Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the State of the Church

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the State of the Church

In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. found himself sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, AL reading a letter written by eight, white pastors that was published in the newspaper. In their letter, although the pastors did acknowledge the racial injustices that their black brothers and sisters were experiencing in the south, they also were admonishing and rebuking Dr. King for the methods and actions that he was helping to implement in that city to challenge racism and segregation.

While in jail, using scraps of paper, Dr. King crafted a response to the pastors’ letter. This response is known as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In the last page of the letter, Dr. King speaks of his disappointment with the white church and its leadership in Birmingham, describing how he expected that the white church would be supportive.

MLK Mugshot Birmingham
MLK Mugshot Birmingham

He was surprised and disappointed at both the outright criticism of white pastors of non-violent actions for justice, but also at the silence of other white pastors and Christians, who while disagreeing with segregation, remained silent.

In this excerpt from the letter, King explains why he was so disappointed by the lack of support. He also goes on to contrast the early Church with the then-contemporary church of 1963. He says of the Church:

“There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being 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 a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

“Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.”

“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. 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. King wrote those words almost 57 years ago. The world has changed in many ways since those words were written, but for those of us who follow Jesus Christ, who call him King and Lord, who see ourselves as “the Church,” it behooves us to examine ourselves and the contemporary Church in this country in 2020 as to whether King’s words apply to us today. Perhaps, we can prayerfully consider the following questions:

  • Is the Church in this country suffering?
  • Is the Church worthy of suffering?
  • Is the Church willing to suffer?
  • Is the Church a thermometer or a thermostat? In what ways?
  • Is the Church transforming society or is society transforming the Church? In what ways? Why do you think this is the case?
  • Are people in power disturbed by the Church today?
  • Is the Church obeying God or man?
  • Is the Church the defender of the status quo?
  • Has the Church has regained the “sacrificial spirit of the early Church?
  • Has the Church lost its authenticity?
  • Are people leaving the church? Why?
  • Has the church become “an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the” 21st century?”
  • How should we, the members of the Body of Christ respond to this?
Courtesy of Pexels
Courtesy of Pexels

On Tuesday, February 25, 2020, the Peacemakers Discussion Group will be hosting a Pastors’ Roundtable, with the intent to bring together pastors from different churches, denominations, to discuss and examine these questions as they pertain to the contemporary church.

If you are a pastor or serve in a leadership capacity in the Church, please join us at the Faulkner County Library (1900 Tyler St, Conway, AR 72032) at 6:30 p.m. If you are not a pastor, please invite your own pastor and encourage him or her to join us on that night.

If you have questions or would like more information about this event or about the ministry of Peacemakers Discussion Group (PDG) please contact via this website or email us at pdg4gospel@gmail.com. You may also find us on Facebook.

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