(Edited May 2013)
Within the Protestant/Evangelical church even to the more conservative end, there has been a mixed-bag of approaches concerning racial issues, both within and without the church, herself. Part of this reason is because the Protestant/Evangelical church has devoted herself, historically, to a Christocentric ecclesiology and more broadly all other relevant theology. This is not to say that there have not been exceptions with groups rising up to articulate and practice Special Interest Theology and more precisely, Race Base Special Interest Theology, but these have been viewed as aberrations, cases of heterodoxy if not heresy altogether.
In America, because of past social segregation, churches either deliberately or without intent, found themselves with congregations which had a membership or a demographic that was either by a vast majority or exclusively one racial group (and still are in many places, sometimes legitimately and sometimes not). Thus terms like “the black church” or “the white church” arose.
Now, in truth, such descriptions should be wholly offensive to any Christian. The Bible is explicitly clear that race or anthropological properties are not the basis for the formation and operation of the church of Christ. The human estate is reserved for social constructs such as self, marriage, family and government. I will not cover some questions that may immediately arise regarding the topic of racial identification in the body of Christ because I cover this in great detail in my 5 part series An Examination of Protestant/Evangelical Race Based Special Interest Theology (Edited and Revised Nov 2012) which I strongly recommend.
My interest here is in what is being proposed and accepted as an approach to racial, ethnic and cultural considerations in the much of the Protestant/Evangelical church, again even with conservatives, which is being popularized by broadly embraced groups such as The Gospel Coalition and Neo-Calvinist Teachers such as John Piper and Tim Keller. In fact, during the month of February (black history month) you can expect an intense devotion to the errant doctrines of Race Based Special Interest Theology from The Gospel Coalition which not only permit but praise the voices of Afrocentric theology. How do I know?
Recently, at The Gospel Coalition, an article by was posted by Jemar Tisby, "The Joyful Pursuit of Multi-ethnic Churches" (actually long before this I have been studying the matter and observing The Gospel Coalition and people like John Piper and Tim Keller promoting this with abandon but this is the most recent impetus of my research on the matter thus I link to it). He rattled off the usual empirically and rationalistically based claims of the superiority of a multi-ethnic church while implying inferiority of non-multi-ethnic churches. And as usual he, like most students and Teachers of ecclesiastical multi-ethnicism, appealed to a common but popular passage from the Bible which is an out of context use of Rev. 9:7 which describes the future heaven. What did prompt me to further consideration and exploration on the matter was an interaction in the comment section with Trilla Newbell who is a black woman. The result was visiting a few places I had been before but this time with a more considerate examination.
The exchange with Trilla was rewarding. I think anyone engaging with her at her blog or in person will find a person in the midst of formulating a cohesive theology. I am not sure where she will end up and it could be I cannot say the same in the future as now or my opinion could be enhanced, greatly. I doubt she cares and am mostly speaking rhetorically. My hope is always for the best for all believers. She faces some unique challenges; but I believe Trilla represents a willingness to go past an emphasis on race and a centrality to Christ at this time. And this is a good thing, for anyone. But for a Christian who is black in America where racial identification has been and is promoted as your first allegiance and a value that must be maintained even in one’s theological or in the Christian life or you will be considered a traitor or a sell-out (you will read this unfortunate attitude in a quote from Anthony Bradley later), she faces an onslaught of countering friends.
She treasures her anthropological uniqueness and rightly so but it does not define her Christianity nor is it the basis for her spiritual identity from what I determined. It is of great pleasure to read of Christians being freed from their human properties as weights holding back their theological and spiritual development. But I do also understand that the network in which she moves has many who are not so Christ-centered, which brings me to the Jemar Tisbys, Xavier Picketts and the Anthony Bradleys (of the somewhat well-known “Liberating Black Theology” book where he does a good job of addressing some of the egregiousness of Black Liberation Theology but still affirms a form of spiritual and theological Afrocentrism) of the Black Reformed Theology world (already you should be offended with such segregative bodies in the church).
But before I go any further I want to qualify something. When I use the term Christocentric with regard to theology, I have in view the NT church and its construct and not necessarily the view of the OT and an intention that Christ be the center of all its theology. In fact, the more general term for all right Biblical doctrine is that it is theocentric. Ultimately, what is being compared is the church and its theological expression, hence practical expression (again with emphasis on ecclesiology but not necessarily it alone) which is built in, upon and around the person of Christ and its unique properties with that of a church and its expression which, in part or whole, acquiesces to anthropological interests and in this case, Afrocentrism.
