Darrow Miller and Friends

Is the Church Listening to Martin Luther King?

Martin Luther King challenged the churchLast October I was teaching a class on ethics to my children and we read “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This famous open letter was penned by Martin Luther King on April 16, 1963. I had never read it before. I was deeply moved by its power and relevance to the church and to our mission at the Disciple Nations Alliance. The letter provides a blueprint for how to respond biblically to unjust laws and persecution, equipping we will no doubt need in the years to come.

In one section of the letter King addresses the white church in the south and its inaction. It is a powerful exposition of the problem that the DNA exists to address. I’ve used emphasis where his letter most closely reflects the language we’ve used in the DNA.

Note also that his criticism of the church is grounded in a deep love and commitment to the church. This also must remain true of the DNA.

I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

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 arch defender 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.

Scott Allen writes about MLK and the church– Scott D. Allen

President, Disciple Nations Alliance

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Scott Allen serves as president of the DNA secretariat office. After serving with Food for the Hungry for 19 years in both the United States and Japan, working in the areas of human resources, staff training and program management, he teamed up with Darrow Miller and Bob Moffitt to launch the DNA in 2008. Scott is the author of Beyond the Sacred-Secular Divide: A Call to Wholistic Life and Ministry and co-author of several books including, As the Family Goes, So Goes the Nation: Principles and Practices for Building Healthy Families. His most recent book is Why Social Justice is Not Biblical Justice. Scott lives with his wife, Kim, in Bend, OR. They have five children.


  1. Jill Thrift

    January 20, 2014 - 9:40 am

    In the City of San Antonio there are those today that applaud the recent passing of a city Sexual Orientation Regulation – relabeled the “Non-Discrimination Ordinance” – as an example of the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. In debating the ordinance last September, arguments advocating special rights for homosexuals were based on the belief that gender orientation and gender identity are civil rights in the same way that the physical characteristics of race and sex are. Pastor Charles Flowers of Faith Outreach Center International in San Antonio says, “This is of course utterly and obviously senseless, illogical and untrue; contrary to all reason and common sense, laughably foolish and false. In the passing of this woefully discriminatory ordinance our City Council took unprecedented steps in criminalizing the exercise of free speech, the freedom of conscience and the free exercise of religion; cherished principles upon which this nation was founded and freedoms for which Dr. King paid the ultimate price- his life.” Pastor Flowers’ full statement is published at athttps://www.facebook.com/pastor.flowers.75

    • admin

      January 30, 2014 - 6:35 am

      Thanks Jill

      It is always good to hear from you.


  2. kay west

    January 20, 2014 - 9:52 am

    So relevant to us as we currently yearn and strive for God’s unity as we minister in the country of South Africa, a country still in such need of our Lord’s healing power–praying the Church will step up and step out.

  3. James Wilson

    January 20, 2014 - 10:28 am

    Also, reminds me of article entitled “The Sleeping Giant”, regarding the Black church’s lack of encouraging its congregants to seek self-empowerment through economic and business development which still is our “achilles heel”!