to know what’s happening in the world. For my sabbatical, however, I decided to unplug and detox from the news.

My office alerted me that Charles E. Blake Jr., presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ and a friend, had declared Sunday, Dec. 14, Black Lives Matter Sunday. He was calling COGIC churches to prayer “to remind the nation how important the lives of African-Americans are.” My staff wanted to know whether I wished to join his call to prayer by issuing the same invitation to Assemblies of God churches.

A call to prayer sounded like a great idea to me, so I issued a statement to AG churches through social media. I wanted our Fellowship to express solidarity with black Spirit-filled churches, especially COGIC and our own National Black Fellowship, to pray for the black community, which was experiencing distress, and to seek to be agents of reconciliation in our still-racially divided country.

Many pastors hosted Black Lives Matter Sundays in their congregations to great effect. I received encouraging reports of tremendous intercessory prayer, with the hearts of white and black believers being broken for one another. I also received personal messages thanking me for highlighting the distresses experienced by the black community.

However, I received a lot of push back, too. Didn’t I know that Black Lives Matter was the name of a radical movement with some policies neither the AG nor COGIC supported, including a negative view of law enforcement and a permissive stance on LGBT issues? (Actually, being unplugged from the news, I didn’t know.) Couldn’t I see that the statement, “Black lives matter,” offended law enforcement officers in AG congregations? Shouldn’t I have emphasized that all lives matter, not just black lives?

I’ll get back to how I handled this controversy in a moment, including what I could’ve done better. For now, though, I want to focus on that last question because it’s the key to understanding the entire issue. Do all lives matter? Do black lives matter?

Which lives matter? As Spirit-filled believers, we are confident that Scripture is our all-sufficient rule for faith and practice, so let’s turn to God’s Word to see His answer to that question.

The Sanctity of Life
The first, and most obvious, answer is that all lives matter because every life is sacred. The biblical foundation of the sanctity of life is the creation of humanity in the image of God (Genesis 1:26­­,27; 5:1,2). The Sixth Commandment prohibits murder (Exodus 20:13), and the Law explains this prohibition explicitly in terms of the divine image (Genesis 9:5,6). There’s more to the Sixth Commandment than just the prohibition of murder, however.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus extended the application of the Sixth Commandment to the emotions that drive behaviors: “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:22).

Similarly, He extended the commandment’s application to our words: “anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca’ [an Aramaic term of contempt] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21,22).

The Sixth Commandment, then, encompasses murderous actions, angry emotions and contemptuous words.

The Bible routinely reverses negative prohibitions, turning them into positive obligations. For example, immediately after Jesus extended the prohibition of murder to anger and contempt, He announced their antidote: “go and be reconciled” (Matthew 5:23,24).

Similarly, Paul understood the Sixth Commandment as the flip side of the Great Commandment. “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:9,10; cf. Leviticus 19:18).

Even Leviticus 19:18 pairs a negative and a positive: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”

If we believe in the sanctity of life, there are things we must not do, as well as things we must do. Martin Luther summarized the dual responsibilities in his Little Catechism: “What does this [commandment] mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”

The sanctity of life demands that we help, not harm. This means we can’t fully obey the Sixth Commandment by doing nothing. It is relatively easy not to murder someone, after all. The sanctity of life demands that we cultivate emotions, words and actions that contribute to the flourishing of our neighbors’ lives. That is how we honor the sanctity of life and reflect pro-life values in the largest sense.

The Priority of the Vulnerable
If all lives matter, then it logically follows that some lives matter, too.

On the third Sunday each January, Assemblies of God churches commemorate Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. Why? Because on Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its infamous decision, in Roe v. Wade, that legalized abortion on demand throughout the country.

Psalm 139:13 says of God, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” No biblical author ever wrote to support abortion. The first Christians understood this. Beginning in the late first century — that is, the period immediately following the death of the apostles — Christian theologians consistently prohibited the practice. Tertullian (A.D. 160-225) offered a straightforward rationale: “In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb” (Apology, 9).