The Damage of Race Based Associations within the Church
The Apostle Paul had a natural affinity for the Jews. Romans 9:1-3 states (ESV):
1I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh
The Bible does not condemn this affection but it clearly denied Paul this racially/ethnically narcissistic exercise. Personal or anthropological affinity for those like you, whether it is race, ethnicity or culture, is not a bad thing necessarily but this personal prejudice is not permitted as the basis for efforts by the church, it is strictly forbidden. Look at the clarity and exclusive nature of how the body of Christ is viewed in Ephesians 2:14-22 (bold mine) (ESV):
14 For he himself is our peace…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit
A New Spiritual Species. The church is to be based in, upon and around Christ and his doctrines as furthered by the writers of the New Testament, as well as the Old Testament which helps us understand the entirety of God’s plan in history and the phenomenon of the body of Christ, the New Testament Church. There is no place and no time revealed in Scripture when our anthropological properties are permitted to be the basis for forming any spiritual/ecclesiastical/theological body. The fundamental reason for this is because our human or anthropological properties which are reserved for other contexts such as self, marriages, family and government are rendered impotent in the body of Christ.The body of Christ is a spiritual construct, not an anthropological one.
Of course the argument by many who trend toward or emphatically hold to Afrocentrism in their ecclesiology/theology, thus in their practice, will be that as a group they have had a very difficult struggle in modern history and with regard to America, operate as a minority in a culture that is by majority, Anglo in its expression. This rebuttal holds two things, one point which is true and one which is in error.
1. The true element in this underlying racially based argument is that blacks, indeed, have a history of social struggle and even to this day in the United States they live in a culture which is predominantly Anglo in many places. I doubt anyone would deny this.
2. The errant element is to attempt to bring such anthropological contexts into the body of Christ, that is the church, and impose them upon the church. When we are brought into the body of Christ as believers, there is a brand new culture, that of Christ. Everything revolves around Christ and exists within, Christ. As stated earlier, we are a new spiritual species.
There is no black, white, or brown culture. There is Christ culture only. The human culture around us and in which we sometimes participate such as diet or traditions, are, at best, anecdotal with regard to their relationship to the body of Christ. In other words on their best day they (anthropological properties such as human culture) are that which may serve the church, not the church serving it. Human culture bows to Christ and not Christ to it. Christ is the culture of the church and the culture of humanity is anecdotal in Christ’s body.
But what occurs when you form associations based on race such a Reformed Blacks of America is that you first and foremost disregard the Biblical construct of a the body of Christ and secondly, you sinfully exclude another group from the spiritual ecclesiastical exercise of identification and learning. While this may be permissible in other contexts where anthropological properties are the legitimate basis for groupings and exercises such as a football team or human family reunion, it is not valid within the church and in fact, injurious to the ordained design and intent of the body of Christ.
No matter the intention, no matter the personal concern for a group, violating Biblical protocols does not result in edification but deformity. And associations within the body of Christ along racial lines regardless of its altruistic intentions, are a segregation explicitly forbidden and condemned in Scripture.
Black Narcissism and the Protestant/Evangelical Fear Based and Utterly Confused Response to Racial Issues
There is a meme which is popularly used by many blacks to other racial or ethnic groups which can be summed up this way:
You do not understand my blackness. You do not understand the black experience and frankly cannot understand the black experience. I am special, we are special. In fact, so special that even for you to attempt to either believe you can understand my black experience or somehow bring me into your experience without giving special attention to my special properties which includes its special experience is an offensive and arrogant presumption of the worst kind. You do not know me, cannot know me and cannot speak to my special needs and how dare you think otherwise.
It is disappointing to encounter claims by Christian groups who divide themselves up by race and who assert others cannot, thus do not, understand them with this claim stemming merely from what they view is some human property and experience so uncommon or so phenomenal which they possess that their special context must be treated as exceptional to others and must maintain an elevated state with regard to all other considerations. In other words, it their specialness, if you will, demands an elevated distinction from others and catered to, no less by God and his Word which subsequently produces a Race Based Special Interest Theology. So much damage is done by these egotistical claims. As God through the writer of Ecclesiastes informs us in Ecclesiastes 1:9 (ESV):
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
It truly ought to be repugnant to anyone when they encounter such racial narcissism. However, in America and with many black communities where their culture has produced this errant and juvenile insistence of racial properties so elevated it results in experiences no one else can understand, thus an attempted legitimizing of assertions that they can only best minister to themselves, only hurts, not helps them. Such a diabolical philosophy brings with it, for the Christian who is black and refusing to abandon this untrue claim not only what I just described but even further the self-afflicting view that they have the right to the development of an Afrocentric church and theology to serve their proprietary racial needs and wants. Unbeknown to many this bad thinking results in a patronization by Christians who are white or at least non-black toward Christians who are black; the very thing many blacks resent yet wittingly or unwittingly are going to receive as a by-product of importing racial narcissism into their theology.
