Editor’s Note: Read part two 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 one of Faithfully Magazine’s interview with Mason, conducted by phone. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s begin with a little background information. Tell us a bit about how you came to saving faith in Jesus and what called you to pastoral ministry.
I grew up in Washington, D.C. I grew up in the church, yet didn’t notice the call of the gospel. It wasn’t that the church didn’t preach it; it’s just I didn’t notice it. But it did, because it was an extremely liturgical church, a United Methodist Church. You heard the gospel and the historical Christian faith, doctrine, and everything. So, once I went to college, I went to a campus ministry outreach that had church service there on Sunday mornings. And I ended up just stumbling into one and ended up hearing the gospel clearly for the first time and ended up placing my faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross and His resurrection and propitiation for my sins. That’s how I came to faith. But, I wasn’t in a local church and wasn’t getting discipled when I was in college. But, I ended up getting discipled by a young man to get into church, and once I started dating who would be my wife, I started going to that church and sensed a strong call to ministry.
I would preach on the campus all the time, but I didn’t call it “preaching.” I just called it “being a witness.” I would stand in the Student Union and talk to anybody, answer any question. And I was a year to year and a half saved, but I would stand in there and proclaim the gospel, talk to people about the gospel, and by God’s grace, many people came to faith. About March of the Spring of my sophomore year, I sensed a strong urge that I couldn’t shake of going into ministry. I read Jeremiah chapter 1 verses 4 through 10 and it seemed like the words jumped off the page to me and that ministry was exactly what I was supposed to be doing as a vocation.
— Dr. Eric Mason (@pastoremase) September 21, 2018
You and your church are a part of the Acts 29 Network. How did you originally get connected to this network? I know that Acts 29 has made steps toward racial justice and diversity conversations. Could you provide some insight about that?
I ended up in the network prior to launching a church around 2004. I was at Fellowship Associates at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock going through their residency program, and in that program a couple of the guys in the network were going through the Acts 29 process. I didn’t know many church planting networks out there, and I ended up reaching out to Acts 29 because, you know, as a church planting guy, you’re looking for support and ways to learn how to get camaraderie to understanding the nature of church planting. Because back then, church planting wasn’t as big as it is now. Church planting is huge now. It was just beginning to buzz a little bit, and I mean particularly inner city church planting and urban church planting was not at all on anybody’s radar. So, it really wasn’t as big of a deal as it is now.
I ended up connecting with Acts 29 going through the assessment process because I wanted to get a church planting assessment. I wanted to do a few assessments just so that I could get good feedback, because I believe in the voices of the body and that in the abundance of counsel, plans are established. I wanted to be able to really get feedback. The assessment process was great. It still is one of the best assessment processes to me that exist. So, I ended up getting in the network and, man, they were very, very encouraging of me in the network. I didn’t know they were passing my sermons around to different guys, so they were very encouraging and provided a ton of support for us. I ended up actually joining the board of the network about a year or two after I planted and I was on and off the board for about a decade until about two years ago.
“At first… I didn’t want to be viewed as the “urban guy.” I didn’t want to be viewed as the “racial reconciliation guy,” because for a while it could feel like in White spaces that the only thing Black people are useful for is giving talks on justice, racial reconciliation, and urban ministry, pastoral ministry, and preaching.”
At first, I told the network I didn’t want to be a diversity engineer. I really wanted to zoom into my local community and engage in planting our church and then help plant other churches, so I didn’t want to be viewed as the “urban guy.” I didn’t want to be viewed as the “racial reconciliation guy,” because for a while it could feel like in White spaces that the only thing Black people are useful for is giving talks on justice, racial reconciliation, and urban ministry, pastoral ministry, and preaching. Not that there is anything wrong with those things, but I didn’t want to live in light of some of those stereotypes.