In other words, the sanctity of life extends to all humans, even unborn babies. Because all lives matter, we say and teach that unborn lives matter.

Turning from church history to the pages of Scripture, we see a similar concern for the lives of specific categories of people. Exodus 22:21-27 mentions four categories that recur throughout both the Old and New Testaments: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner. … Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. … If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest” (emphasis added).

Because all lives matter, foreign lives matter. Widowed lives matter. Orphaned lives matter. Poor lives matter.

Christ himself expressed concern for the lives of specific categories of people. In Matthew 25:31-46, He taught His disciples that His standard of judgment for “the nations” was whether they fed the “hungry,” gave drink to the “thirsty,” welcomed the “stranger” — i.e., foreigner or immigrant — clothed the one “needing clothes,” cared for the “sick,” and visited those “in prison.” If they did, He welcomed them into “eternal life.” If they didn’t, they experienced “eternal punishment.”

It’s not enough to talk about which lives matter at a theoretical level. We must get practical.

Because all lives matter, hungry lives matter. Thirsty lives matter. Immigrant lives matter. Poorly clothed lives matter. Sick lives matter. Incarcerated lives matter.

One final category of people the New Testament highlights is unbelievers. In Luke 15:1-32, Jesus told a series of three parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin and a lost son. Each of these parables taught that God rejoices when sinners repent and return to Him. Jesus concluded the parable by saying: “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (verse 7). Four chapters later, Luke quoted Jesus saying, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:10).

Because all lives matter, lost lives matter.

My point is not to imply that some lives are more valuable than others. Remember, all lives matter. But because some lives are more vulnerable than others at the present time, we must prioritize them as a matter of practical ministry. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the shepherd didn’t leave the 99 in the field because he cared more for the lost one. He left them there because they were safe. The lost sheep was the one at risk.

God prioritizes the lives of the vulnerable because of their great need. They don’t have power in society. They lack protection from the violent. They need provision to meet basic needs. They need salvation, both in the ultimate sense of forgiveness for sins and in the immediate sense of rescue from imminent harm. Accordingly, Scripture describes God as a “father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:5).

Because God prioritizes their well-being, we should too. In Psalm 82:3-4, God commands His people to act like Him: “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

If we believe in the sanctity of life, we must prioritize the lives of the vulnerable in our ministries. We must not harm them through violent actions, angry emotions or contemptuous words. Rather, we must help them through life-giving deeds, loving affection and edifying speech.

Black Lives Matter
So, if all lives matter, and some lives matter, do black lives matter?

Before I answer that question, let me say that my intent in calling for Black Lives Matter Sunday was to unify AG churches in prayer. Unfortunately and regrettably, division arose in some parts of the Body over this.

I certainly didn’t intend to put some pastors who contacted me into what they felt was a no-win situation. If they hosted Black Lives Matter Sunday, they feared they would offend law enforcement members of their congregations. If they didn’t, they might offend black members.

I didn’t anticipate people confusing my affirmation of the statement “Black lives matter” with support for a radical political movement rather than for my friend Bishop Blake, the Church of God in Christ, the National Black Fellowship of the Assemblies of God, black members of multiethnic AG churches and other Spirit-filled black churches.

If we distinguish between the statement and the movement, the statement is demonstrably true. Black lives do matter. Conversely, the statement that black lives don’t matter is abominably false.

Walk through the biblical logic with me. If all lives matter because they are sacred, and if some lives need to be prioritized in our ministries because they are vulnerable, then black lives matter both because they are sacred and because the black community in America is in distress.

Moreover, it follows that “All lives matter” does not refute or substitute for “Black lives matter.” Rather, the former statement provides the theological foundation on which the latter statement makes sense. Because all lives matter, black lives matter.

