In this episode of the Mind + Heart podcast, Phillip Holmes interviews Karen Ellis, the director of the Edmiston Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity. Holmes and Ellis discuss biblical justice, the importance of learning from the persecuted church, and the work of the Edmiston Center.
Holmes begins by asking Ellis about her background and testimony. Ellis describes growing up in church, but without a knowledge of Christ. She explains her spiritual journey as a seeker, and how she eventually heard the gospel and was converted as a part of a campus ministry event at her school. Ellis also talks about her involvement and work with the persecuted church as a part of her work at the Edmiston Center.
Holmes replays Ellis’s previous Wisdom Wednesday episode in which she answers the question, “What is biblical justice?” and asks Ellis to talk about the lives of Alonzo and Althea Edmiston. Ellis explains Althea’s journey from Fisk University, to the mission field of Congo with a group of African-American missionaries, her marriage on the field to Alonzo Edmiston, their work spreading the gospel, and their opposition to the injustices that plagued Congo at the time. Ellis also explains how their work inspired the Edmiston Center, and their desire to train students to learn the lessons of the persecuted church.
Holmes asks Ellis why it is important to study people like the Edmistons. Ellis explains the necessity of learning from the persecuted church as it grows and develops its own theologies and the ways that the Edmistons embodied this goal.
Holmes and Ellis discuss whether or not the Western church is prepared to learn from the persecuted church. Ellis makes the case that progress is being made in this area as greater cultural opposition comes the Western church’s way.
Holmes asks Ellis how the Edmistons’ story helps us in our conversations about justice. Ellis talks about the importance of being able to see the difference between cosmic justice and temporal justice, and the ways the Edmistons could detect and leverage that difference for the gospel. Ellis also talks about how this understanding of justice allows us to both trust God to properly balance justice and mercy and to share the gospel with urgency.
Holmes asks Ellis to talk about the current status of the Edmiston Center. Ellis shares about the center’s current work with the persecuted church and their upcoming lecture series.
Mind + Heart Season 2 Episode 8: Justice
Phillip Holmes: Welcome to the Mind + Heart podcast, which features interviews and more from the faculty and friends of Reformed Theological Seminary. We created this podcast to assist you in your daily quest to love God and love your neighbor. I’m your host, Phillip Holmes, and this week I’m joined by my guest and my friend, Karen Ellis. Karen Ellis is the director of the Edmiston Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity in Atlanta, Georgia. She’s passionate about theology, human rights, and global religions. Karen, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.
Karen Ellis: Thank you. Thank you, Phillip. It’s always a pleasure.
Holmes: So before we dive in, tell us a little bit about your origin story. Where did you grow up and how did you come to know the Lord?
Ellis: I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. I was the church organist for years. I grew up in church, actually. And I did not know Jesus the whole time, so.
But when I was 25 years old, I was in my third year at graduate school, and I heard the gospel, genuinely given, for the first time. I had been seeking that whole year. I was supposed to be in the stacks reading about my topic and my subject that I was studying. I was actually in the stacks reading the books, the religious books of the world. So I read the Bhagavad Gita. I read The Egyptian Book of the Dead. I read books on philosophy, and Zen in the Art of Archery, and The Tao of Pooh, and books on religion and philosophy, and I was really seeking.
And then one day in 1993, I was at the African-American Cultural Center on campus — shout out to my campus outreach pastors. I was on campus, and a brother gave the gospel. I was at an Easter service in the cultural center, and he gave the gospel, and I heard it in all that choir music, and all the word that was buried in those hymns, and all those gospel songs. It bore fruit. I realized that day that I believed — that I really did believe in this person named Jesus Christ, and that he had died for my sins, and that I had a path back to the one true living God by knowing him. And so life changed that day, radically. And I’ve sort of been on this crazy journey ever since.
When I first became a Christian . . . [I] told the Lord, . . . “I want to live a life of adventure,” which is a really dangerous thing to ask.When I first became a Christian and told the Lord, I said, “I want to live a life of adventure,” which is a really dangerous thing to ask. And so I somehow got involved — early on, I got involved with underground church movements, slowly got involved with the persecuted church, and serving them peripherally. And it’s been my honor to serve them for more than 20 years now, alongside different organizations, different parachurch support, and development organizations around the world. So it’s a little bit about how I got to where I am today, doing the work that I’m doing with the Edmiston Center.
Holmes: That’s awesome. We’re going to talk a little bit more about the Edmiston Center and Althea and Alonzo Edmiston a little bit later in the podcast. Recently, Karen answered the question for us, “What is biblical justice?” via Wisdom Wednesday, which is our weekly video series. So before we go any further, let’s take a moment and listen to Karen’s response to the question, “What is biblical justice?”
