The Rev. Dr. William Yoo explores the Matthew 25 church that never was and the one we have today

Author and scholar amps up the large Matthew 25 Summit crowd with a historic and prophetic lecture

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. William Yoo delivered the plenary address the second day of the Matthew 25 Summit, being held at New Life Presbyterian Church in South Fulton, Georgia. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — In an hour-long Matthew 25 Summit address that alternated between the historic and the prophetic, the Rev. Dr. William Yoo wowed attendees with a talk on the Matthew 25 church that never was and the Matthew 25 church that is here today. The 350 or so people in attendance stood and clapped and offered Yoo encouragement throughout his inspiring lecture, which can be seen here. Yoo is introduced by the Rev. Carlton Johnson at the one hour, 18-minute mark.

Yoo is Associate Professor of American Religion and Cultural History at Columbia Theological Seminary, where he also directs the Master of Divinity Program. His 2022 book, “What Kind of Christianity: A History of Slavery and Anti-Black Racism in the Presbyterian Church,” published by Westminster John Knox Press, won the Religion Communicators Council Award of Excellence the following year.

As early as the 19th century, crusaders including the journalist William Lloyd Garrison realized the cause of abolition “was at odds with powerful forces” and took their inspiration from sources including Matthew 25, Martin Luther and John Calvin, according to Yoo. Garrison and other writers including the Pequot minister William Apess noted that white Christians of their day “lived like they were the only beloved images of God,” Yoo said. Apess called for “the mantle of prejudice to be torn from every American heart.”

“Changing hearts would lead to changing racially unjust laws, policies and structures,” Yoo said. “What we do here has to matter out there,” the first of Yoo’s many applause lines.

In the first of what would be five main points Yoo left with rapt listeners, the church “has never been a strictly spiritual institution,” Yoo said.

Going back to the 18th century, many churches practiced racial segregation during worship. While a few white worshipers protested such discrimination, “many more supported it because it represented their society,” Yoo said, making a point he would later return to: “There is no change without confrontation, no progress without protest, and no discipleship without dissent.”

“There is simply no other way,” Yoo said.

Second, “We as the church must equip people of faith for civic participation,” Yoo said. Churches “error when they elevate presidential politics, but they stumble when they just want to escape the rancor of presidential politics.”

That rancor is nothing new, Yoo said, but “we have to figure out how we’re going to grapple with it.” As they do today, churches back then chose the social issues they’d engage in accordance with which issues were important to the congregation. Even today, many church-goers are only against their church taking political actions “that aren’t the politics they support and agree with,” Yoo said.

This doctrine of the spirituality of the church is the foundation for oppressing Black people, Yoo said. A good way not to go down that road is to become a Matthew 25 church that seeks to build congregational vitality, dismantle structural racism or eradicate systemic poverty — or any combination of the three.

“Being a Matthew 25 church is long and hard, but worth the endeavor,” Yoo said.

Yoo’s third point is that many churches mistake congregational activity for civic action. In many majority-white churches, traditional experiments toward bringing about some level of racial justice include reading the same book together and holding multicultural worship services. Yoo said it’s not his mission to stop either one from occurring, “but sometimes the connection doesn’t happen,” he said. The congregation can end up spending 80% of its time doing 20% of the work that’s needed. “We spend a lot of time debating statements and banners,” Yoo said. “I want us to honestly and hopefully and joyfully reflect on is that 80% of the work, or is it 20% of the work?”

Yoo’s fourth point emphasized that churches “should prioritize responsibility and repair over guilt and privilege.”

Yoo’s attended conferences where “racial privilege is sometimes over-emphasized and over-simplified.” Unity is “a goal, but it’s not the goal. The goal remains the gospel, the Matthew 25 movement. We want to work together toward substantive repair that addresses historic sins and ensures a more just and inclusive society.”

When we talk about justice for Indigenous people, for example, “we can’t immediately say, ‘What about climate change?’ In this moment, we need to address this specific sin, the sins of land theft and chattel slavery. We need to address that,” Yoo said, “and we need to make it right.”

“We don’t need Matthew 25 churches to be successful — just faithful.”

Fifth and finally, “we must be deeply hopeful and honest about our past, present and future,” Yoo said. Churches have the resources to foster dialogues among people with diverse perspectives.

Wednesday’s plenary address by the Rev. Dr. William Yoo elicited an appreciative response from the 350 people attending the Matthew 25 Summit at New Life Presbyterian Church in South Fulton, Georgia. (Photo by Rich Copley)

He had a word of advice for congregations: If you have a good pastor who’s visited you in the hospital, performed your relative’s funeral, presided while your daughter tied the knot, moderates the session and is present working with church members, “do not get angry when they preach for three minutes” on “a position you don’t agree with. Don’t change ‘my pastor’ into ‘that pastor.’ Even if you disagree with that position, you’re figuring it out too, and they’re journeying with you.”

“Let your pastor say the hard words, the good words, the challenging words, so that ultimately there can be growth,” Yoo said. “Your pastor may be the only woman in town who wears a collar, the only queer or trans person in your town, the only white male pastor who is grappling with economic injustice in your town. Please let us preach, challenge, provoke and grow with you.”

“The Matthew 25 journey will require both patience and persistence. We are angry and lament the Matthew 25 church that never was, but we rejoice over the Matthew 25 church that is here today. Amen,” Yoo said, and listeners responded with a sustained standing ovation.

Check pcusa.org throughout the Matthew 25 Summit, which concludes Thursday, for stories on worship services and plenaries. Plenaries and worship services are streamed here. Learn more about upcoming Matthew 25 Being Connected events here.


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