But, as the country ended up turning, I had to turn my attention to helping the network to really get a birds-eye view of how it needed to work through some of the blind spots our network has and to restore a prophetic witness really particularly for the church in the Western hemisphere. The Western church—I’m viewing it as a whole, not just White church, Black church, Latino church, multiethnic church, charismatic church, conservative church, Reformed church—isn’t viewed as a viable entity that is committed to engaging in and challenging the structure of racial injustice in this country. So, in my mind and in many people’s minds, the church is viewed as a co-conspirator to Western imperialism.
Was there a distinctive moment in your life or ministry when you became “woke?” Are there specific experiences that impacted you to use your voice to speak up about these issues as a Christian?
Well, I actually have sort of always been in the unredeemed form of wokeness. I was like that prior to being a Christian. So, I was deep into unredeemed wokeness, and all of it wasn’t necessarily bad. Some of it was general revelation stuff – what we would say a good human being should know and what God would expect a person to know and do justly whether you’re saved or not. So, when I became a Christian, Christ shined a light on what redeemed wokeness looked like. When we talk about redeemed wokeness, it’s not just about those things that are implications of the gospel that would agree with someone who is influenced by general revelation to just know as a good human. If two people do the same crime, they should get equal sentencing. You don’t have to be a Christian to know that, you know? It should just be a given that there should be just sentencing. And everyone should get equal access to education. If you do the same job, everyone should be paid equally. Men and women should not be paid differently if they have the same education and same experience, et cetera.
When I became a Christian, I began looking at the scriptures and the implications of the gospel. Challenging racial injustice isn’t the gospel; it is an outworking of the gospel. But, I don’t even want to think you need to call it the “outworking of the gospel.” You can just say that the Word of God talks about these things in the frame of justice, whether you’re looking at Leviticus 19, whether you’re looking at Deuteronomy passages, whether you’re looking at Isaiah 58, whether you’re looking at Micah 6:8, whether you’re looking at Matthew 23:23, whether you’re looking at Titus 3:14… I could go on and on with so many passages. Christian are supposed to be the best human beings in existence because we’re the new humanity. If we’re the new humanity based on Ephesians chapter 2—what we can call the new-manity—if we’re the new humanity, people should look at us and see the best human beings. They shouldn’t see people who just respond well to general revelation in a better way than Christians who have the gospel and special revelation.
Some critics of the term “wokeness” would say that this is a new thing: “Why is racial justice or social justice being brought in as new things now?” What would be your response to that?
That’s real simple. I mean, the challenge with Christianity is a lot of us don’t study Christian history. So, what happens is, when something happens in our time period, we process it through a “now lens” and a “limited lens.” What church history does, and even reading biographies and memoirs does, is it helps you to see that maybe we don’t have the exact same things but there are overarching things that are not new. When you read the apologist Justin Martyr, when you read people like Shenouda of Egypt, when you read Pachomius, when you read the North African church fathers, when you read the Cappadocian church fathers, when you read the Antiochian church fathers… If you have Logos or any type of program or if you have Kindle or Nook or whatever, you could put the word “justice” into any of those books and pull up translated versions of stuff Christians have been talking about for millennia when it comes to injustice and how Christians have always been fighting for how people are being treated. We’ve had Christians in the past that have dealt with emperors. I mean, we’re talking about absolute monarchies, and they spoke prophetically to them. If you look at John, he was willing to speak prophetically and deal with the consequences of that.
“We could argue all day about ‘woke.’ We could argue all day about terms. The question I have is, ‘Is there injustice in our society? Is there systemic racism in our society?’ If we agree with that, my question is, ‘Where do you biblically find the answers, and what are our solutions to it?’