Ellis: The Bible tells the story of a world at the start of history, where a loving God created a people for himself, and a place for that people. And in that place where they lived, relationships were whole and humans related to creation around them, woman and man to each other, and woman and man to God. And everything was shalom. It was a peaceful place. Harmony, order, no power struggles, and therefore, no injustice in that place. And it wasn’t perfect, but it was good.
So there are two dimensions in view here. Temporal shalom, peace between people and nature, and cosmic shalom, or, a right relationship and communion with God who made us. And then we get to the Fall in the story. And that shalom is absolutely shattered, but not completely destroyed by us in our rebellion. So in the cosmic realm, we committed treason against God. Not injustice, but treason, because we don’t have power over God. But rather, our sinful rebellion against our loving Creator, who has ultimate sovereignty over us, can be seen as a kind of cosmic, ultimate treason against the one who created us. And also, in that moment of cosmic treason, injustice enters the world, into the temporal realm.
And now we have a world that was not supposed to know injustice and a people who were not made to know injustices, who weren’t created to be oppressed or to be oppressors. We shattered our shalom. We put ourselves in an unnatural position in relation to everything around us. Just as humankind wasn’t created to be separated from each other in the temporal realm, we weren’t created to be separated from God.
So our cosmic treason could only be satisfied by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and all his triumph over all forms of satanic destruction, including injustice. At the end of God’s story, all things won’t be merely restored to that pre-sin dwelling place. They will actually be made perfect in a future dwelling place, where God’s justice and his mercy will be dispensed on all creation, and in perfect measure. No more sin, no more pain, no more injustice, no more weeping on a day that’s going to be in the kingdom of God. The old people used to call it “the sweet by-and-by.” But what does that say about “the nasty now-and-now” right here, in the temporal realm?
When we pursue justice for righteousness’ sake, we proclaim the kingdom of God on Earth, his intentions for the world as he created it to be: making wrongs right, holding the unjust accountable, seeing to it that the wronged are made whole, whether it’s through state courts or church courts, or even in our personal relationships. We have many avenues to proclaim God’s kingdom as he wants it to be.
The Bible tells us that we are the kingdom of God on Earth, that Christ has provided justice and mercy for our sins in all dimensions, for the injustices we’ve committed against others, and for those injustices committed against us. And it proclaims to those of us who’ve been abused and oppressed, “You weren’t created to be dehumanized.” And it says to us who’ve been abusers, whether it’s an individual dehumanizing people, or a dehumanizing cultural practice, it says, “You weren’t made to abusively lord power over other people. Come up to a higher place.” So executing biblical justice tells the watching world that God has always intended for us a peaceful, ordered existence, with a plan for human beings that’s good and right and life-giving. That’s shalom. Yes, the attempts of God’s people toward justice and mercy are imperfect in this realm. Only God can perfectly balance the scales of justice and mercy. But when we do pursue biblical justice, we proclaim to a watching world that there’s a better day coming. Gosh, don’t you want to be a part of it?
Biblical justice and mercy meet in that place with a kiss, where things are done on Earth as it is in heaven. An intrusion of the kingdom into this broken world and a foretaste of glory divine, something we all want to be a part of.
Holmes: So Karen, you’re the director for the Alonzo and Althea Edmiston Center for the Study of the Bible and Ethnicity there in Atlanta, Georgia. Tell us a little bit about Alonzo and Althea Edmiston. Who were they?
Ellis: Well, there’s a reason why we’ve named the center after them. It’s because they capture the ethos of the center, which is to connect the local and the global, but specifically, to look at how the church moves on the margins of society. And if there were two people in church history who knew the margins of society on many different levels, it was Alonzo and Althea Edmiston. They came up one generation removed from slavery. So, their parents were emancipated in 1865, and they were the next generation after the emancipation. And Althea attended a school named Fisk, which is a historic black college, and she gave her life to missions whilst she was at Fisk.
I mean if you know anything about — OK, think about this. These are people coming out of slavery, and they are making their way. So the fact that she’s going to an early HBCU is huge. You know, you think about the amount of money that it takes, the school fees and whatnot, and the courage that it takes for a young girl to go from the rural south to a college is huge, huge for her generation. So she gives her life to missions while she is at Fisk.
Holmes: And she is also significant as well because she’s going to college to get an education, and then she decides to go into missions. I’m imagining black families, like, “We sent you to get a job, now you want to go —” right?
