We are not far removed from the summer of 2020, yet it seems fair to say that this past year will serve as a landmark in the long and lamentable history of race relations in America. Cities from Minneapolis to Philadelphia to Los Angeles were shaken by unrest. Americans grappled with questions of racially motivated police brutality. And yet 2020 was only the most recent example of a year that showed the fallenness of this world and the sin of racial animosity.
Many Christians—perhaps especially pastors—found themselves unsure how to engage in thoughtful, biblical, constructive conversation about these issues. Some spoke too quickly. Others did not speak at all. Most still wrestle with how to bring God’s Word to bear on racism and the church’s call to unity in Christ without being simplistic, without speaking foolishly and offensively, and without adopting secular thought patterns that are incompatible with orthodox theology. Simply put, we need help to think and act biblically with regard to ethnic unity in the church and the special obstacles of our history that stand in the way of that unity being realized.
We can give thanks for a timely book that will prove immensely useful in this tense environment. The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best by Irwin Ince is a helpful and hopeful theological primer that challenges believers to think through issues of ethnicity, racism, and God’s call to the church of unity in diversity. Ince is a well-qualified guide. As a Presbyterian pastor and a denominational leader, he is an insider to the world of conservative evangelical Protestantism. He is also an insider to the African-American experience, who is able to recount being on the receiving end of racism. Above all, Ince is a bridge-builder who wants his fellow believers to be captivated by the glorious future of God’s multi-ethnic kingdom.
Ince’s book is, in part, a deeply personal reflection on his own story. He recounts growing up in Brooklyn and some of his own early experiences with both the pain of racial prejudice and the beauty of diversity. Though he rejected Christianity as a young man in favor of Afrocentricity, Ince writes movingly about God’s providence in keeping him connected to the Black church where, eventually, he was transformed by the gospel of Christ. These experiences led Ince to what he describes as a “divine dissatisfaction” with the status quo of race and the American evangelical church. This status quo, he writes, is “the historic and contemporary complicity of the church in the racial and ethnic polarization of our congregations” (9). To allow such a status quo betrays our heritage as the people of God who live after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost reversed of the curse of division at Babel. This status quo also ignores the resources of our theological tradition that motivate and sustain the work of unity in diversity in our churches. While there is space for lament and critique in the book, Ince’s tone throughout is hopeful and helpful: we are not who we should be as a church, but God is at work and his plans for a beautiful community in Christ will be realized.
The Beautiful Community is a deeply theological book. Ince is careful to show how any practical application must arise from a doctrinal foundation. He shows, for example, how our current conversations about race and diversity will always be misguided and fruitless unless they are founded upon a firm understanding of God as triune and of humanity as the imago Dei. While Ince quotes helpfully from sources like Herman Bavinck and the Westminster Larger Catechism, the bulk of his reflection is rooted in Scripture. His redemptive-historical approach allows him to mine the Bible from Genesis through Revelation—from the Tower of Babel, to the prophecies of Isaiah, to Paul’s frequent teaching on unity in the body of Christ. He makes the convincing case that the diversity in God’s kingdom is a feature, not simply a side benefit, of the redemptive work of Christ. In fact, gathered around the Lamb will be “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9).
This redemptive-historical interpretation of Scripture and commitment to a precise theological vision and its application is the great strength of Ince’s work. As he notes, only the biblical vision of the diverse and multi-ethnic kingdom of God can empower Christians for the hard work of living together, understanding one another, and extending grace for the many ways in which we elevate our own ethnic preferences above love for our brothers and sisters from different backgrounds. When diversity is no longer a buzzword and expressions of solidarity no longer offer cultural cachet in elite academia, media, and politics, the church of Jesus Christ will still be called to a diverse community that reflects the beauty of our Triune God. Ince is a theologically rich conversation partner.
Like any good conversation, there is room for disagreement and critique. Critical Race Theory has become a flashpoint for debate within evangelicalism. Some readers who are aware of these debates may question a few passing references to “whiteness” and to the controversial writer, Ibram X. Kendi. The historical passages in the book helpfully introduce readers to the rich but underappreciated legacy of Black Presbyterian clergy like Matthew Anderson and Francis Grimké. These heroes of the faith are contrasted with white evangelical churches who founded Christian schools to avoid the desegregation of public schools. While this history is lamentable, such a comparison risks being too simplistic. These and other minor concerns do not take away at all from Ince’s valuable contribution.
The book closes with several chapters devoted to the road forward. Ince challenges believers to actually draw on our rich doctrinal foundation, to probe our own preferences, to commit to the hard work of reconciliation, and, finally, to rejoice as we see God at work in uniting his diverse church around the Lord Jesus Christ. Pastors, Bible study leaders, and any Christian who has been vexed by recent discussions of race, ethnicity, and the church will find Irwyn Ince to be a helpful and reliable guide.
Andrew Canavan is pastor and church planter at Corona Presbyterian Church, a mission work of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He lives in Corona, CA with his wife and three young children.