Each person has unique needs and experiences. What those who are sympathetic or hold to Afrocentric theology have is a backward paradigm. That is, your unique experiences as an individual or as a group in society are not that around which the church or theology revolves, rather your life and those experiences revolve around Christ which is forwarded and championed by the church and its Christocentric theology. God told us very clearly through the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:2 (ESV):
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This is not a matter of preserving our anthropological properties or any unique experiences brought to us, rather it is about taking such things and making them captive to Christ.
The Sad Anglo or White Response in Many Quarters. However, in the church today many Christians who are white are very confused as to what to do and how to respond to racial contexts, both in and out of the church. Some bring with them a racial guilt complex which has been prescribed to them by race-baiters such as the well known Reverend Jesse Jackson or other black social commentators who are invested, solely, in black advantage. They have bought the charges, though often proven false, that Anglo culture and its people should understand they are rightly presumed guilty of subconscious personal and collective racism. Everything is defined by race. You are subject to being called a racist if you do not subscribe to a certain sociological view. And this guilt has been imported either deliberately or subconsciously into the church and onto its theology.
Thus, you have modeled by people like John Piper a very guilt-ridden, fearful, subjective and theologically dysfunctional approach to race, ethnicity and culture in the church. He, like many, has bought the lie, for example, that Protestant/Evangelical theology is the product of an Anglo perspective, that is, it is Anglo-centric. Many of the so-called “Black Reformed” personalities and Teachers propose this and often to their shame, not modestly but robustly. Thus, weak men like Piper, fearful and overreacting due to their own inadequacies, give voice to a very damning heresy, namely Afrocentric theology because, again, they are too confused, guilt ridden and fearful to deal with the matter objectively and honestly.
Paul and the Jews
Paul was hated by the Judaizers. Why? Because he, like them, was an ethnic Jew, he was one of them but they considered him a traitor. This was due to his ministry to non-Jews with the emphasis on the proclamation that the special anthropological property of being a Jew, from one’s Jewish DNA to its culture and geography, were now declare irrelevant with respect to the identity of the people of God.
But it was not just unsaved Jews who were antagonistic toward Paul; some saved Jews were filled with resentment toward Paul (see Acts 15), as well resentful toward Gentile Christians and Hellenistic Jews. Their Jewish anthropological particularity was being removed; they were no longer being elevated as the people of God. They had no advantage as a people before God like before. What a blow. It simply did not sit well with many believing Jews even though they had been saved. Why? Because they had invested their egos and developed their personal identity quite heavily in their special status and now it was gone. A substantial part of their person is gone or at least rendered impotent where it once was supreme.
And this is the way it is when a group of people who see themselves (true or not) as special or separate from others lose their distinction with its privileges, they have lost their identity in large part. It is not pleasant to the ego.
But if one, as a Christian, is true to Christ and the doctrines of Christ, they will divest themselves of such ego-centric preoccupations and understand that their spiritual identity is in Christ and their relationship with other believers is based, in Christ. It is not based in human DNA, it is spiritually based. Our anthropological properties are rendered impotent as they should be.
Black Particularity or Black Narcissism
By and large because blacks in America were placed, for many years, in a special class and namely a lower class, they developed a very strong identity with regard to their race. Blacks were treated on the basis of their race, and negatively so, thus they responded in kind, with a collective racial super-emphasis resulting in an exaggerated and overriding identification with their blackness and its properties in their collective and personal development (also resulting in a form of racial narcissism) in the United States. Whether this is good or bad in and of itself is not in question or germane to the issue, it is simply a fact that is present in America today. However, it does have a side effect which is not good and one that Christians who are black frequently face.
Unfortunately and increasingly true, the response to black particularity by many Christians who are black as well as Christians of other racial/ethnic groups is with a license toward this injurious philosophy, namely that of preserving and promoting racial particularity and here, specifically, black particularity, within the church and its theological/spiritual expression.