Ellis: That’s a great point. Because the assumption — mostly for women, the assumption is you’re going to go to some sort of “normal school,” they would have called it back then, and become a schoolteacher. But she goes into — not just missions, she goes into, like, the only concept of missions back then, which is foreign missions. So they’re like, OK, where are we going with this? But you know this because your wife just wrote a book about it, Carved in Ebony. There were many, many women and men who came out of the Reconstruction period, even before Reconstruction, even before emancipation, who felt called to missions — foreign missions. So Althea answers a call to go — to join a mission team under a PCUS, Presbyterian Church in the United States, minister named William Shepherd, who went to Hampton. OK, here come a string of historically black colleges and universities.
Holmes: Carl’s school?
Ellis: My husband’s school, and my father’s alma mater as a matter of fact.
Holmes: I didn’t realize that!
Ellis: Yeah, my dad was a Hamptonian. OK, so she joins the team, the Shepherd team, William and Lucy Shepherd, who also have a woman who experienced slavery, named Maria Fearing. And they join about 10 or 12 other couples and other folks, and they end up in the Free State of Congo at that point, so. And so, you’ve got this group of marginalized people with who the Edmonton’s were a part of, going on this mission trip — it’s not a mission trip, it’s a life of mission. So it’s not a trip. They’ve committed their lives to this. They go to Congo and they already experienced marginalization in their home denomination, in their home domestic life. They go to Congo and they experience persecution, religious persecution, from King Leopold II when the Belgians overtake Congo, and then the Arab slave trade, which is going on, which is rampant at the time. And they begin to be the church.
No matter how corrupt the church gets, no matter how corrupt the secular society gets, there’s always a group of people on the ground saying, “Let’s live like the New Testament church did,” under New Testament church circumstances.While she’s there, she meets her husband. During the huge expulsion of missionaries from the region, she meets her husband, who came to help the team, and that’s Alonzo. Now, he went to Stillman, which is another HBCU for preachers. So it’s a black preacher’s college. So they meet — actually, they both came from the rural American South, but they met in Congo, and they married in 1904. And they spent their lives alongside this team, doing faith-work projects, building one of the largest churches on the continent at the time, and ransoming children from the Arab slave trade, and from the rubber industry, which was also extremely abusive. King Leopold II was — I don’t know if you know anything about the genocide that he committed?
So this is their environment. And they stay there and they do the work of the church. So, they represent for us at the Edmiston Center, a lifestyle and an ethos of being the church in very hard conditions, being very much a New Testament-style presence. And these folks, groups of folks, communities of folks like these, dot history all over the place. There’s always — no matter how corrupt the church gets, no matter how corrupt the secular society gets, there’s always a group of people on the ground saying, “Let’s live like the New Testament church did,” under New Testament church circumstances. They’ve got all the New Testament issues. They’ve got slavery, they’ve got the subjugation of women, they’ve got government oppression. This is their whole milieu, and they’re living simply like the New Testament church.
That’s why we named our center after Alonzo and Althea. The family — the Edmiston family, the descendants — have been very gracious to allow us to use their name and likeness, and we’re very grateful to them for being so generous with their family legacy. And so we’re trying to pass it on well, and train more students to understand what it means to live, truly, on the margins of your society.
And how does that break down in terms of, you know, how we understand that here domestically? Well, folks who live on the margins of society — I don’t care if you live in the hood, I don’t care if you live in rural Appalachia, I don’t care — you have some understanding of what it is to experience some kind of marginalization or ethnic marginalization. There is an ability, I think, that’s necessary, to separate marginalization for a temporal concern or a temporal issue from marginalization for your religious faith, for your Christian faith. And somehow, the Edmistons were able to separate those things, and they were like, “Well, we know what it is to suffer ethnically and economically, but we also know what it is to be targeted because we are Christians.” That’s what they experienced in Congo.
And so how do we raise up a generation, a new generation of students, who have great theological training, they have great biblical training, they know their Bibles, they understand their Bible well, but they also understand stealth principles as they’re being practiced all over the world today, still, by underground movements, by persecuted church movements, by churches that experience marginalization, communities that experience marginalization, and how do they take those principles and apply them in their contexts?
Holmes: That’s helpful. So, Karen, you’ve already sort of alluded to this, but talk a little bit more about why it’s important to study people like the Edmistons.
