There are 3 Types of African American (Black) Reformed Christians

Religion, Uncategorized on January 15th, 2013 7 Comments

The elephant in the room in the discourse about what it means to be black and Reformed is that black Reformed leaders and churches have the same exact diversity and variety as their white counterparts but people act as if they do not.

The following is a summary of reflections Tim Keller gave back in 2010 on three Reformed cultures in the PCA that I copied from Jeff Gissing. What follows in a combination of Gissing and Keller. The repetition is for emphasis. The categories and discussion can be found in George Marsden’s essay in this book on Reformed Theology in America.

Doctrinalists place a high value on creedal orthodoxy and working through the councils of the church rather than, say, through parachurch ministries. Uniformity is the name of the game–a common (regulated) way of worship, a common theological language (subscription to the Confession), and the maintenance of traditions in worship rather than innovation. Doctrinalists are suspicious of engagement with culture because of the risk of theological compromise. There is more stress on uniformity of faith and practice than on freedom and diversity. Historic tradition is valued over innovation, and social adaptation is looked upon with great suspicion. These last two factors mean there is less freedom for individual Christians and local Sessions. Things are more tightly regulated.

Pietists place a high value on the personal and experiential. They do ministry through church courts yes, but also in partnership with parachurch ministries. While not atheological, they place the highest value on core or essential doctrines. The emphasis is more on personal holiness than confessional precision or uniformity. Many of these churches emphasize personal evangelism and church growth. Contemporary worship is typically a high value for pietists because of the emphasis on conforming the worship experience to something that is person and experiential–something that if perceived to be more difficult when the genre of music is one or more generation removed from the worshipper. The pietist impulse puts the emphasis on the individual and the experiential. Pietists do ministry through church courts, but they are also supportive of ministry through para‐church ministries.

Pietists stress core doctrines over secondary ones, and feel more like part of the broader evangelical movement than do doctrinalists. This branch, like the doctrinalists, are generally suspicious of an emphasis on social justice and cultural engagement. While the doctrinalists fear cultural accommodation, the pietists are more afraid that it will detract from the pietists’ main concern—evangelism, mission, and church growth. The culturalist impulse is like the doctrinalist in that it values theological reasoning and is suspicious of the individualism and pragmatism of the pietists.

The culturalist approach values redemptive engagement with culture and theological reasoning, feeling an affinity with the Great Tradition that links the historic church. Many of these churches are more comfortable appropriating liturgy from the church’s liturgical tradition. They are more open to innovation than the doctrinalists although they tend to have a slightly higher view of music and the arts than the pietists. Additionally, they place a higher value on modern scholarship than either the doctrinalists or the pietists–they are eager to engage with new ideas. They monitor the culture and seek to interact with it in a constructive way, often avoiding overt evangelistic programs or emphasis on church growth.

Culturalists emphasize community and the corporate in ways similar to the doctrinalists. However, culturalists are more like the pietists in their openness to social adaptation. Indeed, they usually are more open to the ‘new’ than the pietists. And the culturalists pay the most attention to what goes on outside the church in the culture. In particular, they usually give more heed to modern scholarship. Culturalists may show less concern with ‘church growth’ and overt evangelistic programs than either of the other two branches. Also feel more affinity to ‘the Great Tradition’—the Anglican, Catholic, and Eastern churches—than do the doctrinalists and the pietists.

First of all, calm down. These are broad generalizations by Marsden and Keller so there’s no need to freak out about the lack of precision on certain points. It’s ok. Breath.

The point is that there is no one way to be African American and Reformed. Because followers of John Piper and Mark Dever are more piestist/revivalist (with some doctrinalist affinities) they tend to look on those who are more cleanly doctrinalist or culturalist with suspicion about not being very serious about “the gospel” (translation: unless you lean in the pietist direction your commitment to “the gospel” may be suspect)–and vice versa, although the charge will not be about “the gospel.”

There are black Reformed Presbyterians that represent all three. There are black Baptists who embrace all three. The ongoing myth is that “Reformed,” is monolithic in emphasis. It’s not and the lack of discussion on this point has been used to pit people against each other. Some Reformed African Americans have been influenced by Reformed Anglicanism, English & American Puritanism, Scottish Presbyterianism, Dutch Calvinism, etc., all with different emphases. It will be great some day when there will be space where people are just “ok” with the reality of all three.

7 Responses to “There are 3 Types of African American (Black) Reformed Christians”

  1. Jim Williams says:

    Amen. I’m so tired of people defining “Reformed” ( or “Evangelical” and sometimes “Christian”) in such a way that only their sub-group qualifies for the title.

  2. Jemar says:

    Thank you for pointing out the reality that “there is no one way to be African American and Reformed.” At this point, those who are Black and Reformed become more prevalent and vocal. But as this occurs the diversity of Reformed African American community will need to be explained more and more.

  3. Kevin Hale says:

    “It will be great some day when there will be space where people are just “ok” with the reality of all three.” And even better when we learn that there are necessary benefits to having all three in our churches learning to minister alongside one another as we mutually strengthen one another.

  4. Jeff Gissing says:

    I think you’ve touched on a really important topic. I’d be interested in hearing more from you about this subject.

  5. Jeff Z says:

    Helpful in more ways than one.

  6. [...] Rod has a roundup of posts looking at African Americans Christians and Calvinism, and Jemar Tisby looks at 5 factors in the rise of Reformed theology among African Americans. Anthony Bradley argues that it is a myth that there is only one type of Reformed African American Christian, and that there are broadly three types. [...]

  7. Tim says:

    Didn’t even know there were three negroes that were Reformed, let alone three types or classes.

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