Blacks, for better or worse, were forced to over-compensate for their social disadvantage and did so by viewing themselves as special to the point of embellishment. This has resulted in a form of racial narcissism which is reflected earlier in this essay where I propose the mindset of many blacks who claim they are too unique to be understood by others, thus only they can attend to one another best. I cannot say that I am not sympathetic to such collective social mechanisms as a tool for survival, I understand why they would and do arise but it is also a damaging one in many ways. It is a default form of isolationism and antagonism toward others whether intended or not.
It’s Effect on Christians who are Black. So a person who is black and comes from this kind of philosophical environment and gets saved or in the case of one raised in a home which practices the narcissistic doctrine of black particularity though he or she may become a believer at an early age, when they are enlightened as to the true protocol of the church of Christ, namely that any anthropological narcissism and specifically racial preference and attendance in the church is disallowed, they, like all believers, have some baggage to overcome. Unfortunately, it is not being overcome as I said earlier. In fact it is being catered to by many groups of Christians within Protestant/Evangelical portion of the body of Christ and even unto some Conservative Evangelical and Fundamentalist groups. It is a source of unbiblical humanistic thinking and it is coming to a church near you.
Some Trends and Voices in the Reformed Black Movement Which Should Concern All Bible Believing Reformed, Protestant, Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians
As the title denotes, there is a rather blatant form of Afrocentric theology that is being pushed by these so-called “Black Reformed” students and Teachers of Reformed theology. In fact, it is difficult to formulate the sentence above because Reformed Theology and Black Reformed Theology is or are not the same animal. These are two distinct, though related theologies. It is what one calls an oxymoron. Hence, to speak of Black Reformed Theology and to understand what that Reformed Theology truly is, is to understand that Black Reformed Theology is not really Reformed Theology. But I understand the adjective though as an adjective the pursuit of Afrocentrism in this brand of Reformed Theology leads it far, far astray from historic Reformed Theology.
Frankly, Black Reformed Theology is, in the end, merely a means of re-packaging Afrocentric theological propositions. However, this time it has married itself to a theologically Calvinistic etiquette which gives service to some non-Afrocentric concerns as a guise to its substantive aim, namely Race Based Special Interest theology and practice. What best makes the case are a couple of articulated views found at Reformed Blacks of America, a website and organization directed by Xavier Pickett (there you can find many more posted articles).
Article: Misappropriation of Racial Diversity by Blacks: Why Whites Ought NotAttend Black Conferences (or Read Reformed Black Authors), By Xavier Pickett.
Quote: "A proper view of the body of Christ as it relates to human relationships will yield a better understanding of ethnic diversity. Human relationships viewed in light of a proper view of the body of Christ will allow every ethnic group to maximize their potential in making specific contributions for the entire body while also maintaining their own distinctiveness. Therefore, the purpose of ethnic diverse relationships must also lead to the maximization of ethnic particularity…Therefore, where there is not continued actualization and maximization, there cannot be healthy human interaction and relationships among different ethnic groups.
Rebuttal: As you can see, to Pickett, the impotency and anecdotal service of anthropological properties taught in the Bible for functioning in the body of Christ is completely dismissed, or at least substantially so that the doctrine of our identity and relationship based on Christ and its unique DNA is removed or ignored. Christocentrism is replaced by anthropocentricism and specifically in his case, Afrocentricism with regard to how the body of Christ is to relate one to another.
It is true humans do relate with regard to race or anthropological properties, but not in the church. The church's relative properties stem from what she receives in Christ which is her spiritual DNA, her status as a new species, a solely spiritually based species. Pickett does precisely what is rejected by Scripture which is building an ecclesiastical structure based on anthropocentric interests and not Christological ones. Christ and his church must yield to man in his view and not man yielding to Christ.
Article: Wanted: Black Reformed ChurchesThat Radicalize Beyond Regurgitation, By Anthony Bradley, Assistant Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology, Covenant Theological Seminary.
Quote:"‘Radical Black Reformed Churches create and inspire Christian communities that are involved in local neighborhood mission. This is what the Black church has been about since the plantation churches were first formed. Regurgitation churches however, train people in theology and the practice of a privatized, individualistic, peistic Christianity with no social consciousness, almost seeming to care less about the issues plaguing Black communities that need immediate attention--like the crisis in masculinity,
matriarchalism, abortion, materialism, the glamorization of immorality, homosexuality, sub-standard education, urban pollution, victimology, dealing with racism, HIV/AIDS, tensions with Hispanics and so on. Regurgitation sees no value in bringing the Kingdom to non-Christians in their local neighborhood that pursues the way of love, redemption, healing, liberation and hope. Regurgitation often pursues the darkness of ridicule and rejection.’"