It’s kind of a reversal of the kind of arrogant assumption that, “Oh, all the Christian information flows from the West outwards.” It’s starting to come to us now.Ellis: Well, yeah, I did allude to that a little bit, but I can expand on that. You know, I think if you have a Christian organization or Christian institution that’s focusing on a couple of missionaries, you would think, “Oh, they’re training missionaries.” You have an institution that’s training people, and it’s named after a couple of African-American missionaries, you would think, “Oh, they’re studying what it is to be African-American and Christian.” Those things are important, but they’re not ultimate. What we’re looking at is how they moved in stealth. And I think that it’s important to raise up — there’s [a dearth] of research and theology that’s been done, scholarship that’s been done in the area of underground church movements and the theology behind them. There’s a lot of study in the methodology. There’s a lot of study, there’s a lot of missiological work that’s been done. But in terms of the theology, what we’re entering now, Phillip, is kind of a new season where we’re receiving theology and practice and information from outside of the West. They’re starting to produce their own theologies now, and we’re receiving a lot of that information. It’s kind of a reversal of the kind of arrogant assumption that, “Oh, all the Christian information flows from the West outwards.” It’s starting to come to us now.
There’s a — we have a partner at the Edmiston Center called the Center for House Church Theology, and they are publishing the works of pastors, house church pastors, in Chinese pastor Wang Yi’s network. And they’re publishing. They’ve got, like, 10 publishing projects that they’re exporting into the West. We need this information. We need to hear how they’re thinking deeply, not just about suffering, but how they’re thinking deeply about perseverance. [A] lot’s been written about suffering, you know, from a number of different angles. But how are they regarding, now, they’re almost 100 years of living without religious freedom? How are they working that out theologically? How do they regard the role and the function of politics and culture, and the church’s role? What is the church supposed to be doing in the midst of these things? What are the church’s doubts in the midst of all of that? What are the church’s hopes? So we’re seeing this movement of information. We’re also seeing — I’m in touch with a group that’s publishing materials from — I can say, the general Middle East, I don’t want to be too specific about where it’s coming from — but, the general Middle East about disciple-making movements. How do they regard — how do you make disciples in a culture where to bring up the gospel, the penalty is death, or imprisonment, or social marginalization, or social isolation, where to tell the truth is — the penalty is very high?
So we’re just looking around the world today, and we’re looking back and combing history because we’re not the first people to — everybody thinks, you know, “Oh, what’s happening? Our generation is so unique.” It’s like, “No, this is the way God is keeping his line of people all the way to Revelation 7:9 and Revelation 21 when he wipes all our tears away, and harmonizes as all of us [as] his people, his set-apart people that he created in Genesis. He said, “I’m going to make a people for myself and I’m going to keep them because they cannot keep themselves, clearly.” Obviously, we prove that with the first generation. [We] can’t keep ourselves, so he’s going to keep this line of people. How do we be those kinds of people? And what were they doing as they were experiencing cultural meltdown, political meltdown, political upheaval, abuse and scandal inside Israel and Judah, profligacy? What is this group of people doing? What have they done historically? What are they doing today, and how do we be more like those folks?
Holmes: Yeah, that’s really good. Do you think that the West is prepared or has the humility to learn from what is happening in the global church since we are used to being the standard?
Ellis: Yeah, I think that’s a really difficult question to answer because it means — what do you mean by West? I would say that there are places in Europe —
Holmes: I guess the same thing you mean by West when you said, ‘We’re so used to it coming —’ so, I would be using the same definition you’ve been using.
Ellis: Got it. So I think that if I were to break it down then more, I would say there are places around the world that seem to have a posture of humility, that have grown into a posture of humility. And I would say that they’re — from what I’m hearing — from some of these disciple-making movements that are now in prayer movements that are being birthed, certainly in North America. There are small pockets of people raising up and saying, “We need to reconsider a lot of things and learn from the global church and take a different posture.” So it seems like we might be moving in that direction. Yeah, I do. I do see movement happening in that direction.
Holmes: I guess another question — because we started out to [reflect] on the topic of justice. And so I think a really helpful way to tie this back into justice would be to talk about why the life of the Edmistons matter for our conversations relating to justice.
When you step into the world of religious freedom and religious anti-Christian hostility, a lot of times there is no justice. And the absence of justice has a different purpose than it does in the temporal realm. The absence of justice actually has the ability to build the kingdom and advance the kingdom of God in the hearts of men and women.Ellis: It matters because when you step into the world of religious freedom and religious anti-Christian hostility, a lot of times there is no justice. And the absence of justice has a different purpose than it does in the temporal realm. The absence of justice actually has the ability to build the kingdom and advance the kingdom of God in the hearts of men and women. And so, when you think about it from a temporal point of view, you know, the absence of justice is a horrific thing. It’s an offense to God because he is justice. He’s, you know, his righteousness and his justice is a part of his character. It’s part of who he is.
