Dr. King and The Constructive Church
By Dr. Herbert Fain, Houston Graduate School of Theology Professor of Legal and Social Ethics
In A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the editors Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran enlist well-known church leaders to express the spiritual truth of various speeches delivered by Dr. King. Reverend Floyd H. Flake was one the spiritual leaders that had the honor to discuss Dr. King’s speech “Guidelines for a Constructive Church,” which was delivered in Atlanta, Georgia, at Ebenezer Baptist Church on June 5, 1966. According to Reverend Flake, Dr. King had a forthright plan for the church body that seeks to mirror Christ-like values.
Traditionally, King employed scripture as the basis of his societal rebukes. For the “Guidelines for a Constructive Church,” the biblical text used by Dr. King was Isaiah 61. From this spiritual foundation, there are four issues that King sought to address. First, the church should “respond to the human brokenheartedness” as “a fact of life.” Second, without fear of reprisal, the church must continue to fight racial injustice. Third, “church leadership must be bold enough to proclaim the message of freedom and liberation.” Fourth, Dr. King proclaimed that “the acceptable year of the Lord” is now.
From the onset of King’s speech, he reminds his audience that, as followers of Christ, there are guidelines that must be followed for authenticity. Therefore, in order to remain in God’s good graces, the church should refer to the guidelines found in Isaiah 61. The church should operate with a sense of purpose. According to Dr. King, the church’s purpose is not to entertain but to heal. And, by healing the spiritual exhaustion of the church body and offering a word of hope, the church is fulfilling God’s purpose.
Second, when Dr. King speaks of racial injustice, he recommends that the church free members who are “slaves to prejudice, slaves to fear.” In other words, preachers should speak to their congregation about fairness and truth. On the other hand, there are some church members who wish to fight racial injustice, yet they are silent due to fear of potential “social, political, and economic reprisals.”
Third, Dr. King acknowledges how some parishioners are “living with segregation and discrimination.” Dr. King even tells the crowd that he’ll “die for them” or “go to jail for them” if necessary. Therefore, the church has a duty to set the people free from the discrimination, fear, and prejudice that they’re experiencing.
Fourth, the “acceptable year of the Lord” is the time that pleases God because the church is fulfilling “the demands of his kingdom.” At the conclusion of the speech, Dr. King models what all ministers should do. Speak directly to the people and provide a message of encouragement and hope. Dr. King tells the members of Ebenezer Church that God is “smiling and speaking” to them because they have served the needs of the people.
Fundamentally, the church has a spiritual mandate to save the world. In essence, Dr. King took present day challenges and helped the church understand its role in society. To some, they see this as an urban mission. Dr. King used Isaiah 61 to illustrate the goals of a church. He challenged the church to be engaged, be true to its mission, and he asked pastors to be bold in their proclamation. This is the essence of a "Constructive Church."