Rebuttal: While it is expected that social justice causes will dominate many Reformed theological forms (a construct with which I disagree as it regards the mission of the resources of the church which is about transformation not reformation which is what Bradley pursues here), here Bradley, well intentioned or not, engages is some of the most patronizing language and racial narcissism one can encounter in men who claim to take themselves seriously.
Notice what he has done. He has pitted one Christian group against another. The description and accusation he levels at a group he grants is piestic is also one with “no social consciousness”. Prey tell with what evidence other than his sensationalistic and emotionally charged accusation does he demonstrate this to be true? He need not prove his case, actually, because what he uses is a tactic of guilt by association and guilt by self-created narrative.
In other words, the blacks that have learned their theology and practice at non-black schools and follow their model are following an errant model because they “regurgitate”. Bradley is a circus barker with such claims. He is Johnny Cochran with all the theatrics. But worse, he is moralizing here. That is to say, he goes on a crusade and ultimately appeals to the morality of the situation because he and his theology, ultimately, cares more about the black community than those uppity piestic Uncle Tom’s.
Bradley is no better than the Judaizers which Paul faced in some of his approaches. Notice again as he pits black against black by pointing and saying, “How dare you as a Reformed Christian who is black not care about your fellow blacks the way I do?” Moralizing and crusading at its worse. He condemns others because they do not put black interests first, as he does while trying to use the moral weight of his theology as though it were a Biblical dogma.
And consider what this does. It steals from Christians who are black the opportunity to minister to others and defines them against the Bible not with the Bible. He actually condemns them for not practicing his vicious brand of Afrocentrism.
To Bradley, blackness and its concerns get imported into Christianity and not the opposite as the Bible describes, exporting the gospel to all men so that within each self, family, group and government, the inner transformation that occurs results in the better self, family group and government. But he does not want transformation he wants reformation and wants the church built to serve his blackness and the blackness of those like him, not Christ. Christ is his tool and he is not the tool of Christ as I read him.
Finally but amusingly, Bradley lists some allegedly proprietary ails of the black community as if no one else faces them in any real measure. It is simply a pompous and self-serving claim which is just what any anthropocentric theology ends up being.
These are but two of the very divisive and shameful extremes that are being accepted and promulgated in Reformed, Protestant and Evangelical corners which are damning errors.
Is There a Place for Social Remedy?
Indeed, social remedy for perceived ills is the work of a state’s citizens and their government. But it is not the call of the church to use its resources to reform the world. Christ came that the world may be transformed, first through being born-again by faith in Christ and subsequently transformed by the renewing of their mind through gifted Teachers of the Word.
There is no place in God’s Word stated or implied, or observed and justly concluded, that there are legitimate racial divides in the construct of the body of Christ. Those are social divides which are addressed with social remedies. But in the body of Christ, it is a spiritual construct and if I haven’t made it clear by now let me again state that this spiritual construct of Christ’s body is spiritually and spiritually based only. Galatians 3:28 states emphatically (ESV):
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
What does that mean? That with regard to the body of Christ, as it identifies itself and with it constituents, anthropological reference is devoid of power. However, it does not mean outside of the body of Christ these realities do not exist, of course they do. However, that is just the point and why the body of Christ in any local expression cannot be built around such concerns. It is because in Christ they (these anthropological properties) are rendered anecdotal and are not the objective of the church since they are not present in the church. Thus, it is outside of the church with other non-ecclesiastical resources that new social or governmental orders are pursued.
The True Remedy
God through Paul makes it clear in the entire book of Ephesians that we are now, “in Christ”. We are not the same people affirming our humanity; rather we are a new people with a spiritual DNA, affirming our spiritual person, relating to one another as brothers and sisters, not racially, not in any anthropological manner, but spiritually. When we come together as a church we must affirm not our anthropological distinctions which lead to divisions but our spiritual person and its distinctions. These are affirmed which all believers share, equally, without greater or lesser measure.
Our churches and its associations must be based on the by-products of our identity in Christ which, in a pronounced way and relevant to this issue, is our theology. There is no such legitimate thing as “Anglo-American Theology” or “African-American Theology”; there is only one theology, God’s truth, which is broadly theocentric and regarding the NT church, Christocentric.
Where our individuality or uniqueness enters is in the application of God’s Word in our particular lives. Nevertheless, the principles are the same, everywhere and for everyone. There are no patented interpretations for each group, rather there are applications for each situation which makes clear we all can and should be taught from any gifted Teacher regardless of race, ethnicity or cultural origin and apply those principles to our own set of challenges.