Try to imagine someone telling Jesus that the lost sheep doesn’t matter because “the 99 sheep matter.” He’d simply respond that He wants the lost sheep to join the rest of the flock. He wants the vulnerable sheep to feel valuable too.

I am confident that Assemblies of God pastors and congregants see the force of this biblical logic.

The Importance of Perspective
If that’s the case, why does the statement “Black lives matter” still generate so much controversy? It seems the answer is a matter of perspective. Different people interpret the phrase differently and accept or reject it based on the meaning they ascribe. Looking back, I see three different perspectives at work in the controversy.

The first perspective is existential. “Black lives matter” resonates with this group because either they or people they know have firsthand experience with racially disparate treatment. This was Bishop Blake’s perspective. Members of his community felt distress, so he used “Black lives matter” to remind our nation “how important the lives of African-Americans are.” AG pastors who thanked me for calling our churches to prayer shared this perspective.

The second perspective is institutional. This was my perspective as general superintendent of the Assemblies of God. One of the great joys of leading the Fellowship over the past 10 years has been our increasing cooperation with other black Pentecostal denominations, especially COGIC, as well as the growth of our own National Black Fellowship. At a low point in AG history, we succumbed to the spirit of Jim Crow and refused to ordain black men and women, directing them to COGIC instead. My predecessor, Thomas Trask, led our Fellowship in publicly repenting of this institutional racism in the 1994 “Memphis Miracle.”

It has been my joy to build on that repentance through deeper conversations and greater cooperation with COGIC. This included the historic meeting of COGIC and AG executive leaders here at my office on Nov. 27, 2013 — the first time the full leadership of both denominations ever met to discuss their relationships with one another. Then, and in subsequent meetings, we discussed the needs of America’s black community. By any number of metrics, black Americans are experiencing a disproportionate amount of distress compared to white Americans.

Based on my knowledge of the AG’s tragic institutional racism, as well as our ongoing conversations with black Pentecostal leaders both inside and outside of our Fellowship, I wanted to make it clear that black lives matter to the Assemblies of God.

The third perspective is critical. This was the perspective of the pastors who contacted me to express concern that “Black lives matter” sent the wrong message to law enforcement members in their congregations and communities. They felt the statement was too controversial for the AG to use because of its ties to the radical Black Lives Matter movement.

I have family members who are law enforcement officers. My grandniece is married to a rookie police officer. They have three children. She fears for his safety during the long nights when he is on duty. There’s no question that targeting law enforcement officers is wrong; it’s true to say, “Blue lives matter.”

The important thing to acknowledge is that each of these perspectives has a legitimate point. Disparate treatment based on race is real. Our Fellowship must not be on the wrong side of racial issues again. But neither should we align ourselves with radical political movements.

Christian leaders face the difficult task of bringing all these perspectives to the table to forge a common agenda for moving forward. This is true for the ongoing work of racial reconciliation, but also for other controversial issues, such as immigration and income inequality.

The Jerusalem Church Precedent
How do we move forward, putting into practice our commitment to the sanctity of life? How do we operationalize our concern for the most vulnerable among us? It’s not enough to talk about which lives matter at a theoretical level. We must get practical.

Acts 6:1-7 offers a precedent: “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’

As we face controversial issues in our churches and our nation, we will hear grumbling. As a leader, find the kernel of truth and act on it.

“This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

“So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

The Jerusalem church did six things today’s churches can emulate.

1. They combined evangelism and compassion. The church ministered to the needs of both soul and body. There were institutional ministries for making disciples and for feeding its most vulnerable members. (Note the word “widows,” and remember that it is one of the categories of vulnerable people whose well-being the Bible says we should prioritize.)

Evangelism and compassion aren’t mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing. The successful resolution of the problem in the church’s compassion ministry led to an explosion in its evangelism ministry. The number of disciples in Jerusalem “increased rapidly” (verse 7). Wouldn’t you like to see that happen in the Assemblies of God?

