Interview: Eric Mason on Dangers of a ‘Narrow Gospel’ and Knowing Church History

pastor eric mason faithfully magazine interview
Pastor Eric Mason.

Editor’s Note: Read part one of this interview. 

Dr. Eric Mason is the founder and pastor of Epiphany Fellowship. He is the recipient of multiple earned degrees, including a B.S. in Psychology from Bowie State University, a Master of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the founder and president of Thriving, an urban resource organization committed to developing leaders for ministry in the urban context. He is the author of four books, the most recent of which is Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice.

This is part two of Faithfully Magazine’s interview with Mason, conducted by phone. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In your book, Woke Church, you talk about how the gospel and justice are deeply intertwined. You seem to be responding to a movement or tendency in White Evangelical circles to narrowly define the gospel to the exclusion of justice, reconciliation, etc. Can you speak on why you believe the gospel has been so narrowly defined in these circles?

When I talk about the narrow definition of the gospel, I’m saying that the gospel is taught in America individualistically. We think almost exclusively about individual salvation. But, the Bible even talks about the salvation of households and even of people groups. However, we’ve reduced salvation to justification. But, when you read Colossians chapter 1, [you] read that Jesus has come to redeem all things. That’s what it says in verse 23.

Throughout the book of Titus, Paul does something different. He basically reverses his formula for orthodoxy and orthopraxy. He reverses it and he starts with orthopraxy, orthodoxy, orthopraxy. So, in chapter 3, he talks about serving your civic authorities in verse 1. Then it goes from [there] to don’t forget that you were lost yourself. Then it goes into one of the strongest passages on the theology of being regenerated by faith by the renewing power of God. Then it calls God a philanthropist. Then he says as an outflow of this, let our people learn to meet pressing needs in order that we may not be found unfruitful. So, what does that mean? As an outgrowth of God being a philanthropist to save us in our fallen estate, we as Christians do proclaim the gospel, but we also do good works that are a reflection of our regeneration in how we relate to the brokenness that is in the world as an implication of the gospel.

“We believe in word and deed. We proclaim the clarity of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and we also believe that we are supposed to meet pressing needs in order that we may not be found unfruitful. We’re not saying that our good works are the gospel. We’re saying that they’re an outflow of the gospel.”

So examples of a narrow definition of the gospel. When most guys are planting their churches in the inner city like me, I can’t just go there and say, “Yeah man, we’re going to get a good worship band and a nice space and we’re going to go ahead and do small groups,” and that’s really the extent of the church. “We’re going to maybe support some churches for missions.” For me and many guys like me that come into an inner city, I have to come in thinking about not just building a place where people can have community building a deep gospel base, but also about how 90 percent of my community is single parent homes. The average household income is $15,000 per household, which is well below the poverty line. So, when I’m coming into my community, I can’t just come in with a cookie cutter suburban model of church. I have to come in thinking about, “How does the gospel speak into the economics of this community?”

When you come into this community, and you see that $400 million was removed from the city’s educational budget and they’re closing schools and shoving 35 to 40 young African-American kids in the elementary classrooms and then they take another $800 million three months later and invest that in the prisons. And so you got to ask yourself, “Am I just going to sing songs on Sunday and believe in the regulative principle?” We believe in Word and deed. We proclaim the clarity of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and we also believe that we are supposed to meet pressing needs in order that we may not be found unfruitful. We’re not saying that our good works are the gospel. We’re saying that they’re an outflow of the gospel.

I remember one guy who was saying, “You have got to make sure that you don’t have youth ministry. You can’t have youth ministry and children’s ministry because we need to minister to the family and the whole family needs to be in church.” Well, I’m like, you say not to have youth ministry, but where I am, that will kill our entire ministry, because there are parents that have to work two jobs to make ends meet. So, when you’re telling them Deuteronomy 6, before they can get home to do Deuteronomy 6, they have to bring some money home to do some Deuteronomy 6. So, what are they doing with their kids? They need supplemental ministry to help them contextually with their families, and a lot of times in inner cities, ministering to children and youth is a gateway to ministering to their entire family. Listen, if we experience and knew each other’s contextual and gospel stories, we wouldn’t make weird assumptions about others as it pertains to the need to talk about the implications of the gospel in these particular ways.

In your book, you also pointedly use the analogy of family history to talk about how we, as American Christians, need to be honest about our Christian family history and how we are impacted and affected by those who went before us. Why is knowing and acknowledging this family history important for the church today? How do you recommend an ordinary parishioner to begin doing this?

I would start with the reality that America has trained us to patriotically and triumphantly think about our history. This is really important. Because we aren’t told the broader narrative of American history, what that does is it creates in people a resistance to when others bring up present problems in the country. We’re not taught and we’re not teaching people in school and in the church that this country is deeply woven and built on and embedded with racism. Racism is in every fabric of our culture. If you don’t begin with dealing with the reality of that, it’s very difficult for you to learn, if you make assumptions that it’s not.

And the question is how do you do that? I think even watching a documentary on Netflix like 13th, and that’s just one area. That’s just the prison pipeline. When you look [at] a documentary like 13th, you’re like, “I didn’t know this at all! I wouldn’t have known this!” I think that for anybody who is a believer who believes in original sin knows that if there’s an original sin that impacts us through just us being humans, then we should know that that original sin still affects how justice is being done.

Then, what I think our brothers and sisters need to do is really begin to take down our gods. That’s why one of the sections in my book is “Be aware,” because we don’t even know our lineage and how we got to where we are as the church. So, one of the things I would read is Carter G. Woodson’s History of the Negro Church. I would read Richard Allen’s memoir. It’s a very small memoir on how he bought his own freedom and what he went through to become a bishop and begin to start a whole denomination. A bigger work for those who are more ambitious is C. Eric Lincoln’s The Black Church in the African American Experience. It’s a very, very good book. One of my favorite books is by Carl Ellis: Free at Last? The Gospel in the African-American Experience. Now, if you’re a person that is used to more deep intellectual jargon, you can read Doctrine and Race by Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews. You’re going to have to put it down because it’s so dense in its depth. So, those are some types of resources.

I tell people to go on a journey, a sanctifying journey of learning the challenges of race in our country. Just google it: “Racism in America.” I mean, again, real simple. And if you have any connections, any relationships with people of other ethnicities, not using them as a project but asking them, “Is it okay if I could have you over sometime or take you out and ask you how you feel about the state of race in this country and why you feel that way? And give me your story, I’d love to know your story, to know when you first knew that you were Black.” You know? Someone asked me that question and I don’t even know how to answer it. Some people are like, “I knew I was Black on this day.” And usually when you first know you’re Black, it’s not in a positive light. It’s usually in a negative experience. People say, “Why do you have to wear shirts that say ‘Black this’ and say ‘Black that.’ It’s because whiteness is presented as the universal standard of our country. Nobody has to say “white power.” Everything tells you that white has power.

When I turn on the TV and my kids watch super heroes, when they watch Bible programming, they are subliminally engaged by art that says that Blacks have contributed nothing, when we know that’s not true. But Whites are naturally nurtured in our country in very, very overt and covert ways to value themselves and see themselves as better than others. And we’re not saying you’re racist. We’re just saying you’re trained to view yourself in a particular way that says you’re valuable, whereas most ethnicities—in particular, African Americans—because of the legacy of slavery, Black codes, Jim Crow, and systematic racism in this country, are always reminded of our inequality in this country.


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    Written by Timothy I. Cho

    Timothy Isaiah Cho is an Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy enjoys reading, discussing and writing on topics related to racial justice, diversity, social justice and Christian engagement in society. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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