But there’s also, on the other side, when you flip it around and you look at it from a kingdom perspective, he redeems injustice for his purposes, and for his purpose of advancing the kingdom. The injustice of the cross, of an innocent person dying to save the souls of humankind, of his called-apart ones, it’s a horror, it’s cosmic. The cosmic injustice of men and women rebelling against God, who’s revealed himself both in word and deed. And so, there’s a whole completely different rendering of justice and an understanding of justice when we look at it from a kingdom perspective.
And we find — I think people like the Edmistons, studying people like the Edmistons and the millions of others who’ve gone before us in history and are existing around the world today, bring us the opportunity to understand that the scales will be balanced, and when they’re balanced in glory, when they’re balanced, that there is a purpose for looking ahead, and there’s a purpose for hope. He will balance the scales, and we’ll be satisfied with how he balances those scales because only he understands the intents and the hearts of why people commit injustices. We do the best we can with our limited understanding, but he has all knowledge. And so, when he balances the scales at the end of history, everyone will be satisfied with the justice that’s meted out.
The scales will be balanced, and when they’re balanced in glory . . . there’s a purpose for hope. He will balance the scales, and we’ll be satisfied with how he balances those scales because only he understands the intents and the hearts of why people commit injustices.And we begin to understand, too, that he’s — where you’re hidden, you know, if you’re exposed in the world or if you’re hidden in Christ, matters in the justice conversation, in the kingdom justice conversation. Because when he executes justice, he’s either going to pour out his wrath on his Son — and he’s already poured out his wrath on his Son, and he’s taken that punishment for us — or he’s going to pour it out. If you’re not covered in Christ, you’re going to receive that wrath from God. And so it matters — there’s so many ways to unpack how differently justice is rendered when you expand it into [a] kingdom understanding. A lot of our justice conversations today are temporally focused, civil injustice and personal injustice, and they should be.
But we, as Christians, have the unique opportunity to share the whole concept of what justice is, and that God is able to redeem on many levels, and make things right on levels that we don’t even understand, we don’t even know, and set us free to understand, too, that if we don’t see justice in this life, there will be justice one day.
Holmes: Tell us a little bit about what God is doing specifically right now at the Edmiston Center.
Ellis: I’m so excited about what’s happening at the Edmiston Center. We have some amazing students who are already working, already doing stealth Christianity domestically. They’re working in areas where advancing the gospel is difficult, if not dangerous. But we also have a number of students who are just very interested in exploring places where, you know, Christianity exists on the margins of society.
The Edmiston Center just had the opportunity to help facilitate a letter — I can’t be too specific about where the letter originated — but, from a closed country to another closed country. We’re crossing several regions, several geographic regions, and several different languages. But it was a letter of encouragement from one part of the body to another, and this was so exciting, just to sort of have that pass through the Edmiston Center from one partner group to another partner group, to see this sort of — we’re not doing new canon stuff, right? Canon’s closed — but it was just neat to see the church functioning in this exhortative New Testament-style way. It was just so neat. That just happened in the last six months or so.
We, as Christians, have the unique opportunity to share the whole concept of what justice is, and that God is able to redeem on many levels, and make things right on levels that we don’t even understand.We’re gearing up for our Grimké lecture series. We’ve invited some fun and interesting domestic and global folks to come and speak to us about the realities of Christian life on the margins of society. And so, if you watch edmistioncenter.org, you can see things go up about [it] — some of these folks we’re bringing [are] helping us understand how to be the church under very hard circumstances. So it’s exciting. We’re making some neat partnerships we’ll be talking about in the future, and we’re just really looking forward to seeing the advance of the gospel in hard places.
Holmes: That’s awesome. That’s so encouraging. We will definitely be praying for you guys and for the Edmiston Center and the work that you guys are doing there.
Ellis: Thank you. Pray for students.
Holmes: Absolutely. Absolutely. Karen, thank you so much for joining us. And thank you for tuning in, and we hope you enjoyed this week’s episode featuring Karen Ellis. I also would like to thank the RTS family, church partners, students, alumni, and donors for the many ways you make the work of Reformed Theological Seminary possible. The clip we listened to earlier is from our weekly video series, Wisdom Wednesday, where relevant matters of the Christian faith are addressed by RTS faculty and friends with truth, candor, and grace. Access our entire archive or submit a question at rts.edu/wisdom-wednesday. Mind + Heart is powered by Reformed Theological Seminary, where we desire to raise up pastors and other church leaders with a mind for truth and a heart for God.