2. They listened to criticism. The Greek word translated “complained” is goggysmos. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the NIV translates it as “whispering” (John 7:12) and “grumbling” (Philippians 2:14; 1 Peter 4:9). The picture Luke paints is not of the Hellenistic Jews calmly submitting a complaint form. They murmured, muttered and grumbled. You can almost hear them saying, “Hebraic Jews? They’re a bunch of bigots who overlook our widows.”

As leaders, we all know how poisonous this kind of grumbling discontent can be in our churches. As Americans, we know how it poisons the public discourse. What distinguished the apostles is that they discerned the kernel of truth in the husk of discontent, and they acted on the truth. They acknowledged the problem of disparate treatment and then solved it.

As we face controversial issues in our churches and our nation, we will hear grumbling. As a leader, find the kernel of truth and act on it.

3. They unified the Body. Luke highlights the fact that conflict over “the daily distribution” occurred between “Hellenistic Jews” and “Hebraic Jews.” They were all Jews, obviously, but their languages, customs and perhaps countries of birth made their Jewishness seem different — maybe even dangerous — to the other group.

It would have been easy for the apostles — all Hebraic Jews — to hunker down and reinforce the distinction between “us” (Hebraic Jews) and “them” (Hellenistic Jews). Instead, they unified the church, gathering “all the disciples together” (verse 2).

The Assemblies of God as a whole, and many of its local churches, are increasingly diverse. With this diversity come differences in perspective. As leaders, we need to bring these voices to the table.

4. They delegated responsibility. Perhaps you’re thinking, My plate is already full. I can’t add leadership of one more ministry to my job description. It’s hard enough to prepare sermons every week, so where am I supposed to find time to lead compassion ministries?

I agree. It’s too much. So do what the apostles did: delegate responsibility to others. Senior pastors, focus on prayer and preaching. God will provide spiritually gifted helpers — whether pastoral staff or lay volunteers — to do the rest (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). Give them the meaningful ministries God is empowering them to perform!

5. They trusted their critics. Notice the names of the seven men chosen to supervise the daily distribution. They’re all Greek names. In other words, these men were Hellenistic Jews, the very group whose complaining set the story in motion.

This was a risky move. What if they took advantage of their new leadership positions and overlooked the Hebraic Jewish widows or challenged the apostles’ leadership? Nevertheless, the apostles wisely trusted their fellow believers. By doing so, they allowed the people who identified the problem to become part of the solution.

6. They relied on the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit dominates the Book of Acts. In Greek, the title of the book is The Acts of the Apostles, but a better title would be, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit through the Apostles.” No wonder the apostles chose leaders who were “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (verse 3). Luke further described Stephen as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (verse 5).

As I look at the controversies swirling in our nation and impacting our Fellowship, I see with greater clarity our need for continual refilling with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit provides power for evangelism (Acts 1:8) and enlarges our hearts with compassion for others. The Spirit helps us discern the kernel of truth in the husk of discontent. The Spirit unifies us in Christ and gifts us for various ministries. The Spirit binds our hearts to those of other believers with cords of love so that we always protect, trust, hope and persevere (1 Corinthians 13:6).

At Azusa Street, that cornerstone of the Pentecostal revival, it was said that, “The color line was washed away in the Blood.” I long for that kind of Spirit-filled Christianity. It is powerful, a Spirit-filled revolution in how we relate to one another (Galatians 3:28).

So again I ask: Which lives matter? Sing the words of this familiar children’s chorus, and rediscover the answer.
“Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

May we increasingly be a loving Fellowship to all, especially the most vulnerable among us. They are precious in God’s sight. They should be precious in ours as well.

In a nation torn by political polarization and personal rancor, a loving Church offers the only way forward.

George O. Wood is general superintendent of the Assemblies of God and chairman of the World Assemblies of God Fellowship. This article was originally printed in the December/January issue of Influence and has been used with permission. For more print content, subscribe.

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