My reverse criticism is, you’re arguing about the terms. We could argue all day about “woke.” We could argue all day about terms. The question I have is, “Is there injustice in our society? Is there systemic racism in our society?” If we agree with that, my question is, “Where do you biblically find the answers, and what are our solutions to it?” Most people who argue about the terms of “racial injustice” or “wokeness” or “social justice” aren’t doing absolutely anything about being a good neighbor to those who don’t look like them. People say, “I don’t like ‘social justice’” and I’m like, “Okay. So, what’s your alternative to the problem?” You don’t like the term. Let’s take “social” out of it since social is an adjective to justice. So, now, what do you do with justice? Do you think that there’s systemic racism? Now, if you say that there’s no systemic racism in America, that doesn’t even make sense. You haven’t read anything. You’ve just been in a Christian bubble—I would say a White conservative Evangelical-Fundamentalist bubble.
Recently, Ligon Duncan talked about the fact that, prior to the 1920s, [White conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists] decided that they weren’t going to talk about slavery or any of that and actually demonize the reality of it happening. When you read Doctrine and Race by Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews, when you look at the beginnings of Evangelicalism in the 1800s, you see that the development of Evangelicalism was deeply racial because of the creation of race and whiteness as a social construct. Race is a social construct, whiteness is a social construct, and being Black in America is a social construct, and that these social constructs affect how we relate to each other and give certain people better positioning. We’re not talking about socialism. We’re not talking about Marxism, And Marx has nothing to do with what we talk about justice. Some people haven’t even read Walter Rauschenbusch, who was the father of modern day Social Gospel, and Schleiermacher, who was the father of modern day liberalism. A lot of Evangelical Fundamentalism was influenced by The Age of Reason, and the “liberal side”—if that’s even a construct—was influenced by some of the liberal components of it. So, when we talk through all of those different things, and you see the people that are making theological statements against racial justice, I have to ask, “Have you really even read the works of Karl Marx? Or have you read a Christian who’s interpreting what he said and you’re accepting what he said about what he said?” And they’re not even a scholarly historian. They’re just a theologian reading outside of their discipline.
There are lots of debates about how helpful the terms “Evangelical” and “Evangelicalism” are, especially due to political and social baggage. Is Evangelicalism redeemable, and how?
That’s a great question. It’s funny that you say that. Listen to what the last part of your last question was. Your last question said, “Is ‘woke’ a redeemable term?” right? Then, when you come to Evangelicalism, when you read some of the ways that those guys talked, I mean, it’s embarrassing. When you read those guys who formulated the contours of Evangelicalism, you can’t even believe that they talk about Blacks the way they talk about Blacks. Like, even in the book Doctrine and Race, she talks about how they said they could create Evangelical Fundamentalism, but Blacks will believe anything because they don’t have theological acumen. When you go back to the original movement, you’d see that the Black evangelicals saw themselves as already sound in faith and did not necessarily see the Whites as the standard benchmark gatekeepers of Christianity. But White Evangelical Fundamentalists were saying, “If you don’t come through us for your doctrinal amen, we don’t view you as sound,” which is arrogant and imperialistic.
It’s just like when Martin Luther talked with the Ethiopian who was up in Germany. Luther came to him and asked him about what he thought about what he was writing in the 95 Theses and the doctrines of the Solas. And the Ethiopian was looking at him like, “Man, y’all are the ones needing a reformation. We’ve been believers for 1500 years!” And then Luther says, “I was willing to give him the right hand of fellowship.” Luther, how are you going to give a man the right hand of fellowship who comes from a more effective theological legacy than you? You know what I’m saying? How arrogant can you be? And again, I’m a fan of Martin Luther and I’m thankful for what he did, but again there’s a tendency with Western Whites to think, “Come to me for soundness and let me check you out as being sound” versus thinking that you could learn globally from other Christians doing theology who believe the same things. It’s crazy. So the answer, to go back to your question, talking about “Is evangelicalism redeemable?” I think that there’s so much pain involved with Evangelicalism that the chance to redeem the ideology has lost its fervor. So, now it’s kind of like I don’t want to redeem the term—I just want to redeem the word “Christian.” I would rather redeem a word that’s in the Bible than a created socio-theological construct which Evangelicalism doesn’t realize that it is.